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Tower blocks – tear down or spec up?

Published on 22nd November 2019

Local authorities, housing associations - and some private clients - across the country are faced with some major decisions. An estimated 400,000 high-rise flats built during the 1960s and 70s building boom have reached - and in many cases have already passed - the end of their design life.

These blocks have had mixed reviews. Experimental construction techniques and materials back in the day, and compromised maintenance decisions since have led to a legacy of  poor building fabric and cold bridging leaving today’s residents suffering from acute fuel poverty. The cold and condensation problems are another burden for residents already suffering from inadequate services, lifts that are archaic and security provisions that are non-existent.

The question is what to do with them now - and once the decisions are made, how to pay for them.

Refurbish?

Of course, as schemes like London’s Barbican have proved, there is nothing inherently wrong with high rise – as long as the money is spent and the commitments are upheld. The problem is that in the rest of London and beyond, the spending and the commitments have been avoided, leaving blocks requiring major repairs to bring them up to standard.

Local authorities are often too cash-strapped to afford borough-wide retrofit programmes, leaving a partnership with private capital as the only viable way forward.

However, as the tragedy at Grenfell has proved, there can be no cutting corners if refurbishment is the chosen option. Since the blaze, which killed 72 people, campaigners have been demanding immediate improvements to tower blocks, such as installing sprinklers in all high-rises and the removal of flammable cladding, and its replacement with safer materials.

The costs of refurbs are spiralling fast and tower block refurbishment projects – especially those aiming to upgrade insulation – remain under huge scrutiny in the wake of 2017’s Grenfell fire. The inability of many local authorities to commit to the significant cost of refurbishment means upgrades are often delayed until a decision has to be taken on whether it would simply be easier and cheaper to simply demolish and rebuild.

Looking for refurbishing answers for yours or your clients' business? Find out more about Refurbishment Finance

Rebuild?

Of course, demolition is an option. There are certainly many who would be happy to see the 60s interpretation of the Corbusien ideal of ‘communities in the sky’ consigned to the history books. But with councils across the country declaring climate emergencies, housing chiefs are coming under pressure to avoid the heavy carbon costs of demolishing concrete towers. The amount of embodied carbon in a tower block means it is more environmentally friendly to retain it – and the government’s commitment to zero means it may no longer be practical to tear down housing that can be reused – even when it is a tower block.

The practical challenges of upgrading tower blocks need to be understood on many levels. Location is one factor, but even more important is the need to consider the thermal values of a building’s existing envelope as well as its space standards, heating and ventilation provision and of course any need for asbestos removal.

There are also social costs to consider. Existing communities have to be relocated when destroying towers.

In some cases there may be no alternative. Many new problems have been revealed after councils inspected their stock in the wake of the Grenfell fire.  Dozens of tower blocks built using the large panel system, as used at Ronan Point where a gas explosion caused a collapse likened to a house of cards shortly after the block’s construction - have been found to be still at risk of collapse.

An affordable, greener solution

There are obviously both positives and negatives to examine for every tower block being examined, but it looks as though increasing focus on the environment is making refurbishment the way forward where it is possible.

Most blocks remain in the ownership of local authorities, who are often not well equipped to manage construction contracts  or the capital expenditure involved.

But there are economic ways forward which allow this approach to succeed. The changing demographics since the 1960s have ensured that locations which were unfashionable in the 1960s have become sought after 50 years later. Balfron Tower in east London is just one of the many examples of where a council tower block has been sold to a private developer and the flats upgraded to be sold off on the open market. It is a process that brings benefits to all concerned. Tenants can have new homes, local authorities are relieved of a burden – while developers can make a profit by selling homes to people who want to be in easy reach of jobs in the City.

Of course, the costs of refurbishing a 15-floor tower block are inevitably high. Costs may start at around £4 million - but, at Rangewell, we know the funding solutions that can make this kind of work possible. 

Large-scale funding is one of our strengths, and we work closely with lenders who are able to provide the kind of funding required. 

To find out more about working in partnership with Rangewell to find better answers to your development needs and those of your clients, call us at Rangewell on 020 3637 4150 - or email  [email protected] Our service is free.


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