Tuesday, 02 September 2014

Cheaper by the Durkan

The contractor charged with giving an east London estate a facelift also threw in comprehensive energy retrofitting - at no extra cost. Jess McCabe finds out more

The Coventry Cross estate, which butts up noisily against the A12 in Poplar, east London, was never slated to be retrofitted for energy efficiency.
Instead, the priority of 8,500-home landlord Poplar Harca was simply to spruce the place up a bit.

At the centre of the estate used to sit a playground - if it could be called that - a single, shallow slide in the middle of a bit of grass. On the list of improvements that Poplar Harca planned was a new, proper playground, landscaping, new windows, better security measures and a new façade.

But Durkan, which won the tender to give the estate a facelift last year, had different ideas. It has now nearly finished a retrofit for energy efficiency, which is predicted to cut tenants’ energy bills by as much as 25 per cent - at no extra cost to the aesthetic work that was already scheduled.

The scheduled cost? £5.5 million. The cost of this work plus the retrofit? £5.5 million.

So, at a time when social landlords are struggling to find the money to ‘green’ their housing stock, how did this project add major efficiency improvements, including external insulation, without breaking the bank? And what have the savings been?

Immediate clean-up

The estate was built in the 1960s, as a set of concrete blocks surrounding a primary school. It was, as long-time tenants remember, fairly grim. When residents voted 65 per cent in favour of a transfer of their homes from Tower Hamlets Council to Poplar Harca in 2007, the clean-up began immediately. The housing association removed graffiti, made emergency repairs and brought the flats up to decent homes standard - installing new kitchens and bathrooms and replacing some boilers.

It also applied for planning permission and started a procurement process for the £5.5 million more intensive renovation of the site, which has 160 flats across four blocks.

‘The driver for us was more about the aesthetics - what are we going to do to make these buildings look good, and secondly, how are we going to make sure it’s maintained most cost-effectively?’ explains Paul Dooley, head of regeneration at Poplar Harca.

‘When Durkan approached us, and said “we’ve got some new ideas”, I thought - new ideas mean more money. I said “we’re always obviously willing to listen” and we were trying to reduce carbon emissions and save our residents money, to tackle fuel poverty - “but, we’ve also got a budget, so it’s a question of how we could do that”.’

But Daren Nathan, director of new business at Durkan, explains: ‘My challenge was: take a planned maintenance scheme and show the client we can do the same works, with retrofit within it.’

To squeeze the most energy savings out of the project, Durkan called in architects from London-based firm Baily Garner - who also designed the makeover of the estate, but have a specialist environmental team in-house.

Energy analysis

John Milner, a chartered building surveyor at Baily Garner, explains they began with a full analysis of the energy performance of the building. The modelling software used to carry out these assessments is called the standard assessment procedure for energy rating of dwellings.

Most energy assessments use reduced data SAP (RD SAP), but the ‘full SAP’ was crucial for Coventry Cross, in order to figure out how to get the best performance from the least intervention. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been able to say ‘what would happen if we insulated just that wall? Or what would happen if we insulated all the walls’, explains Mr Milner.

There were some surprises - for example, the block was much more airtight than anyone expected, because the original construction created a solid concrete envelope. Airtightness, in the absence of proper ventilation, however, is more of a curse than a blessing, causing condensation. So while residents’ homes were relatively airtight before the works, they also tended to be damp and cold.

Not all the changes were cost free. For example, at first Durkan was only going to insulate the external walls - where work was being carried out anyway. But the blocks of the estate have interior staircases, equally unprotected from the elements. For tenants with flats backing onto these stairwells, it was just the same as having an external, uninsulated wall.

‘There is an additional cost but it’s not as significant as it would have been,’ says Mr Dooley - the difference was £20,000.

It does beg the question, how is it possible to do exactly the same amount or standard of work as was originally planned, and add on extras such as thick external insulation? Durkan’s Mr Nathan says: ‘We’re changing how the money’s being spent and how it’s being focused. It’s about targeting every pound you spent, and looking at the return that you’re getting for it.’

The energy savings have been made without resorting to new funding mechanisms such as the green deal.

When the works are completed - also counting the savings made through the decent homes programme, which included things like replacing boilers - the estate’s emissions will be more than 82 per cent below 1990 levels (the year used as the baseline for the Kyoto Protocol and therefore used to set government targets).

Cut in fuel bills

In the 28-home Stanborough block of flats, which is closest to completion, the changes should cut tenants’ average fuel bill per dwelling from £1,085 a year, to £756 a year. Its energy performance grade will have risen from a dismal E to a decent C grade.

Up to now, many housing associations have rolled out the red carpet for ‘exemplar’ projects - a few homes that they’ve poured resources into, using them as a testing ground for all sorts of insulation and technologies - or ‘green bling’.

But, says Mr Milner, by taking an existing repairs and maintenance contract and building in energy savings, housing associations can move beyond the experimental phase and into the roll out of retrofits across their stock. The architect is working with three other housing associations on similar projects.

For Poplar Harca, anyway, Mr Dooley says Coventry Cross has changed the working practices of its regeneration and maintenance teams. ‘I think it’s come more to the forefront of our decision making, bringing the CO2 emissions, the thermal qualities of the building more to the front. We can see the benefits.’

Coventry Cross estate tenant

In from the cold

Fran Jefcoate, 55, first lived on the Coventry Cross estate 30 years ago. Her flat, which she shares with a cat, Rizz, and an elderly dog called Twiglet, is on the ground floor in Brimsdown House, is already warmer as a result of the renovation work.

‘Oh yes. You’d have the heating on, and you’d turn it off and the heat was gone immediately,’ she says.

‘It was a really grim estate, really grim,’ she says. It’s much better now. I’m really excited; it’s starting to look really brilliant.

‘This estate was the sort of place if someone was visiting, you’d feel a little bit ashamed of it, because it was so grimy - it’s just going to look so much nicer.’

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