Coldfront: Energy Poverty in Portugal
One of the latest trends in the development of anti-poverty measures in the EU is the focus on “energy poverty” or “fuel poverty.” It encompasses two dimensions. The first is the incidence with which a household provides adequate environmental conditions (heating and cooling) for its residents. The second relates to the ability of individual members to get fuel for their vehicles. Perhaps surprisingly, Portugal is one of the worst-affected states in the European Union despite its relatively mild climate in comparison to EU states further north. This article will examine details from the type of housing prone to energy poverty to the adverse health conditions. It will then offer potential means to address the sources of energy poverty in Portugal.

On the Ground

Unsurprisingly, energy poverty in Portugal does not comprise a neat package. Factors ranging from local climate, homeownership and the home’s architecture influence energy poverty. The methods a household employs to sustain its environment also impact whether it experiences energy poverty. Additionally, researchers show that these factors can influence whether a home is energy-poor:

  • Location: Typically homes located in the north and/or the countryside were more likely to be energy-poor (though one could find many in the south as well).
  • Age: Homes designed before the 1970s were more likely to be energy-poor. This is due to a lack of thermal insulation and less advanced forms of internal temperature controls.

Similarly, there is also a general profile that tends to fit the people that live in this type of housing, such as:

  • Gender: Respondents to the study in question were overwhelmingly female.
  • Age: Half of all respondents were over the age of 50.
  • Education: Half of all respondents received only primary education or lower.

Yet, all of this merely helps to describe the problem, not substantiate it. What are the practical consequences of energy poverty for the people who have to struggle with it? And what are its implications for broader society?

It All Starts at Home 

Studies that researchers have conducted worldwide demonstrate that members of energy-poor homes tend to suffer higher rates of diseases and higher rates of mortality. A study from 2014 found that Portugal had nearly twice the EU average of excess deaths in winter. Disputes have emerged as to how much excess morbidity one can ascribe to just cold housing. However, one cannot deny that the high prevalence of insufficiently-heated homes exacerbates other causes of excess death in the winter.

Moreover, homes that struggle with energy poverty tend to shelter people who are more vulnerable to these illnesses in the first place. For example, the elderly have more vulnerability due to having weaker immune systems in comparison to the young and the poor possessing fewer resources to advocate for themselves. Under international law, adequate housing is a human right that the state has an obligation to secure for its citizens. Therefore, this is a social problem that requires a societal response.

How to Respond?

Among social scientists who study energy poverty, a disagreement exists on whether the solution to this problem lies with addressing household income or through renovating and/or replacing existing structures. In contrast, the main reason people shelter themselves in energy-poor houses is that they are affordable. Providing people with additional income to go towards rehousing could be an easy solution to this problem. Another solution could be augmenting people’s current living space.

In fact, the Portuguese government passed social tariffs on electricity and natural gas in 2010 and 2011. Respectively, the income passed on to populations the government deemed to be vulnerable to energy poverty in Portugal. While the extra income was marginally beneficial for the recipient populations, many consider it an inefficient answer to the problem of energy poverty.

On the other hand, the issue of housing itself also exists. Many of the homes these studies discuss are old public housing units that have not undergone renovations to meet the present standards. Retrofitting these structures with modern designs that incorporate better insulation and repairing existing heating and piping systems are labor-intensive and expensive. Yet the results of a successful renovation could lift more people from energy poverty than simply hoping that the markets will provide an adequate answer.

One can see the practical effects of this in nearby Barcelona, where a 2016 study found that there was a significant decline in cold-related mortality rates for public housing unit residents when housing interventions (i.e renovations) occurred on the building they lived in. Renovations are not a cure and they do not address privately-owned energy-poor homes, but they could mean a world of difference for public housing residents’ quality of life.

The Upshot

Energy poverty is an emerging field of study that has yet to experience full contextualization between its environmental, economical and socio-psychological aspects. Nevertheless, it is the new frontline in the war on poverty in Europe. Even in sunny Portugal, cold indifference costs lives yearly. Better is possible, so long as Portugal puts in the effort.

Aidan King
Photo: Flickr

Caught up in the daily complications that life throws at them, people do not often sit back and think about how lucky they are to have a roof over their heads. Not everyone has that luxury: according to the Salvation Army, there are over 100 million homeless people in the world. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Greenbuilding fight to lower this statistic by building houses in underprivileged neighborhoods. Lacking access to conventional building materials, people living in impoverished areas are forced to make do with what they can find to build passable living spaces. Below are descriptions of five makeshift homes built from unusual materials. The descriptions are bittersweet, for although it is impressive that people are able to come up with such designs, it is unfortunate that they are put in such a position at all.

5 Examples of Makeshift Housing

1. Storage container homes
Widely used for shipping and storing, there is no shortage of these containers lying around out of use. Homes made from shipping containers have become a highly popularized fad and are all the rage with home décor enthusiasts, but in this context they are often used as a desperate measure rather than as a chic building material. The storage container village located in Shanghai and inhabited by poor migrants is just one example of such establishments used by the homeless in similar areas across the globe.

2. The Paul Elkins Shelter
This “mobile home” on wheels is perhaps better described as a mobile bed, as its small dimensions can hardly be described as a house. The amazingly compact, 225-lb. living space not only has a bed, however, but also a bathroom, and even has a small stove crammed inside. Although tiny, it is still useful for staying out of the elements.

3. Dai Haifei’s Egg House
It is not always in rural, historically poor areas that makeshift housing becomes a necessity. Dai Haifei was forced to create an egg-shaped dwelling when he could not afford any of the rental options available in Beijing. Built from eco-friendly materials like bamboo, wood chippings and grass seed, the six foot-high egg is also expected to grow blooms in the spring – an aesthetic bonus to a practical structure.

4. Cob homes
One of the oldest building materials known to man, cob is a mixture of sand, clay, straw, earth and water. Used for construction since prehistoric times, it is perhaps the cheapest and most readily available material in the world. Cob homes are often bolstered and adorned with wood, recycled materials found in landfills and animal fur for insulation.

5. A Hole in the Ground
With an income of just $5,000 a year, Dan Price calls an underground space, which measures eight feet around, his home. Located in the town of Joseph, Oregon, Price leases the property on which the structure is built for a meager $100 a year. The hole is equipped with a door, a small stove and pantry and electricity – but Price plans to switch to propane in the near future. He has an extremely positive attitude and could ask for nothing more, claiming that the environment is low stress.

Katie Pickle

Sources: Home Harmonizing, Build
Photo: Financial Post

In 2012, South Africa’s subsidized housing program had built about 2.8 million houses since 1994. As impressive as that is, the country still faced a backlog of nearly 2 million homes. Facing these numbers, the government decided to shift its focus from providing new-made homes for every household to improving current living conditions. Approximately 1.2 million households, or 3 million people, are still living in informal homes today. These shacks have no electricity or running water. Many are uninsulated and poorly ventilated, creating unhealthy environments for those inside.

Mark Swilling decided to address this problem back in 2011. Swilling, the academic head of the Sustainability Institute in Stellenbosch, asked his students, “‘What can be done while people are waiting?’ We wanted to orientate [our research] towards what the average shack dweller could do while they are waiting for the state.”

His question led to the solar-powered iShack. The shiny metal walls of these ‘improved shacks’ stand out in shantytowns where wooden pallets and corroded sheets of zinc are the building norm. The shacks also feature insulation made of recycled plastic products, a layer of insulating bricks around the bases of the walls, windows designed to improve airflow, and a coat of fire-retardant paint.

The most popular feature by far, however, is the solar electricity. The shacks are equipped with a photovoltaic panel on the roof that powers a porch light and interior lights, as well as an electrical outlet that makes it possible for residents to charge their cell phones.

Damian Conway, manager and director of the Sustainability Institute Innovation Lab, the main team behind the implantation of the iShack, says that part of their research methodology was paying close attention to what they community really wanted. “Electricity is the number one thing that most people in Enkanini say they need,” Conway says. “The needs are all there: sanitation, water … but the main thing is energy.”

The iShack has been warmly received. Nosango Plaatjie, a mother of three living in one of the iShack prototypes, commented that the ability to keep her phone charged and her lights on has made a huge difference to her family.

“The solar [lights] are better,” Plaatije said. “Now we don’t need to go to sleep early anymore because now we have lights. My daughter must do her homework now, she doesn’t have any more excuses. And I like the light outside because we can see what is going on, I feel safer.”

The iShack model of incremental improvements to already-existing settlements has a lot of people excited. In 2013, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supplied the organization with a grant that would allow the project to roll out across the informal settlement of Enkanini.

With much success and steadily rising support from the local community, other groups are beginning to take notice. Slum Dwellers International, a global nonprofit that serves the urban poor, is watching iShack with an eye toward implementing the project across many countries in Africa.

The secretariat-coordinator Joel Bolnick gave the impression of hopeful patience when he said, “Our intention is to give the institute some time to develop the model. They’re almost there now.”

– Marina Middleton

Sources: Mashable, The Guardian iShack Project CNN Live Science Mail & Guardian
Photo: Street News Service

In 2004 in Iquique, Chile, the for-profit architectural company Elemental designed and built social housing units for 100 impoverished families. The company’s innovative and inexpensive design enabled this low-income community to remain in the city center, retaining access to jobs, healthcare, education and transportation, rather than being forcibly relocated to peripheral zones.

Since the 1960s, the community of 100 families had been illegally settled in slum housing. The living situation was “precarious,” a “maze without any security” with “delinquency problems,” said architect Alejandro Aravena.

In 2003 the Chilean government asked Elemental “to settle the 100 families in the 5,000-square meter-site” according to Archdaily. The government also provided a budget of 7,500 dollars per housing unit.

One and a quarter acres is needed to accommodate 100 families, so Aravena immediately rejected various common social housing models. “Neither the 1 story isolated house nor the two story house or the block were a solution to the question we had to answer” explained Aravena in a video created by Coti Donoso, courtesy of the Chile-Barrio program.

Elemental’s solution was a spin off the common row house design: each housing unit borders an equally sized empty space that the individual family designs and decorates over time. The families’ ability to have freedom and control is critical to the success of the design; they do not feel a Western-constructed design is imposed on them. Rather, they transform their own living space into a home that meets their needs and desires.

Due to the budget constraints, Elemental decided to build parts of the housing units that locals would not be able to build themselves. Each unit was “stabilized for seismic durability and equipped with the barest of basics: plumbing but no fittings for kitchen and bathroom, an access stair, and openings for doorways. Once the modular outlines were completed, residents moved in and began finishing and customizing their spaces at their own expense and at a pace that their incomes allowed, adding color, texture, and vitality,” explained MoMA’s highlight of the design on their website.

“Due to the fact that 50 percent of each unit’s volume, will eventually be self-built, the building had to be porous enough to allow each unit to expand within its structure. The initial building must therefore provide a supporting, (rather than a constraining) framework in order to avoid any negative effects of self-construction on the urban environment over time, but also to facilitate the expansion process,” said Archdaily.

The size of the interior housing unit doubled in square meters for a cost of 1,​000 U.S. dollars per household. On his website, Arevena said that, five years after the project was executed, each unit was valued at “over $20,​000.”

Because of Elemental’s success in Iquique, the company has built over a thousand similar units throughout Latin America and plans to create more in the future.

– Margaret Anderson

Sources: Alejandro Aravena, Arch Daily MOMA
Photo: Flickr

Nearly four million refugees have fled Syria in the last four years. In 2013, almost 51 million people were displaced from their homes worldwide. This marks the highest global refugee population since World War II. In camps, the only shelter these displaced families have are flimsy tents. A new mobile shelter called the Better Shelter could offer a safer, more dignified solution to the challenge of housing refugee families.

IKEA Foundation and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have joined forces to improve the housing options for displaced families. The shelters come in two flat cardboard boxes, can be assembled without additional tools by as few as four people in less than a day. At 188 square feet, they can house up to five people and come with weather-proof panels, a solar powered lamp and cellphone charger and a door that locks.

Shaun Scales, Chief of Shelter and Settlement at UNHCR, has lauded the Better Shelters as, “…an exciting new development in humanitarian shelter and represents a much needed addition to the palette of sheltering options mobilized to assist those in need. Its deployment will ensure dramatic improvement to the lives of many people affected by crises.”

The houses were designed by a team in Sweden with the goal of making a temporary housing solution that was sustainable socially and environmentally. After UNHCR and IKEA became involved in the project, Better Shelter was tested by refugees in Ethiopia and Iraq. Their needs and critiques were central to the design process and helped shape the final product.

The Better Shelters cost about $1,150, about twice as much as the makeshift tarp tents that spring to mind when refugee camps are mentioned. This is mostly because the shelters are more akin to mobile homes. The locking doors add a layer of security and privacy that is currently all but forgotten in the overcrowded camps, and could help reduce the staggeringly high rate of sexual assault. With weatherproof walls, interior lighting and a solid foundation, the shelters are designed to last for about three years. That’s six times as long as the standard tents usually last.

“Even though the upfront price is double that of an emergency tent, the solution is still more cost effective considering its longevity,” explains Johan Karlsson, head of Business Development at Better Shelter. “We’re working hard to get it below $1,000, and we see good potential to achieve this within the next two years.”

UNHCR has purchased 10,000 of the Better shelters and plans to distribute them this summer, potentially housing 50,000 refugees. Although 50,000 of the 13 million people who rely on UNHCR may seem like a drop in the bucket, it is a promising start for a product that could ease the pain of displacement.

– Marina Middleton

Sources: World Mic, The Huffington Post, Better Shelter, Mashable, DIHAD
Photo: Mashable