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How to make high rise homes fit for the future

Wilmcote house new balconyThis post is by James Traynor, director of architecture at ECD Architects.

Is it right that people live in homes they can’t afford to heat without taking out a loan, and which cause them health problems from excessive humidity and mould? Why is the UK’s housing stock in such poor condition and how can it be improved to meet the needs of both current and future generations? Above all, what are the implications of a failure to act?

These questions are particularly relevant to tower blocks and their residents. Most blocks were built at a time when energy was cheap and build quality variable. Using pre-fabricated construction methods in the white heat of 1960s technology, many residents are now suffering the effects of rising fuel prices and poor construction. Nevertheless tower blocks offer a unique opportunity both to resolve fuel poverty issues and provide attractive high density living in times of increasing housing shortage.

Government funding schemes aren’t working
Housing retrofit and refurbishment are seen as a vital step in addressing UK carbon reduction. The government’s efforts to stimulate activity have focussed on making funding more readily available through schemes such as Green Deal and ECO (Energy Company Obligation). Unfortunately, neither have performed as well as hoped and both have suffered from changes that have undermined them.

This has resulted in mixed messages and stalled initiatives with disastrous consequences for industry, for local authorities and housing associations planning retrofit, and for the residents of affected properties.

All parties are clear that a huge increase in retrofit will be required if the UK is to meet its carbon reduction commitments for 2020 let alone 2050. According to the Institute for Sustainability, we will need to achieve 20 million improvements over the remaining 36 years, which is equivalent to 10,680 a week.  What is less clear is the route to achieve this objective.

Deep retrofit is a long term solution
Our enlightened clients are realising that deep retrofit provides a long term solution which literally and metaphorically insulates residents from future energy price rises. It can also address existing maintenance issues, preventing further deterioration to structure, and upgrading services long overdue for overhaul. It can also address the visual appearance of the block which, due to its scale, can significantly change perceptions of both the block and wider area.

Clients, like Portsmouth City Council, are proceeding despite, rather than because of government support. They are taking a long-term, strategic view of their stock and investing to ensure they address both the immediate and longer term needs of their residents. Unfortunately, this is not yet common practice and too many housing landlords have been caught out by reliance on short term funding pots quickly withdrawn by central government.

A range of retrofit options for tower blocks are available and can include communal heating systems or super-insulated cladding. Whichever option is pursued, the thermal comfort of the residents will be massively improved.

Flats feel bigger
Having completed over 25 tower block retrofits at ECD, one of the most common remarks we hear from residents, after work has been completed, is that their  flat feels much larger because they can heat and use all their rooms. Addressing perceived overcrowding may be an unlikely outcome of retrofit but it is one of many benefits.

Understanding and measuring these benefits is key to ensuring lessons are learned, built into future best practice and replicated more widely.

Our work at Wilmcote House for Portsmouth City Council (featured as a case study in Green Alliance’s recent report Greening the skyline) is measuring the economic, social and health related outcomes of tower block retrofit to provide a full picture of the benefits.

Not yet achieving carbon savings
However, one of the initial findings has revealed that, although we are very likely to achieve the targeted thermal performance, we are unlikely to make the projected carbon savings. This is due to the fact that a significant number of residents had only been partially heating their homes to avoid unmanageable energy bills. Once retrofit is complete, they can afford to use more heating and reach acceptable levels of warmth. This is, of course, welcome but it can mean that carbon emissions don’t come down. So there is a continuing need to explore ways of delivering carbon savings as well as improved warmth.


Once retrofit is complete and homes are more efficient, residents can be more confident about the affordability of heating their homes properly. Through retrofit, they can and should be able to live in homes fit for the future.

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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