Sunday, 30 April 2017

How to... retrofit tower blocks

A refurbishment project in west London can teach developers and local authorities five key lessons on how to successfully retrofit tower blocks, says Thomas Heldgaard


Retrofitting tower blocks to make them more sustainable and nicer places to live is a massive task.There are around 6,500 tower blocks in the UK, housing around 800,000 people with many of them built during the 1950s and 1960s post-war boom years. As a result, many are in urgent need of renovation and are often highly energy inefficient.

These are the five key lessons we learned during the £16.13 million regeneration of the Edward Woods estate, funded by Hammersmith & Fulham Council, supplemented with various grants. The London School of Economics studied the retrofit process in detail, to chart the social impact of energy efficiency improvements to tower blocks.

Work on the estate, which has 854 council-owned homes, three tower blocks and four walk-up blocks without lifts, includes external wall insulation to increase thermal efficiency, boost the structural soundness of the building and cut fuel bills for the residents. The entire project is expected to save 54,409 tonnes of CO2. The project is still under way, but local authorities and developers looking at other retrofit projects can learn some very useful lessons.

Communal areas

Tower blocks are more than a series of individual homes, they’re also a community. The original concept of ‘towns in the sky’ has been criticised over the years but numerous surveys have shown residents in tower blocks actually like living there and have a strong sense of community (with a few notable exceptions). Experience has shown that addressing the communal areas at the same time as retrofitting individual homes is likely to improve residents’ pride in the building.

Engage with tenants

If residents feel they have choice in the retrofit and can select from a range of material and design options, they will feel more ownership about the works. Retrofitting is just one element of a successful project, residents also have to learn to live in their completed homes. They have to be educated on how to use their new boiler, keep the thermostat down and conserve energy if they are to benefit from ‘green’ retrofitting. In the Edward Woods renovation, residents were constantly engaged and educated about the impact of the insulation and green improvements and were treated like the client, with regular progress reports and design updates. They were also involved in design decisions, getting the opportunity to choose the colour scheme of the external wall insulation.

Learn from other schemes

Learn lessons from other boroughs - there are many best practice examples across the country of tower block retrofit. Sharing these among local authorities is the way best practice is learnt.

‘Whole estate’ approach

Addressing the ‘whole estate’ environment while retrofitting tower blocks is crucial to ensure tenant buy-in. Some of the budget should be spent on improving the local environment, such as planting trees, installing a new playground and fixing the pavements. This type of action can make a considerable difference to the total impact of a retrofitting programme. Some insulation types can significantly improve the fire safety and acoustic performance of the building.

Engage stakeholders early

Ensuring all stakeholders are engaged early means there will be fewer problems later in the project. If planning officers, local authorities, residents, architects and manufacturers are engaging with one another at an early stage, costs can be more accurately controlled and new building innovations trialled. Tower blocks are the largest residential buildings in the country, retrofitting these monumental structures pushes design, architecture and planning boundaries, so it makes sense to work together.

Thomas Heldgaard is managing director of Rockwool UK

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