Sustainable renovation: unraveling fact from fiction

Should you renovate if your energy consumption is already under control? Isn’t it better to build new buildings rather than renovate? Is the cost or the lack of skilled labor a barrier? There are still many preconceived ideas about sustainable renovation. And yet, it's an essential solution for achieving greater energy savings and ultimately reducing the carbon footprint of buildings. As such, this is a good time to take stock of 6 common misconceptions about sustainable renovation.

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The fact and fiction of sustainable renovation


To keep global warming below 2°C, we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. The construction sector has a major role to play here, as it is responsible for almost 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, in Europe, most of the buildings that will be lived in over the next few decades have already been built, and 75% of them are energy inefficient. Sustainable renovation, particularly in terms of energy, is thus of the utmost importance. Not only does it reduce energy consumption in buildings, it also extends their lifespan and enhances the comfort of their occupants. However, it still suffers from many preconceived ideas that hold back its widespread deployment.

As such, this is a good time to take stock of 6 common misconceptions about sustainable renovation.


1) If energy consumption is already under control, there’s no need to renovate!


This is perhaps one of the most common misconceptions about renovation: that installing more efficient heating equipment makes it easier to control energy consumption, and that sustainable energy renovation is unnecessary. Yet this overlooks the importance of energy efficiency in buildings. Without adequate envelope insulation that significantly reduces energy requirements, the benefits of a condensing boiler or heat pump, for example, can easily be wiped out. Introducing high-performance heating equipment into a thermal sieve is detrimental to its efficiency and does not reduce energy bills as much as might be hoped.

shutterstock_1517216711 (c)New Africa

It is thus essential to adopt a holistic approach to sustainable renovation, combining the use of renewable energies with energy efficiency measures. To this end, POINT.P has launched the Action Rénovation Energétiqueprogram in France, to train its employees and provide financial support to craftsmen in their efforts to obtain the RGE (Recognized Guarantor of the Environment) qualification. It also means investing in high-performance solutions, such as the GypLyner Xternal system developed by Saint-Gobain Interior Solutions in the UK and including exterior waterproofing, thermal insulation and interior finishing. Choosing high-performance glazing and products with reduced environmental impact makes it possible to design comfortable spaces that maximize the use of natural light and ventilation.


2) RSustainable renovation is far too expensive!


Over the long term, the payback time for sustainable renovation is 7 to 14 years (depending on the type of work involved). Unless the original building is in an advanced state of disrepair, renovation makes more economic sense than a new build. Demolition and rebuilding has an environmental cost, and often involves a significant waste of materials and high energy consumption.

LThe issue of the accessibility and cost of energy renovation is at the heart of EnergieSprong, a European movement born in the Netherlands, which aims to industrialize building renovation with the stated goal of creating a large-scale market. The approach is based on the installation of modular over-roofs, a prefabricated insulating facade and an energy system combining heating, hot water and ventilation – standardized operations that can be carried out quickly and at low cost.

In Germany, the unique pre.formance offer of tailor-made renovation for family homes promises zero scaffolding, zero waste, minimal noise pollution and no disruption of urban space, making it quicker, requiring a limited number of professionals and allowing residents to remain in their homes during the work, also making the whole operation less costly.


3) Choosing environmentally friendly materials is sufficient to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings


There are two types of emissions to consider when assessing a building’s carbon footprint: embodied emissions (linked to building materials and construction) and operational emissions (linked to building operation). And the latter are often forgotten! Yet operational emissions account for 3/4 of GHG emissions from buildings worldwide (compared with 1/4 for embodied emissions).

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Against this backdrop, sustainable renovation is an absolutely crucial lever for action, since only 1% of the building stock in Europe is renewed each year. Renovation can increase the energy efficiency of existing buildings and dramatically reduce their CO2emissions. Depending on the work undertaken, energy savings can range from 5% to 80% (5% for very superficial renovation, such as simple window replacement, and 80% for deep renovation, including insulation, change of heating system, use of renewable energies, etc.). This is why Europe has made energy-efficient renovation of buildings a priority in the European Geen Deal, notably through its Renovation Wave strategy and its Renovate Europe,campaign, in which Saint-Gobain is an active participant.


Debunking 13 myths around sustainable construction 


4) Sustainable renovation also has social benefits


Thermal sieves (poorly insulated buildings that lead to thermal discomfort and high energy consumption) are notorious for their negative effects on the quality of life of residents, their physical and mental health, and their economic resources. Tackling the quality of the building envelope, as part of a sustainable renovation approach, results in gains that benefit inhabitants (thermal comfort, which prevents illnesses linked to cold, damp and mold; light and sound comfort, which reduces stress, anxiety and depression; and lower energy bills) and society as a whole, which sees a reduced burden on its healthcare system.

Considering the benefits of sustainable renovation from this viewpoint is essential, as only a “win-win” approach will make it the norm and convince individuals to embark on this transition. This was also the thinking behind the development of “PENs” (Positive Energy Neighborhoods), which advocate a community-based approach to energy renovation for the benefit of all.


5) Encouraging renovation when there’s a labor shortage is counter-productive.


Labor is indeed in short supply in the construction sector (61% of construction companies worldwide report difficulties in finding skilled workers). Faced with this observation, it is tempting to conclude that incentives for energy renovation are counter-productive, as neither individuals nor local authorities will have the means to implement their projects. However, this view is too simplistic, for a number of reasons.

First, to anticipate an increase in demand for energy renovation, companies can invest in training and the adoption of advanced technologies to mitigate the shortage of labor. Secondly, by promoting itself as a stable and buoyant employment sector, energy renovation can encourage young people to join the profession. Lastly, the tax incentives and subsidies offered by many countries should not be overlooked, as they can often offset the higher initial cost due to the shortage of labor.

Aware of the challenges posed by the labor shortage and the urgent need to carry out large-scale energy renovations, Saint-Gobain has been investing heavily in training in this area for many years. As such, Saint-Gobain France has developed schools dedicated to training professionals in three key sectors of the ecological transition (roofing, masonry and HVAC engineering).It is also one of the two pillars of the Group’s sponsorship and patronage policy, which aims to encourage young people around the world, particularly the most disadvantaged, to join the construction trades.


Public buildings – a prototype for virtuous renovation 


6) Regulation is essential to encourage widespread energy renovation.


Many countries have adopted energy and environmental regulations, and CO2 emissions are already falling in the sectors concerned. However, the issue of acceptability of energy renovation should not be underestimated. Acceptability means the degree to which the various stakeholders (individuals and local authorities) find energy renovation feasible, desirable and viable. In short, there must be a tangible benefit for everyone involved: a return on investment through energy savings; an individual benefit through greater comfort or increased property value; a societal benefit in terms of the project’s environmental efficiency or appeal to the local community.

In Denmark, the city of Sønderborg’s « Project Zero » (which aims to achieve zero carbon emissions across the entire city) is a good demonstration of the power of collective action in achieving this balance between regulation and acceptability. The city has already reduced its CO2 emissions by 400,000 tonnes since 2007 and expects to meet its target by 2029.



*Sources of the data and information: Renovate Europe, Buildings Performance Institute Europe (BPIE), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Cerema, International Energy Agency (IEA), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), French Agency for the ecological transition (ADEME, France), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, USA), European Commission reports, German Federal Foreign Office, KPMG Global Construction Survey 2020, French Ministry for the Ecological Transition studies, Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GABC).