By Gary Hartley

Think of the concept of giving a 1960s concrete tower block an ‘eco facelift’ and you might have visions of Del and Rodney dragging rolls of bulk-bought insulation up the stairs of Nelson Mandela House.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that’s just me. What you probably would think is that it sounds like an ambitious, maybe even daunting aim. Retrofit isn’t a piece of cake in a three-bed semi, so to approach multi-floored buildings of fairly rigid construction principles requires serious application.

But a long way from Peckham, Barton in Greater Manchester to be precise, City West Housing Trust have taken on the challenge, completed it, and is about to welcome residents back to their newly warmer and more sustainable homes.

Of course this kind of work doesn’t come cheap – but it’s nigh-on essential to take on even the toughest-to-treat of Britain’s unique and varied architecture if ever-rising fuel poverty and the UK’s carbon emissions targets are to be attacked head on.

As part of a £14.3million area-wide renewal scheme, the Barton block is the first of four to be tackled. But of course you want to hear about the tech spec for this more unusual of projects. So what have they got up to?

Well, the energy efficiency basics are more than covered, which is of course the only place to start. Modern ventilation and high-insulation cladding are the basis upon which some much newer-to-market technology is added. Solar water heating and highly efficient boilers combine in a system known as EcoPod – something which aims to get to the heart of fuel poverty: the ability to be comfortable while reducing the cost of doing so considerably.

Best of all, this system replaces electric storage heaters – notorious energy-suckers in older social housing. Innovative too is the Building Management System installed in the block, to alert the landlord when the most ‘at risk’ tenants are not adequately heating their homes. Based on the recommendations on both targeting the most in need and making use of modern technology from our recent In from the cold report, this sounds like progress.

Tackling the energy efficiency of Britain’s iconic tower blocks seems to be something very much on the agenda of housing pros. RIBA hosted a seminar last year on this very issue featuring top architects and estate experts, where a case study of a project a lot closer to Peckham was cited.

Sprunt and United House teamed up to retrofit Colne and Mersea, two 1970s 17-storey residential tower blocks, named, on the Harts Lane Estate in Barking, East London. Occupants remained in their homes throughout the work as insulation measures, solar PV, community heating, triple-glazing and smart meters were installed.

From our own perspective, a particularly exciting development in this scheme was the focus on water use. We recently spoke about the current drought threat looming and how simple measures and behaviour changes could save a high water-usage four person household around £420 on water and gas bills and over half a tonne of carbon dioxide each year.

In this case, these guys have clearly been using our Water Energy Calculator – low flow-rate taps and special baths were put in the blocks with an expressed aim of cutting water usage from 180 litres to around 90 litres per resident per day.

One area of food for thought, though: neither of these tower block retrofits seem to have improved the energy efficiency of the building’s lighting. Our Lit Up report from last year showed that LEDs in social housing communal areas can improve light quality, cut costs, and improve a sense of wellbeing to boot, so perhaps this is something to look at.

Here are just two examples – we’re sure there’s lots more, pushing the boundaries of energy efficiency and architectural innovation still further. Please drop us a line if you feel we ought to know about a project near you – we’re always open to a Part II around here.