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 2 of 2
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.
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
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
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’.
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
‘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.
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
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.
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
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.
Flat drafting in the office of Charles and Ray Eames, 1970
Universal height adjustable table by Knoll
‘Architect’s back’ – the occupational injury endured by generations of architects who bent over architectural drawing boards in the days of set squares, tee squares, technical pens and tracing paper – died away with the advent of computer aided design. Ergonomically designed computer work stations help prevent back strain by allowing architects to sit upright with the ears directly above the shoulders which in turn are over the hips. Drafting chairs have a pneumatic gas lift for height adjustment, tilt adjustment, a foot ring to promote leg circulation and a curved back for lumbar support. As well as this freestanding height-adjustable tables also play an increasingly important role in preventing back strain by giving users the choice to sit or stand throughout the day.
Unfortunately some of the newest generation of architectural start ups (and lots of other tech start ups) including that of my son Simon are not working like this at all. They are working on laptops in coffee shops, shared workspaces, clubs, lounges etc . Because the keyboard and monitor are combined in a laptop they can’t be positioned independently for typing and viewing which means incorrect neck and shoulder posture and inevitably ‘architect’s back’ which I think is beginning to afflict Simon. There is a solution which is the use of a docking station that links the laptop to another monitor and keyboard or to a stand that raises the screen to a higher level.
Strange to have come full circle. Time to go ‘back to the drawing board’ (metaphorically speaking) and rethink this one.
Temporary increases in the Permitted Development (PD) regime that allowed homeowners to build bigger single storey rear extensions without the need for planning permission which were due to expire 30 May 2019 have now been made permanent. These increases cover single storey rear extensions of up to 6m on semis or terraced homes and up to 8m on detached houses.
Edwin Booth, Hamlet, 1870. PD, or not PD, that is the question.
PD rights are a bit of a minefield as the rules are often hard to interpret. There are frequently misconceptions about PD and these are the ones that I commonly come across:
- PD is what is permitted without planning permission. It is not necessarily as much or as good a solution as what might be available if a planning application is made and approved. So PD may not be the optimal solution.
- PD rights are often hard to interpret for a specific project and if a property is subsequently sold the incoming purchaser could seek confirmation that what has been built is indeed PD. Therefore in most cases clients apply to the local council for a Lawful Development Certificate which is in some respects similar to a householder planning application. So an application to the council may be needed in any case.
- PD rights are restricted in ‘designated areas’ such as conservation areas, National Parks (such as the South Downs National Park), an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) (such as the High Weald AONB) and for listed buildings. So PD may not apply.
- Building Regulations approval is still required. So a set of design drawings will be required in any event.
Always worth talking to your local architect to avoid a missed opportunity and/or a costly mistake.
The claim by the designer of the Soviet Union’s RBMK nuclear reactors that they were ‘safe enough to be installed on Red Square’ was believed. That was until reactor 4 (RBMK type) at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine literally exploded into the night sky at 1.23am on 26 April 1986 in the world’s worst ever nuclear disaster.
Serhii Plokhy’s award winning book ‘Chernobyl’ explores the context of communism, militarism and a rush for economic growth, through new technologies such as nuclear energy, that led up to the disaster, the disaster as it unfolded and the immediate and long term aftermath. It is a tale of the catastrophic coming together of a flawed and failing political system and an inherently dangerous nuclear industry.
A Soviet army helicopter above Chernobyl reactor 4 shortly after the explosion. Sandbags were dropped in a desperate attempt to put out the fire.
Anyone involved in construction will recognise the pattern of impossibly optimistic targets, design and construction flaws, violations of rules and procedures and rank deceit and incompetence at all levels. Anyone interested in politics and history will be drawn into a tale of how after the event everyone lied to everyone else to protect their skin. The plant managers lied to local officials who lied to Ukrainian officials who lied to Soviet officials who lied to the Soviet politburo who lied to the international community about the nature and scale of the disaster and the risks involved. Earlier warnings would have saved countless lives. The numbers who have died or will die will never be known as so many deaths are not immediately attributable. There were 2 immediate deaths and a further 29 deaths within 3 months from acute radiation sickness (plant operators, firemen and helicopter pilots etc) but the United Nations estimate a further 4,000 cancer related deaths – a figure that Greenpeace puts at 90,000. The area around Chernobyl will not be safe for human habitation for 20,000 years. The half-life of plutonium-239, traces of which were found as far away as Sweden, is 24,000 years.
I remember a primary school trip to ‘Hunterston A’ nuclear power station and seeing the goldfish swimming in the cooling water in outside ponds to demonstrate its safety. I knew instinctively even then that the only science I needed to understand was Murphy’s Law. Right now reactor 3 at ‘Hunterston B’ has been shut down after the discovery of over 370 hairline cracks in the graphite bricks that make up the reactor’s core. Meanwhile the construction of the nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point C in Somerset continues despite it being unnecessary, too expensive and of an unproven design with no working example of the proposed reactor type anywhere in the world.
‘Futurology – The new home in 2050’ published by the NHBC Foundation takes a look at how we could be living 30 years from now and as such is a good starting point for anyone planning a new home – be it in an urban or rural location. The ‘drivers’ for change will be the changes in demographics, advances in technology and reduced availability of land that we see all around us. The watchwords for the new home as we head towards 2050 will be accessibility, health and comfort, technology and adaptability.
The guide anticipates that increased life expectancy will lead to multi generational living with the need for flexible and adaptable family homes with shared and family spaces, home working spaces and self contained suites of rooms. Third age, single person and ‘micro’ apartment living are all expected to increase. New homes will be ‘smarter’ with low energy use and building and communications technology. The guide is not prescriptive and describes both age appropriate homes suitable for a particular stage of life (with the inference that the occupant moves on in due course) and homes that are flexible and adaptable enough to be suitable for most, if not all, of life’s journey.
Closer than we think – gravity in reverse
The problem with this semi-scientific approach to the home as a well designed and laid out tool / machine for living in is that most people don’t see homes in this way. We might change our car as our needs and circumstances change but not our home. Our home is part of our self-definition and we don’t always act ‘rationally’ in terms of how we live and use space. Changing home could mean leaving a community of friends and family behind. It could mean leaving a much loved street or place. In many cases the family home is the single biggest repository of family wealth.
‘Futurology – The new home in 2050’ is definitely a good primer for the future but it does have the feel of those sci-fi tv shows from years ago that predicted how we were supposed to be living now – but aren’t.