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Rebuild or retrofit? Row breaks out over plans for Camden estate

A conflict between saving carbon and building better homes has broken out on a groundbreaking 1960s council estate in London.

The London borough of Camden is planning to raze and replace the West Kentish Town estate, which was built almost 60 years ago. It says the homes are too small, the concrete panel buildings are dilapidated and most residents want new homes.

But a rival plan backed by some residents to retrofit the homes proposes adding insulation, reconfiguring internal walls and adding balconies to produce a climate impact estimated at six times smaller.

The masterplan for the new estate has been drawn up by the architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, the firm of Simon Allford, the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. The rival scheme has been devised by Alice Brown, who was funded to do so by the RIBA.

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The row comes as the Green party accused the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, of funding the demolition of about 1,000 homes in the capital – including at Kentish Town – on the basis they are “obsolete” when they are not. There is growing pressure on architects and developers to reuse concrete structures, rather than rebuild, to avoid greater climate impact.

Khan had sought to avoid using City Hall cash to fund projects where homes are demolished only to be replaced. But if existing homes are defined as “obsolete” projects can still claim grants. Siân Berry, the leader of the Greens in the London assembly, said this had given councils and housing associations too much leeway to write off homes that appeared to be usable in at least 10 boroughs.

“It is a scandal that so many homes are being condemned to the wrecking ball unfairly by councils and housing associations when most of the problems residents are facing with cold and damp homes are down to simple neglect and lack of maintenance,” she said.

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Brown believes her retrofit plan would result in 16,000 tonnes of embodied carbon dioxide, compared with about 100,000 tonnes under the larger demolition and rebuild.

A spokesperson for Khan said: “London has some of the country’s oldest housing stock and not every home can be refurbished. In some cases, it is more sustainable to carefully dismantle a building, maximising reuse of building materials, as mandated by the London plan, and replacing it with one that’s more energy-efficient, with lower operational carbon emissions.”

Camden council last summer agreed a plan to replace the 316-home West Kentish Town estate with 885 replacements – up to 60% of which will be for private sale. The cabinet heard from residents about poor conditions, no lifts, balconies, damp and leaks. In 2020, 93% of residents voted in favour of redevelopment.

The homes were built in 1964 on the site of century-old terraces built for workers constructing the railways. Commentators said it was one of the country’s first “fully considered ‘industrialised’ environments”.

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Today it is run-down but structurally sound, according to Brown, whose designs add extra floors, thick insulation, openings punched in the concrete panel walls for balconies and new buildings.

“The concrete foundations and structures are adequate and don’t need to be knocked down,” she said. “It is difficult to point to a scheme like this one that has been done, but there’s a first time for everything.”

Keiran Proffer, a live-in carer in one of the council flats, described the demolition plan as “completely crazy” and a “land grab”.

“There are one or two things wrong [with the flats] but on the whole people are happy with the estate,” he said.

Jarina Khanom, who lived in a ground-floor apartment with her elderly mother, said: “There’s damp everywhere and nobody fixes it. It is so cold in winter time. We put the heater on but it doesn’t get warm.”

A spokesperson for Camden said “cramped homes, deteriorating 1960s blocks that made homes susceptible to cold, damp and disrepair, a need for more affordable and larger homes” meant retrofit would not work. They added it was likely to be “financially unviable”.

The new homes would probably feature air source heat pumps and solar panels on rooftops to cut carbon emissions when in use.