Sustainable households

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Increased fossil fuel use is a major cause of global warming, leading to Climate Breakdown[1]. With much energy being used to heat or cool poorly designed or insulated buildings, this approach examines initiatives seeking to improve energy efficiency, namely the energy performance of building as a means of lowering carbon emissions to create carbon-neutral habitats, communities and cities[2]. It also examines supply of renewable energy as a means to mitigate climate change, provide access to affordable clean energy and create job opportunities.

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.

General introduction to approach

Sustainable households looks into technical interventions in small to medium-sized cities and household level so that they become technologically smarter, more energy efficient and/or reduce energy vulnerability, and increase renewable energy supply. Although the focus is on technological interventions, most approaches consider how to involve and engage relevant citizens and communities in the process. The approaches range from analysis of case-studies to planning, implementation and evaluation of interventions aimed at reducing energy demand and/or increasing renewable energy supply (e.g. thermal retrofitting of households, renewable energy production and use, job training, smart-meters, ICT-enabled urban management system).

Shapes, sizes and applications

The approaches included in this cluster range from exploring low-carbon pathways and benefits of interventions at a household and community level mostly in the EU and US, such as through retrofitting buildings and creating solar projects and jobs, to making concepts like “Smart Zero Carbon Cities” a reality in Europe based on an integrated approach for mobility, energy and ICT infrastructure.

Scalability of the impact seems to be an issue of concern. The SmartEnCity project aims to improve energy efficiency and increase renewable energy supply at a systemic level. As such, the strategies and actions developed in the pilot cities (e.g. retrofitting packages at a neighbourhood level, biomass district heating system, smart street light control system; technical consultations and community meetings) have been designed so that the process can be replicated in other cities. It also strives to work in a networked way, whereby they created a network of further cities to share experiences, knowledge, challenges and best practices gained through the approaches to support project replication at an European scale.

The relationship between low-carbon transitions and energy-related vulnerability and inequalities at the household or community level is also a major focus-area. To this effect, GRID Alternatives saw a need and opportunity after the 2001 energy crisis in California (USA) to serve low-income communities in the country with solar power. They have been since implementing projects that make solar technology practical and accessible for low-income communities, while providing pathways to clean energy jobs, with a “people-first” approach, where families, housing providers, utility companies, municipalities and government agencies all win from investments in solar energy. Examples of projects are no-cost solar installations for low-income households, technical assistance and solar installation for multifamily affordable housing providers, energy access for off-grid communities.

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice

All approaches focus on urban interventions, from individual household level through community and neighborhood/district level. Some approaches are being implemented in different pilot cities. Aspects of distributional justice are addressed when it comes to prioritizing low-income communities (like making solar energy accessible and affordable to these communities, or retrofitting buildings in vulnerable neighborhoods). Some of the smart zero carbon solutions are also taking into account procedural justice, given their are developed in co-creation with the communities they target but also with city planners and developers.

Currently and on a general level, most interventions for sustainable households seem to be designed top-down, driven by policy or technical considerations (e.g. low-income target groups, energy savings). This reality raises a few sustainability and justice issues that bring both challenges and opportunities, namely:

  • The technical interventions are usually insufficient to trigger behaviour change at scale for e.g. lower energy consumption and reducing carbon emissions from households. In addition, retrofitting projects (e.g. Zero on the Meter in social housing in the Netherlands[3]) also show that there is a need for an initial group of committed residents to become experts on sustainable energy systems. These can then act as local champions and pollinators of change - “energy coaches” - in the building/community.
  • There is a lack of transparency on who can benefit from publicly-funded interventions, and how these funds are used (e.g. Save energy at home - Greece[4]).
  • Examples already exist of interventions that benefit low-income communities. However, this population already has difficulties in access to decent, safe and affordable housing, so how will access to sustainable housing unfold for them?
  • Urban environmental improvements tend to increase quality of life and property values – especially as urban environmental consciousness grows. The consequence of such improvements is that they price out vulnerable residents and drawing in new and wealthier residents, a phenomena called green gentrification i.e. the exclusion of the most economically vulnerable human population from affording sustainable households and accessing green spaces[5].
  • Countries where strong housing associations exist (e.g. Netherlands, Sweden) bring opportunities for impact at scale. In addition, they are strategic multi-stakeholder actors for change.
  • Interventions mostly happen at an infrastructure level (eg. retrofitting). However, sustainable households is also about creating employment and community-coalition opportunities that can support sustainable development as a whole, beyond resource efficiencies (e.g. Emerald Cities Collaborative[6]).
  • It is not clear if gender is adequately considered in the design of technical interventions in a household. Women tend to have a disproportionate role in household activities. As such, particular care is needed for including them in the decision-making process of where and how to intervene.
  • How to move from household level to a community scale? Community involvement will be key to support wider behaviour-change. What could be creative incentives for change at the community level? Still, how can urban communities create/nurture a sense of belonging, which is something more easily present in rural communities?

Narrative of change

Climate change is one of the most important challenges that our society is facing. Energy demand and CO2 emissions are particularly high in urban areas. How can cities turn climate-related challenges into an opportunity and create growth? How to achieve the transition of municipalities into sustainable and resource-efficient urban areas? In particular how can low-carbon transitions drive economic growth and environmental benefits in communities most impacted by underemployment, pollution and climate change?

Cities allow for more alternatives in energy-efficient housing, eco-friendly transport and energy service provision. Transforming European cities into sustainable, smart and resource-efficient urban environments needs systems-level and replicable strategies aimed at improving energy efficiency and increasing the supply of renewable energy. A successful transition to a low-carbon society through clean, renewable energy also needs to include everyone, making this energy accessible to underserved communities.

Transformative potential

The approaches linked to solar power and jobs by GRID-Alternatives make an explicit commitment to equity and in particular to give voice to specific communities. Their premise is that low-income communities and communities of color disproportionately bear the burden of environmental injustice and climate change. As such, their focus is to provide opportunities stemming from solar energy to the communities most impacted by these issues as a key to creating equitable and lasting solutions.

Another voice that is intentionally picked-up is that of the many small and medium-sized cities in Europe, in comparison to the capital cities “which are usually in the spotlight” as defined in the SmartENCity project. The project is weaving a network of cities to share learnings and best practices from the approaches while incentivizing non-capital cities to become a Smart Zero Carbon City front runner. It also does so based on an integrated action oriented approach that supports strong citizen participation.

Example of approaches

SmartEnCity in Tartu, Estonia – Retrofitting "khrushchyovkas" into “Smartkovskas”[7]

Tartu, in Estonia, is one the lighthouse cities for the SmartEnCity project. One of the lighthouse projects is piloting a series of retrofitting solutions in ca. 22 khrushchyovkas in the city center. The objective is to transform khrushchyovkas (a type of panel buildings that were constructed during Nikita Khruschchev´s rule starting from the 1950s) into “smartovkas” (i.e. high-quality living environments that inspire the community to make environmentally aware decisions and to change their patterns of consumption behavior) through a drastic reduction in the energy use of the buildings. With an average life cycle of 30-40 years, many of the khrushchyovkas have already outlived their time, meaning that the shortcomings in quality are becoming increasingly evident and might even pose a threat to their residents.

Technical interventions include insulation of all the outer walls of the buildings and roofs, replacing all windows and front doors to reduce heat loss, reconstructing the central heating system and installing thermostatic valves that allow to adjust room temperature in the range of 18-23°C, adding low-temperature cooling systems to complement the district heating system, installing 400-500 kWp PV panels to provide additional energy for the buildings, and setting up a smart home system.

Another of the main aims of the retrofitting activities is to encourage behavioral changes in the way residents consume energy and adapt to new technologies. Several citizen engagement solutions have been taken for boosting participation and interest in the project. These include regular information meetings, technical consultations, study trips to similar construction sites and forum discussions. Once the retrofitting activities have been completed, these awareness-raising actions will be replaced by a social innovation model that focuses on how to motivate residents to use the installed smart devices and to save energy.

The planned retrofitting package tackles one of the greatest challenges of Europe’s existing building stock – quickly deteriorating precast panel apartment buildings that were quickly produced in response to housing shortages.


  1. George Monbiot, Sep 2013, Guardian UK: Climate change? Try catastrophic climate breakdown
  2. Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance
  3. Aedes - Dutch association of social housing organisations, 2016, Dutch social housing in a nutshell - examples of social innovation for people and communities
  4. Save Energy at Home - Greece, October 2015, CT1: NEEAPs and annual reports and measuring progress in Energy Efficiency
  5. BCNUEJ - Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability, published studies on green gentrification
  6. Emerald Cities Collaborative
  7. SmartEnCity: Tartu retrofitting package