Estonian housing stock reinvented: transforming Soviet housing into sustainable, affordable, and beautiful homes

SHAPE-EU explores DISTRICT-LEVEL renovation examples in Tallinn

Energy Cities and the Estonian union of cooperative housing associations (EKYL) organised a study tour on Tuesday 18 October 2022 in the renovated district of Mustamäe, in Tallinn, the EU Green Capital 2023. EKYL is one of the largest citizen-initiated organisations in Estonia and pioneer for housing federations in post-soviet countries. Elina Sergejeva and Bénédicte Weber from Energy Cities tell you more below.

Brief insight in Estonian housing history

In Estonia and its neighbouring countries in Eastern Europe, large-scale, low-cost housing construction was carried out in response to the rapid industrialization and population growth in the Soviet Union and a severe post-World War II housing shortage. Thousands of cheap, nearly identical apartment blocks were built across these countries and remain as a prevalent reminder of the history.

Estonian building stock experienced a big change in the 1990s upon the collapse of the Soviet Union and reinstation of the sovereignty of Estonia. Estonians carried out perhaps the most influential post-socialist intervention – the housing ownership reform – making most of the housing stock privately owned. Still today most of the Estonian residential buildings are privately owned. According to the population and housing census of 2011, 97% of the housing stock is in private ownership.

The housing ownership reform allowed tenants to purchase their apartments under favourable terms. However, this reform also triggered chaos in terms of housing management. The burden had to be carried by the new owners – often up to hundred individual owners per single apartment building. A solution was found in the establishment of apartment associations. Apartment associations in Estonia are non-profit organisations comprised of apartment owners in charge of maintenance, upgrades as well as renovation of the shared building.

One of the biggest challenges with the Soviet legacy buildings is their poor construction quality. Most of the serial apartment buildings were quick-built, low-cost, temporary housing. Now, Estonian housing associations must deal with problems including high energy consumption, heat loss, insufficient ventilation, humidity and out-dated heating systems.

Estonia has set out an ambitious goal to deeply renovate the whole housing stock by 2050. That includes 100 000 detached houses, 14 000 apartment buildings and 27 000 non-residential buildings. However, it is up to housing associations to do the heavy lifting and carry out the renovation works.  EKYL experts note that “Apartment associations wish to renovate and implement innovative technical solutions but the main bottleneck has been the unstable financing of support measures. While loan guarantees and grants are available to improve energy efficiency, renovating old buildings requires significant own resources which is a barrier for many low-income households, in particular in rural areas where real estate values are low.”

Keeping the historical background in mind, SHAPE-EU study visit brought its participants to a Tallinn neighbourhood to see a great example of an innovative district-level renovation and to meet inspiring people behind the scenes.

 Mustamäe district: from a typical large-scale estate to a prestigious, multi-functional and modern neighbourhood

Mustamäe district, the « black hill » district in Estonian, rose from the ground in the South-West of Tallinn in 1952. It was the first soviet district to be built in Estonia after World War II, during which 53% of housing was demolished in Tallinn. The famous “Khrushchyovkas” (named after Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964) were used for the construction of its 330 apartment buildings. These prefabricated panel buildings were spread all over the Soviet Union in the 1950s and the 1960s.

The functionality of the district changed when Tallinn University of Technology moved to Mustamäe in 1962. Along with a high immigration rate from other parts of the Soviet Union, setting up a university in the district contributed to an already fast growth of population. From 7,000 residents at the beginning of the construction, the neighbourhood reached 80,000 residents in 1972. At that time, living in the district was a synonym for modernity and comfort for the residing families and students. But by the 1990s, the image of the district had deteriorated, as had the state of the buildings. This led to a first wave of renovation including the renewal of heating units and insulation of facades.

At the time of publication of this article, 210 apartment buildings have undergone full facade renovation and 84 partial renovations, deploying state-of-the-art energy efficient technologies. District renovation has improved the overall living environment, bringing in more green spaces, better connections through public transport and a real attention to aesthetics.

Today, Mustamäe district is at the crossroads of history and modernity, as a standing witness of Soviet-era construction, and an example for district renovation. It is also an outstanding example of how to foster a sense of responsibility and belonging among neighbourhood residents. Most of them have been living there all their lives. Residents consider the whole neighbourhood as their own home and care about the aesthetics and functionality of their shared spaces as much as about their own properties.

TalTech sets the stage for prefab technology in the Baltics

The first multi-apartment building in the Baltics renovated with prefabricated panels is a TalTech (Tallinn University of Technology) dormitory building located on Akadeemia 5A street, Tallinn. As there was a need to upgrade the building, the university saw it as an opportunity to research and test prefabrication technologies. This approach has set an example for the rest of the Estonian building owners and inspired innovative building renovation.

Industrial prefabrication solutions have been tested across Europe in various pilot projects and have shown great promise for scaling up building renovation, especially in Eastern European countries where building stock largely consists of typical serial multi-apartment blocks. However, the solution is still not mainstreamed in the renovation and construction industry.

Yet, prefabrication can lead to:

  • Better synergies between different technical solutions resulting in greater degree of energy efficiency and lower energy bills.
  • Reduced construction time and costs.
  • Standardized documentation for building renovation that can further reduce costs, save time and scale up the renovation at district level.

TalTech pilot project used prefabricated wooden modular elements for deep energy renovation. Moreover, 3D laser scanning technology was used to obtain highly precise geometry of the building façades and balconies. Thanks to its accuracy, the 3D technology makes it possible to identify surface irregularities. This is essential for the factory producing insulation elements. The building is equipped with solar panels for electricity generation and hot water production, greywater heat recovery system, sensors and internet-based logging system to monitor energy and water consumption. The project has achieved a nearly zero energy building standard.

Find out more about TalTech prefab renovation project:

Main take-aways from Tallinn

The current pace of building renovations across Europe is too slow, the renovation costs are too high, and the resulting energy efficiency standard is not always sufficient for the ambitious EU climate goals. Tallinn renovation examples have proven that a more holistic, standardized approach and district-scaled renovation strategies can offer a solution.

As we are striving to achieve lower energy consumption with various energy efficiency measures and localized clean energy production, it is equally important to maintain affordability and accessibility of housing to the most vulnerable groups of society. Otherwise, with renovation and upgrading of neighbourhoods, cities risk incentivizing gentrification and displacement of low-income families causing a vicious circle. Finding the balance between cutting-edge innovations in building renovations and ensuring renovation that is socially inclusive and affordable is key.

SHAPE-EU project is working on renovation process optimization and upscaling strategies. The process can be optimized by addressing gaps in capacity, knowledge, access to technology and finance across the stakeholders involved. The project aims at addressing the gaps through 100 district renovation project pilots in social housing to act as “lighthouse projects” and guide by example the way towards liveable, climate-friendly, and affordable building renovations. 

Join the SHAPE-EU team at the Renovation Summit in Brussels on November 16th and 17th.

Many events are coming soon in 2023: webinars, study tours, boot and tech camps… stay tuned by subscribing to the SHAPE-EU newsletter.

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