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Human Warehousing
 
Greenway House

Greenway House

I was heavily involved in the design of Greenway House in Harlow which opened in 1990. It was a handsome state of the art, deep plan, air conditioned office building in a prime location within Harlow Business Park seemingly destined to have a secure long term future as prestige offices. 30 years later I was shocked to see it featuring in a BBC article on ‘human warehousing’ after its conversion into 83 flats.

Greenway House is just one of many office buildings throughout the UK that have been converted to flats under Permitted Development (PD). Since 2013 PD rights have allowed office buildings to be converted to new homes of any type, size or quality and in any location without the need for planning permission. The local council is effectively bypassed, no affordable housing contributions are made and parking and open space standards can be ignored. We are creating modern slums.

Greenway House - car park as play area

Greenway House – car park as play area

Yet in his recent ‘new deal’ speech the prime minister has promised to remove ‘laborious red tape’ and further extend ‘anything goes’ PD rights to the demolition and rebuilding of vacant and redundant residential and commercial buildings providing they are rebuilt as homes.  Obviously new homes are needed in towns and cities but the process has to be properly thought through and the homes have to be of a decent standard. It makes no sense to suggest that planning ‘red tape’ is a bad thing when in fact it ensures the quality of the built environment that we all enjoy. The planning system is not the problem anyway. The problem is political and economic and to do with the way land is allocated but the political sleight of hand is to make the housing crisis so bad that a second best solution, such as the extension of PD rights, looks like a good idea.

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Doer Upper Do’s and Don’ts
 

‘Demand for the countryside soars as Londoners seek to flee the capital’ says the headline. I can believe it more on account of the positive impact of information technology than the negative impact of Covid-19.

For those looking for not just a purchase but a ‘project’ here are some tips:

Before purchasing anything be sure the town planning position is checked out with the council to make sure that what is proposed is possible in policy terms. Is there scope to construct a new house or replace the existing house with something larger or to extend it? Has the existing property already been extended up to the permissible limits?

New build projects. Finding a decent virgin site is easier said than done and many of those that do emerge are blighted by being either undersized pieces of existing gardens or fragments of land never previously considered suitable for development. IMO it is better to upcycle a decent sized, well located site that has an existing undersized house such as a bungalow on it. Whilst it might cost more initially it secures a mature location and avoids the considerable cost to both the public utility companies and the contractor in making network connections and bringing the likes of electricity, gas, water and telephone / broadband onto the site and taking sewerage out of the site. Another considerable cost payable to both the highways authority and the contractor is the creation of a new access to a public highway.

Fir Tree Cottage - Before

Fir Tree Cottage – Before

Fir Tree Cottage - During

Fir Tree Cottage – During

Fir Tree Cottage - After

Fir Tree Cottage – After

Refurbish and / or extend projects. Whether to demolish what is there or not can be driven by the VAT position. Whilst it is not very sustainable, as it encourages demolition rather than re-use, VAT on new build houses is zero rated whereas VAT at 20% is payable on other building work. It is permissible to incorporate existing foundations and anything else below ground level into a new build house and still avoid the VAT which can save a considerable amount if the new design can be configured accordingly. Where refurbishing or extending a property don’t ‘pay’ twice for things that are going to be removed as part of the work – be happy so long as their poor state is reflected in the price since they are coming out anyway. Externally this could be the roof tiles and external windows and internally the kitchen and bathrooms. In the new design retain the kitchen and bathroom locations (but not the fittings etc) as moving the intakes and drainage is comparatively expensive whereas the creation of new bedrooms is comparatively cheap.

Lastly, employ an architect. The few % spent on an architect at the outset is probably the best investment you’ll make over the course of the ‘project’.

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New Skills
 

Tragic though it is Covid-19 will be as nothing compared to the coming perils of climate change and resource depletion.

What buildings will we be designing in this new normal and what new skills and knowledge will we need? I can’t see many airports, open plan offices or shopping centres being built any time soon. More likely warehouses and distribution centres, healthcare and social care facilities, homeless hostels and half way housing and houses with gardens. What are we going to build these buildings from and how should they perform? This article suggests that we mine existing buildings for their reusable resources and the time must surely have come to make zero energy design mandatory as it is essential we get to net zero carbon a lot sooner than 2050.

It's architecture Jim but not as we know it.

It’s architecture Jim but not as we know it.

As architects part of the fun is always learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge. One new skill will be looking ever harder at the potential for the adaptive re-use of existing buildings to serve our future needs such as the conversion of offices to homes. Existing buildings represent embodied carbon investments made in the past so their re-use allows us to avoid the carbon emissions resulting from the construction of new buildings. Another will be the techniques to thermally upgrade the existing building stock through a massive insulation scheme and a shift to electrical heating (where energy is required) powered by renewable energy. Maybe not ‘architectural design’ as we know it but important skills to learn.

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Your Home Office
 

Although it came into being in the 1990’s it has taken the current Covid-19 crisis to push the ‘you don’t have to be there to be there’ spirit of video conferencing into the business mainstream through the technology of Zoom / Microsoft Teams / Google Hangouts and so on and with it the idea of the home office. Working from home some, or even all, of the time has previously been a bit of a novelty but now it is firmly established and I doubt we’ll go back to where we were just a few months ago.

Home Office 1 photo Herman Miller

Home Office 1 photo Herman Miller

This change will be bound to have consequences for the design of our homes in terms of the ensuing ‘live / work’ arrangements. As it is less than ideal to get the laptop out to work on the sofa, the kitchen table or the spare bedroom there is a clear need for a new building type which combines home and family with office and work. Just as we should have a good mattress because we spend so much of our lives on it we should have a good home office space.

Home Office 2 photo Neville Johnson

Home Office 2 photo Neville Johnson

My approach to residential design is that it is better to have a few spectacular set-piece spaces (living room, garden room, kitchen / dining room etc) rather than lots of nondescript cellular spaces (unused bedrooms etc). The home office should be another such space. IMO it should be attached to, but separate from, the house with a separating door and a separate wc and a tea / coffee point. It should be architecturally distinctive and spacious with sufficient room for best quality, ergonomically designed furniture including a comfortable office chair, large desk and a meeting / layout table and chairs. It should have hardwearing surfaces but at the same time good acoustics. Network cabling for fast and smooth internet access and data retrieval and space for storage, printing, filing and a hard copy library all need to be integrated into the design to ensure that it is clutter free. Quality architectural and task lighting are needed as is good natural lighting, with adjustable blinds, arriving from more than one direction so that the light quality changes as the day progresses. Oh – and ideally a view.

Sounds almost too good to be true and we can but hope that in due course another of the gifts of modern technology will be a reduced four day week!

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A Gulf in Understanding
 

I flew into Dubai in the early 1980’s when it was just a strip of desert. It has undergone a massive urban transformation since then but it might be returning to something akin to desert sooner rather than later.

Dubai skyline with the Burj Khalifa - the world's tallest building

Dubai skyline with the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building

A report in the Times a couple of days ago (paywall) ‘Gulf states face running out of money as oil demand falls’ is one of those where you think why is this news when it’s obvious? It refers to a recent study by the IMF entitled ‘The Future of Oil and Fiscal Sustainability in the GCC Region’.

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049

The thrust of the IMF study is that oil demand is falling as the world uses less oil through improved energy efficiency and substitution away from oil. The Gulf states have seen a steep decline in revenues and are now predicted to run out of money by 2034. The point of the study is that this is sooner than most had predicted. Dubai never even had oil with an economy based on services, ports, tourism and debt. It had to be financially bailed out by Abu Dhabi in the financial crisis but is in trouble again. Tourism is based on unsustainable long haul air travel.

The question is whether the current generation in the Gulf will tighten their belts or pass an even bigger financial problem on to the next. Diversification is being touted as part of the solution but how can economies directly or indirectly based on oil properly diversify? The Gulf’s way of life is at risk and a spiral of decline seems inevitable.

How are air conditioned glass clad towers in the desert in any way sustainable? Think abandoned dystopian Las Vegas in Blade Runner 2049.

For all that we complain about the weather in the UK we are indeed fortunate to live in a temperate climate.

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‘Sustainable Development’ in Wealden
 

In the blog below I outlined how the Wealden Local Plan is dead and without a five year land supply all local policies that restrict the supply of housing are out-of-date and national policies apply instead – namely the presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’ set out in paragraph 11d of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

What is ‘sustainable development’ in this context? It sounds like a contradiction in terms and reading Wealden’s work on sustainability you’d think, all things considered, that there is little scope for ‘sustainable development’ in Wealden.

Hailsham, Wealden photo Charlesdrakew

Hailsham, Wealden photo Charlesdrakew

That’s not what central government thinks. Whilst on the one hand it is requiring ‘sustainable development’ through the NPPF on the other hand it is requiring the delivery of many more homes (previously 950 on average plus some of Eastbourne’s need which currently stands at 300 – 400 per annum).

The answer is that ‘sustainable development’ is a relative term. Sites that are relatively more sustainable than others are going to secure planning permission whether at district council level or at appeal. These sites are more likely to be abutting or close to existing settlements especially those deemed sustainable in the council’s own ‘settlement hierarchy’. They are more likely to have good access and road links, close to local facilities (doctors, dentists, schools, shops, sports facilities) close to public transport (buses and trains), employment space, road, water and sewerage infrastructure etc. As well as this a significant level of ‘windfall’ sites, which will be related to unsustainable locations including some in the AONB, will also secure planning permission.

A lot of potential sites will be coming forward. Good sites supported by a high quality sustainable design forming part of a well thought out and well prepared application will stand the best chance of success.

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Klondike Wealden?
 

After five years of preparation the new Wealden Local Plan is now dead in the water. In a damning letter (Inspectors conclusion – stage 1 of the Examination Of The Submission of the Wealden Local Plan), the like of which I have never seen, the Planning Inspector has advised Wealden District Council that it cannot take its current draft Wealden Local Plan forward to adoption and must start again.

The inspector held that, amongst other things, the council failed in its Duty to Co-operate with neighbouring councils such as Eastbourne, which cannot accommodate its unmet housing need, and placed too great an emphasis on protecting the environment through an overly precautionary approach which was not justified on any reasonable assessment of the evidence.

Prospectors ascending the Chilkoot Pass heading for the Klondike Gold Rush 1898

Prospectors ascending the Chilkoot Pass heading for the Klondike Gold Rush 1898

The council has decided to accept the Planning Inspector’s findings and withdraw the draft Local Plan which means that the council no longer has an up to date Local Plan and is significantly short of being able to demonstrate a five year housing land supply. Without a five year land supply all local policies that restrict the supply of housing are out-of-date and national policies apply instead – namely the presumption in favour of sustainable development set out in paragraph 11d of the National Planning Policy Framework.

The council now needs to get its act together and come up with an acceptable plan that does more to build houses in Wealden. In the meantime the council has lost control over where new homes are built providing they can be shown to be in a sustainable location so there is a ‘window of opportunity’ and clear potential for development sites in the district to be brought forward. Perhaps not quite a Klondike style gold rush but certainly not the result that the council was planning for.

Don’t hesitate to talk to this practice to avoid a missed opportunity in Wealden or to progress projects that were previously stopped on Ashdown Forest mitigation grounds.

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DNA
 

Two photographs. One of my mother and my grandparents and another of my daughter and her new baby. Five generations and 100 years with me in the middle. 100 years doesn’t seem that long and neither for that matter does 1,000 years. What about 50,000 years? That seems imaginable in the grand scheme of things which is amazing since that is the length of time since our ancestors, the modern humans, migrated out of Africa.

Never mind the family tree through online ancestry records research, in the past few years the revolutionary new science of the analysis of ancient DNA has emerged to rewrite the history books for the whole of humankind. In his fascinating book ‘Who We Are and How We Got Here – Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past’ David Reich outlines how ancient DNA analysis and whole genome sequencing has allowed the DNA of those living to be compared with DNA from the bones of our ancestors who lived tens of thousands of years ago. This has allowed the story of how humans mixed, spread and remixed in time and place to be told. It turns out that we modern humans are a relatively recent phenomenon who, as we spread, mingled with ancient human populations such as Neanderthals and Denisovans and remingled with each other whenever a branch emerged. We are all blends of past populations which were themselves blends and we carry the genes of ‘ghost’ populations whose past existence can be detected from their genetic contribution. There is no ‘tree’ of human evolution, instead our evolution has been like a vine – continually interweaving.

As an architect, reading David Reich’s book reminded me that there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ vernacular architectural DNA reflecting local traditions or a ‘pure’ DNA for architectural style (such as classical, gothic, modern etc). Architectural DNA, like human DNA, is a blend created through centuries of mingling and creative cultural exchange.

Who We Are and How We Got Here 1 of 2

Who We Are and How We Got Here 1 of 2

Who We Are and How We Got Here 2 of 2

Who We Are and How We Got Here 2 of 2

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Faulty Product
 
Marston Court, Ealing photo Ealing Council

Marston Court, Ealing photo Ealing Council

We know the rules for building in urban and rural situations – respect for local context, form, massing, materials, architectural style etc. Design guidance and planning rules abound. So what is an architect to make of ‘container’ homes like these in Ealing (delivered courtesy of  ‘offsite manufacture’) which break them all?

In the sense that they are an emergency response to a desperate need for affordable housing they are to be welcomed but more than anything they are a symptom of a broken system that is unable to deliver a steady supply of  ‘proper’ homes that are integrated into their surroundings.

Delivered complete to site then ‘plugged in’ to the infrastructure they are like a nightmare version of Archigram’s visionary ‘plug in city’. Cramped, with no gardens or sense of place and with poor sound and thermal insulation etc. they are clearly a terrible place to live yet for some of the residents they represent an upgrade from bed and breakfast accommodation and councils are starting to build more of them to alleviate the housing crisis.

As there should be no need for homes like these they are a sad indictment of our priorities as a society in terms of how we allocate land and resources. There is a shortage of construction skills through a lack of training. Factory production will result in cheap, rapidly produced accommodation that is hard to adapt and unsustainable due to its short design life. Skilled site tradesmen will be replaced by factory workers carrying out repetitive tasks with all the issues about the social and human evils of factory work. They have no regard for the urban context in which they are located. If this is the future we will have to radically rethink what the built environment looks like, how we create it and how it functions.

This ‘fix’ is not inevitable, it is a political choice. The delivery mechanism is broken and is supplying faulty goods.

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Gormley at the RA
 

Whenever I visit one of the major exhibitions at the Royal Academy it never ceases to amaze me the punishment that must have been meted out to the ‘base’ building as part of the installation and then covered up as if it never happened.

Antony Gormley Matrix III 2019

Antony Gormley Matrix III 2019

The current exhibition of sculpture by Anthony Gormley is a good case in point. Whilst the galleries look in pristine condition, as if untouched from the previous exhibition, they must have been torn apart and rebuilt in the weeks leading up to the opening like a giant construction and engineering site.

Take for example the piece ‘Matrix III’ which is a vast cloud of steel reinforcing mesh in a three dimensional grid suspended almost invisibly from the neoclassical lantern over the main gallery. This enormous tonnage of steel must be carried by deep steel roof beams above whose load has to be taken down to ground somewhere. ‘Lost Horizon I’ includes solid larger than life cast iron figures casually projecting out of the walls as if held by a few rawlplugs. Other figures dangle from the glass ceiling as if supported by hooks. In reality the weight of these pieces and the pull-out loads on the walls must have meant they were rebuilt in steel frames and steel plates before being resurfaced, plastered and painted. What goes unseen really is most impressive and almost as impressive as the work.

Antony Gormley Lost Horizon I 2008

Antony Gormley Lost Horizon I 2008

Gormley has been a favourite of mine since I visited his amazing outdoor exhibition ‘Human’ at the Forte di Belvedere in Florence in 2015. He turns everything (quite literally sometimes) on its head. ‘I want to use sculpture to throw us back into the world, to provide this place where magic, the subtlety, the extraordinary nature of our first-hand experience is celebrated, enhanced, made more present’.