Enfield Council is regenerating its 1960s Alma Estate. Resident safety director Sarah Stevenson-Jones talks through the local authority’s strategy for investing in safety innovation over the next decade
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Tell us about your role as resident safety director
I joined Enfield Council in 2018. My role was created as a direct result of the Building Safety Bill’s recommendation to provide a greater level of assurance on building safety and compliance, and to prepare the council for the forthcoming regulatory framework.
We further restructured at the beginning of this year, so I am now responsible for asset strategy in relation to council housing, building safety, compliance and capital programme delivery across the council’s directly managed stock of around 10,000 homes.
My role also spans across our regeneration and development projects to ensure that buildings are not only compliant, but also safe at occupation.
The Alma Estate was built in the 1960s, including three 23-storey high-rise blocks. What is the background to the regeneration project?
The Alma Estate is the first estate regeneration project in the borough for more than 30 years. The original properties consisted of 547 social rent units and 170 leasehold units, and the full redevelopment will provide 993 homes in total.
In 2012, the estate was identified for regeneration based on a number of factors including anti-social behaviour and increasing repair costs due to the age of the stock – which meant the properties were becoming difficult to let. The residents association was key in pushing for full regeneration.
The estate is being connected to the council’s new community heating network, via an energy centre that will provide a decarbonised source of heating and hot water for the new homes.
Does the mix of stock make a difference to the compliance aspect of the project?
The tenure mix doesn’t influence how we manage compliance across the stock. We don’t have a two-tier system of safety between new builds and the existing stock – the standard of management and controls we apply are uniform.
The council committed to retrofitting suppression systems [sprinklers] across the stock, subject to central government providing funding, as well as carrying out fire door upgrade programmes and the costs incurred in preparing for the Building Safety Bill and the Fire Safety Bill. Despite such funding not being forthcoming, the council is progressing with its plans and will begin the installation of sprinkler systems in eight high-rise blocks in November.
We are investing about £70m in building safety and sustainability improvements in the next five years, adopting a holistic ‘whole-house’, fabric-first approach. Our plan is to retrofit our buildings to ensure they can perform well without significant intervention for at least 10 years.
The move to embrace new technologies is driven by the need to mitigate life cycle and service cost for residents and, again, the council’s carbon agenda. Self-testing alarm systems, for example, allow us to remotely test whenever we want rather than on a dedicated monthly cycle, giving an enhanced level of assurance. It also helps with data quality as we don’t have a lag between the test and getting the certificate.
What other technology are you looking at?
We are currently upgrading our asset management system, to centralise all our asset data into a single platform, so we have a single source of ‘truth’. This includes our stock condition surveys, fire risk assessments, asbestos register and compliance management data.
Historically, teams across council departments have worked in a siloed way. That needs to change; we need to improve data quality, management and control so that we can maintain a ‘golden thread’ of information for each of our assets. I imagine data quality is a concern for many other social landlords, but we’ve found that as the client we haven’t made sure we have all the information from our supply chain in the past – and that has to change. We cannot be unable to manage our stock because we haven’t made our suppliers fulfil their contractual requirements to provide us with the relevant information. This is a key focus for us for the next 12 months.
To address this we’ve created a new role within our asset team: the building safety and information manager. This role is solely focused on the control and quality of data to provide me with assurance that the information we hold on our stock is correct; that we are maintaining all our assets; and that when a building goes through change, the information from the contractors is of the quality we need.
Will the new system and the information be available for residents to find out about the safety of their homes?
We will be building a search engine that we’re hoping will go live early next year. Residents will be able to search for their home by postcode and access relevant parts of the fire risk assessment for their block. We will also be publishing a landlord compliance report, on a block-by-block basis, that will tell residents the current compliance status of their block and detail any outstanding actions that the council needs to complete. In order to engage residents, we need to be transparent and open to scrutiny.
Enfield Council is also exploring the advantages of building information modelling. The 3D tool is widely used in commercial construction, but it is a relatively new technology in the social housing sector. We are finding the use of visual models useful to support resident engagement, and I feel they will become more of a tool for maintenance activities as the technology develops.
We have recently created a 4D model of a retrofit of a 23-storey block, which included an avatar that allowed residents to walk around the virtual site and demonstrated how we’re temporarily moving car parking and playground areas, and dealing with traffic management. It’s worked really well, particularly during the COVID-19 lockdown as more residents have attended meetings via Zoom. The advantage of that is we can record them and save them onto our website for residents to watch at any time.
When the Alma Estate works are complete in 2022, do you envisage that it will be safe for the next 10 years?
We are trying our best to future-proof the estate to avoid further disruptive works in the near future. One area we are currently evaluating is the upgrade of digital systems, such as broadband and fibre optic installations, as part of our retrofit schemes. I want to avoid delivering a safe and sustainable but unconnected building, which would result in intrusive works within the next two to five years’ time should an operator approach us seeking consent to install fibre optic cables, for example, resulting in them disturbing my perfect fire-stopping!
As a sector and as supported by Dame Judith Hackitt, we need to start managing our buildings as systems and adopt a holistic approach to management.