According to Statistics Finland, there are more than 20,000 blocks of residential flats in Finland built between 1960 and 1979, which have a total of approximately 0.5 million apartments with permanent residents. Within the next 10 years, many housing companies will face different repair needs as the structures and technical systems begin to show signs of deterioration. In connection with such repairs, it is also natural to consider energy-efficiency improvements to the buildings.
Ecological energy efficiency will be faster and cheaper by means of district renovation
With a view to energy efficiency, it would be advisable to repair entire residential districts rather than individual buildings. This would include renovating both the buildings and the adjacent energy, water and waste management infrastructures. This is the only way of ensuring that the building-specific measures aimed at improving energy efficiency would also affect the entire residential district and its energy production. If renovation is limited to an individual building, that particular site may save energy and water, but the measures will not necessarily have any impact on the energy production and water needs within the district.
Residential districts typically have many building characteristic of a specific era, and the renovation solutions needed are therefore quite similar. Even though there is a wide range of different renovation techniques, and new ones are being developed all the time, elevating the prefabrication level of renovation solutions would speed up the process significantly. This would also require the development of renovation processes, practices and services. When moving from one staircase and building to the next, it would speed up the renovation work if the same solutions could be employed extensively in similar buildings and lessons could be learned from earlier sites and their repairs applied to the next. This would also lower the price of renovation construction.
Often, when examining the emissions caused by heating and other energy consumption of buildings, the focus is only on carbon dioxide emissions, even though they constitute only part of the harmful emissions. However, when the impact of renovation on the harmful emissions of energy production is examined at district level, the conclusions drawn may differ from those that would seem most sensible for an individual building. For example, it is usually more advantageous to use renewable energy in district solutions than in building-specific solutions.
The idea of demolishing and reconstructing old buildings rather than renovating them to meet the current requirements emerges in public debates every now and then. In scientific literature, relatively few comparisons have been made between renovation of buildings and demolition and reconstruction. However, examples from Western Europe show that, from the viewpoint of sustainable development, demolition and reconstruction can only be recommended if the buildings are in extremely poor condition.
New operating methods are required – decision-making is a challenge
District renovation requires new operating methods from the actors involved. From society’s point of view, district-level energy renovation has clear benefits, such as certainty of improved energy efficiency and reduced emissions throughout the energy chain. The renovation of entire residential districts could also be more interesting from the viewpoint of companies, because it would lead to bigger building contracts. In housing companies, decision-making is often the challenging factor. District repair projects would require consistent decisions from several housing companies, but, on the other hand, it would mean lower unit costs for renovation.
I presented the idea of comprehensive energy-efficient district renovations in my dissertation, in which I studied how the energy efficiency of Russian suburbs built in the Soviet era could be improved by renovating the buildings to make them more energy efficient and by reducing the losses from energy infrastructure. The topic was examined from the perspectives of energy savings, the energy needs of a residential district, emissions from energy production, investment costs, and business models of district renovation. Even though the cases studies were in Russia, the same methods and solutions could also be applied to Finland. The benefits would be the same, although not as big as in Russia.