The retrofit housing market has recently been strongly dictated by Government funding, with many planned regeneration schemes subsequently cancelled when cuts to Energy Company Obligation (ECO) funding were announced in the 2013 autumn statement. This decision left thousands of aging social housing estates across the country with poorly insulated homes and many of their residents being forced to live in fuel poverty. Despite this, a housing association in the North West has self-funded a number of major refurbishment projects, with a focus on significantly upgrading its housing stock and bettering its tenants’ quality of life.
Managing over 8600 homes, Golden Gates Housing Trust (GGHT) is the largest registered provider of social housing in Warrington, Cheshire. As part of its ongoing commitment to the living conditions of its tenants, the housing association undertook a detailed review of five three-storey blocks of flats in Alder Lane, scrutinising the integrity of their structural elements, energy efficiency, fuel usage and utility bills. It was quickly concluded that, in addition to the major structural and system repair work that was required, the majority of these tenants were in fact living in a state of fuel poverty and needed help.
The housing association made the decision to embark on a £1.8m project, referring to it as ‘Alder Green’, to improve the external condition of the flats and surrounding areas, reduce carbon emissions and offer tenants a better quality of life. The scope of the works included new windows and doors, new roofs, solar PV, external wall insulation, new heating systems, new ventilation systems, additional parking and communal area upgrades.
With so many changes to the properties being planned, it was vital to get tenant buy-in from the very outset and GGHT ensured tenants were consulted with and involved at every stage of the project. This included the hosting of public open evenings and individual home visits, where a host of topics were discussed, from offering energy-saving advice through to allowing residents to choose their own colour schemes. The housing association also continued its tenant engagement programme once the work was complete, with follow-up visits offering on-going support with the newly-installed systems.
External wall insulation (EWI) was a crucial element of the scheme and not only offered the most significant energy-savings, but also provided a complete transformation of the exterior of the buildings. Having previously experienced failed cavity wall insulation, the housing association needed to ensure that the thermal improvements would stand the test of time and so turned to EWI as the only guaranteed solution to reduce energy bills year on year.
The installation of EWI posed many challenges to both John McCall as the architects and Wetherby Building Systems as the system designers. From a technical performance perspective, the walls provided very little by the way of thermal properties, with the area underneath the windows consisting of a single timber panel. This panel had to be subsequently reinforced with a single skin of brickwork, meaning the selected insulation system needed to be applied to two different substrates to provide complete coverage of each elevation.
As a result, Wetherby’s BBA-approved EpsiWall system, incorporating EpsiTherm graphite enhanced EPS, was specified. Using a thickness of just 80mm EpsiTherm insulation, the required U-values were achieved, resulting in the properties meeting current building regulations, with minimal disruption to the external envelope and footprint of the building.
In terms of the aesthetics, with the Alder Green development being situated along a major route into the town centre and directly adjacent to a new health and leisure complex, it was crucial that a visually appealing exterior was created. John McCall Architects set itself the task of producing an architecturally interesting facade that provided areas of contrasting colours, shades and materials to break up the mass of the buildings and alter the streetscape.
Wetherby’s 1.5mm K Silicone Render in bright white created a clean, modern canvas for the buildings, with elements of pastel green and blue render applied randomly to various elevations, as well as around windows that had been given a decorative raised profile. To complete the facade, areas of coloured Cedral Weatherboard cladding, in complementary tones, were applied to break up the design, providing interest and depth.
The appearance of robust brick was also a requirement on this development, but with bricks in short supply, and cost prohibitive, a mid-grey brick effect render was applied to the ground floor of each of the five blocks of flats. A more cost-effective alternative, the brick effect render provided the look of genuine brick, while adding another dimension to the facade.
Commenting on the project, James Nicholls from John McCall Architects said: “This scheme, which lines a major gateway into Warrington, was designed to create a visual identity for the five housing blocks. The materials and colours were carefully chosen and play a really important part in giving the buildings a new lease of life due to their clean design creating a modern and attractive facade.”
In addition to the EWI system, a variety of unique energy-efficient solutions were installed in the flats. The most innovative part of the project was the ‘Smart Share Solar System’, which will generate enough electricity to potentially save tenants £100 - £150 a year alone. A solar battery storage system has also been fitted, using smart technology to divert electricity generated from the solar PV to power other areas of the building including the communal entry systems and lighting across the five buildings. It is these developments that led to the project winning the ‘most innovative refurbishment project’ award at the national Housing Innovation Awards.
As part of the project, GGHT also organised a number of community initiatives in conjunction with the companies involved in the scheme. Children from local primary schools; Beamont Community Primary School and St Anne’s Primary school, have visited the development to discuss health and safety on construction sites. GGHT representatives also attended Warrington Collegiate to speak to students about careers in construction and work experience opportunities were made available to them during the project.
The investment Golden Gates Housing Trust has made in Alder Green has delivered a more attractive development for the entire community, improved living conditions for its residents and created a more appealing housing estate for future potential tenants. With the Government-funded, energy-efficiency schemes subject to continual changes and, with no clear plan for the near future looking likely, housing associations are urged to review their housing stock now and look to prioritise funding for the implementation of energy-saving measures for their most thermally inefficient estates.