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Justyna Glusman on energetic urban regeneration

04 of September '23

Article taken from A&B 06|2023 issue

Adapting old townhouses in the context of energy efficiency

Buildings, responsible in the EU for about 36 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and 40 percent of energy consumption, represent a huge potential for change in the context of combating climate change. It's worth remembering that upgrading them will lead to improved air quality, a higher standard of living, and will ultimately get rid of one of society's major problems—energy poverty. In addition, it will have a positive impact on the economy, stimulating the creation of thousands of new jobs and innovation.

Cities, and this is where old tenements are located, occupying only 3 percent of the Earth's surface, account for as much as about 70 percent of energy consumption and 75 percent of carbon emissions. When we analyze the energy condition of buildings in Poland, we see a correlation between the year of construction and energy consumption—the older the building, the more energy it needs to heat rooms and domestic water. Municipal resources of cities are often such buildings—often historically and architecturally valuable, but very expensive to maintain. High heating costs make it extremely difficult for residents of municipal resources to maintain adequate indoor temperatures. In turn, municipal governments, in extreme cases, are unable to provide residents with units in tenement buildings, which are too expensive to modernize, and without modernization, utility costs are too high.

Modernization of the city's building stock could contribute to reducing urban sprawl by densifying existing stock, rather than building new housing estates on the periphery. In the case of modernization efforts in urban tenements, an important element that should be taken into account at the very beginning of the modernization process, i.e. at the planning stage, should be the issue of improving the energy performance of the building. This boils down to planning such renovation activities that will lead to the elimination of energy losses through the building envelope, i.e. walls, windows and roof, and improving the efficiency of its use by the building's technical systems, i.e. heating, cooling, ventilation, hot water and lighting. It is important that the work be carried out in the right order, that is, first improving the energy efficiency of the building, and in the second step replacing the heat source with an environmentally friendly one, but one that is well matched to the new energy parameters of the building. The planned renovation of the roof or facade is a very good opportunity to insulate these elements of the building's outer shell. Despite the higher cost of such a comprehensive renovation, the savings associated with preventing heat transfer to the outside will translate into the budgets of the occupants of the premises.

The government and local governments can and should support this kind of retrofitting from their funds, just as they are doing to support renewable energy sources or micro-retrofits. Additional funding from the Social Climate Fund will soon be made available, which is worth allocating to this very purpose. This fund should finance not only ad hoc measures as a kind of anti-crisis shield, but also implement measures with long-term effects. Another important element of non-financial support should be one-stop-shops for residents, the so-called One-Stop-Shops, where they will be able to obtain information on the sequence of renovation works, contractors, financial assembly and available subsidies. Only by acting in this way will we be able to deal with the phenomenon of energy poverty, which affects some of the least well-off. This is a fundamental issue in the context of realizing a just transformation of the economy. Adequate support is also needed for the local government units themselves, which own and manage buildings. They have thousands of public and municipal buildings in their resources, the poor technical condition of which results in the relatively less affluent people living in them being forced to pay very high heating costs.

In order to effectively implement retrofitting measures, it is also important to have sources of information about buildings, i.e. adequate databases that would not only provide knowledge of what to retrofit and when, but could also be useful for calculations, for example, of the environmental and financial gains from building retrofits. The government should create a code of good practice for energy retrofitting of buildings under conservation protection. The current situation, in which different parts of the country have different approaches to accepting different retrofit technologies, is unacceptable in the long run. Something that is in line with the conservator's approach in Krakow, for example, is very often not in line with the approach in Warsaw, with both provincial monument conservators basing their decisions on the same regulations. A decree by the Minister of Culture and National Heritage should define a list of unacceptable actions, and allow the remaining actions and technologies to be used throughout the country. It would also be worthwhile to create a guide of conduct for municipal implementers of modernization of historic buildings and a portal describing best practices.

A nationally uniform approach would allow for the real protection of historic buildings, often deteriorating today only because it is impossible to rationally plan their maintenance, and it is not entirely clear how to renovate them, as the acceptable methods depend on the non-transparent and one-man decisions of the conservator. This brings them more harm than good, as uninsulated and unoccupied buildings deteriorate and become more difficult to save every year. It is worth looking at examples of successful renovations, such as the modernization of townhouses in the urban fabric in Wroclaw—Concordia Design [proj.: MVRDV—editor's note]. Its result was a combination of an old historic tenement with a contemporary minimalist form, insulated with an insulation system on the inside.

Justyna Glusman

Justyna Glusman—managing director at the Wave of Renovation Association. A graduate of the Warsaw School of Economics (SGH) and the LSE, where she earned a PhD in economic policy and an MSc Executive in Cities, she is professionally involved in green transformation, the topics of sustainable urban development and energy efficiency in buildings. In 2018-2021, she is responsible for the sustainable development of Warsaw in her role as Vice Mayor. She is a member of the Program Council of the Civic Congress, the THINKTANK Expert Council, the Climate and Space Expert Commission at the Ombudsman's Office, and the Program Council of the CitiSense think tank, which supports activities for resident-friendly cities.

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