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High-rise flats: spruce them up or tear them down?

Shutterstock enfield towers in 2013

Has the climate emergency tipped the balance in favour of upgrading rather than demolishing the UK’s ageing tower blocks? Ella Jessel reports

‘Retrofit is quite expensive but it’s still the right thing to do,’ says Sarah Cary, executive director of place at Enfield Council, summing up the dilemma faced by the owners of the UK’s tired high-rise blocks.

Speaking at a panel discussion on the climate crisis organised by Public Practice, Cary explains how the north London borough is undertaking a variety of retrofit projects.

In 2018 it completed the installation of heat pumps to 400 flats in eight tower blocks, the largest district ground source system in England. It is now undertaking a retrofit pilot on four of its 54 tower blocks.

‘The worst one of those is costing £8 million and the cheapest is about £4 million,’ Cary says, adding: ‘It means we can’t [fund] other things and we might end up doing less housing development.’

Pivotal decisions like this are being made across the country as the estimated 400,000 high-rise flats built during the 1960s and 70s building boom reach the end of their design life. 

Faced with poor building fabric and cold bridging, today’s residents are reportedly suffering from acute fuel poverty. Yet these blocks often require major repairs to bring them up to standard. 

What’s more, the significant cost of refurbishment means upgrades are often delayed until a decision can be taken over whether it would be easier and cheaper to simply demolish and rebuild.

The stakes are especially high for local authorities, which are often too cash-strapped to afford borough-wide retrofit programmes.

By reworking what we already have we can save money and save communities in the process 

But with councils across the country declaring climate emergencies, housing chiefs are coming under greater pressure to take a longer-term view and avoid the heavy carbon costs of demolishing concrete towers.

This is further complicated by the fact that tower block refurbishment projects – especially those aiming to insulate a building’s fabric – remain under huge scrutiny in the wake of 2017’s Grenfell fire.

Since the blaze, which killed 72 people, campaigners have been calling for immediate improvements to tower blocks, such as installing sprinklers in all high-rises and the removal of flammable cladding.

When buildings are structurally safe and able to be refurbished, the benefits of retention over demolition are clear. As Jonathan Tuckey of Jonathan Tuckey design says: ‘Existing communities have to be relocated when destroying towers, which is both expensive and hugely damaging to social cohesion. By reworking what we already have we can save money and save communities in the process.’ 

In addition, as Dustin Benton, policy director at think tank Green Alliance, explains, the amount of embodied carbon in a tower block means it is more environmentally friendly to retain it. ‘If we want to get to net zero we can’t tear everything down and rebuild it,’ he says. 

But are these environmental arguments gaining any traction among local authorities? ‘People are still scrambling around for little bits of money in the short term rather than thinking of a local-authority-wide retrofit scheme,’ says Benton. But he believes the recent spate of councils declaring climate emergencies is a cause for optimism.

Balfron tower © the modern house

Balfron tower © the modern house

Balfron Tower in east London, where residents were decanted and the flats upgraded to be sold off on the open market

Enfield declared a climate emergency in June. Yet as Cary, a former head of sustainability at British Land, points out, while cost-effective in the long term, the upfront costs of retrofit are high. ‘There are very few financial incentives to do major retrofit, particularly if you have to move all the residents out,’ she says.

She adds that many of the council blocks built in the 60s and 70s had to be demolished. ‘There are some buildings that were very badly designed, whether [in terms of] social issues or the structural fabric, and they do have to come down.’ 

This has proved the case with scores of tower blocks built using the large panel system – the method deployed at Ronan Point – many of which have been found to be at risk of collapse. Many problems were revealed after councils inspected their stock in the wake of the Grenfell fire.

Buckley Gray Yeoman director Laura O’Hagan admits reuse is not always the right answer, though each building should be looked at individually. ‘Tower blocks should be assessed on their merits,’ she says, ‘but if the frame of a building is structurally sound and offers sufficient floor-to-ceiling heights then this makes a strong case for its retention.’

The practical challenges of upgrading tower blocks include considering the thermal values of a building’s existing envelope as well as its space standards, heating and ventilation and any asbestos removal.

Simon Bayliss of HTA Design has experience of both retrofit work – the practice has refurbished around a dozen high-rise blocks across London – as well as demolishing and starting again.

From what he has found, floor-to-ceiling heights are often broadly in line with current standards while space standards are typically Parker Morris and a little under current benchmarks.

If the building frame is structurally sound and offers sufficient floor-to-ceiling heights then this makes a strong case for its retention 

‘Refurbishment is often messy and difficult to manage well as individual conditions vary widely across any particular building,’ he says, ‘and the largely subcontracted nature of much of current construction makes management and oversight very difficult and as a result usually more costly.’

Bayliss also argues that in the aftermath of Grenfell, there are new challenges in terms of the lack of clarity in the regulatory environment. ‘Most blocks remain in the ownership of local authorities, who are often not well equipped to manage construction contracts and balance the need to minimise capital expenditure against the benefit of long-term savings,’ he says.

O’Hagan says the sheer cost of undertaking some of these challenges means demolition often becomes the most attractive option. ‘To successfully encourage more widespread refurbishment rather than demolition of these buildings therefore requires some form of inducement,’ she argues.

Possible incentives, she suggests, could comprise zero VAT rating on refurbishments (currently charged at 20 per cent) or an alternative listing system for the embodied carbon in a building. 

‘This could result in their remodelling and reuse in a similar way to buildings that have been listed for their historic value,’ she says.

While retrofitting tower blocks can often avoid displacing residents, as O’Hagan points out, refurb does not necessarily mean a guarantee of stability for existing tenants. 

There have been notable cases, such as Balfron Tower in east London, where residents were decanted and the flats upgraded to be sold off on the open market.

It is vital that people who live in the buildings are central to the refurb process, argues Gibson Thornley Architects director Matt Thornley. ‘The people who live in tower blocks know a huge amount about how their buildings work and don’t work. Time is needed up front with residents to work out what the issues are, what are the priorities and to create a project-specific strategy.’

Danielle Gregory is a resident of the Ledbury Estate, which was evacuated in August 2017 amid safety concerns, and a member of campaign group Tower Blocks UK. She agrees that residents should always be central to the retrofit process. 

‘If landlords continue to see the buildings and the residents who inhabit them as entirely separate,’ she says, ‘then these issues won’t be resolved any time soon.’


Tony Barton, chairman of Donald Insall Associates

The challenges for reusing tall buildings of some architectural merit are no different in principle, than any other large building seeking a new life. We believe that we should be talking about “futureproofing” tall buildings as “retrofitting” doesn’t describe the complex issues involved. For example, a key point to consider in a tall building is safe escape in case of fire, including safe escape for all levels of mobility. If a tall building doesn’t have a second stair and protected lift shaft, can one be accommodated, inside or out, in such a way as the significance of the architecture is not lost?

Large structures can be adapted to meet the needs of today and tomorrow without damaging character, through the creative attention of the architectural profession.

The embedded energy within the existing fabric will be significant and must be accounted for when considering futureproofing or replacement. What is the cost in cash and carbon? Would a new use offer attractive and comfortable amenity? Can it be serviced and will the heating/cooling result in unsustainable energy use?

Deborah Saunt of DSDHA

Existing preconceptions by clients and agents [on retrofitting tired office blocvs] about what will and won’t work makes retrofit harder as you are often dealing with a ‘cookie cutter’ solution of standard spatial components, which tend to be used as a benchmark for making assessments. This means that, as an architect, you need to be fully conversant in what the standard economics of the industry are to offer new creative solutions which challenge them.

The best way of dislodging the more entrenched preconceptions of commercial space, with its expectations of certain minimum floor to ceiling heights, column spacing etc, is to provide evidence for a viable alternative, and that means using research and business intelligence as key tool. Key to this is in providing precedent studies, including the performance statistics of other projects – not just spatially, but also in terms of economic and environmental performance over a longer period than usual.

It is becoming easier to shift expectations using visualisation tools, such as AR, to show how new spaces and amenities can push the design. At our scheme to retrofit and extend 125 Shaftesbury Avenue we used AR to demonstrate to our client Almacantar that, whilst providing terraces on every floor would lose some floor area, it would also bring tangible benefits. This hands-on, forward thinking approach is key in terms of promoting new qualities of space that challenge conventional wisdom


Readers' comments (8)

  • The climate emergency provides further justification for a more constructive and creative approach to the adaptation of existing buildings, including those that we consider historically significant. We have to accept that adaptation to improve their performance or make them suitable for continued use is a precondition, rather than something to be balanced against other interests. Our heritage includes many examples of how buildings have been adapted over centuries to meet changing standards and requirements. Many of these are our most highly-prized heritage assets. Such adaptation is an opportunity for us to demonstrate our appreciation of a building's significance while adding features that will in future be acknowledged as historic references to our new understanding.

    Steven Bee
    Chair, Historic Towns and Villages Forum

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  • of course we should reuse/upgrade existing buildings. its all about tax however - refurbishment should be subject to the same or a more favourable rate of vat than new build.

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  • Chris Medland is absolutely right. VAT in particular has a damaging impact on the finacial viability of re-using old buildings and should be addressed urgently. It is nonsense that there is a fiancial incentive to demolish. Lets level the playing field, and then use VAT to incentivise more sustainable construction. How is described here: - https://projectcompass.co.uk/index.php/2019/07/26/vat-reform-would-promote-co2-emissions-reductions-so-why-the-delay/ .

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  • Clare Richards

    The reasons for upgrading are social as well as environmental. When it comes to estate regeneration there’s still a knee-jerk presumption in favour of demolition and redevelopment. It’s not just that existing residents don’t get a look-in (which excludes the very people whose opinion could add most value), it’s the fact that demolition is hugely destructive of community. It causes widespread displacement and social division, flying in the face of the NPPF’s ‘social objective’, “to support strong, vibrant and healthy communities… that reflect current and future needs and support communities’ health, social and cultural well-being”.

    It’s there in the NPPF and in the draft new London Plan. But the policy lacks teeth and planners and developers don’t apply it.

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  • Industry Professional

    I am an engineer rather than an architect but it has occurred to me that by refurbishing something most architects think that we are adding value to something that often already has some value while by demolishing and replacing a building with something new we often are not adding value at all! New is not always better, just different and often less available. Jeffrey Smith

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  • Tear them down they look awful and we can do so much better for housing than bland estates

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  • There are about 1,500 Large Panel System built tower blocks across the UK left over from the sixties and seventies which are STRUCTURALLY UNSOUND.

    Climate change is not only causing fuel poverty and carbon footprint awareness but also causing the large panels to expand and contract more severely with the more extreme temperature changes we now experience with every changing season in the UK. Very hot days followed by heavy down pours of rain with stronger winds.

    Many of these blocks should never have been built and those built after Ronan Point collapsed which had already been approved or were already under construction were rushed through to completion by unskilled labour whilst the ministries dithered about new building regulations. (Much like today. We now have death trap timber frame dwellings; another by product of Green-ability construction ratings).

    Communities were shattered and damp and bad living ensued for many residents.

    When the large panels expand fire safety is breached as flames and smoke cannot be successfully held back from spreading from flat to flat as intended; compartmentation can no longer be guaranteed and the sometimes fragile or missing joints are put under extra stress. Water ingress contributes to the deterioration of these joints and residents lives are put at risk. The "stay put" policy is then not reliable.

    Meanwhile consultants go through all the motions as Arup has done at the Ledbury Estate with Southwark, at a vast cost to the already cash strapped Local Authority, to come to the inevitable conclusion that in fact the blocks are unsafe and must come down.

    There are some fantastical "fixes" and remedies now being suggested at Broadwater Farm in Tottenham which will, inevitably, be found to be floored and not viable.

    The residents, meanwhile, of these blocks are left in limbo with little or no guarantees or information from their Council's about where they stand or what the future holds regarding re-development plans.

    Is it OK to ignore and deny residents' fears for years and then suddenly announce everyone needs to be evacuated. Local Authorities need to wise up and Government needs to get involved to formulate suitable plans well ahead of what is becoming the same old story with these death traps which should never have got passed the planning stages and would not be allowed to be built today, however shaky our current building regulations.

    Those proposing to spruce up "structurally sound" and well built tower blocks under a "greener life" banner had better make sure they absolutely know which ones they are and, above all, they are as safe as houses.

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  • https://www.insidehousing.co.uk/news/news/sombre-residents-fear-ledbury-estate-towers-face-demolition-63879

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