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Is there hope for high rise towers?

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An event held as part of Green Sky Thinking discussed the implications of retrofitting residential tower blocks

At a breakfast event hosted by Rockwool, as part of Green Sky Thinking, the implications of retrofitting high rise tower blocks was discussed.

Rockwool recently published a report entitled High Rise Hope, produced for them by the LSE. The report highlighted the social implications of energy efficiency retrofits for tower blocks, using the Edward Woods Estate in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham as a Case Study. Mark Elton, of ECD Architects, who were responsible for the £16 million refurbishment was present at the discussion.

Speakers included:

Tower blocks came out of a past where we had to build fast in order to house the population. Local authorities managed to deliver homes at speed. However, it is this speed which has left us with a wealth of problems, which, it is hoped, can be solved through the retrofit agenda.

Despite describing some of these tower blocks as ‘the greatest insult to the London skyline that has ever been perpetrated’, Peter Murray says there is a need to be more adventurous in the way we look at towers. He suggested looking at clustering them and cutting away certain areas to create sky gardens, citing the work of the architect Ken Yeang.

Hannah Kryke Smith described her work in engaging with the communities living in tower blocks. The sense of community in tower blocks is exceptionally strong. ‘People actually love living there’, she says.

Although it costs more to pull tower blocks down than to refurbish them, government policy is not geared up for this. Kyrke Smith criticised policies for generally being geared towards street level housing.

Tony Hutchinson feels that attitudes towards high rise housing are a hindrance to their redevelopment, describing how in the UK, we regard them as ‘modernist experiments which are therefore bad’. ‘Good tower blocks are those in the right location – where people want to live’, he adds.

We were taken through the factors which are considered when deciding whether to retrofit or demolish a tower block by Stephen Newman. This includes looking at what people want out of where they live:

  • Prosperous places – close to work or with easy access to work
  • Community – people like to live in places with a strong sense of community and tower blocks tend to have this
  • Safety – this is normally to do with the bases of towers and their entrances
  • Convenience – about the ease of access to local amenities and shops
  • Space – open space with public access around tower blocks is very important and should not be forgotten or leftover spaces
  • Care of the environment – this is tied in with good management of the building
  • Beauty – people want to live in places which they perceive as beautiful and refurbishment gives a chance to change the external appearance
  • Environmental sustainability – rising energy bills mean the public are becoming more attuned to this

Retrofitting these blocks is important, to reduce their energy use and carbon emissions, but also to make them work for those who live within them. We have no choice but to regenerate and refurbish our tower blocks. They provide high density housing which is not possible to recreate by other means. It is not sustainable to replace them with low rise housing. There just isn’t the land available to do this. It was important that the discussion touched on the community issues of these estates. The retrofit discussion has moved from talking about energy use or appearance and on to the holistic approach of sustainability. Hannah Kryke Smith summed this up well, in describing the process as ‘retrofitting for resilience’. It is about creating sustainable environments with a sense of not just environmental sustainability but also social sustainability.

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