Could St Francis Tower's shrinkwrap be replaced?
- Credit: PAUL HARRISON PHOTOGRAPHY/HOUSE OF COMMONS/ELLA WILKINSON
A debate is swirling over what material should wrap a tower block having its cladding replaced after its managing agents and building contractors met Ipswich’s MP.
Tom Hunt met Block Management UK and Oander Ltd in Ipswich this week to discuss living conditions at St Francis Tower, in Franciscan Way.
It is the first UK block to receive Government cash for cladding removal since Grenfell.
Currently, almost the entire building is covered in plastic shrinkwrap, which bosses say is to protect workers and the tower from the elements.
Tenants say it blocks out natural light and they have complained of “sweltering conditions” in hot weather and there is a lack of fresh air.
Now Mr Hunt has requested a rethink of the material which is due to cover the tower until at least next spring while unsafe cladding is replaced.
“I’m not an expert when it comes to structural questions. But I probed enough (in the meeting) to come to the conclusion that I am quite confident there is a technical way forward that provides that waterproof protection - but also allows us to take off the shrinkwrap,” he said.
“That’s what I left with them - they are going to go off and talk to the owners of the building, and I’ll meet them again in three weeks’ time.”
BMUK previously said there were several reasons for the shrinkwrap - stating it creates a safer working environment for contractors working at height, reducing the risk of injury or death.
Without it, bosses said works would take significantly longer - which would "also have a detrimental impact on residents".
Reiterating a recent speech he made in Parliament about the tower, Mr Hunt said current conditions are “totally unacceptable”.
He added: “I asked them, which one of you would be happy living in these conditions, or a friend or family member, and no-one could give me an answer.”
Block Management UK, which acts on behalf of freeholder R. G. Securities (No.2) Ltd, previously clarified that it manages the cladding project-related communications with residents at St Francis Tower.
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Bosses said repair work is managed by a separate project management company and contractor.
Following Tuesday’s meeting, BMUK said chiefs discussed how to move forward in the best interests of residents.
“We feel that this was a constructive first step for all concerned and we have agreed to meet in three weeks to discuss the progress of the project,” they added.
Oander Ltd echoed this sentiment but said the firm has a “limited role” on the project - therefore, it was unable to comment specifically on its client’s project without prior consent.
Are there suitable alternatives to shrinkwrap?
East Anglia-based construction expert Saul Humphrey said the situation facing St Francis Tower is a “difficult” one: “It’s a relief (affected buildings) are being done now, but unfortunately, the impact of the disruption of the works themselves is inevitable.
"You can’t make an omelette without breaking an egg.”
He explained: “(Sheeting material) is a well-known, tried-and-tested method of keeping the inclement weather out of a building whilst you’re replacing its facade.
“But there are materials that can be more translucent and let more light through rather than solid ones.
“I would also advocate that any contractor carrying out such works follows the Considerate Constructors Scheme’s code, and in doing so, endeavours to be as considerate and inclusive of tenants and occupiers’ needs as possible.”
The expert, who sits on the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP)’s building growth board, said that without specific details, he would not want to comment on the project’s precise duration.
But he said its current timescale - up to a year - “doesn’t surprise him”.
“These projects can be quite technically challenging, with many interfaces,” he added.
“It would hopefully happen progressively, in such a way that areas would be opened up as the cladding is replaced, so that not all properties are subjected to that for the whole period of time.
“I would advocate any contractor does their utmost to engage with the community, engage with the community and discuss this openly and honestly so everyone understands the impacts and the remedies.”
BMUK previously said it understood not all tenants "were sufficiently notified" ahead of this year's works - with tenants including Caroline Haydon-Knowell claiming the shrinkwrap “came out of nowhere”.
Bosses said all occupants will be written to beforehand in future, with communal notices also put in place complete with company contact details.
The building freeholder is yet to comment on the situation.
St Francis Tower: A timeline
In July 2018, following the Grenfell fire disaster which claimed 72 lives, St Francis Tower’s owners carried out an independent fire test. Assessors found its HPL cladding posed a risk.
By August, additional safety measures – including a 24-hour waking watch which saw four workers employed to help evacuate residents in the event of a fire – had been installed.
The following month, work began to strip cladding from the block and by October leaseholders faced bills of up to £21,000 per flat.
In early 2019 sprinkler, air vent, and fire alarm systems were installed, and plans were drawn up for the new cladding.
Removal work hit a hurdle later that year when gaping holes were discovered under the cladding and problems with windows were identified – meaning around 45% of it had to stay on.
In April 2021, leaseholders were unable to speak publicly due to ongoing legal action but managing agents say they were informed of plans to replace cladding.
The following month, shrinkwrap was fitted on the tower. A number of tenants say this happened without warning.
Scaffolding poles designed to limit window openings to 10cm appeared in June 2021, prompting a visit from Tom Hunt MP.
In July, the situation was brought to the attention of the nation in Parliament.