Latest /
 
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!

News /
 
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.

News /
 
‘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.

News /
 
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.

Latest /
 
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

Latest /
 
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.

Latest /
 
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’.

Latest /
 
How much?
 

I purchased a couple of exceptional examples of product design recently. The first was an ‘Uppababy Vista’ pushchair and carrycot and the second was a ‘Clicgear 3.5+’ golf trolley. They are similar in some ways – both are functional and attractive and both fold down to impossibly small bundles. The big difference was the price with the pushchair and carrycot costing five times the cost of the golf trolley. Obviously there is more to the pushchair but not five times more. I mean with a bit of modification you could almost push a baby around in the golf trolley. However the market knows best and both are market leaders.

'Uppababy Vista' pushchair and carry cot

‘Uppababy Vista’ pushchair and carry cot

'Clicgear 3.5+' golf trolley

‘Clicgear 3.5+’ golf trolley

It got me thinking again about what ‘stuff’ costs. ‘Stuff’ starts as a raw material, say clay in the case of a brick or iron ore in the case of a steel beam, and then all along the way costs are added. These include materials, labour, management, marketing and selling, operating costs, borrowing, research and development, return on capital, setting aside for future expansion and replacement etc. etc. A degree in economics is needed to make sense of the likes of fixed cost, variable cost, marginal cost, opportunity cost. The more you think about it the more complicated it becomes as it often depends on the route to market which is why in most cases it is left to the market to decide.

I am regularly asked what my designs will cost to build and I can, and do, provide an estimate on a m2 basis. A more detailed estimate can be provided by a quantity surveyor on an elemental basis or a contractor can give a ‘budget’ cost. If cost is looking like it could be a problem we can look at things like the size and complexity of the design, the method of construction, the specification level and the procurement approach. Do we use named products or generic equivalents or a performance specification? When all is said and done, competitive tendering remains the best route to determining price as the only price that ultimately matters is the market price which is the price at which a reputable contractor is prepared to sign a contract for the work.

Latest /
 
Madeira
 
Funchal, Madeirra photo Bengt Nyman

Funchal, Madeirra photo Bengt Nyman

What better way to extend the summer than an Autumn fortnight In Madeira the ‘floating garden in the Atlantic’ which boasts a sub tropical climate, year round summer weather, stunning scenery and unique flora and fauna. The architecture is a mix of the modern and classical European styles from colonial times often featuring the characteristic black local stonework and white render. Tourism is the mainstay of the local economy with adventure holidays for the young in the mountains supplementing the traditional ‘old guard’. There appears to be plenty of construction activity – I tend to count the cranes on the skyline as a crude measure.

Baroque, twin towered facade of Our Lady of Monte Church, Madeira (1818) featuring black local stonework and white render

Baroque, twin towered facade of Our Lady of Monte Church, Madeira (1818) featuring black local stonework and white render

A positive narrative then but like so much nowadays there is a competing narrative which is the chronic lack of sustainability. Madeira’s year round population is nearly 300,000 with five times as many tourists visiting annually. Most arrive by air which we all know is not a sustainable form of travel and not likely to become one. Add to that the food and everything else that has to come in by air and we have an island whose steady development must be at risk. So for that reason I wouldn’t buy a property there or invest in development even if I could afford to. The smart money is apparently on Scotland (water and energy).

When teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg delivered a stinging rebuke to world leaders at the United Nations Climate Summit a few weeks ago over a lack of action on the climate emergency she would have had the likes of Madeira’s air miles count in mind (3,100 miles round trip from London). The charming old fashioned idea of Madeira may one day include the idea of not visiting at all.

News /
 
The Great Fire of Barking
 
The Great Fire of Barking 9 June 2019

The Great Fire of Barking 9 June 2019

It was ‘Barking mad’ to construct the balconies of the flats in the recent Barking fire of timber. Perhaps they should have built them in Dagenham instead which, as they say, is three stops past Barking.

The use of external timber cladding in high and medium rise buildings has become increasingly popular as it is fashionable, ‘eco’ and above all cheap – seemingly ignoring the obvious fact that wood catches fire easily. The more that timber is exposed the more easily fire can cross the facade of a building and leap from building to building – a lesson that was learned 350 years ago in the Great Fire of London after which brick and stone replaced timber.

Over recent years I’ve seen more and more timber used on the facades of high and medium rise buildings and thought ‘how on earth do you access that for maintenance?’ Maybe the more obvious question would be ‘how will that burn?’ In the case of the Barking flats it is suggested that they ‘received approval by the relevant authorities’. They probably did as balconies do not normally form part of an escape route and the purpose of the Building Regulations is to save life not property.

The Great Fire of London September 1666 artist unknown

The Great Fire of London September 1666 artist unknown

In this article in the Sun on the Barking fire Dad-of-two Carl, 40, said he had just ten seconds to grab his children and run. He said: “Apparently there was a flat that started a barbecue, the barbecue was on a carpet and there was a mattress on a wall. The barbecue fell over, I don’t know how, the barbecue fell on to the carpet and caught alight.”’  Sounds not dissimilar to the Great Fire of London which started in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane when a spark from his oven fell onto a pile of fuel nearby.