Oct 17, 2019 Last Updated 10:52 AM, Aug 14, 2019

The legacy of high-rise housing

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As residential developments reach new heights, what have we learned from the tower-block social housing of the 60s? James Miller, Director, and Tom Shaw, Residential Project Director, Ramboll explain more.


When looking to develop new social housing projects, and especially in densely populated urban centres, high-rise developments are a popular option. With the demand for affordable homes constantly increasing, the ability to maximise available space is a great advantage for housing associations looking to house as many tenants as possible. The national popularity of high-rise developments can be seen in the recent NLA report that over 260 high-rise buildings are already in the planning system for the London area alone – 80% of which specify a primary residential use.

Yet the history of choosing to build up on social housing projects is a turbulent one in the UK, as many will remember a similar home-building drive in the post-war era of the 50s and 60s, in which tower-blocks rose up across the country. The development of new building technology in the form of pre-cast concrete frames meant that high-rises were seen as a quick and affordable way to provide much needed public housing. It is this period of construction that led to the term ‘concrete jungle’, as complex and interconnected towers with a myriad of enclosed corridors grew up to house a booming population.

However, following almost two decades of rapid construction, there were a number events which ultimately sounded the death knell for this style of building, and which led to the turbulent legacy these buildings hold today. The first was a growing awareness surrounding the multitude of social issues emerging within these communities in the sky – including social alienation, mental health difficulties, and rising crime levels. In what was essentially a misunderstanding of public and private space, the hidden corridors of tower blocks became hot-beds for crime and waste, leaving people without a sense of safety or enjoyment in their environment.

The infamous collapse of Ronan Point in 1968 then marked a significant U-turn in public attitude towards the tower-block, as well as a significant shift in design and building regulations (including the requirement to design against disproportionate collapse). Finally, the 1972 oil crisis led to a further change in building regulation and the thermal regulation of tower-blocks. Concrete cladding now also had to insulate and the concept of the facade was born, which essentially wrapped the buildings in cotton wool and regulated heat loss. This meant the towers of the 60s quickly became out-dated and ill favoured, plagued as they were by cold, damp, and draughts.

The outcome of these mounting issues is that many early high-rise towers have since been demolished with the phrase ‘tower-block’ almost a dirty word in the residential sector. So as a multitude of multi-storey social housing buildings shoot up across the UK, what moves have been made to ensure history will not repeat itself?

Fundamentally, towers need to be in the right location, look good and be built well. Amenities and local infrastructure, including particularly good public transport links, are a key component to delivering happy residents and achieving high densities. Not all early towers were universally disliked and both the Barbican and Trellick Tower continue to be regarded as design icons. Good design, like good art, sparks debate and a tower should contribute to the sky-line – tenants will be happier to live in a building they can be proud of.

Thanks partly to the provisions put in place following events such as Ronan Point, these days’ concerns around structural safety do not even enter the public consciousness. There are ever increasing advancements in the quality of materials, improved design codes and lessons learnt from projects across the globe. New technologies are also pushing boundaries in sustainable design and reducing embodied carbon levels, with developers embracing materials that range from post-tensioned or precast concrete to the use of cross-laminated timber in medium-rise schemes.

Future proofing is now in-built within most projects with provisions incorporated for changes in trends and use. Homes are being made adaptable in terms of space and configuration, as well as the integration of various automation requirements and digital technologies that may control our homes in years to come.

Outdoor space is now recognised as an essential part of successful communities – encouraging both social development and healthier lifestyles. Podium roof gardens and shared terraces provide landscaped communal areas that allow for socialising with neighbours, children’s play, and even for budding gardeners to plant their own fruit and vegetables. As the trend for large apartment blocks grow, we are seeing ever more careful consideration for the space and public realm that surrounds these buildings, especially where high-rise towers are being built as part of a wider development or regeneration scheme.

For high-rise developments, ownership of the semi-public/private spaces is critical for good security. Ensuring that the lobby, stairwells and communal spaces are well designed and maintained restricts the opportunity for and permissibility of anti-social behaviour. A social housing development in Tottenham Hale with long-term crime issues significantly cut incidences through the implementation of a gated reception area. With a guard who can monitor all CCTV activity and sign visitors in and out, not only is crime reduced but the sense of security and community amongst residents is vastly improved. Retail and communal facilities at ground level can also create an active frontage, natural surveillance and deliver better facilities for residents.

Not only has a concern for the health and well-being of residents shaped new high-rise social housing schemes, but also the understanding of how a strong sense of community can ensure a lower level of population churn and improve social stability within housing projects. The post-war tower blocks may hold a turbulent legacy, but it is one that runs through the designs of today and ensures that, instead of destroying communities, we are building them.

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