Systematic review
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Abstract: As buildings throughout their life cycle ac- count for circa 40% of total energy use in Europe, reducing energy use of the building stock is a key task. This task is, however, complicated by a range of factors, including slow renewal and renovation rates of buildings, multiple non-coordinated actors, conservative building practices and limited competence to innovate. Drawing from academic literature published during 2005–2015, this article carries out a systematic review of case studies on low energy innovations in the European residential building sector, analysing their drivers. Specific attention is paid to intermediary actors in facilitating innovation processes and creating new opportunities. The study finds that qualitative case study literature on low energy building innovation has been limited, particularly regarding the existing building stock. Environmental concerns, EU and national and local policies have been the key drivers; financial, knowledge and social sustainability and equity drivers have been of modest importance; while design, health and comfort and market drivers have played a minor role. Intermediary organisations and individuals have been important through five processes: (1) facilitating individual building projects, (2) creating niche markets, (3) implementing new practices in social housing stock, (4) supporting new business model creation and (5) facilitating building use post-construction. The intermediaries have included both public and private actors, while local authority agents have acted as intermediaries in several cases.

Synthesis method: qualitative systematic review of case studies

Conclusions: Our findings call for more specific studies focusing on the range of intermediary actors that take part in different phases of the innovation process. Future studies should identify crucial intermediary functions in supporting (1) the emergence of low energy innovations in buildings, (2) their diffusion within/to the building regime and (3) the effectiveness of those innovations in practice. The latter links to studies on user innovation (e.g. Hakkarainen and Hyysalo 2016).

It is also likely that new build and renovation- oriented low energy innovations require different kinds of intermediary activities from each other which we were unable to uncover due to a limited number of cases on renovations from an innovation studies angle and particularly those portraying intermediary actors. The regimes of new build and renovation are differentiated (e.g. in terms of project ownership, business ecosystems, regulation) but interconnected through some of the same actors and technologies. Therefore, both shared and different intermediaries exist.

Finally, our study shows that while intermediation in low energy building connects to strategic niche management, a much more nuanced view of processes and roles is needed to get insights into what processes intermediaries contribute to in advancing sustainability transitions and what kind of roles they take in doing so. On the basis of the review, we argue that even more project-oriented intermediaries may have capabilities to influence upstream by nudging more systemic change in the construction regime. With respect to policy, our review shows the importance of public policy and politics in driving low energy innovation in the building sector. On that basis, we argue that the connections between energy efficiency policy, innovation policy and welfare policy as well as local and national policy levels should be improved. Many of the case studies demonstrate overlaps between drivers associated with energy saving, social sustainability and innovation. Thus, policies from the different domains (and levels) could jointly reinforce energy efficiency improvements, if decision makers better acknowledge how systemic and architectural innovation can benefit multiple policy goals.

Screening criteria: (1) articles outside the discipline of social sciences and humanities were excluded; (2) to have a connection to innovation studies, the article had to contain the word innovation in combination with other key search terms somewhere in the article title, abstract or keywords (later extended to other technology-oriented words as the initial pool of case studies was small, Table 1); (3) to have a common geographical/policy frame of reference, articles outside the EU were excluded from the analysis; and (4) to be included in the review, the article had to contain an empirical case study describing a process of low energy building innovation and its drivers. The case study review, thus, only included so-called uncontrolled real life case studies. A caveat of such case study review is that [u]ncontrolled studies are more susceptible to bias than studies with control groups, so their results should be treated with caution (Petticrew and Roberts 2006. p. 65–66). 

28 articles were included in the systemic review containing a total of 40 case studies; six cases being described in more than one source article.

Search source: Scopus and Web of Science

Search keywords: energy efficiency, energy efficient, low energy, zero carbon, low carbon, passive house, passivhaus, whole house retrofit, energy saving, energy efficiency, building, housing, new build, refurbishment, renovation, retrofit, whole-house retrofit, deep retrofit, innovation, technology, technical change, niche market, socio-technical system change, actor network system, building process 

Funding source: This work was supported by the Research Council UK’s EUED Programme under Grant EP/KO11790/1 and the Academy of Finland under Grant 288796.

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