In conversation with ...

Jan Custers & Kelly Cautreels

The Flemish municipalities are fully engaged in reducing the energy consumption of their homes through energetic renovations. 8 Flemish cities and municipalities embarked on a participatory process to draw up a local long-term renovation strategy (LLRS). BE REEL! spoke with two people who have written guidelines to support the cities and municipalities in this challenge: Jan Custers and Kelly Cautreels.

Jan Custers (42) is an urban architect by training and is now the director of Planrr. Before that, he was project leader at BUUR, the organization that wrote the guidelines. He has a great interest in the impact of the climate on our spatial challenges.

Kelly Cautreels (39) is project leader at BUUR (now part of Sweco Belgium) in the Strategic planning team. She has a degree in Applied Economic Sciences and graduated as an urban planner last year. She has 10 years of work experience in the real estate sector.
What exactly does your job entail?

Kelly: “I work on various projects. The Spatial Policy Plan for the City of Antwerp and the Regionet project currently take up most of my time. The Spatial Policy Plan is mainly concerned with setting out the strategic guidelines for spatial policy. We think about where the city wants to go – spatially speaking – between now and about 15 to 20 years, but also how you can realize these ambitions in the medium and short term. Regionet is a collaboration between the province of Flemish Brabant, Interleuven and the City of Leuven that BUUR has been working on for some time. It’s where I help figuring out the best approach for the construction shift. Where will people live in the future? And how will a city deal with this financially?”

Jan: “I have mainly done energy projects such as the Ghent Muide Meulestede project, the Denderland energy landscape project and the preparation of the Regional Spatial Energy Strategy for the Department of Environment and the LLRS for VEKA. At the moment I no longer work for BUUR, but with BUUR. I am a director of Planrr, my own agency that I founded. This is where I actually continue my work at BUUR. Among other things, I work on the impact of energy infrastructure such as wind turbines on the Flemish landscape and advise intermunicipal companies and regions in energy policy.”

BUUR part of Sweco (pos) AND THE GUIDELINES

What exactly does BUUR pos do?

Jan: “BUUR pos (BUreau voor Urbanisme) consists of about 160 professionals who are divided into eight teams located in various offices. These teams are Strategic planning, spatial research, urban projects, landscape & public space, ecosystems, mobility and complex projects. At the beginning of this year, BUUR was taken over by Swedish multinational Sweco. Their Belgian branch, Sweco Belgium, has fully integrated BUUR. Those teams are now working together on their Spatial Policy projects.”

You have written the guidelines for local renovation plans of cities and municipalities, what exactly does that mean?

Jan: “The assignment we had consisted of a number of parts. The first part is the guidelines themselves. This is about the part of the energy transition that investigates how we can reduce energy consumption by renovating homes. The guidelines then tell you how to set up and approach such a thing. You can take that very literally. It is a step-by-step plan that tells you how to conduct an investigation, which data you need, how policy should make decisions, etc. These are all questions that we have listed in order to arrive at a strategy. This strategy is also partly determined by the municipalities. Before starting the guidelines, we selected eight pilot cities and municipalities that we knew had some experience. Those municipalities are Antwerp, Mechelen, Ghent, Genk, Hoogstraten, Eeklo, Heist op-den-Berg and Harelbeke.
The guidelines are a step-by-step plan that tell you how to conduct an investigation, which data you need, .
The second part consists of tools that we have developed, for example an inspirational example of the guidelines. With this in mind, we have not made the renovation strategy for the eight pilot cities, but have tried to translate the scenario to their situation instead. In that sense, the involvement of both large and small municipalities in the pilot cities is a good thing. Each municipality can mirror itself to one of the 8 municipalities. There is also the measures database. This is a database which contains a list of possible measures to accelerate the renovation demand of our homes. It was elaborated by the municipalities, VEKA and VVSG through workshops. We have collected everything and rated it. 

Kelly: “A tool that we also used is the monitoring tool from VEKA and CLIMACT. This is a calculation tool that brings together a lot of data about our homes, such as year of construction, degree of renovation, reduction potential, etc. It gives us insight into some important questions: where is the potential? What type of housing should municipalities focus on? Does the highest potential lie with owners or landlords? Knowing the answers to these questions is very useful and relevant for our cities to base their local renovation strategy on. That differs a lot from municipality to municipality.”

Which measures are included and which are the most crucial?

Kelly: “First I would like to mention that those measures from the database fit within the larger step-by-step plan. In concrete terms, together with the cities and municipalities, we looked at what they were already doing, collected all their answers in an Excel file, and then we ordered them. We can therefore roughly divide these measures into the following groups: Firstly, the financial measures such as loans and premiums, secondly, technical measures such as renovation coaches, thirdly, everything related to communication and unburdening, fourthly, the policy measures such as making a renovation plan mandatory for those who want to submit an urban planning application and finally inspirational examples from literature and other projects."

“Collecting and organizing this was already a first step, but the great emphasis is on the customer journey that citizens go through. So there is not one crucial measure. Cities must focus on the process and remove the barriers that prevent a citizen from taking the step to the next phase. It is crucial to realize that different target groups get stuck at different thresholds. In order to know which measure works best for which target group, screening is important. To this end, the 8 municipalities have qualitatively weighed up each measure in terms of impact and feasibility, and made a matrix of it. For example, giving premiums that are not adapted to target groups are feasible, but will only have a limited impact. Deploying intermediaries on the other hand has a lot of impact, but is quite a challenge both in terms of capacity and finance. In any case, that database is something that needs to evolve and there will also be a quantitative cost-benefit analysis in due course.

How is this received by citizens?

Jan: “Initially, this project focused mainly on local authorities, so that is more a question for an employee of a municipal counter. We have, however, worked with the local authorities on barriers that they must take into account in order to get every citizen involved. It is not so easy to motivate them. For example, the financial aspect is a major barrier. An overload of information or unclear technical information also act as a brake. Finally, you also have to ensure that the right information reaches the right target group. So there has to be a lot of differentiation.”

Kelly: “I would like to add one more, namely the psychological reality of citizens. They have to want it. Sometimes people have sufficient resources and understand all the information, but do not see the need of it. They sometimes prefer to pay a higher energy bill than to renovate their facade. So there is still work to be done.”

How do you actually start working on the guidelines?

Kelly: “In order to know which measures are necessary and useful, we first start with a thorough analysis of the context. We look at the existing and desired spatial structure, the existing building stock, a number of socio-demographic factors, the existing policy context, and the current number of renovations. Next, we will screen the reduction potential. For example, we look at which type of buildings has the most reduction potential. This makes it possible to focus the assignment and use measurable parameters. For the City of Antwerp, for example, most of the gains could be made on multi-family homes and terraced houses from before the First World War, while more rural areas should focus more on allotments from the period 1960 – 1990. Finally, we try to convert all that information into a strategy tailored to the cities and municipalities.”

Jan: “I should also mention that a major step has been taken with regard to data in this project. Much knowledge is spread over various institutions and governments. You can't just consult it like that. This is precisely why the monitoring tool from VEKA and CLIMACT is so important. Although the data will not be public in the future, it will be available to cities and municipalities.”

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)

Jan: “As a policymaker, I would take a close look at renovation loans and premiums. Today, many 'general' renovation loans and premiums are given for renovation that we can actually apply in a more targeted and efficient manner. Specifically based on target groups, neighbourhoods, housing typologies and future energy technology, I argue for a tailor-made approach. The target groups that these renovation grants and loans reach are almost never the lowest income group. However, this is often where the greatest reduction potential lies. This is where the greatest profits can be made with few resources. Tenants or landlords are certainly not eligible for premiums and loans. So more work needs to be done on subsidy retention and inclusive group renovations.”

Kelly: “It may not be a specific measure, but I would link the renovation issue more to core reinforcement in towns and cities. Local authorities often want to create lively centers and attract families to live there versus in less-accessible locations. A renovation strategy does not always sufficiently take this into account. As a local government, do you invest money and effort in the in-depth renovation of less-accessible homes if the intention is to get everyone into urban cores? And shouldn't a different strategy be sought for the peripheral homes? In other words, I am arguing for a broader strategy in this regard.
Cities must focus on the process and remove the barriers. 
A second idea I had is to make more optimal use of the combined power of all the policy levels. After all, at the local level, the strength often lies in knowledge of the area. They know the sensitivities of citizens and they know the socio-demographic situation of their neighbourhoods. Nevertheless, there are many measures - such as taxation - that are less quickly or easily controlled from the local level. It is therefore important to consider who is best to take which measures and to focus on clear communication between the different levels so that leverage moments are created.”

Finally, on which hypothesis/theme about energetic renovation would you like to see a study or concrete action published and why?

Jan: “Yes, we are research people, so we like to talk about everything. (laughs) If I had to choose, I would like to see a study published on the combination of energy policy with a heat and renovation strategy. Energy policy has only recently been considered at a spatial level. I think you can make a lot of profit if you combine this with a strategy around renovation and heat networks. That is already partly happening and the intention is to do it, but I don't think there is yet enough know-how to be able to apply this efficiently."

Kelly: “Most local authorities do not always have the knowledge or time to collect and provide information about the total life cycle cost (LCC) of the selected interventions and materials. There is a risk that there will be a one-sided focus on certain targets. I am missing a quantitative target that sets a clear goal where we want to go. An energetic performance goes beyond wondering what the best insulation is. Sustainability goes hand in hand with the impact of chosen materials. For example, how do you deal with the material that has to be removed from the houses? There is certainly a lot of technical information about this, but in practice these considerations are not sufficiently included in the story in my opinion.”

Thank you for this conversation!

Go directly to the website of BUUR pos
Thank you for this conversation!