City West Housing Trust was faced with the choice of demolishing four Salford tower blocks or refurbishing them. It made the decision to carry out a £14.3 million major retrofit project, Neil Merrick reports
One of the first things railway steward Michael Barton did when he moved back into his Salford apartment was to buy a sun lounger for his balcony.
Like other residents of Engels House, a 10-storey block owned by City West Housing Trust, the 49-year-old lived for just over a year in a neighbouring block while the association refurbished the flats and installed an energy efficient Ecopod heating system, replacing the existing electric storage system.
The 14,647-home trust had suggested getting rid of the balconies, with their ugly metal railings, as part of the £14.3 million refurbishment programme covering four high-rise blocks in Eccles. But residents, who treasure their view of the Manchester ship canal, were having none of it.
According to Mr Barton, the balcony, with its new sliding windows, is like an extra room where he can relax on his lounger before or after work. The flat, which he first moved into five years ago, also has a new bathroom and open plan kitchen/living room.
Value for money
With or without the balcony door open, the flat seems incredibly warm. But with the entire block of 58 flats heated by the rooftop Ecopod, Mr Barton’s energy bills are significantly cheaper. Where the vast majority of UK housing is heated using fossil fuels, primarily gas, the Ecopod system houses cascade boilers and six 600w thermal solar collectors to recycle heat in the building.
During the first nine weeks since he moved back into the flat, he spent £16.50 on heating and hot water compared with about £50 per month prior to the retrofit. Bills are paid directly to energy company Carillion, through a ‘pay as you go’ system, with residents topping up their credit at a local store using a swipe card.
A small display panel in the hall shows exactly how much power he is using, the temperature in and outside the flat and his remaining credit. But it is not just Mr Barton who can monitor his energy use.
A building management system installed during the retrofit allows City West to check tenants are heating their homes properly and alerts staff if someone’s credit is low, or their heating stops. If it chooses, the trust can provide residents with free heating for a limited period, as well as offering other help, including assistance claiming winter fuel allowances.
During the first two months after Engels House reopened, the trust looked into four cases of concern, including a woman who spent less than £1 in three weeks, apparently because she was having difficulty operating the system.
Colette McKune, director of asset management at the trust, says the monitoring is essential to tackle fuel poverty, along with energy efficiency campaigns. She denies that City West is watching over people too closely. ‘We can signpost cases before they get critical,’ she says.
Mr Barton, who shares his flat with his partner, is similarly unconcerned. ‘It’s a nice safety net for the elderly,’ he says. ‘You read in the papers that someone was found dead and had thousands of pounds in the bank, but didn’t know how to switch the heating on.’
All four tower blocks at Barton Village (named after the Barton area of Eccles) will be retrofitted before 2014, with an Ecopod placed on the roof of each block. The new bathrooms and kitchens are remnants of the decent homes programme that New Prospect, an arm’s-length management organisation, failed to complete before the trust’s 14,600 homes were transferred from Salford Council to City West in 2008. After the transfer, the trust faced a choice between demolishing the 1960s tower blocks or refurbishing them. The retrofit at Barton Village is part of a £235 million investment programme included in City West’s post-transfer business plan.
Prior to work starting at Engels House last year, the trust held ‘brainstorming’ events with tenants, whose flats were fitted with electric storage heaters. A range of renewable energy options were considered, including ground source heating (ruled out because of the size of the blocks) and biomass (rejected due to difficulty finding a local supplier).
According to Ms McKune, Ecopods were the most expensive in terms of initial outlay, but annual maintenance is cheaper, coming in at around £700 for each block compared with £120 on each flat for a gas-controlled heating system. ‘The benefits outweigh the costs over 25 years,’ she says.
The work at Barton Village is being monitored by Cambridge University as part of a government-funded energy efficient cities initiative. Prior to the retrofit, a PhD student from Cambridge lived at Engels House for nine months to study residents’ energy use.
‘It was frightening what customers were using,’ says Garry Vaughan, City West’s supply chain manager. ‘Some were not heating their flat at all and sitting there with electric blankets.’ Since the reopening of Engels, he adds, residents are spending an average of £4 per week on heating and hot water, compared with £12 per week before.
The Ecopods - which reduce carbon emissions from a typical tower block by 45 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, or 36.9 per cent - were purchased from Warrington-based firm Belfry along with eight more that will be fitted to other trust properties. According to City West, it negotiated a good price that is ‘commercially sensitive’, and didn’t receive any subsidies.
The trust spent £3.7 million retrofitting Engels House, which was in the worst condition of the four blocks. Work on Enfield House, a block for residents aged over 55, should be completed by the end of the year.
To reduce damp and prevent heat escaping, each block is being wrapped in thermal cladding, also designed to improve their appearance. Security is being improved, with video phones in each flat allowing residents to control who enters the main entrance hall, which includes a communal bike storage area.
‘It has a real “wow” factor,’ Mr Barton says. ‘Everybody who comes here says how lucky I am.’