Heritage advocates ‘vigilant’ over revised EU green buildings law

A proposed update of the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive could threaten Europe’s cultural heritage, lawmakers and associations have warned, drawing attention to thousands of unlisted buildings that could fall under renovation obligations.

In September 2022, the lights of the Eiffel Tower in Paris were switched off one hour early in a symbolic move that showed even heritage sites could play their part in reducing energy use.

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While simple energy-saving measures can be extended to all French monuments and historical buildings, not all can launch renovation works to cut their energy consumption permanently. Doing so may even risk compromising their heritage value, advocates warn.

These fears were addressed in the 2010 version of the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), which included an exception for buildings of architectural or historic interest.

When the directive was revised in 2018, the exception was repeated, allowing EU countries to exclude cultural or heritage sites from minimum energy performance requirements.

With another revision of the EPBD on the table, heritage advocates are again on high alert.

The European Commission’s latest revision of the EPBD, tabled in December 2021, aims to renovate the 15% worst performing buildings across Europe, which would be rated “G” on the EU’s energy performance scale, residential or not.

The text was subsequently strengthened by the European Parliament in March 2023, despite pushback from right-wing lawmakers, who expressed concerns about costs.

Historical monuments

The revised directive has notably irked EU member states like Italy, which fears homeowners will be forced into costly renovations for old buildings, some of which may not be listed and would not be exempted from the EPBD’s renovation obligation.

In France, conservative MEP François-Xavier Bellamy (European People’s Party) agrees, adding the revised EPBD would make it necessary to renovate half of the buildings in Europe within 15 years.

According to Bellamy, this poses “a major risk for housing in general, and heritage in particular.”

“We are told that listed buildings will be exempt from these standards. Great! But the truth is that in France, for example, only 0.12% of the buildings in our country are listed,” he warned in a blog post.

Listing a wider range of old buildings just to escape the EPBD’s renovation obligation is not an attractive option either, Bellamy said, warning against the “curse” of being listed as a historical monument.

“Anyone who owns a building with historical and heritage value […] knows very well that the worst curse that can befall them is that their building be classified as a historical monument” because of the strict standards and obligations this implies,” the French MEP argued.

French heritage group remains ‘vigilant’

In France, Bellamy’s concerns are shared by building heritage association ‘La Demeure Historique’.

While historical monuments are excluded from the scope of the directive, ‘La Demeure Historique’ said it is concerned about provisions related to “buildings that are of historical or architectural interest but are not officially protected”.

Under the current version of the revised EPBD, “each EU country will be in charge of defining its own rules” when it comes to the renovation criteria, the group notes.

This means obligations for unlisted historical buildings will be defined later on at the national level, it adds, saying the association will continue its awareness-raising work with public authorities on implementing the directive.

Renovation encouraged but not systematic

Fears about cultural and historical buildings have resurfaced as the successive revisions of the EPBD steadily increased its ambition for renovation.

For example, between the 2018 and 2023 versions, EU member states are not required to encourage research into new solutions for renovating historic buildings but to define and test “innovative solutions” to meet the bloc’s energy performance goals.

In France, “historical monuments” include the 45,000 buildings listed or classified because of their exceptional heritage character. These buildings are also exempt from an energy performance assessment, and renovation can only be done to ensure it looks identical to how it was before.

This means renovation is encouraged but not systematic and must ensure the original materials and techniques are used as much as possible.

Maintenance is indeed the most effective measure to improve the performance of heritage buildings, France’s Culture Ministry has said.

However, while renovating historic buildings is not impossible, it remains expensive even if the state can cover 40-50% of the renovation costs registered in the inventory of historical monuments.

Targeted efforts

The EU also contributes to the renovation effort at national level.

For example, the EU’s European regional development fund Interreg has made it possible to renovate the Cité des électriciens, one of France’s oldest mining cities located in the north of France and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, with work costing more than €2.2 million.

Other initiatives motivate the renovation of heritage, like the “Effinergie Patrimoine” label,  tested in France between 2020 and 2022 and renewed in 2023.

Nine buildings have been renovated under the scheme, including one of the wings of the stables at the Château de Versailles.

By insulating the walls and roof from the inside and implementing other measures, such as connecting the building to the district heating network, its energy consumption was reduced by a factor of 3.4, from 227.79 kWh of primary energy per square metre per year to 67.9.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon and Zoran Radosavljevic]

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