How renovating Soviet-era multiapartment buildings in CEE is essential for tackling energy poverty?

Soviet-era multi-apartment buildings, as historical relics, also subtly reveal a challenge of energy poverty beneath their storied exteriors. While these buildings served as a solution to housing shortages during the Soviet era, they now present significant challenges, particularly in terms of energy efficiency and safety. Read more about the potential of renovating these buildings as a means to overcome energy poverty, and find out what role the international CEESEN-BENDER project plays in addressing these problems.

EU households considered to be energy poor (spending more than twice the national median share on energy) typically live in dwellings that are likely to be non-refurbished, and which have poor insulation and low energy efficiency. This is particularly relevant for CEE countries, which have a large proportion of housing stock composed of Soviet-era multi-apartment buildings, constructed from the 1960s to the 1980s. Often called ‘tin cans’ because they are cold in the winter and hot in the summer, these buildings were designed when energy was inexpensive, then poorly constructed using substandard materials and now resulting in very poor energy performance. 

As a result, they are inefficient and obsolete, with outdated electrical and other systems (e.g., uninsulated aluminum electrical wiring). As many of these buildings were built to last only for 50 years, they have exceeded or are nearing the end of their service life unless major renovations are made. These buildings together with their residents are also often stigmatized as 1. In some countries, notably the Baltic States, these multi-apartment buildings are often inhabited by Russians, regarded by native populations as interlopers who were resettled during Soviet times, and thus it is not unusual for entire districts of these buildings to be regarded as tainted.

Addressing energy poverty: more than just an energy issue

While these multi-apartment buildings in CEE served as a solution to housing shortages during the Soviet era, they now present significant challenges, particularly in terms of energy poverty

Energy poverty should be first and foremost viewed as a multidimensional problem caused by low energy efficiency, high energy costs, and low income. But the effect energy poverty has on a society surpasses this triad of inputs. Energy poverty is caused by a host of underlying social, economic and infrastructure factors. Energy poverty lowers people’s quality of life, negatively affects their general state of health and wellbeing, leads to debt and social exclusion, and often creates a surge in household energy costs as well as carbon emissions. According to the recent Eurostat data on poverty and social exclusion from 2021, 21,7% or 95,4 million EU citizens were at risk of poverty and social exclusion, higher compared to 2019’s 92,4 million.

Poor insulation, indoor moisture and mold, drafts, rotten window frames, leaky roofs, and low indoor temperatures all contribute to low life quality in energy-poor households, factors that are linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Besides wintertime energy poverty, uninsulated buildings in combination with climate change have resulted in increases in ambient night-time temperatures and frequency during prolonged heat waves, posing a rising threat to health and life in the summertime. Even when not causing morbidity or mortality events, overheating and the inability to keep homes cool during summer results in serious discomfort and stress for residents.

Buildings are responsible for 40% of Europe’s total energy consumption, and EU policy has prioritised the identification of dwellings and citizens at a higher risk of energy poverty in order to develop effective strategies for building renovation. In accordance with the energy efficiency first principle, building renovation must be prioritized when discussing the overall solution to energy poverty. In so doing, the least efficient building stock should be targeted first and split-incentive dilemmas and market failures should be addressed. Furthermore, addressing energy poverty, like energy transition in general, should be socially just and inclusive.

Although prevalent throughout Europe, energy poverty is a particularly pressing problem within Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). According to the EPAH the CEE lags behind western Europe in many of the most important energy poverty indicators. 

Challenges and strategies for renovating Soviet-era housing for energy efficiency

Improving the energy efficiency of these buildings poses many technical and socio-economic challenges. Renovation is often more complicated (and expensive) than building new structures, especially if the goal is to bring it up to modern standards (including smart metering, electrical grounding and panels, water pipes and plumbing, etc.). In some cases, shifts cannot easily be made from district heating to individual, self-administrated natural gas heating because pipes have been cut/removed. The physical conditions of these buildings, if this has been improved at all over the years, has typically been done via piecemeal upgrades, which often do not address the larger underlying problems and can further complicate subsequent improvements (for example, using plasterboards without proper moisture barriers may lead to worsened indoor climate and potential health hazards due to excess moisture). 

Due to how they were constructed, Soviet-era buildings pose additional challenges that are common throughout the CEE. For example, roofs are often not well-adapted for PV installation because they cannot support the weight of the panels, there is not enough space on the roof, and/or they are blocked from sunlight. Additional challenges are high costs of investments in PV, unresolved property issues, and often poor legislation regarding the establishment of energy communities. To foster widespread improvement, practitioners need exposure to real world examples of how to effectively deal with these various technical challenges.

The high cost of such renovations often requires external financing and leads to high levels of resistance amongst both owners and residents. This is especially true for homeowner associations, which do not wish to take commercial (or any other) loans. Instead, they often create joint “repair funds” from which investments are made only after enough cash has accumulated in the fund – further contributing to the execution of partial instead of complex (deep) renovations. 

Furthermore, most Soviet-era housing complexes are densely populated, which limits the ability to make major changes such as developing buildings and infrastructure. This density exacerbates the disruptions and inconvenience caused by retrofitting, such as façade insulation, window replacement, or improvements in ventilation and heating systems, which residents must endure for a year or more. Thus, residents need active education and training, both to convince them of the benefits of such improvements as well as to ensure the changes in behaviours and lifestyles needed to address energy poverty.

Also – although CEE countries have developed various support services and instruments (including counselling, loans and subsidies) to address EP and support building renovations (see list in section 1.6), they often are not coordinated or carried out strategically. For example, most CEE municipalities do not prioritize renovation projects based upon their potential for maximising CO2 and EP reduction. Instead, finite financing is often distributed on a ‘first come, first served’ basis, prioritizing who is fastest in applying. This can lead to disparities in who receives such support (i.e., higher-income owners paying for professional consultation will have an advantage). A major reason for this is that no methods exist for identifying energy poor households or for ranking buildings in greatest need for renovation.

CEESEN-BENDER project: collective endeavor to combat energy poverty

International team behind the CEESEN-BENDER project is dedicated to mitigating energy poverty in the Central and Eastern European region. The main goal of the project is to empower and support vulnerable homeowners and renters living in Soviet-era multiapartment buildings in 5 CEE countries: Croatia, Slovenia, Estonia, Poland, and Romania. The project is funded by the LIFE+ Clean Energy Transition programme (2021-2027) under GA no 101120994. 

The project will help them through the renovation process by identifying the main obstacles and creating trustworthy support services that include homeowners, their associations, and building managers.

Read more about CEESEN-BENDER project >>

CEESEN-BENDER will address the above issues within 5 regions in 5 CEE countries by targeting Soviet-era multiapartment buildings with several different types of ownership and tenure types common to the region (municipal-owned rental housing, privately owned large housing stock, cooperative owner-occupied, mixed regimes). 

Within the five targeted regions, there are approximately 2200 Soviet-era buildings, comprising well over 100.000 apartments. Assuming 20% are energy poor would yield at least 20.000 energy poverty households. The vast majority (~90%) of these buildings/apartments have not been significantly upgraded nor have had roadmaps or other pre-planning documents prepared (1900 buildings/95.000 apartments). These use approximately 200-250 kWh/m2 of thermal energy for heating and on average 4746 kwh/per household for electricity, so a rough estimate is that these buildings currently consume 4.51 GWh/year while renewable energy production is close to 0. Due to the low energy efficiency and age of the buildings, almost 80.69% of the total energy delivered to the household sector is consumed for heating, cooling, and preparation of hot water.

For the approximately 30 buildings (~1500 households) from these regions for which the CEESEN-BENDER project will provide in-depth support, target buildings that have not received substantial improvements, so investments are close to 0, and where none have roadmaps completed.