Housing and environement: Levers and approaches

Housing is after nutrition and before mobility one of the areas of consumption and production with the greatest effects on the environment. However, the negative effects could be reduced significantly through various levers and approaches. For example, through high-quality inward urban development, which is based on sufficient green spaces, developing and renovating existing buildings, high architectural standards, and short distances. This not only benefits soil, biodiversity and the climate, but also quality of life. Furthermore, renovations to make buildings more energy-efficient and the use of environmentally-friendly, reused or recyclable building materials have much potential to reduce material and energy requirements.

High-quality inward urban development with diverse green spaces

Compact settlement centres – in which housing, work, commerce, shopping and recreation are all close by – is a key aspect of sustainable urban development because short distances reduce the need for mobility, rein in urban sprawl and make locations more attractive to live in.

With inward urban development, it is important that built-up areas have high-quality recreational and open spaces through the ecological upgrading of remaining spaces or the creation of new green spaces on roofs and on building façades. These high-quality living and working environments that are in harmony with nature allow people to experience the outdoors and engage in recreational activity, while helping to reduce heat, retain water and promote biodiversity.

For housing satisfaction and people's well-being it is also important to take acoustic quality into account.

A central element of sustainable inward urban development is also that it concentrates on areas that are already built-up and well served and thus develops existing buildings and utilises wasteland and vacant lots within settlement areas. Urban agglomeration belts in particular have great potential here and could be experimental spaces for high-density housing with a high architectural standards and diverse green spaces. 

The federal government, cantons, cities and communes can make an important contribution to the optimal combination of inward structural development with landscape and natural qualities through their various instruments, such as agglomeration programmes and pilot projects on sustainable spatial development. To ensure successful implementation, it is important that all stakeholders are involved in the planning processes.

Renovating buildings to increase energy efficiency and replacement of fossil-fuel heating

If all the old buildings were renovated to meet the Minergie standard in line with their building culture, energy consumption per capita could be reduced by over 30% compared to today. And by replacing fossil fuels with renewable heating systems, an additional 30% of current CO2 emissions could be cut. Accordingly, the concept of ‘grey energy’ is set to become more important in future.

Grey energy can be significantly reduced by using environmentally-friendly insulation materials such as straw, and standards such as Minergie-Eco.

Private owners play an important part in energy efficiency renovations as they own two thirds of all residential buildings – more than half of which are single-family houses – and just under half of all rented dwellings.

But institutional owners (e.g. property companies, pension funds, foundations, banks) also have a key role to play as they own around two thirds of all dwellings. This is because institutional owners mainly possess multi-family houses, in which specific measures have a greater absolute effect than in single-family houses. They also have the necessary financial resources.

Overall, however, the renovation rate in Switzerland needs to be increased: only one in a hundred buildings a year undergoes energy-related renovations. This is where the federal and cantonal building programmes can help, but also new financing models to split the costs between tenants and owners, in order to promote energy efficiency renovations and make them socially equitable.

At the same time, education, research and innovation need to be supported, and besides the existing CO2 levy, other incentives need to be created so that fossil fuel heating systems are replaced by systems that use renewable energies. One possible way of achieving this would be additional subsidies, as provided for in the consultation documents on the new CO2 Act, which encourage private homeowners to replace fossil fuel heating systems and inefficient electrical systems.

Circular economy: Resource-efficient maintenance and construction

To further reduce the environmental impact of construction, more action needs to be taken in future in the building and renovation process and in the manufacture of building materials. One way to achieve this is by using more environmentally-friendly building materials such as timber, low-carbon concrete and bio-based insulation materials.

Another way is by keeping materials and resources in circulation for as long as possible, and reusing, repairing and recycling them. This circular economy requires materials to be separable and recyclable, for example through construction with modules that can be taken apart.

There is great potential for this sort of sustainable action, particularly with regard to existing buildings, which could be converted or extended. However, replacement and new buildings are only a worthwhile option from an environmental perspective in exceptional cases.

Housing preferences and new housing forms for lower land use

The example of cooperatives as an alternative form of housing illustrates that shared rooms – such as guest rooms, common rooms, working areas and hobby rooms – are better utilised and can take up less space. Flexible forms of housing not only make it possible to live in a more resource-efficient way, they also offer the opportunity to create identity-building and high-quality spaces.

Besides individual preferences and income, economic factors such as rental prices and the property market have a significant influence on the housing situation. For example, owing to Swiss rental law, advertised rents are often higher than rents paid by existing tenants. This means that the rents for properties currently listed on the market are higher than for those with existing tenancy agreements. For this reason, downsizing – such as when children move out – does not usually make financial sense. The discrepancy between advertised rents and rents paid by existing tenants is most marked in central locations which are well served by public transport and in high demand. 

Environment Switzerland 2022


Report of the Federal Council. 2022

Further information 

Last modification 16.12.2022

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