The cultural heritage challenges a sustainable future

15 Apr 2021 — Several heritage organisations reacted to the fact that protected sites don’t play an important role in the EU Green Deal’s strategy against climate change, even though historic buildings represent a significant share of the stock in Europe

Buildings and the construction sector are responsible for over one-third of global final energy consumption and nearly 40% of total direct and indirect CO2 emissions. This percentage alone is enough to account the sector on the priority list of the European Union, which aims at being the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.

The European Green Deal, a growth strategy launched by the EU Commission at the end of 2019, considers the renovation of both public and private buildings as an essential measure in this context. Nevertheless, a crucial point is missing in this plan: the words “heritage”, “art”, “culture” and “landscape” do not appear in this document.

The issue was raised by the recently published European Cultural Heritage Green Paper. The authors are Europa Nostra, an NGO committed to Europe’s natural and cultural heritage, and International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). The document was supported by   the European Investment Bank Institute and the Creative Europe programme of the European Union. These institutions invited policymakers, heritage administrators and organisations, climate scientists, and environmental professionals, to join forces in putting the cultural heritage “at the heart of the European Green Deal”.

One of the experts of the Green Paper’s advisory group is Antonia Gravagnuolo, a researcher at the National Research Council in Napoli, Italy, and coordinator of the EU projects CLIC and Be.CULTOUR. She stresses the fact that the historic buildings and sites represent a significant share of all existing buildings in Europe. Under the Green Deal, the European Union launched a Renovation Wave Strategy that will address 35 million buildings by 2030 and create up to 160,000 additional green jobs in the construction sector.

In this context, according to Gravagnuolo, it will paramount to applying the circular economy principles as stated in the Green Paper: “Heritage conservation is the antithesis to the consumer society ethos of single-use disposability. It fights for the repair, use and reuse of existing buildings, landscapes, knowledge, and resources.”

This will reduce the ecological footprint and the environmental costs of demolition and construction. “The renovation of the historic buildings can be feasible in terms of costs and energy savings, if we approach it in a longer-term life-cycle perspective. The investments required for the upgrade and retrofit of the historic buildings absolutely need public and private sector cooperation. Culture and cultural heritage can support the European Green Deal promoting a mindset change from the self-centric organization of society towards a “we”-centric organization, in which the synergy between people and nature is central.” considers Gravagnuolo.

An ambitious attempt to supply a historic town with green energy is rolling out in Évora, a medium-sized city in Alentejo, Portugal, which was included on the World Heritage sites since 1986. Historic buildings are bound by UNESCO to preserve their original look and maintain the same materials of the facades and roofs. Their transformation into energy efficient edifices is one of the most challenging tasks of the EU project POCYTIF, which is committed to involve cities with heritage sites in Europe’s renewable energy transition.

“We are not allowed to install the standard photovoltaic panels available on the market. All buildings, historic or residential, have the same restrictions,” explains Nuno Bilo, mechanical engineer at the Évora City Council.

The solutions proposed by the project are photovoltaic glasses, canopies and clay tiles, which provide a look similar to the one existing in the historic center. “We are using PV shingles that are not business as usual PV models, despite having a similar technology when it comes energy generation. Their shapes are now more aesthetic pleasing, so that it can fit the cultural heritage site,” explains João Formiga, Évora site manager.

The demonstration activities, which also include energy storage facilities in buildings, smart lighting and air quality monitoring installations, will be tested in eight municipal buildings (including schools, a theater, a market, an arena, the town hall among others) and one parking lot. These however must have the approval beforehand of the National Authority of Culture.

“The expected power to be generated by the PV systems integrated in the municipal buildings will exceed the consumption – this means that a surplus of energy can be used by the surrounding buildings. In this way, we believe that in the future, the historic center of Évora could produce its energy locally, using innovative technologies, while preserving the heritage value of the buildings and the city,” adds Bilo.

Additionally, for the inhabitants of the historic center, a community solar farm is to be installed in the outskirts. Therefore, people can own a share of the renewable energy community and receive energy from this solar farm. “Another important aspect is that they are much more aware nowadays about issues like sustainability and decarbonisation, and want to play a role in this societal change,” assets Formiga.

Preserving old buildings can be more expensive than constructing new edifices from scratch. Still, some scientists believe that it may be worth doing, as societies value their historic past and the buildings associated with it. Professor Mark Maslin, from the University College London’s Department of Geography in the U.K., assumes that “maintaining our cultural heritage is important for people’s identity and feeling of wellbeing.  Even though it will be more expensive to retrofit these historic buildings, it will also develop new jobs and skills sets – many of which have been lost. The blending of new and old technology will be a whole new profession, and there are still many things that we can learn from the historic buildings about their adaptation to the extremes of climate.”

Other scientists propose an assessment of the historic buildings in order to preserve only those which serve best the future generations’ needs. For Cornelius Holtorf, professor of Archaeology and UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures, Linnaeus University, in Kalmar, Sweden, the biggest challenge of sustainable heritage management is on how to make it absorb changes: “What kind of cultural heritage will be needed in the next 20 to 30 years in order to make the life better? What can we do today about the heritage to maximise its benefit for the future? In some cases, that entails preservations, while in others, it demands us to choose some heritage more than others, or to create new heritage over time,” he figures out.

Holtorf fears that sometimes, the preservation of our cultural heritage and the deep connection of our collective identities to our ancestral traditions, make our risk to push for changes and adaptive measures more difficult. Therefore, we should not only preserve “some buildings in some places for certain uses” but also keep an eye on the challenges of the future and make the behavioural changes, in relation to the energy use, mobility, food, circular economy and sustainable financing systems. That can improve the life quality of the generations to come.


By Sorina Buzatu