Southampton City Council - A case study - CIT

Southampton City Council - Case study

It may have surprised residents of one block of flats on Southampton City Council’s Canberra Towers estate when drones and abseilers appeared on, and around, its walls.

This was, though, not some sort of art installation but an inspection to find out whether the council’s chosen scheme to improve insulation and energy efficiency was workable and if any previously unknown problems lay within the walls.

The tower has 144 flats over 24 storeys and was built in the late 1960s on a concrete frame with a brick exterior and a concrete felted roof and the degree of energy efficiency they offered to residents fell short of the council’s requirements. Ahead of the inspections Southampton had chosen external wall insulation (EWI) to deal with the issues facing Canberra Towers but wanted to be sure it had selected the correct solution before contracting out costly works that might leave it facing problems if it turned out the refurbishment method chosen was unsuitable. The British Board of Agrément’s subsidiary company Consultancy Investigation Training (CIT) was able to help with due diligence on this by deploying its expertise to inspect and assess the state of the tower block.

CIT was part of the BBA’s response to public concerns about poor or inappropriate cavity and external wall insulation installations in the social housing sector. CIT works on both cavity and external wall insulation, advising mainly local authorities and housing associations on ways to overcome problems, though its services are open to any property owner.

Keith Meredith, Southampton City Council’s Programme Manager – Capital Projects (Refurbishments), explained: “We agreed for CIT to undertake independent property pre-inspections and provide relevant reports to fundamentally determine suitability for the planned works of external wall insulation, window replacement and roof replacement where applicable.”

CIT experts surveyed flats from the inside – though access was not in all cases possible depending on residents’ wishes – and then used drones and where necessary abseilers to inspect the exterior of the tower. This enabled inspections to be carried out without the need for costly and disruptive scaffolding or cherry pickers; CIT estimated that scaffolding costs alone could have reached £300,000. The company also surveyed 35 council houses managed by the local authority.

CIT used drones to photograph the entire building in detail with powerful cameras. The photographs were examined by expert surveyors to identify any issues. In the event that potential problems requiring further investigation are identified by the drone images, abseilers can be deployed for a closer look.

The CIT inspections of the tower block revealed nothing unexpected of any importance but gave the local authority reassurance that it had chosen the correct solution to solve the problems at Canberra Towers and help address the issue of fuel poverty for tenants.

“It gave us peace of mind that our planned schedule of works would rectify the highlighted problems and, ultimately, be a wise way to spend budget, which is of utmost importance,” said Mr Meredith. “These works will extend the life of the block as they come with a 25 year guarantee.”

The EWI will involve fixing Building Regulations compliant insulation boards onto the exterior of the tower block structure. These will then be covered with mesh and a suitably-coloured weatherproof render, overall improving the energy efficiency and aesthetics of the building.

CIT Director Rob McCormack said: “The council planned to use EWI but required validation that it was the best course of action prior to a contractor being appointed. We were able to inspect Canberra Towers internally looking for damp, condensation and mould but also to get close to the outside at high levels via the drones and abseilers, providing a close-up look at the building that would have been hard to achieve any other way. It is a really innovative service that reduces inspection costs, speeds up the inspection process and delivers peace-of-mind to clients wishing to validate their refurbishment decisions.

“When we take on a project we are considering if the proposed scheme of works is suitable (or it can be made suitable) or should it not be done at all? Its due diligence for clients,” added Mr McCormack.

Southampton City Council is not alone in facing damp and insulation issues in its housing stock. CIT hopes to help social landlords of all kinds – and other property owners – to deal with the complexities of insulation, in particular where it has previously been installed in ways that have proven unsuccessful.

Mr McCormack said: “We can investigate ahead of works and offer a technical consulting service to assess work in progress and post-installation performance and training services. Local authority employees can also be trained by us to challenge contractors on their work. Where a local authority lacks technical knowledge we can put them in a stronger position in dealing with contractors.”

This knowledge can be put to good use when EWI or CWI programmes are being planned by local authorities or social housing providers or when issues arise post-installation, sometimes many years down the line.

CIT services include independent CWI/EWI, condensation and damp inspections and insulation-focused stock condition surveys. Its services are available to anyone dealing with the planned installation of insulation materials or with the consequences of inappropriate insulation retrofits or improperly installed insulation products.

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Published 23rd April 2018