The Bulgarian sustainable energy consultant EnEffect has been involved with higher education since its establishment in 1992. Around 2010, EnEffect saw the opportunity to join the Intelligent Energy Europe’s BUILD UP Skills initiative and pushed forward with the idea. This was the beginning of a long and challenging journey into upskilling the construction sector, working alongside the Bulgarian Construction Chamber and the National Agency for Vocational Education and Training in Bulgaria.

Training courses under the BUS EnerPro project

By 2013, the BUILD UP Skills Initiative had reached most countries in central and south-east Europe, which led to the development of the national Roadmaps for skills’ growth in the construction sector with a horizon to 2020. This period was marked by hard work in a field where there was not enough data, limited institutional support, sectoral fragmentation, and little desire for collaboration. To implement the roadmaps, new training and educational programmes were quickly developed, in cooperation with experienced external partners and aligned with the expectations stemming from the EU directives on energy performance of buildings (EPBD) and Renewable Energy.

As a result, hundreds of trainers and construction workers were trained, both domestically and abroad, overcoming language barriers and opposition to change, bringing knowledge and new skills to the construction sector. In the cold winter of 2013, the 20-year-old minivan of EnEffect travelled across Bulgaria to train high schools’ teachers of architecture and construction. It was a decision of urgency to spread the message across the country by reaching as many educational institutions and educators as possible in a short period of time to bring focus to the need of reforms in the system.

Demonstration for students at the Croatian MUZA project

And indeed, soon afterwards, the state educational standards were updated. Around 2015, new training facilities were already built, with the Train-to-nZEB project setting the standard with dedicated training centers (lovingly referred to as the Building Knowledge Hubs) in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Romania, Turkey and Ukraine, largely based on the connections developed during the BUILD UP Skills EU exchange meetings. Long before the COVID pandemic, a distance learning platform  for both trainers and experts was developed with the help of the Passive House Institute, taking advantage of technology as a means to reach a greater number of people.  Thousands of trainees subsequently gained new knowledge and skills through the demonstration training action, both under the national qualification frameworks and through international certification courses. By 2017, we had further spanned our network of operating training centers to Croatia, Greece, and Italy under the Fit-to-nZEB project, learning a lot from the plentiful experience of Irish mentors MosArt in the most joyful and meaningful way. As a result, in 2018, we had produced full documentation for educational and training courses on deep energy building retrofit, which are still used in many universities and professional colleges across the region. Around that time, we also started CraftEdu project, setting up national qualification and training schemes for craftsmen, to look for further exchange of experience and knowledge with construction masters from Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Then, COVID came, and with it, construction skills training effectively stopped. And while life itself did not stop, there was more time to look back and reflect on our achievements and failures. And we must admit that we had a fair share of them. Europe had been living the dream of economic growth and security, and EPBD fulfillment in many countries was overlooked and delayed. With no dedicated financial support, implementation of the directive was compromised, while the demand for energy efficiency training was far from overwhelming. Things were not looking rosy. While approaching 2020, marking the end of the 2013’ roadmaps, it became clear that there was no demand for skills training without market demand for high quality energy efficient buildings

And this had to change.

We already knew that before COVID, as part of the NZEB Roadshow. We had delved deep into the reasons for low training demand. With the quality of the training supply slowly going out of suspicion as a result of the action, other factors emerged, such as the lack of dedicated legislation and procurement practices, the lack of interest from key stakeholders as investors, contractors and banks, the lack of motivation among both building designers and the skilled force, and most notably – the lack of demand for energy efficient buildings from the end users.

The Building Knowledge Hubs in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Romania, Turkey, and Ukraine

The nZEB Roadshow concept was based on bringing all these missing stakeholders together and closer to the topic, because shared knowledge base is crucial for new ideas coming through along all stages of the investment process. The roadshow was designed precisely with this target, combining various events such as policy conferences, training sessions, live demonstrations, product exhibitions, educational fairs, site visits, games for both children and adults, and of course, the cherry on the top of the cake – mobile training and demonstration trucks, serving as focal points to attract the media and guide citizens to the spot. Huge effort was invested in preparation and marketing, and hundreds of potential business and institutional supporters in Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Italy and Romania were contacted and convinced to join. And even during the COVID pandemic, with many uncertainties and limitations, it worked. From towns and schoolyards to metropolitan squares and sport halls, the nZEB roadshows have visited more than 25 cities across the region, trained hundreds of experts, and welcomed tens of thousands of visitors. What is most important of all, the roadshow is great with children and students, and if we are really to make a difference, there’s no better way.

As of now, we seem to be far beyond the hard times in the beginning, as invitations to visit more and more cities are flooding our mailboxes. And if our concept may have played a small part, the main reason is obviously different – after the Russian war on Ukraine, the prices of energy have quadrupled and energy savings and renewables are the talk of the day. Simultaneously, projects such as BUSLeague, BUSGoCircular and INSTRUCT have helped us to shape our training offer even better and we are prepared to meet practically any training inquiry that comes around. Training rooms are full, and not only that – homeowners are stocking to hear about the new renovation programmes, national TV and radio channels are inquiring for information regarding energy savings measures on daily basis, and we, BUILD UP Skills veterans, are more or less all involved in policy making and structuring of the financing programmes.

Airtightness testing of the Bulgarian “passive house caravan”, with an excellent q50 value of 0.6 m3/h/m2

Because without skills, there is no chance for successful policy implementation.

Truth is, we did not manage to implement change effectively at national and local level. Probably because we were complacent, we underestimated the need to build reliable connection between existing knowledge and transformative action, even when all strategic guidance and policy insight was at place. Now, we will have to endure the consequences in times of economic and social crisis.

With the work beginning on the new skills roadmaps until 2030, we hope to reestablish the institutional networks under the BUILDUP Skills initiative and with the lessons learned to achieve a greater impact across the building sector. A key is to remain consistent in increasing knowledge and skills, and ideally to engage and inspire key stakeholders across the value chain to change their approach to construction, so that new policies are accepted and smoothly implemented. Initiatives such as the nZEB roadshow could assist in a large-scale capacity building for transformative action, along with the many other actions still needed for successful change.