Insights from the second regional stakeholder meeting in Belgium

The regional stakeholder group (RSG) meeting of the Flemish H4.0E pilot gathered to discuss the regional institutional barriers on the path to develop small affordable near-zero energy/low carbon homes (NZEHs) and zero energy/low carbon homes (ZEHs).  This article explores the results, as reported by Lead Partner, the Province of Flemish Brabant.

Building permits for small-scale housing

The obstacles can be found in the current quite difficult to get a building permit for independent, small residential buildings. There are various reports available in which concepts for small-scale living are developed, but in practice little is being achieved. The question is not how to build a single small-scale residential unit on a building plot, but rather how to build a number of units on a plot. This can also be a better solution for many elderly people who now live in large, detached and poorly insulated houses in the countryside. They would be better off in much smaller energy-efficient homes, closer to facilities. In terms of typology, such houses will often deviate from the traditional detached house and be realised as stacked or linked.


The realisation of affordable housing clashes with current economic models of municipalities, which focus on profit maximisation. The realisation of affordable housing for certain target groups could, and should, be a reason for municipalities to make semi-public and public land available in the form of long-term lease instead of selling the land to project developers. Flemish housing policy tries to facilitate such developments—for example, by supporting experiments—but the most important local bottlenecks lie in the field of spatial planning and the granting of permits. A framework and a vision are provided from the housing policy, but it is very important that this is managed at the local level.

At the local level, the image of small-scale housing is also important. The majority of households already consists of one or two people, so it is important that the small houses are affordable. There are various ways to break through this image and, moreover, to increase economic feasibility. For example, old existing larger buildings such as schools do not have to be demolished, but can be converted into small residential units, whereby the energy quality can also be improved. The realisation of a mix of small and larger homes in rent and sale can also contribute to the acceptance and the economic feasibility of small-scale living. Compact and clustered construction also makes it easier to realise affordable and energy-efficient homes.

Energy performance

The Housing 4.0 Energy pilot homes in Huldenberg will be built for either two-person or four-person households, based on the existing subdivision. It is expected the energy performance of the homes clustered per four will be better than that of the homes clustered per two. However, the pilot involves a very limited number of homes, so that the outcome of the monitoring  cannot be translated directly into policy recommendations.

Many of the barriers to realising affordable energy-neutral homes from a technical perspective also apply to houses in general. Specific to small homes is that there is a very limited need for thermal energy; i.e. heating. Electric heating is then strongly preferred over gas condensation. At the same time, the costs for the transition to renewable energy are paid via the electricity bill. It would be better if there is a shift from the charges on electricity to the charges on combustion, or gas and fuel oil. 

Attempts are being made to equip the houses in the pilot in Huldenberg with PV panels. The energy generated can then be used to heat the home. A bottleneck here is that placing PV panels are now being 'punished' in its energy bill. It is important to improve the possibilities for sharing generated electricity, and actually, it is expected that the possibilities for sharing electricity will increase in the near future. The digital meter that is being introduced in Flanders offers new possibilities, the European directive on "local energy communities" also offers opportunities for improvement.

Applying new techniques to live in an energy-efficient way also has consequences for the use of the home. Residents must learn to work with these new techniques to prevent the energy benefits from flowing away due to incorrect use. A major part of the problems that arise in this regard are caused by the fact that the various systems for, for example, heating and ventilation are not yet well integrated. Residents should not coordinate everything themselves, but the applied systems should take care of it themselves. It is important for residents that the integrated system is clear and easy to use or that they are not over burdened. 

In the social housing rental sector, it is generally the case that the landlord invests and the tenant then has lower energy costs. The energy costs should actually be part of the total rent. This could be an incentive for a lessor to invest in making rental homes more energy efficient. Social housing companies have recently been able to offset some form of energy correction when they install solar panels.

Hurdles to overcome in the social housing sector

The social rental sector in Flanders has traditionally been focused on building spacious, traditionally built homes. There are changes in progress, but the pace of those changes is not high. This has to with the legal conditions (such as tenders, …) which mainly attract traditional contractors. Efforts to address the market in a targeted manner can change this.

The surface norms and norms used in the social housing sector as a function of furniture can be changed slowly but do not yet stimulate the construction of small dwellings in deviating residential typologies. For example, the surface standards that social housing must meet are often too high. Multifunctional use and creative design solutions could, remedy this. For example, the new techniques such as ventilation ensure that it is not necessary to have interior walls everywhere, but current standards demand that they are integrated.

In practice, social rental properties are larger than private properties offered by developers. This is due to the pursuit of maximum living quality and the lack of focusing on specific target groups such as small households. For the Flemish government social housing department, it would be fantastic if the result of the H4.0E project were to tell all housing companies that these low-cost, low carbon zero-energy homes meet the requirements and can be built anywhere.

For the Flemish government, it is paramount that affordable and high-quality homes are built. If it can be demonstrated that houses that deviate from the surface standards meet these requirements, it must be possible to realize them. Such projects can then serve as an example for other initiatives.

The costs of the pilot (€ 65,000 in all) fit within the financial standards of social housing. The reason why social landlords in Flanders are less focused on the realization of energy-neutral homes is the cost and the awareness of tenants. In the pilot project, it is therefore important not only to help residents deal with the new techniques, but also to live on a very small surface. Automation can help with this.

Low carbon building is not yet part of the applicable standards within social housing. There is room for initiatives where low carbon building is important, but these initiatives are tested with the requirements of the Flemish government social housing company. 

Share this

Tweet Share