In conversation with ...

Britt Berghs

70% of all buildings in Antwerp are apartments. A generous share that no other Flemish city can match. Renovating an apartment building is complex in multiple ways. BE REEL! had a conversation with Britt Berghs, project coordinator for the city of Antwerp.

Britt Berghs (38) has been sustainable building and renovation project coordinator for the City of Antwerp's Ecohouse since 2018. She is an architect by training and has been working as an architect for the city for 15 years. At the time, she made the long-term plans for the urban patrimony, trained as a real estate expert in order to make valuations, and works on BE REEL! projects in Antwerp.

What is your current position and what kind of projects are you involved with?  

Britt: "I manage the team that takes on all projects related to advice and guidance within the city. This includes different sub-actions such as those for vulnerable target groups, which is also a BE REEL! action, or renovation support for family homes. Most of my time is spent on the actions related to the renovation of apartments, because 70% of Antwerp residents live in an apartment building. That's why we pay so much attention to that within BE REEL! where I then try to elaborate and improve our approach."

City of Antwerp, Ecohuis and BE REEL!

Everyone knows Antwerp, but what exactly is Ecohuis?

Britt: "Ecohuis is the name for the location where our entire public Climate and Environment Department is located. That means that, as a citizen, you can come to the Ecohuis for both advice on climate adaptation such as greening and softening, as well as advice on climate mitigation such as energy savings and sustainable renovation. How are we structured? If I limit myself to the energy section, we offer different services: on the one hand, we have a counter and advisory function where people can contact us with questions about sustainable renovation, energy saving, billing advice and checking quotes. We also have a second-line service where we support people who are not self-reliant to bring a project to a successful conclusion. For example, free renovation guidance for individuals is one such service. Here we assist citizens from A to Z in their renovation project. This ranges from analysing the property and requesting quotes to checking the work and applying for the premiums.    

Also interesting to mention is our operation with target groups. We have a team of about 10 energy scanners that physically visit people's homes and examine together with the owner how he can reduce his bill with simple interventions such as installing LED lamps or radiator foil. Those energy scanners also immediately detect whether there are major problems in the building and whether there is potential to renovate. So those flow into our services toward an energy-efficient renovation project. The Ecohuis consists of 3 major pillars around climate mitigation: vulnerable target group, advice and renovation support and the credit team that handles the interest-free MijnVerbouwlening, among others."

The City of Antwerp is working on several projects within BE REEL! I would like to highlight one: the renovation of large apartment buildings.

Britt: "In 2018, we launched a tailored approach for large apartments with more than 20 living units that are older than 20 years. We created the Master Plan renovation for this purpose. This is a sustainable multi-year plan drawn up by an external study bureau in collaboration with a renovation coach from the city of Antwerp. It consists primarily of the condition of the building, but goes much further than what we do for family homes. We don't just look at the energy efficiency, but also things like housing quality, accessibility; safety and structural issues. So it’s basically a screening of the whole building. Next, a 20-year plan is drawn up from this based on total cost of ownership. In which not only the investments are included, but also the maintenance and energy costs and the property value. So that you can see the impact of each investment on the total monthly cost.      

We actually create 2 plans: 1 standard multi-year maintenance plan which only includes works that are necessary to be legally in order and that ensure that the building does not collapse. And in addition, we have a sustainable scenario drawn up to make the jump faster to label A towards 2050 to anticipate maintenance and energy costs.

The current system is very complex for people who are not fully self-reliant.

So how exactly do we proceed? As a renovation coach, we explain the entire project to the general meeting of the association of co-owners (VME) to engage in a process with us. If they agree, they sign a declaration of commitment. We then support the VME in preparing market-based specifications for a master plan study. Please note that this is not a public tender. These specifications are put on the market by the trustee and paid for by the VME. If the necessary quality requirements are then met, 50% of that cost can flow back to the VME thanks to a premium from the city. During this preliminary phase, as a renovation coach, we also conduct an owner survey. We gather all available information from the city departments and after the study has been carried out, we look at which sustainable investment packages we can put together for approval at the general assembly.  

An important part of this is the financial coaching. We always create financing models tailored to each building and its co-owners. Because that is quite a problem we encountered: most of the works are done at the level of the common parts such as the building envelope and the boiler room, but the premiums are at the individual level. Since everyone has a different background and therefore qualifies for different premiums, it quickly becomes quite a tangle to align everything. Finally, you also have to realise that these are multi-million dollar projects.

Have any works already been carried out?  

Britt : " We currently have one project that’s ready-to-go. You may think that's not much, but you should know that a project like this has a lead time of at least three years before the first works can start. In this building, a project is now starting to renovate three of the four facades that are full of concrete rot and thermal bridges. In the process, the existing balconies will also be replaced with larger balconies, increasing the quality of living and eliminating all thermal bridges in one move.  We are talking about amounts around six million which amounts to 40,000 euros per apartment. The investment cost necessary to achieve label A is therefore very high, among other things because a number of major construction-technical problems must also be solved (thermal bridges, concrete rot, asbestos removal). This should not be underestimated. That is why the possibility of financial coaching by a neutral renovation coach was such a decisive argument for the residents of Brabo.  

Alongside the owners and syndics, we only hear positive reports about our approach.

On top of that, in this type of apartment building, often more than half of the owners belong to the lowest income category.   You can't ignore that and you have to factor it in. Many people need extra support or don't know what they are entitled to. In this project, we help them by including 1-on-1 coaching. The current system is very complex for people who are not fully self-reliant. In general, it is also a barrier that not many market players (architects, engineers and contractors) focus on this target group. Precisely because it is so complex and has a very long lead time. The energy crisis doesn't help here, of course, because as construction costs and materials have risen in price, estimates have to be adjusted. This is unfortunate, because actually, at the prices before the crisis, this project could have been finished already. All the more so because the Flemish Government has increased the repayment period of MijnVerbouwlening from 10 to 25 years. It would have been nice if we could have used that measure as leverage to renovate the rear facade as well."

How do you reach out to owners?  

Britt: " We started canvassing in 2018 by holding information sessions for syndicates and co-owners in the 2 districts with the most apartment buildings. This resulted in some pilot projects. Since then, we have built a network with syndics and other stakeholders, so there is an automatic influx. Currently, we no longer need to actively recruit because there is more than enough work for the available renovation coaches. Along the owners' and syndics' side, we hear only positive reports about our approach."  

What technical concerns are involved in apartment renovations?   

Britt: "You have a great point of reference with social housing, which has similar construction-technical issues, except the fact that you don't have 100 co-owners who have to co-decide. It's often the same problems that keep coming back: concrete rot, asbestos, pipe ducts that are completely worn out, a communal heating system that's on failure mode, absolutely no insulation ..."

Opinion questions

Suppose: as a policy maker you are allowed to change/draft 1 policy measure to help achieve your objectives. Which one do you choose and why do you choose it? (You can choose the policy level yourself)

Britt: " At the Flemish level, I would develop premiums and financing tailored to apartment buildings. Now we start from a family home and translate this into apartments. As a result, nothing actually works optimally for that target group. I would also automate the allocation of premiums. I fully understand that you want to calculate this on the basis of income, but in the case of apartment buildings it should be possible to apply in bulk, with the government's underlying systems then checking which owner is entitled to which premium. After all, all this data is available from the Flemish government (income, property status,...) Translating this to each co-owner gives us an enormous amount of work that is actually superfluous and hinders the scaling up of our operation. That automation would remove a lot of anxiety from people because they know they are getting what they are entitled to and we as a city can then work more efficiently."

On which hypothesis/theme about energy efficient renovation would you like to see a study or concrete action published and why?

Britt: "About the building costs that are currently used to make policy at the Flemish level. In my opinion, these are not correct. When an estimate is made per apartment of what it costs to go to label A, realistic figures are not used. Do you know how much the highest premium for the lowest income category is, as we calculated them for this pilot project? 9,000 euros! You can argue that only the insulation cost counts, but people still have to pay it. Renovating a facade means taking it off first, then insulating and finishing it. Remember that I just said that the residents of our first pilot project had to cough up €40,000 for three facades. So in reality, you're nowhere near a "MijnVerbouwpremie" of 50%.

Finally, a question about the future: will it work out?  

Britt:" We are at a tipping point, I think. We can really speak of successful pilot projects. There is a lot of demand. If we have enough buildings willing to invest, we can activate market parties to start working on this approach themselves. So I see the future looking bright.

Thank you for this conversation!

More information about the Ecohuis can be found here
The website of the city of Antwerp