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High Hopes for High Rise

Once lauded as the answer to our housing needs, tower blocks soon gained a reputation for crime and social alienation. With the current shortage of space, homes and funding, Councils and Housing Associations are once again considering high-rise.

But what can be done to turn around their unpopular reputation? Can tower blocks conform to modern day energy efficiency regulations cost-effectively? Can high-rise accommodation ever be desirable and secure? Will they ever generate a strong sense of community? We speak to Fiona Sadler of PRP architects to discover how she answered these questions during a challenging tower block renovation in Manchester.

Case Study: The Tamworth Estate, Old Trafford

There is an increasing trend of successfully refurbishing relics from the 1960s and 70s. The decision as to whether it is appropriate to refurbish will depend primarily on the condition of the tower's structure. If the structure is intact, a well-considered refurbishment can address many of a tower block's failings.

The Tamworth Estate in Old Trafford is one such example. Fiona Sadler is an associate at PRP Architects and masterminded the refurbishment of three residential tower blocks there. "Although the buildings were structurally sound, they suffered from problems including poor fabric thermal performance, poor heating and ventilation systems. Also a lack of security and no private outdoor amenity," she says.

The Challenges

Refurbishing tower blocks involves a number of challenges, the greatest of which is working with an established community. "A big challenge in refurbishing tower blocks is that often the improvement works have to be carried out with the residents in place," Sadler says. In these circumstances, a successful, sustainable refurbishment can only be successful with the residents' support. "We don't live in the blocks, so we do a lot of consultation at the planning stage. This helps us to understand what the key issues are for the residents. We can then take these on board, as far as possible, in our design," she explains. Given these constraints, the most effective option was to enhance the thermal performance of the building's external walls. This option is unobtrusive, reduces energy costs through enhanced thermal performance and improves tenants' comfort.

The Solution

Thermal efficiency was a major problem with the tower blocks along with rainwater penetration. As a result, Fiona specified the StoTherm Mineral K external wall insulation system from Sto. "The advantage of an external wall insulation solution is that the residents can remain in place during the works," Sadler explains. The specification included white or black brick slips on the ground floor and a render finish above. This has added much needed insulation to the towers, helping to reduce running costs, save energy and reduce carbon. The refurbishment has also drastically improved the block's external appearance, increasing the tenants' pride in their home.

Sustainability was further improved by the landlord assigning a carbon champion to each block. These champions advise residents how best to get the most out of their new way of living. "With the addition of the external wall insulation, and other energy-saving measures, the residents' bills are reduced. This can help address issues such as fuel poverty." says Sadler.

Securing a sustainable future

Security and resident safety also needs to be addressed in a refurbishment solution. Improved security measures can deter crime and vandalism, which can also reduce the cost of maintenance. Landscaping can also help create a less favourable environment for crime. At Tamworth, the public areas in the blocks were improved to make the entrances more welcoming. Everything combined really helps to re-invent the overall image of the block.

Proof that refurbishment rather than demolition can be a sustainable option is evident from the feedback from Manchester. Before the towers were refurbished, the blocks were infamously unpopular. So much so, the equivalent of one entire tower block was moving away each year. That has now changed. "Redeveloping the blocks has helped create a sense of ownership for the residents and generate a sense of pride in where they live," says Sadler.