Traces of a public policy for energy-saving in social housing at the French National Archives (1974 – 1982)

Anaïs Parmentier, Université Gustave Eiffel

Access to data :


The 1970s were marked by two oil crises. Rising oil prices and the threat of oil shortages forced the French government to quickly establish an energy-saving policy. This policy took different approaches over the course of the decade, depending on the sectors targeted. This data paper looks back at the archival corpus assembled and used for a master’s degree study, which sought to establish how social housing stakeholders approached and managed these energy crises, as well as how they acted alongside the public authorities to establish an energy-saving policy in the HLM sector. Focusing on the records selected at the French National Archives, this data paper explains the archival process and choices made in order to build up a corpus for a study specifically focused on social housing. Nevertheless, this corpus may also be of interest to historians working on the history of construction, or on the history of alternative energies and their use in the residential sector.

Keywords: Social Housing, HLM, Renewable energies, Oil crisis, Energy-saving policies


This data paper was written during my research internship provided by the research team Archival City. This paper explains how I established my archive corpus, which was used for my research dissertation for my master’s degree between 2022 and 2023, Diagnostic Historique et Aménagement Urbain (Historical Diagnosis and Urban Planning). This research dissertation was conceived as part of a thesis started in September 2023, on energy vulnerability in social housing (HLM[1]) from the second half of the 20th century to the beginning of the 21st century. For this research entitled “Économiser et maîtriser l’énergie : les HLM face aux crises énergétiques (1974-1982)[2], I have chosen to focus on energy saving that became an imperative during the 1970s, following the 1973 oil crisis, in the specific sector of social housing.

Seen from the standpoint of public policy oriented towards energy saving, more knowledge on the 1970s is become available. In 2015, the journal Pour mémoire. Revue des ministères de l’Écologie, du Développement Durable et de l’Énergie et du Logement, de l’Égalité des Territoires et de la Ruralité, dedicated its fifteenth issue to energy control policies (Comité d’Histoire : Pour mémoire, 2015). However, it is the development of energies alternative to oil, in particular renewable energies, that has attracted historians’ interest the most. In her thesis on the history of science and technology, defended in 2018, Anaël Marrec studied a century-long history of renewable energies (Marrec, 2018). A collective work edited in 2020 by François Jarrige and Alexis Vrignon presents a history of alternative energies from the 19th to the 20th century, examining how they were approached in a context of industrialization that favored fossil fuels; this work uses various approaches, including political, social and cultural (Jarrige & Vrignon, 2020). Among the renewable energies popularized in France as “new” energies in the 1970s, solar energy has sparked particular interest. Sophie Pehlivanian’s thesis focuses on the history of this type of energy, while exploring its patrimonial aspect (Pehlivanian, 2014).

Furthermore, historians of architecture have studied the use of solar energy in housing in the second half of the 20th century (Chauvin-Michel, 2014 ; Bouet, 2022). Although my research highlights the key role of the HLM sector in pursuing the aim of energy savings in the residential sector, it has not been specifically examined through this particular prism. Consequently, for my master’s degree dissertation, a primordial question arose: in what ways have the public authorities and the HLM movement[3] acted to promote the energy-saving policy in social housing? This task began in 1974, when the first measures were taken to reduce oil consumption, and ended in 1982, when the pace at which public energy-saving policies was about to change – as it is absorbed into other goals – for several reasons. Firstly, in 1982, a new entity was created, the Agence Française pour la Maîtrise de l’Énergie[4] (AFME), which was largely absorbed the organizations previously dedicated to this policy. The creation of the AFME also marked a change in strategy and approach to energy-savings. Then, France was about to enter the tournant de la rigueur[5] in 1983, which led to cuts in funding.

  1. Dataset Presentation and Contexts of Creation

The first oil crisis, whose consequences first hit France in 1974, was due to the increase in price of oil barrel decided by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, after the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. This source of energy was used in every sector of activity and throughout society. The threat of oil shortages forced public authorities to react quickly. In addition to the Messmer Plan presented in March 1974, which was intended to lead to the nuclearization of France in order to ensure its independence, short and medium-term actions were considered essential: the aim was to encourage the French to save energy. This is why ex-nihilo entities were created to develop and promote this policy.

As far as pre-existing structures were concerned, the Plan Construction[6], set up in 1971 to carry out experiments in the residential sector, reoriented its programs to focus mainly on heat insulation and the development of “new” energies. Indeed, in the residential sector that interests us, two paths were favored: the search for better heat insulation to avoid wasting energy, and the development of alternative energies to oil, in particular solar and geothermal energy. In the HLM sector, which is a stakeholder in the development of this public policy, there are two main operators working with the public authorities: the Union Nationale des Fédérations d’Organismes d’Habitations à Loyer Modéré[7] (UNFOHLM) and the Centre National d’Études Techniques HLM[8] (CNET-HLM), a subsidiary of UNFOHLM responsible, as its name suggests, for technical studies, and a stakeholder in innovation and experimentation with new techniques and technologies.

For this research, the objective was to start establishing the general framework of public policy on energy-saving for the HLM sector. The aim was to explore the relatively well-invested history of the energy-saving movement in the 1970s, and to shed light on a little-known aspect of this history: the involvement of the HLM movement in the development of this public policy. In addition to a study of the literature of this period, which I will not address in this data paper, I have chosen to examine the records of the structures created ex-nihilo to promote energy-saving policies in the 1970s : Agence pour les Économies d’Énergie[9] (AEE, 1974-1982), Délégation aux Énergies Nouvelles[10] (DEN, 1975-1978), Comité de l’Énergie Solaire (“first” COMES, 1975-1978) then Commissariat à l’Énergie Solaire[11] (“second” COMES 1978-1982, resulting from the fusion between the “first” COMES and the DEN).

To a lesser extent, I have also studied documents from the Plan Construction (PC, 1971-1998). Their records are kept at the French National Archives, on the Pierrefitte-sur-Seine location. Among the three fonds selected, I have worked on parts of – or all of – the five following reference codes: 19870072/65 – 19870072/106 – 20010454/14 – 20050139/22 – 20050139/23 ( see  ACP04_FA01_AP on Nakala for a detailed list of the dataset elements. ACP stands for Archival City Greater Paris, 03 refers to the third dataset produced as part of the studyfield Greater Paris; FA means finding aid and AP refers to the initials of the data set creator).

Records about public policy on energy-savings in housing, and a fortiori in social housing, are particularly widespread; not in terms of where they are being kept, as the majority are held by the French National Archives, but rather in terms of creators, and thus their fonds. This is why I stayed focused on the exploitation of the fonds of dedicated organizations. It seemed too complex for the purposes of my dissertation to enter the records of the ministries to which the various organizations mentioned above belong. Nevertheless, understanding these fonds was not an easy task: these structures experienced reconfigurations during the time period, which made it much more complicated for a novice researcher on the subject to understand how the fonds were organized, and how they were created.

For example, while the DEN oversaw issues relating to “new” energies, it had no decision-making powers or budget of its own, unlike the COMES or the Comité Géothermie[12], which were attached to it. Despite this, it should not be overslooked, as it played a central role in maintaining relations between the public authorities and the UNFOHLM, and provided recommendations and proposals that were taken into account by the other organizations. Moreover, the DEN disappeared in 1978, absorbed by the “second” COMES. The AEE, for its part, was combined with this “second” COMES and other structures to form the AFME in 1982 (see  ACP04_TAB01_AP to ACP04_TAB04_AP on Nakala). However, since there was continuity in the actions carried out, the AFME acquired the records of the various pre-existing organizations; they were not archived when the organizations that had created them disappeared.

As a result, we sometimes find as many as three creators in a single fonds. Therefore, the creators of these fonds indicated are the organizations that deposited them, not those that actually created them. Consequently, for example, some archive boxes contain documents created by earlier organizations, such as the DEN, but were included in fonds whose creator is indicated as the “second” COMES – which absorbed the DEN in 1978 (see  ACP04_TAB01_AP to ACP04_TAB04_AP on Nakala). Although it did release documentation, the DEN is not listed as a creator in the archival description of the French National Archives. It is important to bear this in mind: even though these archives are grouped together in several archive boxes, despite the fact that their existence is dedicated to energy savings, these structures did not share the same prerogatives, the same powers of decision and action, or the same rationales of action.

As mentioned above, I have selected five reference codes from three different fonds (see  ACP04_TAB01_AP to ACP04_TAB04_AP on Nakala)[13]. In the fonds 19870072/1 – 19870072/157, I have selected the serie 19870072/65 (entitled: “Transport, habitat, thermique[14]), whose creator was AEE, and the subserie 1987007/106 (entitled: COMES 14) whose creator was the “second” COMES. Then, subserie 20010454/14 (entitled: “Documents relatifs au Plan Construction (concernant notamment l’application des techniques solaires aux HLM”)[15] which has three creators – “second” COMES, DEN, PC – belongs to the fonds 20010454/1 – 20010454/42. And, finally, the last two reference codes, whose creator was the DEN, are the series 20050139/22 (entitled: “I – Délégation aux Énergies Nouvelles”) and 20050139/23 (entitled: “Énergies Nouvelles : congrès, forums, groupes de travail, bilans, reunions[16]); both from the fonds 20050139/1 – 20050139/173.

  1. Gathering Data: Methods

Although historians have already made use of some of these organizations’ records, according to my knowledge, the data specifically related to social housing has not been analyzed and restituted yet. As my dissertation had to be completed in less than a year, I had to focus very early on records exclusively related to the HLM sector. Thus, after consulting the inventories of the AEE and COMES records, I carefully read these research tools in order to identify all the reference codes that presented the terms “HLM” or “logement social[17]”. These were not necessarily mentioned in the title of the series or subseries but in the brief description of the documents contained therein. I decided to exclude all records related to fundamental research into renewable energies as well as those too loosely related to the residential sector, as well as the AEE’s communication campaigns.

My initial aim was therefore not to target fonds that were too specifically focused on energy-savings policies and the residential sector. Indeed, the bibliography on this subject was already quite extensive, and moreover, general documents were also to be found in fonds referring to social housing. This gave a broader focus, thanks to the records concerning the residential sector in general terms, without having to search specifically for documents that were too general, in order to keep my research effective. I followed this approach for all the reference codes; apart from the series 20050139/22, no mention of HLM was made in the description. However, this series is the only one I found where “Délégation aux Énergies Nouvelles” was explicitly indicated. The reading I did beforehand, whether dissertations, scientific articles, or in particular the magazine h. Revue de l’habitat social[18] (now revue h.), edited and published by the UNFOHLM since 1975, indicated that the DEN was a central establishment (see ACP04_IMG07_AP et  ACP04_IMG08_AP on Nakala). Be that as it may, I had limited information on this delegation, and none on its links with the HLM movement. The description of this series indicated the presence of signed contracts, building regulations, financing programs, and so forth. I decided to consult it, and it turned out that this series also contained documents relating specifically to HLM sector, so I set about analyzing them.

Nonetheless, I left out a few documents concerning the HLM sector. For instance, I had begun to analyze the series 19870072/70 (AFME documentary collection, 1981-1986). There I found a brochure entitled “Le chauffe-eau solaire : une solution pour économiser l’énergie dans les HLM[19], created in partnership by the AFME, the UNFOHLM and the CNET-HLM. On the one hand, this document focused on the end of our study period: it is not dated, but reading it allowed me to place it between 1982 and 1983. On the other hand, it deals with the very specific subject of solar water heaters, from a technical angle. In doing so, I have chosen to set it aside for this research and use it instead for my doctoral dissertation. The sources are thus far from running out in order to identify the role of the HLM movement and the position of the HLM sector in this public energy-saving policy.

I selected various documents from the series and subseries I consulted – in chronological order to follow the stakeholders step by step. First of all, I collected the various agreements and contracts signed between the UNFOHLM and public entities such as the AEE, the COMES, and the DEN, sometimes all three at once. One of the most important was the first contract for energy-saving in the social housing, signed between the public authorities and the UNFOHLM in March 1977, during the 38th annual HLM congress – Bordeaux Congress (figure 1).

Figure 1 – Contract for the development of energy-saving improvements in social housing, known as the Contrat de Bordeaux, 21 April 1977.

source: AN, 20050139/23

These files facilitate the observation of the strategy implemented by the public authorities, through authorized fundings, preferred techniques and enforced methods. I then studied all the working notes drawn up within these organizations, often by the employees for the president or director of the structure in question, but also sometimes notes created by the president or director themselves. Below, the reader can see the first page of a note from the Delegate for New Energies, Jean-Claude Colli, detailing “How to help the HLM agencies apply new energies” (figure 2).

Figure 2 – Note on aid to HLM agencies applying new energies, Jean-Claude Colli, DEN, 20 June 1975

AN, 2005139/22

These documents frequently list the problems that arose (in terms of “new” energy development in particular) and the solutions suggested, enabling the reader to see which solutions were adopted and which were rejected. They also provide progress reports on various actions undertaken. To this end, I have examined reports on experiments and projects using new insulation techniques and/or “new” energies, which were very often published as brochures by the UNFOHLM and one or more of the above-mentioned entities. Indeed, I made a point of studying the correspondence between these various entities, in particular the DEN, and the UNFOHLM, almost systematically represented by Robert Lion, the UNFOHLM’s General Delegate from 1974 to 1981. Various documents published by the UNFOHLM have also been found in these fonds, allowing researchers to observe, without even analyzing them, the frequent circulation of documentation throughout the period studied. Two issues of revue h., annotated in manuscript, were also found in the DEN series. Below, this is the page 39 of the 9th issue of the revue h. The article in question is named: “new energy: the HLM movement leader again” (figures 7 and 8).

Fig. 7 & 8 – Journal “H”.

In addition, preparatory notes for meetings, roundtables and conferences most frequently dealing with “new” energies were studied. This kind of documentation concerns a general context, not one specific to social housing. Furthermore, I have found documentation on the 38th annual HLM congress (Bordeaux Congress), but none on the other HLM congresses held during said period. This led me to see the importance of this congress – during which an agreement was signed to develop energy-saving policies in social housing – if not for the public authorities, at least for the DEN, where this documentation was kept in the series in question.

Although I chose not to study on a more local scale for my research, I did choose to consult the subseries 19870072/106. These are press cuttings, both general and specialized, compiled by the COMES. They mainly concern solar housing in different regions, social housing projects using solar or geothermal energy, and the demonstration village built as part of the 5 000 maisons solaires[20] competition organized by the Ministère de l’Environnement et du Cadre de Vie[21] between 1980 and 1981, exclusively for the social housing sector. Although these press cuttings deal with the local scale, learning about them allowed me to see the conditions in which these mostly HLM solar homes were built, with the aid and provisions they received. In other words, the aim was to relate them to the general energy-saving framework in the social housing sector that I have established thanks to the other fonds.

Besides, while the 5 000 maisons solaires competition had already been studied in the scientific literature, especially in doctoral dissertations on architectural history, none of them had highlighted and analyzed the specificity of this competition, which was aimed solely at social housing. Put another way, these articles also allowed me to analyze how the authorities’ communication took shape in the press, the way in which Prêt Accession à la Propriété (PAP) and Prêt Locatif Aidé (PLA)[22] financing options were presented to the public, and the opinions and criticisms of 1970s newspapers on these solar HLM. Interviews with residents and owners can also be found, though they are scarce. Therefore, these records and the data I have obtained have led me to establish a general framework for public policy on energy-saving for social housing, and how this policy fits into the global policy for the residential sector. The consultation of printed sources, in conjunction with the subseries 19870072/106, also helped me observe how the different actors reacted on the local scale. However, this approach has not been taken up in this study and remains to be pursued.

  1. Research perspectives

Although I have consulted only five series or subseries, they offer great potential for continuing the research I have begun, as well as for undertaking or completing other studies. Firstly, the data in documents of a more general nature, relating to the residential sector, could be useful for continuing this study of the energy-saving imperative in the 1970s, even if it has already been widely reviewed in recent years. I am thinking especially of the dimension concerning old and rural housing, which to my knowledge remains unexplored.

In my master’s study I began to describe how the energy issue was integrated into the main preoccupations of the 1970s/1980s (living environment, quality of life, housing quality for the year 2000, as set out in the 1975 Livre Blanc des HLM[23]). However, this area of research related specifically to the HLM sector needs to be continued. The series 20050139/23 in particular contains several speeches and working papers created by the UNFOHLM for the 38th HLM Congress. Various working groups (“reform and experimentation”, “new missions”, “technical policy” and “global cost of housing” etc.) have created highly detailed reports. Not only can these documents be useful for continuing the research I have started, but they can also contribute to a more extensive history of the HLM movement. Indeed, these fonds need to be coupled with those of the UNFOHLM; I plan to continue researching these documents for my PhD thesis.

As a result, as mentioned above, further study on the local scale would be highly enlightening. While I have established a general framework, this should not mask the disparities at the local level, the way in which this public policy has been applied, the reluctances, difficulties, successes, and failures, etc. In concrete terms, we need to look at the role of the local authorities in charge, but also at the way the social dimension was considered, the impact on local residents and their reactions. In this sense, I would like to do this work for the two areas of study of my PhD thesis, i.e., the communities of two conurbations: Caen la Mer and Grand Paris Sud. As such, this field remains wide open to historians.

Lastly, it seems to me that these records can be part of a history of science and technology. The first one I have in mind being the state of knowledge, particularly about renewable energies, when the oil crisis hit in the 1970s. While Anaël Marrec has taken a global approach to it, a specific study of the knowledge available at the time about their use in the residential sector, and about the attempt to spread them on a large scale, has yet to be carried out. For example, solar water heaters have been promoted by the public authorities and the HLM sector since 1976, but their profitability has been debated. The subseries 20010454/14 contains a letter sent by the President of the Association Nationale des Fabricants, Installateurs, Conseillers et Utilisateurs de l’Énergie Solaire[24] in 1977 to the Délégué aux Énergies Nouvelles[25], complaining about the government’s communication of solar energy and solar technologies, including solar water heaters. He accuses them of having communicated incorrect performance levels and prices, thereby misleading the public. The subseries 19870072/106 contains press cuttings compiled by the COMES concerning a new episode of controversy in 1981/1982.

In essence, some researchers questioned the profitability of this technology in a specialized journal[26]: the article went beyond the boundaries of specialists, and the public authorities, via the COMES, were mobilized to refute their statements. The press, even the general press, latched onto this affair, which stirred controversy. The solar water heater is just one of many examples (the use of thermal waste, the place of electricity, etc.), but it illustrates that records are still able to participate in the story of the accumulation of knowledge and attempt to popularise these new technologies in the 1970s and 1980s.

In addition to renewable energy technologies, it is also possible to pursue a study of new techniques and materials applied to housing to improve insulation: whether it is the walls themselves, or apron walls, etc. This could contribute to a history of construction, whether for the residential sector as a whole or specifically for the social housing sector. If documents on research carried out in this way by the Mines, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique[27], the Centre Scientifique et Technique du Bâtiment[28] (CSTB) and the CNET are kept in some of the series and subseries consulted, it would be essential to combine them with the records of these organizations, not forgetting the records of the ministries in question.

Last but not least, and this is something I would like to develop in my PhD, we must not forget the role of the Plan Construction in this research. Although I have not been able to exploit its records, or to focus specifically on all the documents it created in the 20050139/22 series, it is a key figure in the experimentation of new techniques and technologies in the housing sector. This was notably the case with the H.O.T. (Habitat Original par la Thermique[29]) competitions held between 1975 and 1981, which exclusively concerned social housing. Moreover, a study of this stakeholder’s documents can also make a significant contribution to restoring the specific dimension of the HLM sector in this history.


Bouet, Paul. 2022. Domestiquer l’énergie solaire. Architecture, décolonisation et écologisme dans la France d’après-guerre, 1945-1986. PhD in Architectural History, Paris: Gustave Eiffel University, École nationale supérieure d’architecture Paris-Est.

Chauvin-Michel, Marion. 2012. Architectures solaires et politiques énergétiques en France de 1973 à 1985. PhD in Architectural History, Paris: Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University.

Comité d’Histoire, 2015. Pour mémoire. Revue des ministères de l’Écologie, du Développement Durable et de l’Énergie et du Logement, de l’Égalité des Territoires et de la Ruralité, Les politiques de maîtrise de l’énergie, 15: 212 p.

Jarrige, François, & Alexis Vrignon. 2020. Face à la puissance : une histoire des énergies alternatives à l’âge industriel. Paris: La Découverte.

Le Goullon, Gwenaëlle. 2019. « Innovations et risques environnementaux : le chauffage urbain dans les grands ensembles de Bron-Parilly et La Duchère (1957-1971) ». in Genres urbains : autour d’Annie Fourcaut. edited by Bellanger Emmanuel, Tellier Thibault, Vadelorge Loïc, Voldman Danièle, Vorms Charlotte, 249-261. Grâne: Créaphis.

Marrec, Anaël. 2018. Histoire des énergies renouvelables en France, 1880-1990. PhD in history of sciences and techniques, Nantes: Nantes University.

Pehlivanian, Sophie. 2014. Histoire de l’énergie solaire en France : science, technologies et patrimoine d’une filière d’avenir. PhD in Contemporary History, Grenoble: Grenoble University

[1] HLM stands for “Habitation à Loyer Modéré”, literally: low-rent housing. It is the name of social housing in France.

[2] Saving and controlling energy: HLM faced with energy crises (1974-1982).

[3] The HLM movement (Le mouvement HLM in french) is a galaxy of stakeholders actively involved in social housing.

[4] French Agency for Energy Control.

[5] Austerity period during the first Mitterrand’s mandate (1981-1988).

[6] Construction Plan

[7] National Union of Federations of Low-Rent Housing (social housing) Organizations

[8] National Center for Low-Rent Housing Technical Studies

[9] Agency for Energy Savings

[10] New Energies Delegation

[11] Solar Energy Committee then Solar Energy Commission

[12] Geothermal Committee

[13] Readers will find a detailed description of the fonds in the table below.

[14] Transport, housing, heating.

[15] Documents relating to the Plan Construction (particularly on the application of solar techniques to HLM (social housing)).

[16] New Energies: congresses, forums, working groups, reports, meetings.

[17] Logement social stands for social housing.

[18] Literally: Magazine of social housing

[19] Solar water heaters: an energy-saving solution for HLM

[20] Solar housing.

[21] Ministry of the Environment and the Living Environment. It operated from 1978 to 1981.

[22] Respectively: Property Access Loan (for private individuals eligible for social housing) and Assisted Rental Loan (for HLM organization). These are two types of subsidy for HLM construction, created in 1977 as part of a reform of social sector financing.

[23] HLM White Paper. Readers can view it online in French:

[24] National Association of Manufacturers, Installers, Advisors and Users of Solar Energy

[25] New Energies Delegate. He is the head of the DEN.

[26] This is issue no. 100 of Énergie solaire actualités¸ published on December 28, 1981. The article in question has not been consulted; it is mentioned in several general newspaper articles, kept in the form of press cuttings in the 19870072/106 subseries. This subseries also includes the COMES’ response, published in issue no. 102 of the same magazine, published at the end of January 1982.

[27] French National Centre for Scientific Research

[28] Scientific and Technical Centre for Building

[29] Habitat Original by Thermics

Citer ce billet
Annalaura Turiano (2023, 29 novembre). Traces of a public policy for energy-saving in social housing at the French National Archives (1974 – 1982). Archival City. Consulté le 13 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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