Baltic Environmental Forum
Typical scenary of a new district in St.Peterburg | © Baltic Environmental Forum

Energy efficiency in Saint Petersburg – impressions from a short visit

When visiting Saint Petersburg, one can immediately see that the city is full of panel houses constructed in the 70s, 80s and 90s. The remaining housing stock consists of pre-war buildings and so called Khrushchyovkas from the 1960s which are brick-buildings with very small flats. The vast majority of these buildings are very inefficient in terms of energy, regardless of their age.  Due to leaky walls with no or very little insulation, old windows and untight doors most of heat energy disappears from the flats quickly. Furthermore, thanks to subsidized energy prices the high energy consumption has little effect on people’s wallets at the moment.

Baltic Environmental ForumOne of the largest problems regarding energy efficiency – besides the low energy prices – is actually the ownership structures of buildings. Similar to other former socialist countries, flats were privatized during the system transformation, but in Russia there is still a large number of state-owned flats which lead to the situation that in most residential houses there is a mix of private flats and state owned flats which poses additional obstacles. Refurbishment measures are most effective when they are done in a complex way, i.e. insulation of entire façades, the whole roof, exchange of windows, and renovation of the heating system at once. This requires that most of the inhabitants of one residential house agree to refurbishment. In practice this is a barrier which can hardly be overcome. Even if the idea of the refurbishment is brought up and subject in a flat-owners meeting, it will be almost impossible to achieve a majority needed for refurbishment. Consequently, those who want to do something will do it on their own – usually in a do-it-yourself-fashion wherever they find it useful without consulting specialists. A typical façade of a building shows this trend – some old windows, some new, some shielded by wood panels.

When visiting Saint Petersburg, it is frightening to see in which bad conditions even relatively new houses are. The consequences of no or improper maintenance can be seen on most of the houses and it makes the housing stock a ticking time bomb. Houses that were 20 years old, look like 40 year old houses, and refurbishment – not only for improving the energy efficiency – is badly needed to sustain the most elementary function of providing living space. Apart from smart financing concepts, that allow people to actually afford refurbishment, a lot of communication is needed to convince inhabitants of the need for refurbishment in the first place. Finding a consensus among owners in houses with many flats is another difficult task where support is required. So far there is little experience in moderating or mediating such a process in Russia. Projects from Estonia show that this is a demanding process which requires time and seems a fast solution for a city of almost five million inhabitants.

A radical approach to address the problem of the bad condition of houses is indeed considered at the moment: the demolition and replace of large houses by new and higher ones at least in the more central parts of the city. The question is however if this will really solve the problem in the long run or if the increased density will create other problems and the maintenance problems of the houses will return in 15 to 20 years. Apart from that, the approach of tear down and build new again will not be a solution of the entire building stock, which means that nonetheless solutions for the existing residential buildings will be necessary.

Constant information in form of campaigns, commercials or flyers/brochures is needed to draw the inhabitants to the problem. Climate change and energy prices are no drivers for a renovation at the moment, but a better indoor climate might be a more convincing argument. At the moment it is far from comfortable due to drafts and cold walls. Also, people must be made aware that it is their own property which needs to be maintained and the state cannot possibly take over the responsibility for millions of flats in Russia. At best it will be able to support renovation through subsidy and loan programmes. Regardless what is done first, it is essential not to ignore but to make a start with the Herculean task which will probably take decades to accomplish.

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