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How do you renovate your flat and keep neighbours on side?

By Simon Burton

Super homes flat renovation

Many people have difficulties with their neighbours, and in flats one has lots of neighbours.  
We have strict rules in our block of nearly 200 flats: when one can do building works, when you can play music and when you must do nothing to disturb your neighbours.  

But we all have to make changes, replace or improve bathrooms and kitchens, change floorings and have builders in to do noisy things.  When we first moved into the flat and started to make changes, we did have complaints from somebody who lived below and was a writer, working from home. 

Converting to super status
Ten years later we decided to make the flat into a ‘Superhome’. We had asked the building managers for their agreement as to what we wanted to do, and got written response. We replaced windows with double glazing, used secondary glazing where replacement was very difficult and fitted a new combi boiler.  

We also fixed internal insulation to all external walls and, perhaps controversially, to all the ceilings. Insulating our part of the communal roof area was a particular problem.  It’s a flat roof, solid and we think uninsulated, but in a good weatherproof condition. 

Replacement was not on the cards, but laying waterproof insulation on top of the asphalt (an upside down roof) would have been a good energy solution. However it was not possible to insulate only our section of the roof. The freeholders would have had to cover the whole section including the flats around us, and this was not on. 

We have gone instead for the unproven solution of dry lining the ceiling throughout the flat, sealing it carefully against vapour penetration. The work was carried out by a responsible builder who understood the parameters within which he had to work. We were not living in the flat at the time but must have been a lot of noise and to-ing and fro-ing with materials and waste.  We did not have any complaints and nor, to my knowledge, did the builders. We made no enemies.

Avoiding heated debates
Some experts believe that internal insulation of external walls only can lead to cold bridging unless insulation is extended to cover the adjacent parts of internal partition walls. This could have noticeable effects on party walls with neighbours—the theory being that their walls are not partially heated by the renovated flat and will therefore be colder and more susceptible to condensation. 

We did not extend insulation along the internal walls and five years on there is no sign of condensation or mould growth where the internal walls meet the external, and again, no complaints from neighbours.

Super homes_new mouldingsSparking neighbourly interest
As another upside, lots (maybe all!) of our neighbours know that we have carried out refurbishment and are interested that we have done so much to improve the energy performance.  We always talk about how warm and comfortable the flat is and have invited all the block to visit the flat. The adjacent flats should also benefit from having a constantly warm neighbour.

Eco-refurbishment to make an energy efficient flat does not entail anything different from all the other improvements that people make from time to time. That’s life. We would of course recommend that a whole block is eco-renovated at the same time as this saves time and money and avoids disturbance, but individual flat energy works are also well worth doing and should have no negative effects on relations with neighbours.

You can join a free tour of Simon’s flat on Sat 17 & Sun 18 September as part of SuperHome Open Days. The Open Days will showcase many aspects of eco renovation, with over 50 SuperHomes open across the UK providing insights into how you can green your own home. These free events are promoted by the National Energy Foundation. To find out more about SuperHomes or to reserve a place on a tour, see www.superhomes.org.uk

Simon Burton and partner

Simon’s five top tips for a successful flat refurbishment 

  1. Discuss proposed improvements with the building manager in the planning stage
  2. Use an experienced builder
  3. Follow manufacturer’s recommendations when fixing and sealing internal insulation
  4. Use extractor fans and don’t dry clothes in the flat, to reduce humidity
  5. If using internal wall insulation, remember to put in blocks for curtain rails or blind supports

Renovating flats: the Energy Saving Trust view

Policy Lead, David Weatherall:
Although Simon has had a good experience, there are generally more obstacles to improving flats than houses because of the multiple parties involved. Blocks of flats in England and Wales are usually owned by a non-resident freeholder, and individual flat owners will need their freeholder's permission to carry out significant works, so getting permission for renovation isn't always straightforward. It's very important to read your lease before you start works.

In flats there can be technical issues around access, which you just don't have if you're doing work on a detached house. And of course it's important to keep neighbours onside and informed (and not all flat neighbours are as amenable as Simon's!). Quite rightly, some aesthetic changes can't be made without everyone's consent.

We're currently working with legal experts at the University of Oxford to try and make things easier for flat owners to improve the energy efficiency of their home. Essentially, the law should override objections to improvements within in flats unless freeholders and neighbours can prove it will damage their property or interests. We also hope to push for it to be easier to take collective action across a block to make improvements such as insulation. 

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