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Green Sky Thinking: retrofitting high-rise housing

ECD Architects’ Nick Newman discusses the practice’s Green Sky Thinking event

Green Sky Thinking is a time to put down the tools of our trade and to take a moment to share and celebrate the progressive steps that are being taken to reduce the environmental impact of our cities, and (in so doing) to improve the quality of life for all who live there.

At the Green Sky breakfast last week at City hall, session chair Richard Shennan of Mott Macdonald reminded us that the high-level ambition to make positive changes in a city will happen only when its population can experience, and engage with that change. This is all about capturing imagination.

Rising to the mantra, for this year’s Green Sky thinking at ECD Architects, we wanted to showcase a series of high-profile, symbolic transformations that have been implemented over the practice’s history.  During our two sessions held on 28 April at our offices, we discussed the comprehensive retrofit, redesign and remodelling of the six high rise-social housing blocks and their surrounding estates.

We presented a potted history of the post-war ‘big push’ for new social housing between 1945-75, which created challenging targets for local authorities, to deliver unprecedented numbers of units. The answer, for many authorities was to build upwards, and during the 1960’s over 50 per cent of all dwellings built in Greater London during 1960’s were in high-rise blocks. As a result of the disastrous progressive collapse a Ronan point in 1968, coupled with a wider shift in opinion about the aptness of these estates to meet our housing needs, there followed a public cry for demolition of high-rise.

But a reactive response is rarely the most sustainable, and we were keen to show how a deep retrofit approach can win out holistically, keeping a community together, whilst satisfying their immediate needs for improved quality of life, and longer term 2050 targets for climate change. We  discussed the steps that must be taken to transform the prospects of an estate, from structural investigation and repairs, to external wall insulation, to security and concierge services, and the creation of semi public and private spaces.

From our earliest interventions at the Barley Mow estate in 1984 with 100mm EWI, to our current project Wilmcote House, the largest in the country to be refurbished to the Enerphit standard, we were able to demonstrate, that in whole life terms, the retrofit approach is the most likely to be the cheapest and most effective approach that a local authority or RSL can take to meet residents ongoing needs.

From national success stories such as the Barbican, we know that if well designed and well maintained, high-rise housing fosters thriving communities, with high densities, good A/V ratios and access to community facilities. All social housing deserves to be at least as good as this, and we hope the lessons learned from the projects showcased at the Green Sky event, will help other communities realise that change.

  • Nick Newman is an associate at ECD Architects

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