COP26: It's time to redesign housing from the bottom up too

If we are to prioritise tackling climate change, housing refurbishment - which eliminates the carbon-heavy phase - must be a part of the solution, says Matthew Nimmo.

I've worked in housing for 20 years, often replacing poorly designed projects with new better-quality ones. ‘Estate regeneration' has for decades meant ‘tear down and rebuild' and often framed overhaul as best practice. But when the world's biggest architecture prize goes to a practice with the motto of ‘never demolish' and climate activists pile on pressure for sustainable homes, I believe the time has come to redesign our own work. 

French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal scooped the 2021 Pritzker Prize for Architecture - referred to as the Nobel Prize for Architecture - for their sensitive refurbishment of post-war social housing blocks. These architects focus on designing social housing from the inside out to prioritise the welfare of a building's inhabitants and their unanimous desires for larger spaces. Their approach has the potential to be transformative.  

Local authorities have always faced a balancing act when deciding what to do with post-war estates. The short-term approach of ‘maintain and refurbish' has the advantages of managing costs, keeping communities together and minimising disruption to residents from construction works. But demolition and redevelopment has become attractive because it can offer housing that meets a range of income levels as well as helping to sustain local shops and services, which in turn boosts local economies. It can also address poor post-war urban design that often resulted in inward-facing estates with poorly overlooked walkways, dark car parks, and inadequate open spaces and parks. 

Regeneration in this model has also given councils the opportunity to build new homes to latest standards that are far more energy efficient and better for physical and mental health. And of course, building new homes is the great political cry that must be answered – councils need to deliver ambitious targets to address the housing crisis and secure financial returns from private homes to subsidise new social rent homes. 

However. The political and environmental context is changing rapidly. 

Firstly, the funding available for affordable housing now makes wholesale redevelopment a lot less attractive. The Government's new £12bn Affordable Homes Programme specifically excludes funding for ‘the replacement of homes demolished through regeneration work'. This means that, from now on, if 100 affordable homes are demolished and replaced with 150 new affordable homes, only the 50 additional homes are eligible for a housing grant.  

Secondly, buildings and the construction sector are responsible for nearly 40% of annual global carbon emissions (World Green Building Council). But 28%  of the total carbon emissions produced by a building across its life are released before it is completed, due to emissions generated by the production of the building materials and the construction process itself.  So if we are serious about tackling climate change, refurbishment - which eliminates the carbon-heavy phase - must be a part of the solution.  

Some local authorities are already integrating this new approach: Retaining tower blocks while redeveloping lower rise properties has featured in regeneration projects over the years, from Park Central in Birmingham to Peabody's approach to the South Thamesmead Estate, South East London. More complex attempts to integrate new and refurbished buildings can be seen in two very different regeneration projects in east London, at the Brownfield and Kings Crescent Estates, the latter winning a RIBA National Award. And Lacaton & Vassal's work gives a glimpse of what might be achieved by an even more radical approach. Their extraordinary refurbishment of a modernist public housing block in Bordeaux involved bolting a whole new frontage of winter gardens to the existing block, providing residents with additional space and light and improving the environmental performance of the building.  

Achieving such radical change isn't going to be easy.  Any system favours the status quo and all change challenges decades-long traditions. But local authorities are uniquely placed to break this cycle: They have no vested interest in the construction industry, are committed to tackling the climate emergency and can take a long-term view of the sustainability of local neighbourhoods. This is a great opportunity for them to find new approaches to deliver more affordable homes while minimising climate impacts. Councils should champion this agenda, demand change from their partners, get local communities on board and develop the new knowledge and skills required to deliver differently. 

At Inner Circle Consulting, we are already helping local authorities, housing delivery companies, and housing associations to develop and embed a new approach that does this. We have developed a methodology to help identify the right approach to regeneration and we are working on a retrofit programme for Camden Council that will not only significantly increase energy efficiency and improve living conditions but support long-term investment in green construction skills so that local young people are properly trained for the green jobs of the future. 

And these projects are just a start. We are working with many more forward-thinking public sector leaders who want to engage with this agenda. If you want to talk through what this all means for your organisation, we'd love to hear from you. 

Matthew Nimmo is managing consultant at Inner Circle Consulting


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