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Academics: ‘Don't use Grenfell Tower tragedy to justify high-rise demolitions’

Grenfell tower fire crop
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The Grenfell Tower disaster should not be used to justify large-scale demolition of post-war high-rise housing, leading built environment academics tell London’s mayor

A group of 18 staff from University College London – including Bartlett dean Alan Penn and faculty director Bob Sheil – say that 1960s and 1970s residential towers have a large role to play in tackling the housing crisis.

In a letter to London mayor Sadiq Khan, the academics said that the tragedy should lead to improved standards for refurbishment of blocks, rather than their demolition.

The letter said: ‘At this early stage, we caution against prematurely attributing blame to tower blocks built during the post-war era’s mass social housing programmes. The stigmatisation of tower blocks and estates has played a very negative role within the current housing crisis.’

The UCL staff said that refurbishment was ‘an important alternative’ to demolition of social housing.

The letter continued: ‘In the Grenfell Tower fire, it appears that low standards of design, materials, construction and an emphasis on reducing refurbishment costs have led to devastating consequences. Tower block refurbishments can be achieved safely if appropriate design, construction and management standards are followed, and additional fire safety measures such as sprinklers and fire exits are included.’

Last month Khan suggested that large numbers of tower blocks could be demolished as a result of the incident.

Writing in The Observer, he said: ‘The greatest legacy of this tragedy may well end up being the skyline of our towns and cities. In the post-war rush to reconstruct our country, towers went up in large numbers, most of which are still here today. Nowadays, we would not dream of building towers to the standards of the 1970s, but their inhabitants still have to live with that legacy. It may well be the defining outcome of this tragedy that the worst mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s are systematically torn down.’

Meanwhile, separately, research from UCL’s Energy Institute has found that electricity use per square metre of floor area in office buildings taller than 20 storeys is nearly two and a half times greater than in low-rise offices up to six storeys.

Philip Steadman, professor of urban and built form studies at UCL said: ‘We suspect that the reasons for our findings are connected with the physical and meteorological consequences of building higher.

‘Air temperature decreases with height, and average wind speed increases. Taller buildings that stand up above their neighbours are more exposed to these strong winds, as well as to more hours of direct sun.

‘Thus energy use for heating and cooling would both be increased. But these hypotheses have yet to be tested.’

The team’s research also found that densities achieved by tall towers can be achieved with lower-rise slab or courtyard buildings.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I wonder if your last sentence makes Philip Steadman feel like Rip van Winkle...

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