Energy Renovation: The double-brainer solution to Europe's indoor air quality problem

Energy Renovation: The double-brainer solution to Europe’s indoor air quality problem

28th April 2017, by Adrian Joyce, Renovate Europe Campaign Director

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Energy renovations are often labelled a “no brainer” but on the basis of new research, it might be more accurate to call them a double-brainer.

In one double-blind study published last year, the cognitive performances of workers in an enhanced green building environment were found to be 101% higher than in conventional buildings.

Crisis response scores were 131% better, strategy scores 288% greater and information usage scores a staggering 299% higher for employees not exposed to the sort of elevated levels of CO2 and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) typically found in urban building environments.

More modest improvements were confirmed by another study in 2016, which scored a 25% lift in cognitive functioning tests, 30% fewer ‘sick building’ symptoms and better sleeping patterns, among employees who worked in green buildings.

We spend the vast majority of our lives – up to 90% of our time – indoors and the same percentage of business costs are toted up within buildings. Yet we seem to be surprisinngly indifferent to the environment in which we thrive.

Straightforward improvements such as improved ventilation, lighting and heating control can have a dramatic effect on the quality of our lives – at work and at home.

As you read this, you may well be breathing in one or more of a dizzying array of pollutants – carbon monoxide, radon, ozone, particulates, microbial contaminants, volatile organic compounds, mould – which each carry their own dizzying array of health symptoms.

Prolonged indoor exposure to ozone can cause decreased lung function and respiratory pain. Excess particulates levels in your living room may trigger airway inflammation, or subtle changes in the markers of cardiovascular disease. With mould, asthma-like symptoms such as chronic wheezing are not uncommon.

The green building alternative still seems mythic to many people, a unicorn logged by wonks in policy briefings. But in an anonymous Brussels suburb last week, a delegation of EU diplomats visited just such a legend; a refurbished model home of the future – built in the 1920’s – to find out more.

The Velux house on Rue Jean Lagey looks unexceptional from the outside, but behind its thick white door lies a bright, airy and hyper-modern interior, designed by an Antwerp architect with a built-on extension at the back.

The home central heating is a thing of wonder. Two solar panels (one on a grass covered roof) provide a third of the domestic power. Triple glazed windows keep the warmth in, while a heart-shaped ‘health box’ ventilation system pumps stale air out – and fresh air in.

This can all be done on automatic settings. Sensors control room temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels, while wall-size windows, sun tunnels and remote controlled shades all let the sun shine in.

“Daylight and fresh air are essential to our wellbeing,” said Jernej Vernik, the Velux EU affairs manager leading the tour. “You can actually feel the air moving up and the daylight coming in the spiral staircase and out of the window.”

Mayors, ministers, civil servants and school students have dropped in on the “active house” demo home, one of planned renovated properties run by the ‘Le Foyer Anderlechtois’ housing association.

But that represents just 0.01% of the association’s stock, and Le Foyer Anderlechtois is in the green buildings vanguard. Could the scheme really catch on?

“I think it’s a universal concept,” one of the diplomats said. “I’m very, very glad we had the chance to see it. We have to educate people about this, but it shouldn’t be that difficult. It is mostly a question of money.”

The renovation is “legally” limited €1,200 per sq metre which, spread over the average house’s 80m2 in the neighborhood, would mean a total cost of €96,000 for each renovation.

That might sound a lot but given the savings on energy bills and increase in property value the scheme brings – not to mention the health and climate benefits as well as the fact that the house was considered ‘inhabitable’ before renovation – funding such schemes should be a double-brainer for Europe’s purse-string holders.

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Download the Renovate Europe infographic “Why is Energy Renovation the Long-term Solution to improved Health?”