Improving the Energy Efficiency of European Buildings


Renovating buildings to make them more energy efficient is a key step towards the European goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Efforts are underway to revamp Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) across Europe. This will make them useful tools to guide the renovation of the building stock in a way that is sensitive to different countries’ needs.


Buildings are the single largest energy consumer in the European Union, making up 40% of the bloc’s energy consumption and 36% of greenhouse gas emissions. However, despite compulsory efficiency assessments, the energy performance of buildings still has little impact on buyers’ and renters’ decisions. While new buildings are becoming more and more efficient, the rate of renovations for existing ones is still too low to turn the tide.

To address these shortcomings, the EU has launched a new directive with the aim of renovating 35 million buildings by 2030. This is part of its commitment to achieving a 55% reduction in emissions by the same year and reaching net zero in 2050. A group of architects, engineers, and policy-makers are determined to facilitate the consequential increase in renovations by completely revamping the Energy Performance Certificates.

“We need to live in an almost carbon-neutral world. I don’t know if this is feasible, but we must do it,” said Silvio De Nigris, Public Officer at the Sustainable Energy Department of the Piedmont region in Italy. His department is one of the partners of the project “Towards Innovative Methods for Energy Performance Assessment and Certification” (TIMEPAC).

Different Countries Have Different Needs

While the European directive is meant to guide the laws of each EU member country, the project’s participants are sensitive to the fact that different countries have different needs. The broad range of interpretation that the directive offers across the countries “is good for responding to specific needs, but on the other hand it means that approaches in the member states vary widely”, says Susanne Geissler, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy and Resources Availability (SERA) in Austria, another partner of the TIMEPAC project.

In 1979, Spain pioneered regulations regarding the energy efficiency of buildings with a law that made it compulsory for new buildings to have some minimal level of insulation. The law was updated and expanded over decades until the first building code was drafted in 2006. Energy certificates were put in place in 2007 for new constructions and later extended to buildings or parts of buildings for sale or rent, public administration premises, schools, and some other buildings open to the public.

While the building code makes renovations compulsory if they relate to functionality or health standards, a low score on the Energy Performance Certificates (EPC) – rating schemes to summarise the energy efficiency of buildings – does not require mandatory refurbishment. However, the new European directive will overturn this, and architect Ainhoa Mata from TIMEPAC partner Catalan Institute of Energy says that establishing some minimum requirements for energy efficiency for all buildings is a “total paradigm shift”.

In Austria, Geissler was part of the first team which drafted a voluntary national “green building assessment scheme” at the end of the 1990s. The EPC appeared later and was promoted as a starting point in a stepwise approach toward better performance.

“The message has been: do voluntary green building assessment, not only mandatory energy performance certification”, Geissler said.

The new EPC will cover some of the additional aspects that the Austrian green building assessment scheme already included, such as a life cycle assessment of building materials, indoor air quality, and transport options.

Harmonising the Interpretation

The challenge now is to harmonise the interpretation of the new European directive as much as possible between the countries, while also taking into account their different needs. For example, single-family homes dominate in Austria, while apartment buildings are the norm in Spain and Italy.

De Nigris explained that it would be desirable to move towards certification of the entire building and not only of each apartment, as is currently the case in Italy.

“This is an enabling factor for speeding up the process of the renovation of multi-apartment buildings”, he said.

Other issues, however, are common to every country. EPCs are compulsory when buying or renting a property as well as for new buildings, big renovations, and for large public buildings. However, the document often ends up being largely ignored by stakeholders.

“The price of a building is more related to location than to efficiency since most of the buildings are old so there’s no big difference in energy performance”, said Mata.

Still, the mandatory character of the EPC means that public administrations hold lots of valuable data about their buildings’ performance: “It is a very important mass of information that can be used for the renovation wave strategy”, explained De Nigris.

Uniting the Data

The next step will be to make sure that the same data is collected for every country and that the resulting databases can be easily compared.

“We have a common challenge for different European countries: make sure that the databases related to buildings are open and interrelated, contain quality data, and, above all, that they can be exploited so they are a useful tool for all actors to make the energy transition a reality”, explained Mata.

The new EPC aims to go beyond the current performance scores and add advice as to how to manage the building in the future.

“In existing buildings, we still don’t detect a general improvement in their energy rating since renovation is voluntary”, said Mata.

Part of the Next Generation EU funds will be devoted to building renovation grants, and TIMEPAC plans to introduce a building renovation passport to guide the transformation of the building stock towards zero emissions.

The international nature of TIMEPAC is a big asset to make this happen, as Geissler remarked: “If you work in your own environments, you are confronted with obstacles, barriers, myths where people say ‘this will never work’. And then you see that what you would like to do in your own country actually works in other countries. This is a big advantage.”


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