Tour Bois-le-Pretre: transformation of a housing block

Posted on 15 April 2012 1 comment

Tour Bois-le-Pretre
Tour Bois-le-Pretre. Photo by Frédéric Druot.

Here is a wonderful and inspiring example of how a 1960s social housing block in Paris called Tour Bois-le-Pretre has been transformed through a remarkable renovation effort. Three French architects – Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton, and Jean Philippe Vassal – had the foresight and imagination to propose an inspired alternative to demolition: one that would give each apartment more natural light, more space and cut energy costs.

Tour Bois-le-Pretre was designed by the French architect Raymond Lopez and completed in the early 1960s. It is 50 metres high and has 16 storeys. The tower originally had 96 apartments but the recent renovation has added another four units.

Tour Bois-le-Pretre during its original construction
Tour Bois-le-Pretre by Raymond Lopez during its original construction. Photo: Pavillon de l'Arsenal.

In 1990 the original facade was unsympathetically renovated to improve insulation. Not only did this the give the building an unattractive appearance, more severely it reduced the amount of natural light entering each apartment. (To minimise heat loss, apartments were fitted with smaller windows.)

Tour Bois-le-Prete facade from the 1990 renovation
Tour Bois-le-Prete facade from the 1990 renovation. Photos by Frédéric Druot, Lacaton and Vassal.

Then in 2005, Paris Habitat, the Paris Office for Public Housing, ran a competition to renovate the building. One of the competition constraints was that the building could not be expanded to take up more land: any renovation would need to keep to the building’s existing foorprint.

The competition was won by Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton, and Jean Philippe Vassal. They proposed removing the facade of each apartment and bolting on glass balconies or “winter gardens” (similar to a conservatory). The winter gardens measure 7.5 by 3 metres and have been attached to the outside of the tower block without altering the original structure.

The “bolt-on” balconies in Tour Bois-le-Pretre
The “bolt-on” balconies in Tour Bois-le-Pretre. Picture copyright by Frédéric Druot, Lacaton and Vassal.
The “winter garden” balconies
The “winter garden” balconies. Photo by Frédéric Druot.

In each apartment the living room has been fitted with floor-to-ceiling glass sliding doors. These doors lead into the winter garden. The result is an increase in the amount of natural light and the amount of usable space. You can see the remarkable transformation this has had on the apartments in the before-and-after pictures below.

Tour Bois-le-Pretre: before-and-after transformation of an apartment
Tour Bois-le-Pretre: before-and-after transformation of an apartment. Photos by Frédéric Druot, Lacaton and Vassal.

The ground floor area has also been renovated and two new lifts installed.

Tour Bois le Prete: before-and-after transformation of the ground floor
Tour Bois le Prete: before-and-after transformation of the ground floor. Photos by Frédéric Druot.

Remarkably, all this cost less than demolishing the tower and building again from scratch. The final cost of the renovation was €11.2 million. It was estimated that demolition and building a new structure would have cost at least €20 million.

The architects involved the residents closely with the new design and uniquely the residents remained in the tower block during renovation instead of being re-housed elsewhere.

Tour Bois le Prete
Tour Bois le Prete. Photo by Frédéric Druot

The renovation of Tour Bois-le-Pretre has generated a lot of interest and deservedly so. Here in Britain, the parallels are obvious. We have many unloved 1960s and 70s housing estates that prompt the same question: can renovation rehabilitate these estates, or do we demolish them? Architects don’t always argue persuasively about the design and quality of the living spaces in these unpopular housing blocks. The abstract architectural language sometimes used to defend these estates leaves the public cold and unconvinced (see the post on Robin Hood Gardens for an example of this).

I greatly admire the ambitions of the architects who worked on this renovation. Although they undoubtedly wished to make the appearance of the building more pleasant (and the facade is indeed attractive), from the outset their principal concern was to improve the living conditions of the residents. Their focus was therefore on the features that would do this such as more space and more natural light for each apartment. This is a refreshing change from many housing projects where greater effort seems to be expended on the facade than the quality of the interior spaces.

Update April 2013: The Design Museum in London has announced the winners of their annual Designs of the Year award for 2013. Tour Bois-le-Pretre has won in the category of architecture. It was one of 17 nominees for the award in the architecture category. Other categories included Digital, Fashion, Furniture, Graphics, Products, and Transport. The overall winner (across all categories) was the UK government website: The announcement of winners is on the Design Museum website.

1 comment

Brian Speakes

29 June 2012 19:49 GMT

Brilliant plus saving 9 million euros

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