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Retrofit for purpose

A run down block of flats in north London, once riddled with damp and mould,  has been given a new lease of life thanks to a radical ‘green’ makeover.

Wrap-around insulation, triple-glazed windows and solar panels are among the measures that have helped to transform Carlton Chapel House in Kentish Town and slash the estimated household fuel bill to just £200 a year.

The new, eco-friendly Carlton Chapel House

The groundbreaking scheme is part of a quiet revolution going on in house building and renovation, prompted by   the climate emergency and the need to improve people’s living standards.

“When we were called in the building was in a bad state and there was a real sense of despair among the tenants,” says Yael Gordon-Wide of  architects Anne Thorne, which carried out what is known in the trade as a retrofit. “Now everyone is so much happier and clearly grateful for what has been done.”

The most visible problem was mould due to a combination of rotten windows, leaking pipes and lack of heating.

“As a result of fuel poverty tenants were not putting their heating on and not using all the rooms – bedrooms faced north and were very cold,” explains Colette Osborne, property maintenance manager for the North Camden Housing Co-operative, which runs the block.

“It was bad for health and bad for the building, exacerbating inherent structural problems.”

Located next to former Victorian railway yards in Artic Street and originally comprising a mix of 15 one-bed and studio flats, Carlton Chapel House was praised architecturally when it was built in 1983. But like many dwellings of its day it failed to stand the test of time.

“We knew the building needed much more than a clean up and that an ordinary refurbishment job would not have been sufficient,” says Osborne.   

‘Green’ construction advocate Linda Clarke

In April last year the co-op embarked on a dramatic £1.4m action plan inspired by the Passivhaus concept –  energy efficient housing that is already widespread in continental Europe with stringent standards surrounding airtightness, thermal performance and energy usage. 

“We wanted it as close to a Passivhaus as possible although we knew it was going to be very difficult because of the way the building was originally designed,”  she adds.

“We wrapped the building like a tea cosy,” explains Gordon-Wide in terms of the super-efficient insulation applied to walls and roofing. “We also installed an MVHR [mechanical ventilation heat recovery] system which pumps fresh air into the flat and takes stale air out. It costs about £2 to run annually.” 

The Passivhaus measures mean that heating – supplied by a single electric wall heater in each flat partly fuelled by solar roof panels – only needs to be used on the coldest of days, slashing bills by up to 90 per cent. When tenants moved back into the block in May they also found kitchens equipped with the most energy efficient white goods, as well as enclosed walkways as part of an internal re-design.    

“It is very impressive and just shows that it is possible to retrofit properties to Passivhaus standards at a reasonable cost,” said built environment expert  Professor Linda Clarke of the University of Westminster.   

In 2019, Carlton Chapel House was one of the projects raised at an international conference Clarke convened to discuss the ‘greening’  of the construction sector. Delegates highlighted how conventional building practices, based on cheap labour and materials in pursuit of low bids, were largely responsible for the poor quality of much of the UK’s modern housing stock and consequent high carbon emissions.

“There is clearly recognition that there needs to be a change but in reality this can only be achieved through an extensive training programme so that we have the skilled labour  to carry out the work,” she pointed out.  “There is no such job as an insulator in this country. Elsewhere, it takes four years to train one and such expertise is thin on the ground here.”   

According to the Passivehaus Trust, there were 500 Passivhaus homes in the UK at the end of last year but projects like Norwich’s Goldsmith Street Estate, which won the 2019 Stirling Prize for architecture, and the ongoing redevelopment of the Agar Grove Estate in Camden Town to produce 493 homes – 216 for social rent – indicate an upwards trend.   

Back in Artic Street where Carlton Chapel House stands like beacon of light for an eco-friendly future, landlord and architect are clearly delighted with the results.

“We are a small organisation and normally conservative in how we approach things, but we took the brave decision that there was only one way to solve the problems we faced,” says Osborne proudly.

“When a tenant, who once never put his heating on because he couldn’t afford to, tells me that what has been done here has stupendously changed his life I know we made the right decision.”

This article first appeared in the Camden New Journal on December 5 2019

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