District-scale energy refurbishment helps to achieve low-carbon targets

Suburban development and improvement of citizens’ wellbeing best happens with the help of district-scale approaches. There are important drivers for district-scale refurbishment, such as the huge backlog of renovation of especially residential buildings. It is in line with sustainable, low-carbon and infill strategies of growing cities. Obviously, there is also market interest. The European MODER project set off to find out what supports or hinders district-scale energy-refurbishment and if there are interested parties in the market who see the potential in district-scale refurbishment.

The city of Helsinki has just published a proposal for action “Carbon neutral Helsinki 2035”. Helsinki is one of the many cities that urgently searches for efficient solutions to reduce the use of energy and the release of greenhouse gas emissions. Energy-refurbishment of the existing building stock has an extensive energy-saving potential, and thus an important place in the strategies and actions of low-carbon cities.

Group procurement brings benefits

When significant actions are required in short time span, district-scale approaches for energy-refurbishment will offer beneficial opportunities. Potential benefits include cost-savings because of joint ventures in procuring design, construction and other services. For example, the Maunula case in Helsinki showed that group procurement in the refurbishment of altogether seven buildings including 405 dwellings caused over 10% savings in cost. In addition, optimal renewable energy solutions are more likely to be found when the systems and positions of solar energy, ground heat, storages etc. are designed on a neighbourhood level.

Growing cities in search of solutions

Growing cities search for sustainable solutions for growth. One example is Helsinki, which is aiming at building 7000 new homes annually during the coming years. A significant part of this new construction should happen as infill building in existing urban and sub-urban districts to prevent urban sprawl as well as to minimise the environmental impacts of new construction by utilizing the existing infrastructures. This is also one potential mean to finance energy refurbishment of buildings. District-scale approaches enable the best options for the overall development of the district. They help avoid solutions where infill building in one plot hinders further options from neighbouring plots, or causes them negative impacts for example because of shading. In addition, there may be better alternatives for parking solutions, when looking at the whole area.

District-scale approaches are necessary especially when a radical transition towards energy-efficiency and utilization of renewable energy takes place. Future buildings will play an active role in the energy system by using, generating and storing energy.

Mapping out the pros and cons – European MODER project

We found out that the three most important barriers are firstly the presence and possible disagreement of several owners to start district-scale projects, secondly lack of actors to initiate these projects, and thirdly the institutional and legal obstacles related to town planning and building permission practices. Thus, we presume that a new kind of actor – an activator – would be needed for district-scale energy projects.

But what would be the role and activities of an activator? Who would be his or her partners and customers? What would be the most attractive value propositions? Where would the revenue streams come from? To find answers to these looming questions, we interviewed several experts with experience in neighborhood or district-scale refurbishment, joint building ventures, and/or infill building.

Expectations set high for activators

It seems that activators are indeed needed, but the most suitable roles for them can only be defined when testing different options in practice. The demands for an activator are set high. The activator should understand platform-based approaches and methods to empower people; the role should include the organising of participation processes; the activator should organise inquiries and workshops together with potential groups of housing companies and allow the end-users to define requests based on their own life and living situations. Important activities also include doing deep and realistic analyses of potentials of refurbishment with the help of new tools and communicating information about potential solutions.

The role could be taken on by such actors as contractors, project managers, and engineering companies. However, not even big companies can manage long processes at their own risk if the business potential is not high for example because of significant foreseen possibility for infill building.

This is why the role of the municipality is extremely important: they bring neutrality using objective information about benefits and potentials. The municipality should be proactive, far seeing and flexible in town planning and not too demanding in collecting land-use fees. They could act as a local facilitator   supporting collaboration with owners, owner-occupants, contractors and others. In addition, the municipality should support platform-based approach, encourage participation of all, and provide open data. It would also be important, if the municipality could provide a small incentive for forerunner housing companies together with extensive information about benefits of refurbishment. Finally, the rental housing companies owned by the municipality should show strong leadership, demonstrate and invite others to participate.



Tarja Häkkinen

Senior Principal Scientist




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