Energy retrofit projects:
a major health issue

Retrofits are not only a way to fight climate change or save energy. Given the many health risks caused by poor housing, it is above all a priority public health issue.


What is ‘healthy housing’? The World Health Organisation (WHO) summarises the characteristics in its guidelines on housing and health. These guidelines keep us informed of housing policies and regulations at national, regional and local levels. Accessibility, safety features to limit domestic accidents and sufficient space to avoid overcrowding are among the recommended criteria. Unsurprisingly, the WHO also insists on the temperature and insulation of buildings as key features of a dignified and healthy home.

‘For countries with temperate or colder climates, a temperature of 18˚C has been suggested as a safe and well-balanced indoor temperature to protect the health of the general population during cold seasons,’ recalls the WHO, which also warns about excessive heat in housing. The increasing number of heat waves exacerbated by climate change makes it imperative to address this challenge on a global scale. It is not just a question of comfort, but of public health: taking into account all the health risks, the WHO estimates that 130 000 deaths are associated with inadequate housing conditions in Europe each year.

The consequences of inadequate housing

Housing can affect physical health in many ways. Combined with a lack of ventilation and poor insulation, excessive humidity generates mould, which can trigger respiratory diseases and aggravate asthma. Cross-checking studies from the US, Canada and several European countries, the WHO reported in 2009 that almost 20% of buildings in these territories show signs of mould.

Extreme temperatures - both hot and cold - and poor insulation can lead to cardiovascular disease. In the UK, a study has shown the influence of housing characteristics on excess winter mortality rate. Past choices in terms of equipment can also have consequences.

More time at home

For the inhabitants, these dangerous exposures are often long term: the figures vary according to the country but, as an example, a French person spends an average of 16 hours a day in his or her home - this figure is rising along with teleworking.

This paradigm shift has highlighted the urgency of retrofitting the homes of many workers. More time spent at home logically increases the need for heating during cold periods. In summer, the need for coolness in the heat of the day would almost make you miss the air conditioning often available in conventional workplaces. And whatever the season, sufficient natural light is also essential for well-being, both to ensure the necessary intake of vitamin D and to limit the use of electric lighting during the day.

For several months now, this massive rebalancing between work and home - in favour of the latter - has been observed internationally. In the US, Silicon Valley behemoths such as Facebook and Twitter have made teleworking the norm, and some companies such as Amazon and Paypal have recognised that the rejection of remote working could reduce their attractiveness as employers. This situation does not affect all categories of employees, but it increases the urgency of retrofits, the benefits of which are no longer limited to comfort in personal life, but also in the workplace. The need for effective sound insulation to protect against external noise is no longer just to ensure sleep at night, but to ensure a quiet potential working environment during the day.

Milivoj Kuhar
The benefits of retrofits

Historically, public health successes have been linked to actions directed at housing, as demonstrated by the gradual shift from infectious diseases to non-communicable diseases. According to the WHO, investing in improved housing conditions would have better health outcomes than investing directly in health, on a two-to-four-year time scale.

Retrofits also help to reduce the vicious circle caused by climate change, given the many greenhouse gases generated by poorly insulated housing. Those renovations are also cost-effective in the short term, as the savings in health costs are greater than the costs of said renovations.

In 2018, a study estimated that the renovation of 600,000 unsuitable homes in France, inhabited by low-income households, would cost 6.5 billion euros, while generating a reduction in health costs of nearly 500 million euros per year. The retrofit investment would thus pay for itself in less than fifteen years.

The expected doubling of the world's urban population by 2050 will require housing solutions that cannot all be absorbed by new construction. For the sake of the climate, but above all for the sake of everyone’s health, a massive wave of efficient renovations is essential on a global scale.


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