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In Europe, suburban populations grew on average 54% more than urban populations between 1961 and 2011, with people looking to enjoy the relative space and comfort of single-family homes. Yet, when it comes to unhealthy buildings, these suburbs are in danger of being overlooked.


Cities and suburbs can be polarised social environments, with rich and poor living in close proximity to one another. So what can we do to promote and boost renovation in the social, municipal and rental housing markets? Levels of social housing vary hugely across different European countries, according to their different demographics and welfare systems (see map).

We have already seen in this report that poor housing affects health, regardless of a person’s level of available income. Nevertheless, having lower available income does mean you are more likely to have building deficiencies in the first place.

People in the lower 25% in terms of available income are almost twice as likely to have deficiencies such as a leaking roof or a home that is too cold in winter. And being less well-off also means residents are more likely to be tenants rather than owners. In fact, those in the lower 25% are twice as likely to rent their home as those in the top 25%.

Social housing: a sound investment

Investing in good quality social and affordable housing can significantly improve the overall health of society. According to a recent report covering the whole European Union¹, inadequate housing costs EU economies nearly €194 billion per year – in direct costs associated with healthcare and related medical and social services – and indirect costs such as lost productivity and reduced opportunities. The report estimates that bringing the standard of housing up to an acceptable level across Europe would cost about €295 billion. This implies that the investment could be repaid within 18 months, through savings in healthcare and better social outcomes, such as increased productivity and sustainability.

RenovActive: a case study in budget-focused renovation

Whether it is governments and municipalities tackling welfare and emissions targets, or private housing associations trying to improve their portfolio of accommodation, the good news is that a renovation that will improve energy efficiency, comfort and health does not need to be prohibitively expensive.

To demonstrate this, in 2016 the VELUX Group completed a project called “RenovActive”. It transformed a derelict, uninhabitable social housing property in a suburb of Brussels, Belgium, into a bright, healthy, and energy-efficient property.

The project had to be completed within the tight budget set by the local social housing company for renovating this type of building. In order to ensure future scalability, different standardised renovation elements were developed, including:

  • Bright daylight conditions and natural airflows through the home using a central staircase and roof windows.
  • Improved building envelope and insulation.
  • Increased living space by attic conversion and building extension.

Improved performance and health

Since the RenovActive project was completed, its performance has been monitored. These are a few key findings:

  • Improved health: residents state that they have better sleep quality, fewer sick days, and less need for medication.
  • Indoor air quality, with controlled natural ventilation, is high – CO2 levels in all the main rooms remain below 1,150 ppm.
  • No overheating in summer: indoor temperatures are usually below 26°C in all main rooms. 

A blueprint for social housing renovations

Based on the success of this project, the social housing company which owns the house has decided to renovate a further 86 homes in its portfolio according to the RenovActive concept. 

The first six houses are currently under renovation and due for completion in 2018.

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