New opportunities for increasing the renovation rate of buildings

Manfred Sonnleithner


A Renovation Wave for Europe – greening our buildings, creating jobs, improving lives is the message of the European Commission of 14 October 2020. This initiative was already announced in “The European Green Deal” in December 2019 and confirms the urgency of the issue. With every old building that has not been used or is already in the process of substantial deterioration, the questions arise again and again about the reasons for this situation and why it had got to that point at all. If we then take into account the alarmingly low renovation rates, which have been decreasing for years, we can find definitive confirmation that the existing building fabric has been preserved and renovated only to a rather limited extent and is therefore partly lost to the society.

The European Commission wishes to counter this development with “The European Green Deal” and, in particular, with the “Renovation Wave”. These regulations follow the trends that have been set in recent years. Standards have been raised, technical requirements are more strictly defined and limit values for energy consumption have been further lowered with the aim to increase energy efficiency and to reduce CO2 emissions.

A tested and proven pattern for bridging the past and the future is followed here. This positive statement applies to the quality of remedial measures in the European Union and its member states. However, the renovation rates of existing buildings, which have been low for years, show that the opposite is true with respect to the quantity of renovation projects. The past has shown us that ambitious technical specifications and legal regulations alone might not be the right path to success. Obviously, other factors and parameters are also important, and, so far, they have been given too little consideration.

These previously neglected factors should be identified in the work, together with the reasons for the neglect. Finally, possible solutions should be formulated; however, their focus on certain topics might limit the content-related field of action. Future in-depth discussions and the subsequent implementation of the results in an overall package will increase the chances for legal regulations such as “The European Green Deal” to achieve the ambitious theoretical goals and specifications in practice. An increase in the renovation rate of existing buildings is the quantitatively measurable outcome. Even the ambitious goals and the necessary annual renovation rates of the individual member states for the year of 2050 are thus realistic.

As the first step, approaches have been explored in various areas of interest that may be related to the problem of low renovation rates. This may also be done through the examination of various concrete or potential target conflicts, based on which the actual obstacles can be identified and solutions can be developed. In the first stage of the research, the focal points were determined such as climate-relevant aspects, values of architectural heritage and the identification of the population with the aforesaid heritage, learning from the past and utilization of the knowledge thus gained when dealing with old building fabric.

In these specific areas, various conflicting goals were identified, four of which were selected and examined in more detail: renovation versus new construction, use versus maintenance, user demands versus property-appropriate use and building maintenance versus climate protection.

On the basis of a description of the background to the problem, the first possible solutions were defined. A focused analysis shows that they are based on common principles: the affinity for the irretrievable values of the existing building and its surroundings, a “sensitization” to the complexity of climate and environmental issues as well as the identification of the population with the architectural heritage. It can be assumed that the majority of the population is not aware of the special quality of older buildings and that they have no desire to live in historical buildings. The low renovation rates in the past indicate that in the end neither the financing, nor the legal requirements or any other difficulties are the decisive obstacles hindering a decision to actually implement a building renovation project.

Ultimately, more fundamental reasons related to personal identification and ideology are decisive. The rejection lies partly in the subconscious and trapped subjective resentment, which in turn is based on unresolved questions. These facts are confirmed by the formulated solutions and show the urgency to “sensitize” the population with regard to the values of the architectural heritage and the human and object-related environment. The human factor is also of great importance in relation to the renovation and maintenance of existing buildings and should therefore be given priority from the outset when strategies and legal regulations are developed. Then, not only ambitious programs like the “Renovation Wave for Europe” from “The European Green Deal”, but also small initiatives in regions or town centres can be given a chance to actually achieve their goals, to the benefit of our environment and our architectural heritage.

Keywords: building heritage, renovation rate, population identification, revitalization, conflict of goals, CO2 emissions, Renovation Wave