Coming Home for Christmas

Coming Home for Christmas

I knew it wouldn’t stand the wolf test

The third of six posts featuring vikicartoons.

Are our homes killing us?

The building industry is on trial right now!

The Grenfell Tower trial, the main reason for this, rumbles on revealing the horrors of the building industry in the UK.

Grenfell Tower aftermath

The BBC raised the issue again this week and the scandal of the cost to residents of the ‘Waking Watch’ 24 hour building surveillance. 

Recently Stephen received his section 20 notice, for instance, though the letterbox of his apartment in Canary Wharf. This makes him and his fellow leaseholders solely responsible for all of the £13m cladding remediation costs instead of the developers. The developer saved money and profited by installing the highly flammable EPS cladding on the buildings.

We could lose all our life’s savings.

if you suddenly realised that you may not be able to add these costs to your mortgage, how would you feel?  As Stephen put it ‘we could all lose our life’s savings and homes because of this’. Of the residents who were polled, 63% say they face bankruptcy if they can’t get any assistance from the governments building Safety Fund. See BBC broadcast click here. 

Non-ACM building fund of £1B won’t be enough to rescue all the flats in this situation. The question he and many others are now asking is why do only the leaseholders, have to bear the cost of this?

Stephen and fellow residents

Manipulation of standards at the hands of product manufacturers, value engineers and professionals, has colluded to bring about the Grenfell disaster.

The fall out reaches far and wide.

The insulation products under fire, including many of the developers putting up our homes in the UK, are household names. This is the case not only for tower blocks but also or all new residential buildings.

Rendered EPS (insulation with fire retardant) was deemed to have failed the requisite technical fire spread standards after extensive testing in Australia this year. (Dec 2020).

“Thermoplastic has a very poor reaction to fire”.

As they explain, “rendered Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) is a form of cladding that gained popularity in the building industry over the last 20 years for use on external walls. This was mainly due to its lower cost, insulation properties and lightweight nature. However, polystyrene is a thermoplastic product that has a very poor reaction to fire.”

Surprise surprise!

It is a product of the fossil fuel era.

In response, residents have now researched the insulation and cladding of their own buildings. It is scary how low the standards of workmanship are that have been revealed. Stephen lists: missing internal fires stops undermining vertical fire compartmentation; cladding fixings made form plastic rather that metal and; party structures only fire protected from one side not both.

What your home is built out of matters.

This is clear from the story of the ‘Three little pigs’ in our cartoon of the month.

When buildings are viewed as ‘products’ and people as ‘numbers’ the result is that something human is lost in the process. When repetitive factory process’s and conveyor belt dwellings are produced under an unbridled profit motive, this is what happens.

Coming Home

Let’s take another perspective. The book ‘Coming Home, A Theology of Housing’ was written this year (2020). It was a response to the Archbishop of Canterburys Commission on Housing, Church and Community. One of the editors of the book is Graham Tomlin, the Bishop of Kensington in who’s diocese the Grenfell tragedy occurred. He was involved, by virtue of close proximity, in the response to the fire and is Vice Chair of the Commission on Housing. 

Coming Home: A Theology of Housing
Create Streets, Living with Lockdown survey carried out during covid lockdown


In this book Malcom Brown, co-editor, suggests where a missing link may exist. For example, he points out that the increased awareness of the natural environment stems from a desire to reintegrate human life with the natural environment. He believes this is a reaction to the estrangement people feel from their context, which was a hallmark of modernity’s desire to control and dominate (p58).

In relation to this last point, there is plenty of documentation on the failure of the post war neo-Corbusien tower blocks created up and down this country. Structural problems – Ronan Point collapse, east London; Social isolation and disenfranchisement – Park Hill Sheffield to name but two examples and now to add to this list, the cladding scandal.

Ronan point disaster
Park Hill Sheffield

What is it about this history and tower blocks in particular? From politicians and developers to the super rich with penthouse apartments, the tower block has always had an attraction. Whether as a vote winner, a money maker, utopian vision or an attention grabber, the motives behind the tower blocks can be at best, mixed. The more these values predominate in the development process of peoples homes, the more natural systems give way to the artificial and the abstract.

The loser is the resident, the occupant, the community.

The question then is how can we move towards natural systems so as to produce better results?  How can communities be more cohesive, and building quality improved, so that health and well-being are the outcome for all. How can we build low carbon and look after the planet too?

In the recent 2020 publication of ‘Terraced Friendship’ by Create Streets, there are a number of pointers towards better community life for all.  This research is in response to Covid-19 restrictions.  These pointers have been around for a while, embedded in the better town plans of late, but have been highlighted by the experience of Covid for many in the UK.

The key findings/recommendations associated with better wellbeing are:

  • Create gardens. More speaking with neighbours takes place where gardens are incorporated, however small.
  • Create terraced streets. Increased communication with neighbours is associated with streets. This is more than for purpose built flats, semi-detached and detached proprieties.
  • Create quiet streets. Design out fast speeds. Quiet streets are associated with cleaner air, greater safety and talking to your neighbours.
  • Support Walking and Cycling. Streets should be easy and safe to walk or cycle. This makes for more neighbourly interactions.

45% of those living in apartment blocks did not interact with their neighbours in any way.

Create Streets who carried out this survey, came up with this headline.  

Where do these 4 recommendations come from? It may be in the observation of how people have always engaged with each other naturally within communities. This should be the starting point of all new development. Learning from the past. By contrast, after the second world war, new planning ideas took hold and became ideological in their application. Community cohesion was however, overlooked. This produced by and large, dystopian results. Have we learned from this? Or are we in danger of repeating past mistakes, if now, dressed up in prettier cladding?

There was, in addition, a build quality issue which needed addressing for many of these projects of the 20th Century. It was not only a sociological problem. The requirement to retrofit them for reduced heat loss has resulted in short term insulation solutions. These measures sought to address the energy inefficiency. They did not always address other equally important issues. Related issues included, breathability, condensation and air quality and as we have more recently discovered, fire prevention. Where do we look for the answer?

Are natural systems the answer here again?

Synthetic materials by contrast, are often high in toxicity and low in breathability. To overcome both these issues however, natural materials can be used. A shift towards nature can reduce embodied energy and the carbon footprint and at the same time bring improvement to air quality. 

To conclude this line of thought, to holistically increase the quality and health of peoples lives in the UK, three things need urgently to improve:

  1. The quality of sustainable urban development based on neighbourliness as listed above.
  2. The quality of building construction that should adopt a higher percentage of natural and locally sourced materials.
  3. The engagement and empowerment of individuals and communities in designing the future of their neighbourhoods.
Noel Isherwood Architects Building Communities

To add to that, Covid-19 if nothing else, has increased our awareness of these issues. Is this because we have seen the devastating impact they have had on peoples lives when not considered?

Finally, in a day or two we approach the most circumscribed Christmas holiday in all our lifetimes. We could take time to consider how our actions affect others and obtain the timely book, ‘Coming Home’ for Christmas.


For more, contact Noel Isherwood Architects by phone or email:


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