Sustainable Housing - Best Practises Examples

The study is based on the UN-HABITAT Best Practices database. The programmes contained in this database have been recognised by UN-HABITAT, the United Nations agency for human settlements, as good or best practices, which means they were evaluated for aspects of partnership, success, sustainability and regional innovation and for their social integrativeness. The UN-HABITAT Best Practices database only contains urban programmes which have already been implemented and whose success can be measured.

UN-HABITAT Best Practices are urban programmes which are based on the principle of partnership, in accordance with the approach described in the HABITAT Agenda. Some of these projects were initiated by citizens or NGOs, some were launched by city administrations.

The partnership consists partly in contractual relationships with private parties, international agencies or media partners, and partly in different forms of participatory planning.

The Best Practices database defines sustainability not only through ecological, economic and social criteria, but also assesses the procedural sustainability of the projects, their incorporation into municipal or regional legislation. Accordingly, the Best Practices programme also particularly examines which parts of the legislation generally enable sustainable programmes.

Best-practices collections first and foremost serve to provide ideas. However, they are not only a pool of ideas, but rather reflect urban reality, since the examples described in the database have already been implemented in this manner. They reflect the complexity of urban measures, indicate obstacles and identify favourable factors. The basic idea is innovation. Yet, the projects perfectly illustrate the development from experimental project to innovative programme.

Sustainable housing mainly is about implementing an experimental approach in the form of pilot projects and subsequently applying this approach to the whole city, and hence mainstreaming it, in the form of legal frameworks.

This collection includes both exceptional projects, such as ecological housing development models, and examples of how general framework conditions led to ecological and economic improvements of the whole city.

As the regional focus of this study is on OECD countries, it covers countries and cities of the so- called "developed world".

As far as participatory schemes are concerned, the cities from the likewise so-called "global North" can learn a lot from those of the South. Numerous self- construction schemes and innovative financing models are successfully implemented in the cities of the South, and it is in this respect that the frequently described but rarely considered South-North transfers would be really worth a second thought, even if only to generally examine the schemes that have been developed, taking them starting points for one's own innovative practices.

Best-practice collections can identify players and trends. They inform about what has already been implemented and where, how and by whom it was implemented.

Housing and sustainability

The creation of accommodation (and thus the fight against homelessness) and sustainable urban development are the two core topics addressed by UN-HABITAT. However, in their respective agendas these topics may well compete with each other. Even if the term of "sustainable city" refers not only to its ecological sustainability, but also includes positive economic and social developments, the housing demand of their citizens poses a problem to many cities, the rapid solution of which would endanger the cities' land-use pattern, economic basis and social equilibrium. Moreover, the knowledge that their accommodation is one of the assets - in most cases second only to their children - people all over the world spend most of their resources on, makes accommodation a highly speculative commodity. In many cities, the two areas which UN-HABITAT calls the Green Agenda (ecological adjustment) and the Brown Agenda (social and economic improvement of the urban environment), are separate spheres of activity. The examples cited in this study are intended to bridge the gap between these two spheres. Hence the main focus is not so much on ecological housing and the differentiation between passive and low-energy building technology, or on other individual approaches providing resource-saving alternatives to conventional housing, but rather on programmes which allow the implementation of these methods on the subsidised or social housing sector.
The best-practice examples in this study are examples taken from reality. The key players involved were real mediators between the contradicting requirements investors, city politics and citizens place on the development of housing.

The topics - an outline

In the first part of this study, this outline of best- practice models in the field of sustainable housing examines legal instruments which may contribute to the enforcement of ecological standards both in private housing and in public residential construction projects. In general, the approach pursued in this context involves the use of rules and regulations and the application of criteria catalogues. Even if most of the standards are of a non-binding nature, most of these schemes work on the basis of restrictions.

One example of an enabling legislation, i.e. a law which does not restrict but enables something, is the Electricity Feed-In Act, which enables private operators in Germany and Spain to feed into the grid self-generated electricity from alternative sources of energy on a contractually secured basis.

An amendment to the existing building legislation in Toronto enabled tenants to repay loans taken out by the developers which are proportional to the savings potential of their flats.

A look at the existing financing models, which are also addressed in this chapter, reveals that the potentials of energy contracting have not been fully exploited yet. A possible cause may be the fact that many con- tractors have disappeared again from the market after a short boom. However, the fact that "The Loading Dock", a Maryland-based NGO pursuing a pro-poor approach, calls their clients' attention to this approach demonstrates that the energy-contracting scheme is also relevant to low-income households.

Another model which has been hardly investigated academically is the potential significance of LETS (Local Exchange Trade Systems) to the building sector. Actual experiences with LETS are available in different countries of the world and provide a basis for further action. The UN is currently considering establishing a UNILET system linking all local LETS under its umbrella.

At a European Union meeting on innovative financing mechanisms, particular attention was drawn to the role of energy companies in the field of lending. Likewise, special emphasis was placed on the role of municipal banks. The example of CEMEX, a Mexican cement supplier, shows which schemes are presently being developed on the private sector.

The property developers' competitions, a Viennese example focusing on the city as a whole, illustrates how market mechanisms can lead to improvements in new developments without requiring any further legislative changes.

The Dongtan Eco-City project, which was to be built for the EXPO 2010 in Shanghai, probably failed exactly because of the difficulty of introducing new standards into a relatively inflexible system - in this case the Chinese building laws. Numerous different eco-districts are being built at the moment. The term "eco-city" also has become a "best buy" argument and in consequence only few sustainable models are sold under this label. In line with our definition of sustainability as not only encompassing ecological criteria but also referring to socially integrative and economic sustainability, the second part of the study presents already existing eco-districts perfectly complying with all described definitions.

The use of local building technologies has led to a significant stabilisation of the building materials market and hence also of the building sector in many transition economy countries. The development of such local methods requires far-reaching partnerships. It took, for example, an amendment to the Austrian Building Code to allow the use of timber, a renewable raw material which has been technically available for a long time, for multi-storey housing in Vienna. Timber construction, another local technology, is now used in many countries for buildings up to nine storeys high. The presented examples include the mainstreaming of such local technologies in national programmes as well as individual pilot approaches. The aim is to demonstrate that innovation can originate from entirely different social groups.

Every discussion of sustainable housing must also focus on the residents. But providing residents with resource-saving and sustainable housing does not exclusively call for top-down approaches. Frequently administrations only need to pay attention in order to identify processes where citizens act on their own initiative - i.e. engage in bottom-up processes - to fight for an improvement of their living situations. And many of these approaches relate not only to their immediate living environment but to the city as a whole. The examples of Berlin and Malmoe show that inner-city waste land can be used for experimental forms of housing.

Yet, residents not only act as building experts. Residents' associations can make a crucial contribution to the production-consumption cycle. "The Loading Dock" in Maryland is an example of a local solution. However, any participatory approach will be inefficient without access to information. Therefore, the last chapter is dedicated to a best-practice project which functions above all as an information centre - the Nirmithi Kendra in India.

A similar project can also be found in Vienna. The "Wien Energie" house, an initiative of Wien Strom and Wien Gas, is an independent information centre for energy solutions. At the same time, it also constitutes a new type of public space: a building where you cannot buy anything, but where you can obtain information, spend some time and communicate with other people.

The projects mentioned above are best practices from the UN-HABITAT Best Practices database. Further information on all examples and models is available on the Internet at