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Studio Egret West’s Balfron Tower overhaul slammed as ‘tragic’ missed opportunity

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Studio Egret West’s newly-unveiled upgrade of Ernő Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower has been slammed by conservationists as a ‘tragic missed opportunity’ 

The Twentieth Century Society said the 27-storey tower’s new look, which was revealed as screens around the top of the east London landmark were taken down, was dramatically different from Goldfinger’s original design and ‘looks awful’. 

Studio Egret West and Ab Rogers Design were appointed to undertake the £40 million revamp by Londonnewcastle with joint venture partners Poplar HARCA and Telford Homes in 2013.

As well as refurbishing the tower’s 146 flats, the overhaul has involved the replacement of all windows in a different material, colour and with more slender frames.

Balfron originally had chunky white timber window frames, with distinctive vents on the east façade, largely similar to those on Trellick Tower, where its own refurbishment scheme has retained the original windows.

The new fenestration has an anodised brown metal finish and slim profile, with matching fascia panels, different to those they have replaced, and ‘unprecedented’ in the building.

Catherine Croft, director of The Twentieth Century Society, said: ’Given the controversial decision to change Balfron from social housing to private flats, this outcome is a tragic missed opportunity.

’Surely Brutalism now has enough fans that a conserved Balfron could be successfully marketed as a unique opportunity to live in a genuinely iconic Brutalist masterpiece. Now all that’s left is an ersatz hybrid.’

Christophe Egret, founder of Studio Egret West, said he was surprised at the society’s reaction and defended the studio’s choice of window specification and fenestration design.

He said: ’Bronze anodised aluminium frames were selected as the dark appearance is much less susceptible to staining caused by heavy traffic of the A12 than a white timber window would be, also offering a much greater level of acoustic and thermal performance.’

He added that, unlike the previous windows, the new ones did not require continuous maintenance, and their approach to the Balfron Tower refurbishment was ’informed by conservation, respecting the external fabric of the building’.

Tower Hamlets councillors gave the go-ahead for the controversial reconfiguration of Goldfinger’s 1960s Balfron Tower in east London in 2015.

Historic England approved of all the changes proposed in the planning application, including window replacement, of which they said, ’much of the significance of the Balfron Tower lies in its external character and landmark status. We consider the change of colour of the glazing bars to a darker anodised metal to be acceptable’. 

Croft criticised the decision at the time, saying: ‘Balfron Tower is an iconic post-war listed building by an outstanding architect, its national architectural significance recognised by the Grade II* listing. Future generations will regret the decision to strip out so much of the original fabric.’

The scheme also includes the reinstatement of original features such as the roof cornice, concrete boiler flues, internal corridors and the front entrance.

Balfron Tower was built between 1965 and 1967 and was Grade II-listed in 1996, a designation upgraded to Grade II* in October 2015. It is the largest block belonging to the Brownfield Estate in Poplar. 

Comment by Studio Egret West

We are surprised by the Twentieth Century Society’s recent reaction to the removal of the scaffolding, as the details of the new window were clearly set out in the proposals, which were discussed with The Twentieth Century Society and approved by London Borough of Tower Hamlets, with the support of Historic England, back in 2015.

The widening of the A12 in the 1990s and the increased traffic on the roads today has led to a huge rise in the volume of traffic in the immediate vicinity of Balfron Tower since Goldfinger designed the building back in the 1960s. It would have been impossible for Goldfinger to have anticipated this volume of traffic, the associated impact of the high level of noise on the residents or the effects the pollution on the appearance of the building.

As a result of the impact of the A12, the original timber windows on the south and east façades were replaced with uPVC windows with integrated acoustic vents. This resulted in a lack of uniformity across the fenestration of Balfron Tower and resulted in the building taking on a somewhat haphazard appearance. A further contributor to the incoherent appearance was the heavy discolouration of the white frames on the facades facing the A12. Given the care that Goldfinger took in designing the original building, we feel it is crucial that a consistent approach to the replacement of the fenestration is taken across all facades to restore a coherent and uniform appearance to the building while addressing the impact of the proximity of the A12.

Careful consideration was taken in the design and specification of the replacement window frames to find a solution which is respectful of the significance of the building while bringing the fabric of the building up to modern standards in terms of acoustic performance, thermal insulation and maintenance.

Due to the proximity to the A12 the envelope of the building needs to have a very high acoustic performance to prevent the noise from the road impacting on the quality of life of the residents. This is particularly problematic in the bedrooms, the majority of which are located on the east elevation overlooking the road.

A solution has been found which incorporates an acoustically ventilated panel into the fenestration system in all of the bedrooms. An acoustic attenuator will reduce the noise while still allowing natural ventilation of the bedroom. The perforated panel which sits in front of the vent will create a uniform appearance to the facade, conceal the vent and avoid the need for any unsightly vents on the façade.

The decision to choose aluminium framed windows over timber windows has been informed by this demanding acoustic requirement. Achieving such a high level of acoustic reduction and integrating acoustically attenuated ventilation into a timber window frame would be extremely difficult.

Bronze anodised aluminium frames were selected as the dark appearance is much less susceptible to staining caused by the heavy traffic of the A12 than a white painted timber window would be. The bronze anodised finish also complements the timber cladding on the neighbouring Goldfinger buildings of Carradale House and Glenkerry House.

The aluminium windows will not require the building to be scaffolded for re-painting and ongoing maintenance which would have been the case with timber windows. The low maintenance requirement will reduce the risk of Balfron Tower falling into a state of disrepair, as has happened in past.

The original horizontal and vertical fenestration pattern has been retained with the inclusion of two horizontal transoms. In addition, the dark coloured frames allow the concrete grid of the façade to be read more clearly.

The original metal frame windows in the utility tower, link bridges, gallery and stairs have been replaced with Crittall windows to a similar profile, thus conserving and updating the original design.

Studio Egret West’s approach to Balfron Tower has been informed by conservation; respecting the external fabric of the building, restoring the internal communal spaces and reinstating the concrete cornice and chimneys. Our design has been informed by extensive archival research at the RIBA Archive, Goldfinger Family Archive and London Metropolitan Archive. We have worked and continue to work closely with Historic England, and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets’ Conservation Officer throughout the refurbishment work.

Although Balfron Tower shares many details with Trellick Tower, Balfron Tower’s proximity to the A12 and differing orientation creates a very different set of performance requirements which are best addressed with the use of aluminium framed windows.

We are proud to be involved in the extensive refurbishment of Balfron Tower, making it fit for the 21st century and protecting this iconic brutalist building for future generations.

Comment by Historic England

Historic England’s role has been to provide advice to the developers to ensure that the significance of Grade II* listed Balfron Tower is sustained through its redevelopment. Approval for the scheme was from Tower Hamlets Council.

We have worked closely with the council and the developers to ensure that any harm is justified and mitigated by the delivery of heritage-related public benefits. In this case it was allowing a degree of change in order to facilitate the necessary conservation work to the structural concrete and provide the building with a long-term sustainable use, which very much reflects the key heritage considerations within national planning policy.

We have been consistent in our position that wholesale replacement of the windows is acceptable to us as approximately half of the existing windows had already been replaced by inappropriate uPVC units. We accepted the change in materials and colour – as agreed at Grade II* listed Park Hill estate in Sheffield and elsewhere - as our priority has been to ensure that the glazing arrangement would match the original design. We successfully negotiated this at pre-application stage following extensive discussions, to maintain the special interest of this important building.

  • 7 Comments

Readers' comments (7)

  • Gordon  Gibb

    The aluminium framed windows are certainly better than the uPVC replacements that they replace, and the maintenance issue is a relevant one. I don't know that colour makes much difference to staining. Darker materials stain badly too. The building is an ugly monster that is somehow alluring, and the revision to these minor details doesn't make it significantly less ugly, so I would suggest that there is nothing to see here.

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  • The loss of facade play, depth & modulation previously created by white fenestration is really poor, as is the divergent contrasting colour of the replacement cornice. A truly awfull case of not having the humility to understand the original, and work with it to improve it. Its not a question of materials so much as finish colour, scale, texture and proportion. This deracinated solution gives the appearance a corporate stylistic cheapening. C20th Society are right.

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  • 775 words later, Studio Egret West fails to address the issue: color! The problem is NOT "timber" versus aluminum; it's white versus bronze. The Balfron behemouth is a remarkably muscular Brutalist "duck" that depends on relatively delicate white window frames that pop from the dull concrete. How could restoration architects not understand something so basic? Would you change the color of the windows in Sterling's Clore Gallery addition to the Tate?

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  • Industry Professional

    Considering the difficulties I have with planners and grade 2 listed buildings it seems amazing that the colour change was sanctioned on a 2* listing.

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  • Same sort of moaning that took place when DSDHA dared to improve the Economist complex. Considered decisions by good architects should be welcomed, not abused.

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  • The building needed some serious fixing to provide decent quality homes, which is the point isn’t it? Praise due for the team’s conservation-led work on securing a future for this building appropriate to its historic context and location and for providing a home for around 500 souls to live in this cracking building.

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  • There is no way that Historic England would approve the ripping out of the remaining original windows in a Grade II*-listed Georgian mansion just because the other 50% had been replaced earlier: they would protect all the more keenly. Studio Egret West claim they have 'reinstated the concrete cornice' - but it is white, not matching concrete as in the original. Mr Egret doesn't like the original white windows but likes white cornices! Why not stick to the original listed design?

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