The future’s golden for Balfron
PRP’s proposed refurbishment of Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower in Poplar, east London, is a rare opportunity to bring the block up to today’s housing standards, writes Elaine Knutt
Photographs Clive Smith/PRP Architects
It’s a bit like inheriting a venerable stately home: it’s both a priceless historical asset and an expensive future liability. Poplar HARCA, the social landlord that assumed responsibility for Erno Goldfinger’s brutalist grade II listed Balfron Tower after a stock transfer last July, is buoyed up with pride while weighed down by responsibility. Relative to refurbishing a non-listed equivalent block to the government’s decent homes standards, the organisation knows that the costs will be inflated, the programme extended and the risks multiplied.
But it also relishes its role as guardian of a monument to idealism in social housing — and knows that owning one of the rare examples of Goldfinger’s built work could give it a commercial advantage. “As clients, we were initially thinking, ‘This is a bottomless pit’ in terms of what it could cost us, but we’ve now really understood the value of it,” says Poplar HARCA director Julian Mitchell.
Once refurbished, residents will have the choice of keeping their heads in the clouds or putting their feet back on the ground by moving into newly built homes elsewhere on the estate. Vacated flats will then be offered for sale on the open market and are likely to be snapped up by Goldfinger enthusiasts — turning the notional architectural value into cold, hard capital receipts for the registered social landlord. In fact, speculative trade in the flats has already begun. Although properties were almost unmortgageable when the block was owned by Tower Hamlets Council, around a quarter of leaseholders exercised their right to buy, and one individual in the project team has paid cash to acquire one.
“The main idea is to get the people living in a listed tower to be the people who really want to be there,” says Mitchell. “Previously Balfron Tower was difficult to let — and a very convenient filming location if you wanted to show a bit of urban deprivation!”
PRP, meanwhile, always knew that it had been appointed as custodian of a rare architectural legacy. Since it began work on concept designs as part of the stock transfer process and the current planning application, PRP has been steeped in the history and theory of the 27-storey block, built in 1965-67, its slightly later nine-storey neighbour Carradale House, and the listed landscape in which both buildings sit. The refurbishment aims to secure the buildings’ medium-term future. “It’s almost a rebirth. We’re trying to give them at least another 30 years of useful life,” says PRP director Clive Smith.
We’re striking a balance between the historical significance and the future survival
The Twentieth Century Society, the third custodian of Balfron Tower, is waiting to see PRP’s detailed proposals, and has some concerns that its landscaping scheme could alter Goldfinger’s carefully composed settings. But overall caseworker Jon Wright is optimistic that the project will respect the project’s architectural integrity. “Goldfinger was as focused on the concrete finish as he was on the light switches. As a work of architecture, it was complete. What we don’t want are lots of incremental changes that add up to something different. But the architect has made an effort to understand the building and seems to be on the right track.”
Balfron is being updated as part of a wider £50 million refurbishment project, plus £34 million investment in new-build low- and high-rise housing, of the Brownfield Estate in Poplar, an unloved corner of east London. Clearly, refurbishing Balfron Tower in a manner that preserves its architectural integ-rity doesn’t come cheap. Poplar HARCA calculates it will invest £137,000 per flat, while PRP had a budget of just £78,000 per property at the Brooks Road Estate in nearby Plaistow. With no Housing Corporation grant and little public funding, the projected sales revenue is a critical part of Poplar HARCA’s business plan.
Balfron Tower is being given a sensitive update rather than a wholesale upheaval. Post-refurbishment, it will retain the flats’ original triple-decker configuration. One access corridor leads off the service tower for every three storeys, and sets of three front doors are grouped together. The middle door leads to a one-bedroom flat at corridor level, the outer two lead to two-bedroom maisonettes, while on the ground, first 14th and 15th floors, there are two-storey, four-bedroom maisonettes.
The flats are well proportioned, with space standards more generous than would be built today. “They’re certainly not pokey, people enjoy the space. We have to retain that and provide similar space standards in the new-build homes,” says PRP’s Smith.
But where Balfron was failing was in the services and insulation: water flooding down the stairs, oil leaking from tanks, lifts forever breaking down and heating bills pushing many residents into fuel poverty. The bulk of the refurbishment spend will go on threading replacement services through new openings in the building’s spine walls, then concealing the interventions as far as possible.
You need to know the technology
Hans van der Heijden, partner, Biq Architecten
The second underlying problem was the conflict between brutalist authenticity — where the building’s structural elements can be clearly read in the facade — and the era of sustainability. “We now have spine walls and slabs that pass straight from the inside to the outside. The building is just one big cold bridge!” says PRP associate Greg Slater.
With no scope to overclad a listed building, PRP has turned its attention to internal wall insulation to bring the insulation as close as possible to today’s Part L standards. The architect has specified a 30mm sandwich incorporating 15mm Kingspan rigid board insulation plus recycled polyurethane quilt and a foil face. Finished with a plaster skim, the insulation will be applied on the interior face of all external walls and to a depth of 1m along the side walls and ceiling soffit.
The 30mm solution will not achieve Part L U-values, but it does mean that the outer posts of the new window frames will be slim enough to retain the visual integrity of exterior facade.
“If we’d used 60mm, we’d get above Building Regs, but we’d need to increase the thickness of the window posts. So we’re striking a balance between the historical significance and the future survival of the building,” says Slater.
Where UPVC windows replaced the flats’ original timber windows on half of the elevations, both sets will now be replaced with timber-aluminium composites. In the common parts, the original steel-framed windows will be reinstated with their modern equivalents. The concrete fabric is in good condition and will be cleaned and repaired. Balfron will also be stripped of the satellite dishes, trailing cables and pirate radio masts that cling to its surface.
If you demolish it, the situation doesn’t become better
Anne Lacaton, principal, Lacaton & Vassal
Internally, many of Balfron’s finishes have proved surprisingly resilient. Green marble panels in the entrance hall have mostly survived or can be matched; coloured tiling to the access corridors has suffered some cracking due to deflection in the concrete slabs but can be made good; and original sapele hardwood doors will be modified to meet current fire safety regulations. Inside the flats, door architraves with integrated light switches will be reconstructed to modern standards, and the replacement kitchen will preserve the spirit of Goldfinger’s design which prioritised spaces for family-sized tables.
There are also plans to retain one home as a “heritage” flat, showcasing examples of original fittings recovered during the renovation, including kitchen units. However, there are no plans to reinstate the “hobby” rooms, located at every second level in the service tower, which had fallen into disuse by the early 1970s.
Residents will move out while the works are in progress, a tactic the Twentieth Century Society approves of. “It helps if everything can be tackled at once rather than in phases, with a single firm pursuing a single vision,” says Wright. He is also aware of the contrast with another brutalist icon close by — Robin Hood Gardens.
“I don’t know how we came to be in a situation where we listed Balfron Tower in 1996, but in 2008 we’re unable to protect a building of even greater architectural importance,” he says.
Balfron also seems to demonstrate that there is a constituency of aspiring owner-occupiers for flats with a place in architectural history. “I’d certainly consider buying a maisonette,” confirms PRP’s Slater. “It’s going to be an outstanding place to live. The space standards are generous, the location is good, and the views are to die for.”
If PRP and Poplar HARCA pull off the sensitive refurbishment both aspire to, Balfron Tower could become an icon for economic and environmental rejuvenation as much as for its architectural legacy.