Net-Zero transition for Post-Communist Urban Neighbourhoods in Albania

Research in Albania

Since November 1o, 2020, through the Berlin Process, Albania officially acknowledges the European Green Deal as the new growth strategy towards a modern, climate neutral, resource efficient economy (European Commission, 2019. Furthermore, the joint declaration of Western Balkans leaders in Sofia provides a set of commitments and a detailed action plan for all Western Balkan (WB) Countries, building on the following five pillars; a) Climate, energy, mobility; b) Circular Economy; c) Depollution; d) Sustainable agriculture and food production; e) Biodiversity.

Browsing natural and climate events from the last decade in Albania, it is possible to consider as highly credible both, the observed effects of climate change in the WB and Mediterranean basin and the projected ones by the sixth assessment report of IPPCC . Also, most regional scholars indicate that WB is a region where the impacts of climate change are probably the major threat to its vulnerable economies given the exposure and low resilience. Being a region where annual emissions per capita are more than half of the emissions from EU countries and slightly more than a quarter compared to the States (Knez, 2022), poses the risk of under-commitment and slow transitioning towards climate neutrality, including unequal distribution of transition impacts. Under these conditions, it is necessary for the WB to gradually but steadily embrace the Green Transition as it offers a possibility to increase the region resilience, while also enabling numerous participatory processes to guarantee a transition that is just for all communities.

The research focusses on the Climate, Energy and Depollution pillars of the WB Green Transition Agenda. More specifically, it addresses through a combination of research instruments in the urban setting, the socio-economic benefits and implications of transiting toward “net-zero-emission building” (NZEB). The targeted communities are those living in prefabricated apartment buildings in residential blocks, constructed massively across Eastern Europe during 60’-80’. It is estimated that only in Tirana with a population of approximately 800,000 inhabitants, 6% of its population is accommodated in these blocks. The other Albanian cities, depending on the speed of urban transformation, may have higher shares of their local population living in these conditions.

NZEB stands for a building that has a very high energy performance, while the nearly zero or very low amount of energy required should be covered to a very significant extent by energy from renewable sources, including that produced on-site or nearby. “The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive” requires initially to develop long-term renovation strategies aiming to facilitate the cost-effective transformation of existing buildings into nearly zero-energy buildings. Particularly after the earthquake of November 2019 there has been a long-lasting debate in Tirana about preservation through renovation or demolition and reconceptualization of Tirana’s prefabricated residential neighborhoods (building using a Large Panel system). While this research will stimulate more food for thought regarding environmental and socio-economic implication of transforming the prefabricated building stock into zero-emission buildings by 2050, it should also contribute to the debate of preservation vis-à-vis demolition and construction of new blocks.

However, transiting to zero emission buildings and therefore also neighborhoods, while beneficial for the society, it does come with high-costs, especially for the short-term period. Both, renovation and demolition and construction come with considerable investment that. should guarantee high energy performance in the short and long run.

In this research, we start from the assumption that demolition and construction of new buildings will have implications of feasibility in a longer term compared to a gradual approach of transitioning through renovation. Furthermore, as Tirana is currently experiencing a construction boom in terms of new developments on vacant land or land currently occupied by low-rise detached houses, with very high market costs of land and construction and very high prices of new properties, it is unfeasible for the short-to-medium term to have new developments taking place on land occupied by apartment buildings. Given these conditions, and the necessity to embark on green transitions sooner rather than later and through various means and forms of innovation, reflecting local and territorial specificities, we have built our research based on renovation scenarios.

By renovation we understand improvements made to the buildings as well as potential interventions aiming to harvest solar energy and rainwater through rooftop systems. Tirana represents an interesting case study with regard to the potential of decreasing energy and water consumption for households’ units as provided by the national and local operators. This is given the fact that on an annual basis the solar irradiation is 4,55kWh/m along with 2526 hours or 250-260 sunny days per year. On the other hand, the average yearly rainfall varies from 1,250-1,455mm per year. Solar harvesting is considered to affect significantly the water-dependent energy sector in Albania, whilst the latter will obviously contribute to reducing usage of drinkable water for sanitary purposes, as well as mitigate urban heat and urban draughts during the summer period.

NZEB entails specific interventions of nature-based solutions, which necessitate funding as well as a societal understanding, acclimatization and acceptance. As a result, if such a transition is not well-understood and strategically planned for implementation, it may lead to the failure of the very objectives of green transition, being fair and just and inclusive.

A neighborhood of 1-2 ha comprised of 5-10 five-stories buildings of prefabricated concrete panels and with approximately 175-200 apartments, constitutes one of the main typologies of residential blocks built in Albania prior 1990. It holds a residential mixture predominated by elderly followed then by consolidated families and few youngsters mostly as rentals that represents all of the urban population layers in Tirana, therefore making it a sound choice from a social-economic profile perspective. Three such neighborhoods are selected for the research, representing various locations within the urban fabric, in order to capture the best residential mix possible.

The results of the research in these neighborhoods may be used to draw conclusions at a larger scale for that part of Tirana which was urbanized between 1955-1985, and that actually represents at least 1/3 of the residents in the capital as well as the co-called central area of Tirana.