It is almost four years since the Grenfell Tower tragedy and yet the flammable cladding that caused devastation and 72 deaths is still present on hundreds of residential buildings.
While the government recently pledged to fund the replacement of unsafe cladding on apartment blocks that are 18 metres or higher and attach long-term loans for cladding replacement on flats in lower rise buildings, campaigners fight on.
They want the loan plan scrapped and need funding to put right other structural fire safety issues, such as insufficient fire breaks and timber balconies. The anger, frustration, fear and financial hardship felt by those caught in the cladding trap continues. They purchased their homes in good faith and are now forced to pay huge bills to freeholders for higher insurance costs and waking watch fire patrols. Selling up is not a viable option. But while the scandal is mired in misery, a rare good news story has emerged in Yorkshire.
LaSalle Investment Management is thought to be the first institutional buy-to-let landlord to make a blighted apartment block safe and with minimum impact on residents. The company, which invests in property on behalf of pension funds, has just completed a textbook remediation of Waterside Apartments, a high rise of 183 rental flats built by Mayfair Developments in 2005 on Gotts Road in Leeds
A nationwide review after the Grenfell fire showed that the riverside building had flammable aluminium composite material panels. It also emerged that fire breaks and timber balconies were also an issue. No time was wasted and no expense spared on a project to make the 40 metre high building safe. The final bill was in excess of £6m, which reveals the terrifying cost of the cladding scandal.
With residents’ wellbeing and long-term rental income in mind, LaSalle chose not to hang around for possible government funding and instead stood the multi-million pound bill itself.
Martin Zdravkov, Fund Manager from LaSalle Investment Management, says: “We considered government funding in 2018 but we chose to do the work ourselves unfettered because we wanted to get on with it quickly. We did a cost benefit analysis on getting a government grant or paying for the work ourselves and that showed that what we did was better for the building, better for the tenants who are our customers, and better for the investment fund.”
It took a year to establish a method of recladding that would be least disruptive to residents and to assemble a team to do the work. Rather than the cheapest and quickest method of scaffolding a whole building and wrapping it in a foil while the work is done, LaSalle decided to use mast climbers, which are platforms that travel up a vertical mast. This allows combustible panels to be removed and replaced one at a time.
“It takes a little longer but it meant that residents could still enjoy light and views and this was really important in lockdown. We also improved the insulation, replaced wood on the balconies with a non-combustible material and sorted issues we found with fire breaks,” says Mr Zdravkov. "We are really pleased because the work has improved tenant satisfaction and the look and feel of the building.”
The work commenced in September 2019 and was completed in December 2020. The project manager for the remedial works was MHBC Cumming, the structural engineering firm was Fairhurst and the main contractor was Clegg Construction.
For freeholders planning to use government funding to replace cladding, Mr Zdravkov has this advice: “Finding cladding contractors is not easy as they are in short supply and demand is high. It is very important to have an experienced team and to employ a project manager for advice, to negotiate pricing and oversee the work. MHBC did a brilliant job.”
Waterside Apartments resident, Dr Bruce Carnie, a lecturer at the University of Leeds, is pleased with the outcome and says: “Because the owners have taken on the cost, we haven’t had to wait to have the work done. Some people have had a terribly anxious time and I’m aware of that, so I do absolutely consider myself very fortunate. I hope that maybe some of the positives that have come out of what’s occurred with this building and that this model of action, can be picked up by other apartment blocks.”
Abi Tubis of the Leeds Cladding Scandal protest group, says: “What LaSalle has done is fantastic. If only every building owner with flammable cladding would do the right thing. The reality is that most just don’t care. It’s been almost four years since the Grenfell fire and the recently announced government funding to replace cladding will only make buildings partially safe.”