Protecting health by improved building efficiency

A revised EU directive to fight energy poverty and pulmonary diseases due to unhealthy buildings should be approved this month

Protecting health by improved building efficiency

Home sweet home. Houses are supposed to be our nest, a shelter from the world outside. But how healthy are European homes?

Nowadays most of our time is spent indoors, often at home, one reason being the current shift to “desk jobs”. It follows that the environment of the buildings we live, work and play in has a major health impact.

Indoor air may be more harmful than outdoor air: “In addition to the contaminants we find outside, we also have indoor pollutants”, explained Alessandro Miani, head of the non-profit Italian Society for Environmental Medicine (SIMA), which drew up a set of rules to preserve the air we breathe in our homes and offices. “There are pollutants typical of homes such as dust, spores, moulds, and those produced by human activities like cooking and house-cleaning, all of which contribute to the release of additional damaging substances”.

People are more likely to have respiratory diseases when living in a damp home.  “I would say that asthma is the most studied symptom because it’s easier to identify. Other warning signs, such as eye irritations or a dripping nose are even more widespread, but they are harder to quantify and record. There may be several mechanisms involved: direct toxicity, irritation, allergies,” explained Miia Pitkäranta, a Finnish molecular microbiologist who specialises in indoor air quality.

The EU Healthy Homes Barometer 2017 said that “people are 40% more likely to have asthma when living in a damp or mouldy home, and today, 2.2 million Europeans have asthma as a result of their living conditions”. Moreover, one out of six Europeans, the equivalent of Germany’s population, affirmed that they spend most of their time in unhealthy buildings, with problems such as leaking roofs or damps floors and walls, and poor daylight.

The economic impact is significant: the cost of asthma and chronic pulmonary disease is estimated at €82 billion per year in Europe, half of it for medicine and care, and the other half, 40 billion as indirect costs such as a loss of work productivity.

For this reason, the European Commission has proposed a revision of the Energy performance of buildings directive that include measures “to promote the use of smart technology, to streamline existing rules and accelerate building renovation”. A political agreement has been reached by the Member States and now the text will have to be formally approved by the plenary session of European Parliament in Strasbourg on 17 April.

The Healthy Homes Barometer also highlighted the fact that forty-five percent of Europeans keep the temperatures down in their homes in order to save money, because of their low incomes, increasingly heavier bills and their inefficient buildings.

In a bid to reduce energy costs and improve their wellbeing, people can find motivation to start refurbishing their homes. But today just 2% of European homes were properly renovated every year.

This is where EU research projects are trying to create new impetus. One example is R2Cities (Residential Renovation towards nearly zero energy Cities), which has reached about 1,500 people in Italy, Turkey and Spain.

Energy-saving technologies have been implemented in different contexts. From the demonstration districts in Genoa (Italy) and Kartal (Turkey), where the works were financed by the European Union and the municipalities, to the residential complex in Valladolid, where the homeowners also contributed to the interventions.

David Pradales, Spanish owner of one of the retrofitted buildings in Valladolid, Spain, invested about €10,000 in the renovation works. A new façade, heating system and solar panels have been proven successful. He said: “Above all, the insulation maintains the indoor temperatures with almost no thermal oscillations and it has also eliminated condensation. Some walls had mould that has now completely disappeared. Apart from the savings that this can imply, which can take years, the improvement in the quality of life in these apartments is noticeable. And, in some way, we also have a revalued property for our children to inherit. So yes, the amortisation of the investment may take a long time, but overall, I believe it was a wise decision.”
Turning to Italy, Sergio Pandolfini, who lives in the social housing district of Genoa where the renovation works were held, explained: “The so-called ‘Lavatrici’ district  is a council housing estate. This means that the people who are in economic or social difficulties get access to one of the apartments through a waiting list. Tenants pay a lease, which is proportional to their income. This rent is therefore often quite low. It amounts to less than €50 per month. The problem is that they have also to pay the bills, and they can be three, four or five times higher than the rent. Therefore the financial status of a family is completely upset.”

This year, in order to boost investment for improved building stock, the EU Commission has launched the Smart Finance for Smart Buildings initiative. The aim is to unlock €10 billion of public and private funds for energy efficiency interventions.

 

By Margherita Sforza

6 April 2018