02/07/2014 13:24 BST | Updated 31/08/2014 06:59 BST

Why Energy-Neutral Living is no Longer a Dream for Millions of Europeans

This article is co-authored with Andy van den Dobbelsteen who is Professor of Climate Design and Sustainability at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment of Delft University of Technology.

Last Friday (June 27th), a major two-week international event began in Versailles, France. This Solar Decathlon or 'Olympics for Sustainable Construction' began as an initiative in 2002 by the US Department of Energy to demonstrate the applicability, feasibility and quality of solar technology for the housing industry by designing and building a zero-energy house.

It has now grown world-wide, and is a major global show-case for the very best thinking in sustainable living. This year, Delft University of Technology, one of the world's top science and technology institutions, will be taking part as one of a short-list of finalists.

Delft's big idea for this competition stems from the environmental problems posed by Europe's existing housing stock. And it has devised a 'game-changing' new method to convert what are often historic buildings into modern energy-efficient structures without major renovation.

The post-war terrace-house, built en masse for the European working classes and middle-classes is a major, albeit hugely inefficient, consumer of energy across the continent. Yet, literally millions of these energy inefficient houses populate streets right across Europe.

In response, Delft has pioneered a new approach to transform more of these homes into energy neutral housing stock in a way that is affordable, social and completely sustainable. This involves creating a new skin that includes solar panels and smart technology to make the house much more energy efficient -- and indeed generate its own power.

It has the additional bonus of creating extra 'living space' for residents. And is self-funding over a 20-30 year time period as residents will not need to pay for any energy bills since energy costs will be zero after the intervention.

This transformational new method is not just quicker and cheaper than knocking-down existing terrace housing, and building more modern homes, but is also more sustainable. Moreover, it allows local communities to stay intact (the solar skin can be built while individuals still live in the houses), and people can stay in housing they might have lived in for years, rather than the social disruption and fragmentation that can come with wholesale re-building of entire housing estates. This also allows architecture dating back decades to be preserved, rather than bulldozed.

This method could be applied to many millions of homes across Europe, and is being pioneered now in the Netherlands. The Dutch Government is supporting the project through the 'Energy Leap Innovation Programme' and wants to implement it in multiple neighbourhoods. It is estimated that there are at least 1.4 million houses in the Netherlands alone that could be made energy neutral in this way.

The solar skin covers the exterior of the existing house, one side fitted with glass and photovoltaic panels to reap the energy from the sun, while the other contains insulation to trap the heat indoors in the Winter. So the skin technology features best-in-class architectural design and the latest thinking in adaptable, sustainable urban living. Indeed, in warmer months the skin can be opened to allow free flow of air and can act as an extension to the living room.

The skin can also form an extension of the home over private gardens. This gives residents an enhanced ability to enjoy the exterior, and potentially enhance vegetable and fruit gardening and rainwater reutilisation.

Given widespread interest in the initiative, Delft University decided to enter this year's Solar Decathlon which is taking place until July 14 in Versailles. With over 300,000 expected visitors, this will be an incredible opportunity to showcase know-how and products on the world stage.

At the event, Delft will be showing how its solar skin can be applied to a terrace house by re-constructing a model home from the Netherlands. The house will need to function independently, using only solar energy, for two weeks bidding to win the competition. As well as Delft's own involvement, the project has been supported by TBI Holdings, the Dutch Government, Univé and various material suppliers and sponsors.

Taken overall, whether Delft is fortunate enough to win in France or not, this breakthrough idea has massive potential to transform the European housing stock in a way that is environmentally, socially and financially friendly. While challenges still lie ahead to wholesale roll-out, the possibility of energy-neutral, sustainable urban living is no longer a dream for millions of people right across the continent.