Building a brighter future

France’s commitment to combat climate change has some interesting implications for homeowners, reports Holly Aurelius-Haddock

The gradual unfolding of France’s sustainable development strategy began in earnest in July 2007 with the launch of its environmental forum, the Grenelle de l’Environnement. Headed up at the time by environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo, the forum was the first of its kind in bringing together government ministers and civil representatives whose collective aim was simple: proposing quantifiable measures to allow the country to take its first real steps towards a greener future.

Just months after the inception of the forum, the Ministry of Ecology, Energy and Sustainable Development was created, using the forum as a benchmark for its own agenda, which included, among other things, addressing issues around renewable energy, transport and biodiversity.

With an annual production of more than 120 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – nearly quarter of national emissions – the country’s construction industry was quickly identified as the largest single consumer of energy and therefore a key sector to be re-evaluated.

Not unsurprisingly, because of the low rate of development and the lifetime of buildings – the majority of those expected to be standing in 2050 are already built – existing buildings are now of particular concern, and the ministry is keen to implement the forum’s ambitious goal of reducing their total energy consumption at least 38% by 2020.

What this means in reality is that if your French home is your primary residence, there are currently a number of government initiatives designed to help you help the planet.

Eco-loans

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Developing your property in an environmentally friendly way does carry financial benefits in the long term, but because the French government recognises the expense up front, last year they introduced zero-interest eco-loans. Providing your property was built before 1?January 1990, you can apply for a loan of up to €30,000, which can be repaid over a period of 10 years. Because it’s not means-tested, anybody can apply provided that the work they intend to undertake includes efficient insulation of the roof, outside walls, windows, outside doors, heating, and/or the installation of a renewable energy system (solar panels for example).

For those who are unsure about what work would best suit their home, a thermal study costing between €1,000 and €2,500 is also covered by the loan, as well as any other project management and insurance costs. Other than your materials and equipment meeting minimum specifications, the only thing to bear in mind is that the work needs be completed within two years of the loan being granted, so set a realistic time frame for the work you commission to third parties. Eco-loans are continuing to grow in popularity and recent figures show more than 100,000 successful applicants.

Tax credits

On a smaller scale, there are also tax credits of up to €16,000 available that allow you to deduct a percentage cost of certain energy improvements from your income tax, regardless of whether you’re the owner or the tenant of your property.

You’ll receive a discount of 15% for condensing boilers, walls, windows and outside doors; 25% for thermal insulation materials; 40% for geothermal heat pumps, thermodynamic water heaters or replacement equipment for wood-fired boilers; and 50% for energy-production equipment using a renewable energy source.

You’ll also receive a 50% discount simply for conducting an energy-performance report to diagnose the best areas to concentrate your efforts on. Although labour costs are not included, everything must be installed by a professional who can provide an invoice for you to submit as proof of the work undertaken and cost involved. The good news is that these tax credits can be used in conjunction with, or as well as, an eco-loan, so you needn’t necessarily do everything in one hit.

New homes

Having a tendency to gravitate towards rustic farm cottages and imposing bourgeois townhouses, the number of British people who opt to build from scratch or buy new is relatively few and far between. That said, with such reasonable land prices in comparison with the UK, this option is not one to be overlooked, especially in more sought-after areas such as the Dordogne, where house prices have continued to rise gradually as availability decreases.

As well as being able to benefit from the above, those looking to build a home or to buy one that has never been occupied can also apply for a zero-interest loan of up to €65,000 in order to do it. However, the loan is subject to certain conditions such as the income of the applicant, the number of intended occupants and the geographical location of the site in mind – so plenty of preliminary research is advised in this instance.

New homes completed as of 1 January 2009 may also receive between 50 and 100% discount on property tax at the discretion of local authorities. In the case of total exemption, however, those authorities can set a separate (often lesser) tax that is required for a minimum of five years.

Anyone who’s winced at the glare of an energy-saving light bulb flooding an unoccupied room or absent-mindedly left the tap running knows that being green at home isn’t always easy, but with so much help now available, it just got that little bit easier.

At a glance

• Producing 120 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, the French construction industry is the country’s largest consumer of energy

• Your French home must be your primary residence in order to be eligible for financial aid from the state

• More than 100,000 people have successfully applied for an eco-loan in France

The eco-renovators

Catharine and James Higginson live in Les Landes, near the spa town of Dax. Since moving to France in 2002 they have been involved in many renovation projects ranging from a stone long�re in Brittany to a Basque farmhouse. They are currently working on and living in their seventh property, and believe that green building techniques are playing an increasingly important part in renovation projects.

“I’ve got no desire to move again anytime soon, but I do get excited about tackling new projects,” says Catharine. “This is partly because building techniques are constantly evolving and being able to integrate elements like renewable energy sources or rainwater harvesting into a renovation project is hugely satisfying.

“Renovation projects always throw up their own challenges and we both get a buzz out of creating a solution that will suit a particular property. An environmentally friendly renovation isn’t just about using green’ materials. Re-using things like doors and windows can be just as important.

“For example, we’ve recently insulated our interior ceilings with solid insulation panels that came from a storm-damaged building. Cutting out the damaged sections and fitting them into place took much longer than using new insulation as it was akin to doing a very large jigsaw puzzle! But on the upside, we’ve re-used something that would otherwise have gone into a landfill site, our ceiling is now insulated to a much higher standard than current normes require, our heating costs are lower and, best of all, it was entirely free.

“There’s more to being an eco-renovator than getting solar panels installed. You need to approach the whole project from the angle of trying to minimise your carbon footprint on the planet.”

Catharine writes extensively about all aspects of French property renovation and gave the renovation seminars at The France Show in 2010.