It would be mad to clad Mortimer Estate

23 Aug

MortimerMortimer Estate in Kilburn is a bit special. It was built in the early 1950’s with a distinctive, high quality design. It complements the neighbouring buildings and the nearby St John’s Wood conservation area.

Mortimer’s architect – Sir Robert Matthew – was Chief Architect and Planning Officer to the old London County Council and is renowned for his social housing schemes. It is clear that much care was taken in the design of Mortimer e.g. the curved buildings match the curved pavements.

Camden Council should be proud and protective of this heritage. But they are currently advancing ‘one-size-fits-all’ proposals for external wall insulation – cladding – which suggests they just don’t get it.

It would be a travesty if most of the buildings in the estate were covered in uniform cladding and the unique look of the estate was lost.

Ironically, the Council recently published new planning guidance on design which is very sceptical about cladding. The guidance (p28) states:

Painting, rendering or cladding of brickwork will normally be resisted, as it is often unsightly and can damage the appearance of a building by obscuring the texture and original colour of the façade. Painting, rendering or cladding may also trap moisture, which can cause major damp problems in the masonry.

The addition of cladding to Mortimer Estate would indeed be unsightly, and would spoil the texture and original colour of the façade of brickwork.

Carlton HouseThe concerns of many residents about this application are exacerbated by observing similar external insulation schemes in Camden and neighbouring boroughs e.g. Kilburn Gate; Carlton House (pictured) in Kilburn (Brent).

Other schemes have left council housing blocks looking ugly and dirty within months of the work being completed, with rust showing in some cases. In addition, if the estate is cladded it will be much more likely to attract graffiti than the current brickwork.

There are significant reasons to have reservations about the cost/value of the project. The Council’s own (questionable) figures suggest it will take four decades before the cost of the project per home will be recovered by the predicted reduction in energy bills. There is also uncertainty about whether the Council will receive a Government grant for these insulation works, given recent changes of policy in this area.

Furthermore, there is a risk that external cladding could cause internal condensation/damp, as is acknowledged within Camden’s policies quoted above. The Council should perhaps pursue internal insulation initiatives, such as condensing boilers, which could be equally as effective in reducing carbon emissions, without the downsides of external cladding.

It would be wholly unacceptable for the Council’s planning decision-makers to put aside its own policies and normal resistance to cladding of brickwork because the application relates to one of the Council’s housing estates. Lets hope the Council listens to the objectors, reads its own planning guidance and thinks again.

1/11/15 UPDATE – I’m delighted to say that Camden Council has finally listened to residents and withdrawn its plans to impose cladding on the Mortimer Estate and the Hilgrove Estate in Swiss Cottage. Well done to leaseholders and tenants on both estates (and neighbouring streets) who worked together to expose flaws in the Council’s claims about the environmental and financial benefits of the schemes. It became clear that many residents value the unique design of Mortimer, and they campaigned hard to stop the Council from covering it up in cladding. I hope the Council will learn some lessons from this episode and adopt a partnership, rather than a confrontational, approach to developing housing projects. But for now, well done to residents for protecting our social housing heritage.

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