Dutch construction innovation shows how to quickly modernize buildings
Every building on the planet will need to achieve net zero emissions by mid-century to meet global climate goals – and since most of the buildings that will exist then have already been built, that means a massive number of home renovations will be must occur to reduce energy consumption and replace old equipment such as gas furnaces.
“In the United States, that’s about 3 to 6 million buildings a year that need to be fully decarbonized,” says Martha Campbell, director of the Carbon-Free Buildings program at the nonprofit RMI. In Europe, according to another calculation, around 15,000 houses will have to be transformed every day for the next 30 years.
This is not the case now. But in the Netherlands, a program shows how the process could be accelerated. Energiesprong (which translates to “energy leap”), a non-profit organization that the Dutch government helped start a decade ago, coordinates a system of mass renovations. “We thought, okay, let’s turn home renovations into a scalable solution,” says Christian Richter, who works in the organization’s market development team in Germany.
In a Dutch factory, a company that is part of the program called RC Panels manufactures lightweight insulated panels that can be fitted to the front of existing townhouses. The company uses a laser scanning tool to take measurements in the old house; then, at the factory, a machine cuts the windows and doors to match the old facade exactly. When a truck delivers the panels, they are attached directly to the old wall. The company also manufactures insulated panels, with attached solar panels, that can be placed on top of an existing roof. Other Energiesprong suppliers offer heat pumps for heating, cooling and hot water. Renovations are faster than traditional renovations, in some cases taking as little as a day, resulting in more energy savings.
“Everything should be in some kind of plug-and-play installation, so you save labor and labor costs,” says Richter. “In Europe, you don’t have enough manpower. So you don’t have enough building capacity to do it the old fashioned way. . . . We have a large industrial sector, and there is the capacity that they could produce panels instead of automotive parts, for example, as this whole sector changes in the future.
The goal is to make every home ‘net zero energy’, which means that the solar panels on the roof will generate enough electricity over the course of the year to equal the power the home uses for heating, l hot water and appliances. In the Dutch city of Utrecht, for example, houses and apartments renovated in 2019 saw their energy consumption drop by around 78%. The remaining energy consumption is covered by the solar panels. (The net zero calculation only considers what it takes to run the buildings and does not consider the emissions that go into making the materials; the organization has not yet done this life cycle analysis. full life.)
In the Netherlands, many of the first renovations took place in buildings owned by housing associations, partly because they tend to use a standard design, which makes it easier to mass-produce the parts needed for a renovation. . Energiesprong participated in the implementation of a system allowing tenants to pay an “energy service” bill covering part of the cost of renovations; the huge energy savings that come with retrofits also help cover the costs. So far, more than 5,700 homes have been retrofitted in the country through the scheme, and the concept is starting to be adopted elsewhere, including the UK, France, Germany and the US.
If a system underperforms, the construction company comes back, Richter says. “They guarantee net zero, and they have it on their books for five years,” he says. “We run this five-year monitoring and evolution process, and then we take the average and say, okay, has it been achieved here or not? And if it’s not net zero, then they need to figure out why and if there’s anything they should replace.
In the United States, RMI is working with partners to test the basic concept in a handful of pilot projects, including an apartment complex used to house low-income agricultural workers in California. “How we transform the residential market in the United States has been a difficult problem to solve,” says Campbell of the nonprofit. “We have a very low adoption rate, even for traditional retrofits, where you get maybe 15% to 25% energy savings.” When the RMI team heard about Energiesprong, she says, “everyone just said, we have to stop trying to get better incrementally, we have to kind of look at how these guys are doing things.”
Some of the ideas are harder to replicate; there is more uniformity in Dutch housing, making it easier to make panels and roofs. RMI and others are working with the Department of Energy on a report that lists all major building types for different regions of the United States, and will provide retrofit guidelines for each type later this year. The DOE and other partners are also working to encourage more research and development of solutions such as insulated panels, which are not yet affordable in the United States (in some areas, including California, they may also not be necessary due to the mild climate.) Additionally, RMI and others are developing new financing models, another key element in helping the number of renovations increase .
“We know that about 70% of the buildings that exist today will exist in 2050,” says Campbell. “And if we’re going to get to net zero by 2050 . . . our estimates are that we need to achieve a renovation rate between 4% and 6%. That’s up to 6 million renovations every year in the United States alone. .