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Construction tsar forecasts end for 1960s blocks

The government’s chief construction adviser believes that many buildings built in the 1960s and ’70s will have to be torn down to meet carbon targets.

Paul Morrell, who is heading the Low Carbon Construction Review, said many blocks were impossible to improve to meet current green standards, due to low build quality, poor floor loadings and insufficient floor-to-floor heights.

Speaking to the AJ, the former deputy CABE chair said: ‘In the 1950s, most of what was built continued the traditions of the 1930s, and we almost unconsciously put up buildings that were durable and functional.

‘By the 1960s, however, we got “cleverer”, squeezing cost out of every element of the building and industrialising parts of the process.’

Morrell acknowledges this ‘was an understandable response to the need to rebuild the country’. However, he believes much of the resulting product is now ‘not suited to upgrade’. He points the finger in particular at ‘inadequate floor/floor heights, low floor loadings, low levels of insulation, poorly performing facades and poor build quality’.

‘By the 1960s we got cleverer, squeezing cost out of every element of the building’

Construction tsar Morrell, who has been asked by the government to cut carbon emissions from the construction industry by 80 per cent by 2050, said these buildings increasingly posed a dilemma for architects and their clients when considering whether to demolish or retrofit an ageing block.

He said: ‘There needs to be a calculation that balances the ability to bring the building up to higher performance levels, energy wise, against the carbon cost of knocking it down and rebuilding it – that is, replacing all that carbon tied up in the existing structure.’

He added: ‘About 70 per cent of that carbon will be in the structure and envelope, so there is a real carbon benefit if they can be retained. However, if you look around you, most of the “bad stuff” you see was built in those two decades [1960s and 1970s], when we had little money, and were having to respond to an age of austerity.’

Postscript - a response from The Twentieth Century Society

Director Catherine Croft said: ‘In the Sixties, many buildings were indeed built “cheaper, faster and nastier”—but by no means all of them were. We need to discriminate and make sure we don’t completely obliterate a complete chapter of our history. 

‘There are a limited number of excellent buildings of these two decades which are of great design quality. Some are lightweight structures that leak heat, or have deep plan forms that make artificial lighting and ventilation a necessity.

‘They were the product of an age when electricity was cheap and global warming unthought of, but many have the potential to function efficiently and more research is needed to ensure this happens.  Brutalist concrete buildings may have the most potential for a sensible makeover-the sheer mass of that concrete can insulate both from winter cold and excessive summer heat.’

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