architecture

How to bring a tower block into the 21st century

Buildings last a long time. A good one will be enjoyed for generations to come, sometimes for centuries into the future. Build a bad one, and it will be disliked and resented for a couple of decades and torn down as soon as it makes economic sense – but that’s often far longer than people would like.

In the middle of the last century there was a shift towards higher density urban housing, and many tower blocks were built. Some of them are great. You can’t prise a Barbican resident out of their flat for any price. Other estates aren’t so desirable, such as Luton’s own Marsh Farm. While it doesn’t plumb the dystopian depths of JG Ballard’s novel High-Rise, it remains a mediocre place to live and no amount of regeneration money seems to make a difference.

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The trouble is, it’s hard to get rid of a dysfunctional estate. I saw this up close when I worked near Elephant and Castle in London, home to the Heygate Estate. It had reached such iconic levels of dereliction in its later years that it was used as a location in films such as Attack the Block and World War Z. But 3,000 people lived there. That’s a lot of homes to buy or leases to bring to an end. People will need to be relocated, some of them very vulnerable. Social housing is in short supply, and removing thousands of homes from the pool is very risky. Besides, no matter how troubled the area, some people will love it and want to stay. It’s gone now, but there was a whole ten years between deciding to demolish the Heygate and the bulldozers finally rolling in.

Is there a simpler way? If you could radically renovate a tower block, improving its energy efficiency and making it desirable again, it would be a lot cheaper than building from scratch. It would redeem a structurally sound building that would otherwise be knocked down because it’s ugly and unloved, which would be a colossal waste. Depending on how its done, it might help to avoid the ‘social cleansing’ that tends to happen when an estate is cleared. The old residents can’t afford the new flats, so the community is destroyed and richer people move in. That’s what happened with the Heygate.

Grand Parc is a redevelopment in Bordeaux, France, that shows what might be possible. The 1960s estate had 530 homes across several blocks. They were fully refurbished inside, but transformed on the outside too by punching out the external concrete walls and then wrapping a new glass facade all the way around the building. This extended each flat by almost four metres, giving them floor to ceiling windows and a balcony.

tower-block-before-and-after

Adding a 3.8 metre deep extension also adds a highly efficient envelope around the building, dramatically improving its energy performance. With triple glazing and improvements to ventilation, it’s quite possible to do this to passiv haus standards.

This is the handiwork of the Lacaton & Vassal architectural practice. They have gained a reputation for renovations of this kind, and they believe that modernist blocks like this one can evolve and move with the times. Their speciality is the glass extension, giving old apartments a large bright room with a view. They call them wintergardens, and they’re based on greenhouse construction techniques. They can be kept as a long room that runs across the whole apartment, or sliding panels can be pulled across to subdivide them into smaller rooms.

grand-parc-inside

The cost of the refurbishment was apparently 65,000 Euros per apartment, half the price of new build. Residents get to stay in the building, and the community is preserved. People also benefit from bigger apartments, lower energy bills, and more attractive homes that will last for many years to come.

Many European countries have blocks like the ones in Bordeaux, and are facing similar decisions about what to do with them. I’m aware of a couple of large scale renovations of tower blocks in Britain, and I look forward to seeing more of them – perhaps even in Marsh Farm.

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