Why old tower blocks should be included in new city visions

Block towers in Kennogton Park, London.UK cities have been growing in influence for some years now. This looks set to continue as the devolution debate rumbles on in the wake of the Scottish referendum.

At Green Alliance we’re interested in the potential of cities to add dynamism to the low carbon economy. They are well placed to realise the tangible benefits: through public transport improvements, growing low carbon industries and green jobs, and developing sustainable, liveable communities.

The often fraught question of housing underlies any town or city’s plans for the future. It’s often assumed that solutions to the housing challenge lie with the new, for example through new garden cities or urban extensions. But urban landscapes are covered in housing developments that serve as reminders of how successive decades envisaged modern living. Tower blocks from the 60s and 70s are arguably the hardest of these developments to ignore, as they dominate neighbourhoods and skylines around the UK.

As local authorities enthusiastically embrace visions of a cleaner, greener future, how can they ensure that the complex housing developments that still house many of their residents take their place in the future as well as the past?

Encouraging energy retrofit
400,000 homes in the UK are in tower blocks. Many are disadvantaged. Seventy one per cent of people living on or above the 5th floor are social rented sector tenants. Due to poor building fabric that leaks heat, many tower block residents are suffering from increasingly acute fuel poverty and quality of life challenges.

Environmental arguments alone have rarely been enough to justify energy efficiency retrofits of tower blocks. The complexity and expense of the task makes it understandably tempting for local authority and housing association managers responsible for tower blocks to put them at the back of the queue for improvements. But the rising fuel poverty challenge has given the green light for more schemes to go ahead.

Two great examples of successful schemes, in Islington and Portsmouth, are highlighted in our new report Greening the skyline. But tower block retrofit remains an intimidating endeavour. So how can more local authorities and housing associations be encouraged to follow the good examples that do exist and develop the momentum to improve tower blocks?

Success factors for tower block schemes
After speaking to a range of experts in retrofit, we’ve come up with a set of principles to ensure schemes are successful. Central among them was a response to the turbulent funding environment.

The Energy Company Obligation (ECO) scheme, which incentivised hard to treat retrofits, galvanised a number of plans for tower block retrofit. But these suffered a serious setback when dramatic changes to ECO were introduced in late 2013, which hollowed out many of their budgets and caused them to be shelved or significantly scaled back.

In contrast, successful projects tend to rest on robust business plans, making a strong and convincing case for retrofit on the basis of the wide range of benefits it can deliver, with fuel poverty as a key driver. This approach has attracted funding, political and management support and has left projects far less vulnerable than those that were opportunistically responding to new funding opportunities.

Schemes should also be creative in identifying the benefits that tower block retrofit can deliver. Better health, quality of life and improved security have often come to light after works have been completed. New projects can increasingly use this growing evidence base to make the case for retrofit in the first place, highlighting and valuing the improvements in their business plans.

Good resident engagement is also evident in any successful project. This is often done well during retrofit, with residents being kept informed about work and any inconveniences it will cause. But there is an evident need to do more post-retrofit communication. Residents will often be adjusting to the new features of their heating systems and environment controls and it’s essential they know how to operate them. This will ensure they get the most benefit from the work that has been done and, more importantly, that the outcomes of the building retrofit as a whole are not undermined.

The potential of smart meters and district heating
Our research also drew attention to two developments with great potential to enhance tower blocks: smart meters and district heating.

Although fitting smart meters in tower blocks is often seen as problematic, we found evidence of approaches, like Siemens’ ‘smart backbone’, that will help to make sure that tower block residents don’t lose out. The government is currently considering how best to enable such approaches. It is also actively supporting new district heating development in cities and towns. Tower blocks, with their high density and varied heat demand, can be ideal components of district heating networks.  Local authorities and housing associations should harness the potential of both of these developments when planning retrofit.

As cities and towns strive for greater sustainability their older housing like tower blocks, which was at the cutting edge of modernity when it was built, must continue to have a place in the future as well as the past.

 

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