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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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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’.

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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.

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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.

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Architect’s Back’s Back
 
Flat drafting in the office of Charles and Ray Eames, 1970

Flat drafting in the office of Charles and Ray Eames, 1970

Universal height adjustable table by Knoll

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.

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Chernobyl
 

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.

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.