Refurbishing European Apartment Blocks: Understanding the Challenge

Apartment blocks in Europe are a challenge for energy refurbishment. A lot of the difficulty arises from the way they are owned and managed – the building governance. A workshop at Oxford University tomorrow will bring property law academics and other researchers from 7 countries to discuss building governance, energy and refurbishment. Supported by the Shape Energy programme, the workshop aims to unlock new research perspectives that can help deliver low energy, low carbon homes for the 40% of Europeans that live in apartments.

Tony Monblat: The 'Chilterns' art deco apartments, SUTTON, Surrey, Greater London Used under licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
An early twentieth century purpose built apartment block in Southern England; apartment buildings are very diverse both in built form, and in ownership and management arrangments
Flats in England see lower levels of energy efficiency refurbishment than single family homes. From 2015 to 2017 I worked with Professor Susan Bright of Oxford University Law Faculty to try to understand some of the reasons why. Our focus was the complex English property law relating to blocks of flats. In England, ownership of apartment buildings is shared between freeholders (building owners) and leaseholders (apartment owners). Lots of people working in energy efficiency recognised that getting freeholders and leaseholders to agree to make insulation and other improvements is extremely difficult. But few people understood the full legal detail. In my work with Susan, we analysed the property law and came up with proposed law reforms that will make energy efficiency improvements easier.

Even though my formal collaboration with Oxford has finished, Susan and I have continued working with researchers looking at the same topic in different countries – firstly Scotland, where flat ownership rules are very different to England. And, lately, we’ve engaged researchers from other countries in Europe. Across the continent, a range of different building ownership and management arrangements prevail – from luxury condominiums in Paris, to Soviet-era blocks now in shared private ownership in Riga.

We’ve formed an informal European network of academic property lawyers and other specialists interested in energy, law and decision making in apartment blocks called GREEAN. Many of those researchers will be coming together this week in Oxford for a workshop funded by the Shape Energy European project.

Across Europe, just as in England, it’s clear that decision making about refurbishment in apartment buildings is poorly understood. And as sustainable energy technologies are developed and there’s more and more options to change the way we use energy in buildings, the issues become complicated. To give a few examples:
• Why should multiple apartment owners to agree to install and pay for roof insulation, which only delivers an energy bill saving for people living in the top floor apartments?
• When and how is an individual apartment owner allowed to install a solar PV panel, generating electricity just for her apartment, on the roof of the building?
• How can apartment owners work together to install electric vehicle charging infrastructure in their buildings? Who pays for it and who gets to use it?
• How do apartment owners share and use energy data from smart energy systems, so that they can plan the most cost-effective energy saving improvements to the whole building?
These are complex questions. But we need to begin to resolve them, if we’re going to put in place effective new policies and support programmes to promote sustainable energy in buildings, meeting national and European energy efficiency and carbon reduction targets.

Susan Bright, Dr Frankie McCarthy (Glasgow University) and I have proposed that we need to be understanding decision making for energy improvements in apartment blocks through a Governance framework. In this context, Governance can be defined as “referring to how the law of property and associations, as well as the arrangements between building stakeholders in relation to decision making, impact on energy demand.”* In other words it is about the property law, but also the day-to-day way in which apartment and building owners, managers and tenants come together to make decisions about their building.

From the legal perspective, what does it mean to own an apartment or part of a apartment building? Different countries answer this question very differently in their national laws. The most common arrangement in European countries is the condominium. In a condominium, apartment owners also own a share of the walls, roof, corridors and other common parts of the building. But that’s not the system we have in England (where we have freeholders and leaseholders) or in most of Scandinavia (where most people in apartments own through a co-operative). Within these different systems, what rights do individual apartment owners have over the common parts of the building? Do apartment owners have to meet regularly to consider repairs and improvements to their building? How are the costs of repair and improvement works allocated? And what percentage of apartment co-owners can decide to make an improvement to the building? The situation is different across every European member state.

Those are some of the property law questions, but to understand the decision making that happens within the different legal frameworks, we also need to look to other research perspectives. How can we understand the management of apartment buildings as a practice within every day life for the people who live in the block? Who gets involved in co-owners meetings, and why? Who has the strongest voice in decision making for improvements? These are questions for sociologists and psychologists. And obviously an economic perspective helps understand how different building co-owners make a decision to invest in its improvements.

The key focus of the Oxford workshop is to bring together the academic property lawyers with representatives from these other disciplines – psychology, sociology, economics and energy research – to look at the full picture of governance for energy in apartment buildings.

As someone who works on the practical policies that promote energy efficiency, I’m interested in how these wider perspectives can inform new policy thinking. Will we have to change the fundamentals of property law relating to apartments if we really want to see nearly-zero-energy apartment buildings by 2050? Or can adjustments be made within the existing legal frameworks? What’s the scope for new advice and information programmes to change the way decision making happens? It’s good that we’re also involving in the meeting Annemarie van Zijl, a Dutch researcher affiliated to the ACE-Retrofitting project. Ace-Retrofitting is attempting to promote a practical support package to condominium owners in several countries to help them agree on energy improvements.

A new paper will be produced from the Oxford meeting and we’re hoping to be accepted to share some of the key findings with the organisations and companies working in energy efficiency at this year’s EU Sustainable Energy Week, in Brussels in June.

*This text taken from a forthcoming article in the journal Energy Efficiency, written by Sue Bright, David Weatherall and Roxana Willis