Ebook: Innovation Development for Highly Energy-Efficient Housing
In previous years we have seen a recognition of the significant potential that exists for reducing energy use through innovation in residential buildings. This study investigates innovation challenges and identifies opportunities that could lead to a rapid increase in the adoption of highly energy-efficient housing concepts, particularly that of the passive house. To this end, it exemplifies, interprets and develops the innovation adoption theory through an investigation of views and experiences on the supply side, the demand side and the policy side.
It highlights successful innovation trajectories and barriers experienced by businesses. It addresses both problems and positive experiences from the perspective of the end user and investigates different policy approaches. As such, the research reveals important features of innovation-adoption strategies in the building sector. It shows how multi-player enterprise collaboration plays a key role, and the study also recommends the development of quality assurance schemes. It makes a valuable contribution to discussions about how active the role of government policymakers and enterprise networks should be.
In 1992, I was appointed as the first officially employed full-time researcher in the Department of Architecture of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. My official research topic was entitled ‘domotics’, my area of expertise was room acoustics, my promoter had given me a pile of research articles on low-energy housing and my colleagues tried to convince me to invest my time in either materials engineering, structural morphology or sustainable housing for the poor. I ended up working in a polymer lab investigating microstructural networks in new materials developed from household waste to build elements for developing dismountable energy-efficient low-cost housing to make it possible to manage our planet more effectively. This remains a great idea that calls for further research. At that point, however, I was confronted with reality: I had no researchers with whom to exchange ideas, I had insufficient expertise at the university, I was at the end of my contract and I had no funding from industry. The general advice that I received was, ‘Find a network’.
I subsequently became unemployed, and I gradually became more patient and less anxious, realising that it can take a lifetime to achieve only one small part of an idea. I came to realise that, although connecting multiple disciplines can be a key to identifying innovative ideas, linking disciplines is far from daily practice at universities, especially when each professor is focused on only one small area of specialisation. This apparently cripples the process of innovation. It was only after considerable hesitation that I finally accepted a position in the Cenergie engineering firm, a spin-off of the University of Antwerp, focusing on research on energy efficiency. In this position, I was once again confronted with reality in the daily practice of energy consultancy. I experienced contractors who were incompetent, clients who lacked the resources needed in order to realise obvious savings, architects who lacked expertise and a general conservative attitude that always led towards business- as-usual. In 1999, I prepared a minor energy recommendation in which I combined all optimal energy-saving measures for a small community building. I reached the conclusion that, with a few minor changes in layout, this building could also easily do without space heating. Unfortunately, the client had no faith in such a solution. Fortunately, the people at Cenergie were visionaries and innovators. The recommendation revealed an important and much-needed internal shift from analysing energy-saving measures to delivering recommendations from the beginning of the design process. This observation in itself led to the development of many innovative engineering services, in addition to enhancing the effectiveness of communication with market actors.
Highly energy-efficient housing became visible during Cenergie's corporate visit to the World Expo in Hannover in 2000, where employees had the opportunity to sleep in a passive house. Although most of us had never experienced a passive house, they had apparently, been in existence in Germany since 1992, and hundreds of them had already been built. We wondered why our well-known university researchers had never told us anything about them. Consequently, three of us visited the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, where Wolfgang Feist showed us the many passive house innovations that were already available on the German market, as well as an entire room filled with a library of research reports about passive houses. We realised that Belgian enterprises and universities were about ten years behind in research and technology development. In our spirit of innovation, we concluded that change was needed. Two of us decided to build the first passive houses in Belgium. For my part, I decided to focus on the dissemination of knowledge. Interested actors could be found through connections in daily engineering practice, and the opportunity arose to ‘create a network’.
In 2002, after two years of preparation – and thanks to generous freedom provided by Cenergie and Energie Duurzaam – ‘Passiefhuis-Platform’ was born, which I would coordinate for many years to come, within the framework of an innovation study. The organisation survived after its initial subsidy, and it now counts more than 350 professional enterprise members representing a wide range of disciplines from the construction chain, all supporting the idea of realising passive houses and other forms of highly energy-efficient construction.
You might wonder why I would conduct studies on developing a market for highly energy-efficient housing, given that such a market already exists. The answer is that my choice is largely due to my observation that other networks, universities and policy actors still can and need to learn from our experience. Critical mass must be developed even if we wish to take even a small step forward in sustainable development. University researchers are particularly well positioned to set the tone of policy development. Moreover, the primary critique from various members at Passiefhuis-Platform is that many education arenas and universities have yet to integrate the available innovations into their curricula. At OTB, I found a multidisciplinary research environment that covers both sustainable construction and policy within which to conduct this series of studies. An interesting research question would have been why universities were so far behind in adopting this passive house innovation. Although I did not investigate this question, I hope that this work will ensure that one small aspect of sustainable housing (i.e. energy efficiency) can no longer be neglected in future innovation research.