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When refurbishing tower blocks, listen to the experts: the residents

Emily Booth

If the construction industry listened more to residents, buildings could be repurposed holistically so that they better suited local communities, says Emily Booth

There has been a worrying backlash against ‘experts’ in these angst-ridden times. But there’s something to be said for listening – really listening – to the people who can provide specific insight you won’t find anywhere else. Those experts are the users of your buildings.

When it comes to retrofitting and refurbishing residential tower blocks, for example, there are a whole load of people who really understand how these buildings do – and don’t – work. They’re called the residents.

In Ella Jessel’s compelling piece about retrofitting the UK’s tired high rises, Danielle Gregory, resident of the Ledbury Estate, which was evacuated in August 2017 over safety concerns, warns about the risks of landlords seeing ‘the buildings and the residents who inhabit them as entirely separate’. And Matt Thornley, director of Gibson Thornley Architects, explains: ‘It is vital that people that live in the buildings are central to the refurb process … 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.’

Architects need to fight ever harder on residents’ behalf so that consultation isn’t just lip service 

The wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy means there is rightful scrutiny and concern in terms of retrofitting towers. ‘But,’ writes Jessel, ‘when buildings are structurally safe and able to be refurbished, the benefits of retention over demolition are clear.’ Lacaton & Vassal’s award-winning Bordeaux estate revamp is proof of this. Retaining these buildings has considerable environmental benefits; flattening them incurs heavy carbon costs.

If the construction industry listened more to residents, buildings could be repurposed holistically so that they better suited local communities. Improving environmental sustainability should not mean reducing social sustainability – for example, decanting existing residents to refurbish towers to improve building and living standards, but then selling the towers off so that it is new residents who reap the benefits.

Architects often work closely – and very well – with residents’ groups, but they need to fight ever harder on residents’ behalf so that consultation isn’t just lip service. Architecture should be concerned with people. 

Perhaps there are few buildings more people-focused than the acclaimed Maggie’s Centres. Co-founded by the late, great and much-missed Charles Jencks, the exceptional centres are a masterclass of putting people, and their needs, at the heart of architecture. We can all learn from that. 


Readers' comments (3)

  • Clare Richards

    Yes, and this should be a central plank of AJ’s RetroFirst Campaign.

    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, as Emily says, 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 existing and draft new London Plan. It’s just that planners and developers don’t apply it. We need to hold them to account!

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  • John Kellett

    Actually, as in many cases, the end-user/client is only usually useful in terms of what is wrong with their current building. Any offered solution will usually be based on A very limited knowledge of the possibilities open to them. Hence the call to demolish buildings that can very easily and cost effectively continue to be used efficiently and safely

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  • Providing opportunities for meaningful agency in the design is critical and a great baseline. Capturing and channelling the positive energy and capacity of residents to improve their building and external environment into the future, through creative offers of governance however can build truly resilient communities. This is what we should be striving for.

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