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No Sun in the South?

No Sun in the South?

According to EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC), almost 50 million Europeans — 9,4% of EU population — suffered from energetically insufficient households in 2015. Inability to cover the electricity and gas bills from the low income or inexistent infrastructure makes the citizens vulnerable to a thriving threat: energy poverty. Eliminating the cause of premature deaths and other serious effects on physical and mental well-being due to cold homes is a recent topic of EU policies.

Paradoxically, the most severe and long-lasting winters in the north of Europe represent only a little danger for the local residents. The quality of insulation and heating in Scandinavia is one of the best in the world and in combination with welfare system offers a model-to-follow for the rest of Europe. However, significantly milder winters can be fatal for vulnerable communities living in unheated and humid dwellings in Southern regions.

The term fuel poverty or energy poverty was first mentioned in UK and was used in EU policy documents in 2012. Since then, studies have been developed for other countries such as for Austria, Bulgaria, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain. However, the first attempts to map energy poverty in Europe miss conceptual and methodological scope in detailed scholarly research, thus excluding the most transient groups. An EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC) from 2013 documented that roughly 30% of households in Portugal were fuel poor. In Europe only Bulgaria showed worse data.

A composite fuel poverty indicator based on the percentage of populations in different EU countries, image: www.cornerstonemag.net/europe-struggles-to-pay-its-energy-bill/

The primary factors that contribute to energy poverty are the combinations of low income levels, high energy prices and low levels of energy efficiency, particularly in buildings. For several Member States, such as Portugal, Cyprus and Romania, there is a strong correlation between the lack of central heating and higher levels of energy poverty.  In addition, in Portugal, nearly 25% of households had stated that they had rotten window frames, 19% of the roofs are leaking, whereas 33% revealed that they had patches of condensation on the indoor walls of their home (all these conditions are considered good indicators of poor energy efficiency).

Clean and affordable energy needs to be promoted as a basic right for every European citizen. The European Commission has already launched a plan for a European Energy Union, which aims to ensure a sustainable, affordable and secure energy mix. Yet, as stated in the findings of the EPC Energy Poverty Task Force established in 2016, ”developing adequate policy solutions remains difficult both at the national and European level, not least due to the complexity and the multidimensional nature of the phenomenon and the limited competences of the EU in the social area”1.

The studies proves that the driving forces of energy poverty are themselves embedded in locally specific social, political, and environmental circumstances. that cannot be effectively solved from outside. These facts give rise to a question: How can be this societal deficiency tackled in bottom-up manner? The international discourse and poverty visibly existent in the cities stimulates a formation of non-for-profit organisations such as those, which connects experts and learners from social, academic, architectural fields and beyond.

In 2017, Critical Concrete and Just a Change associated themselves to research and find tangible solutions to this problem, offering realistic, low-cost, alternative solution to dignify houses in Southern Europe, and open a door to sustainable heating and insulation techniques, adapted to the local realities. Based in Porto and Lisbon, the collectives act from within their local communities. The process begins with the investigation on the current status of heating and insulations in selected local neighbourhoods. It continues with house visits, data collection and diagnostics of temperature difference.

In the framework of the Research Lab, focus is laid on prototyping concrete alternative heating solution: water solar heater, PET solar heating system, rocket stove and DIY wood stove, compost heating or trombe wall, among others. The most current experimentation includes the alternative insulation solutions made of left-over materials from factories, farms or demolition companies: cardboard, wool or organic fibers. After testing and assessing the efficiency of these techniques, the expertise is to be shared in broader audience through Summer school, workshops and publications.

A house with leaking roof right under the famous Ponte Luís I. bridge in Porto brought to attention by Porto Vivo association.
Humidity and mold in walls and unheated space widespread in Porto have serious health effects for the residents.
Broken bathroom
The bathroom of the house selected for the Summer School 2017 refurbishment had broken window and cold water.
Caved in ceiling
The ceiling of the house of Summer School 2017 is falling apart, what makes the space inhabitable.

By doing this, we hope to accompany the shift in architectural thinking and doing, more and more aware of its social and ecological responsibility. The lack of heating and reducing health effects, among other concerns, can be tackled by participatory actions without relying on top-down time-consuming processes. Spatial designers once again work closely with citizens, social workers and other experts in multidisciplinary teams. Further, it leads to the distribution of a circular economy, upcycling waste materials and reduction of poverty, without forgetting the need to focus on shifting our heating habits to reduce consumption. This is even more valid in the times of future global climate scenarios and extreme episodes of heat and cold waves.


[1] Dhéret, C. & Giuli, M. (2017). “Long journey to end energy poverty in Europe”. [Online] available at: http://www.epc.eu/documents/uploads/pub_7789_ljtoendenergypovertyineurope.pdf.

[2] Thomson, H. (2014). “A brief overview of the EU discourse on fuel poverty & energy poverty”. [Online] available at: http://fuelpoverty.eu/2014/10/15/a-brief-overview-of-the-eu-discourse-on-fuel-poverty/.

[3] Bouzarovski, S. (2014). “Energy poverty in the European Union: Landscapes of vulnerability”. WIREs|Energy and Environment. [Online] available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wene.89/pdf.

[4] Goemaere, S. (2017). “Combatting energy poverty through appliance renting”. [Online] available at: http://www.interreg2seas.eu/en/project-idea/combatting-energy-poverty-through-appliance-renting.

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