25 years ago a hugely influential government report entitled ‘Rethinking Construction’, also known as the Egan Report, was published. It looked at the how the UK construction industry could adopt efficiency measures used in other industries such as automotive and aerospace. In the time since it was published the industry has moved a long way to implement the five key drivers of change: committed leadership, focus on the customer, integrated processes and teams, a quality-driven agenda and commitment to people.
But what about the government? The government has always used construction as an accelerator and a brake for the economy thereby denying the industry the stability it needs. The decision to mothball the redevelopment of the Euston HS2 station suggests nothing has changed. The whole HS2 project, which is the ‘flagship’ ‘levelling up’ project, has suffered cut after cut and will no longer make it either to the north or central London in the near future. The Euston project has been stopped during construction and mothballed for at least the next couple of years in order to cut costs and push them into the future. The scheme, which dates from 2015, faces another redesign following one last Autumn to reduce the number of platforms. The main contractor had about 360 people working on site but many more employed at subcontractors and suppliers will have been affected. The design team was 600 strong with half of them based on site.
Euston HS2 Station image HS2
I know from experience that it isn’t possible to shave more than a single figure percentage off the cost of a project without a fundamental rethink of the design. Why has it taken 8 years to decide that the 2015 scheme is the wrong scheme? I can’t think of a more expensive way to ‘save’ money than to halt and redesign a project mid construction.
The government needs to ease up on austerity when it comes to infrastructure and treat it as investment to boost flagging growth and deliver on the ‘levelling up’ agenda.
For years the writing was on the wall – diesel exhausts are harmful. It was clear that the days of diesel powered cars were numbered yet they continued to sell in great numbers. Until the penny dropped and they suddenly stopped selling with a collapse in registrations and residual values.
With new homes moving towards zero carbon, old homes will need to offer an increasing degree of energy efficiency if they are to sell. Energy efficient measures and the associated installation costs and costs in use will be a major consideration in valuing them. So factor these in when you come to buy and sell or you might be left with the bricks and mortar equivalent of an old diesel.
Stoßlüften is one of those German words without a direct equivalent in English but it translates as ‘shock ventilation’. A new one on me. I first heard it last week when Angela Merkel used it when adding room ventilation to Germany’s hygiene advice to combat Covid-19. The five step advice now comprises social distancing, hand-washing, mask-wearing, using the coronavirus app and the airing of rooms.
Angela Merkel extolling the virtues of the open air
Stoßlüften is apparently commonplace in Germany where many open their windows twice daily even in winter. Mrs Merkel described it as ‘one of the cheapest and most effective ways’ of containing the spread of the virus.
Compare the concept of Stoßlüften to the low energy practice of draught sealing, low ventilation rates and partial heat recovery / partial air recirculation systems used with the best of intentions in many modern ‘low carbon’ buildings. I have never been comfortable with the idea of high levels of air sealing, low ventilation rates and air recirculation especially in homes where stale air can be dangerous for babies. In the light of the Covid-19 pandemic air recirculation, which is intended to conserve heat, must be seen as fundamentally unhygienic and no air filters can block viruses (bear that in mind next time you fly). There is thankfully an alternative which is very high levels of building fabric insulation combined with 100% fresh air ventilation heated upon entry using a cross-flow heat exchanger capable of heat recovery from the outgoing air of up to 90%. Oh – and Stoßlüften!
Another of the many changes to the way we live being brought about by Covid-19.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Skilled craftspeople of all kinds will be needed to restore Notre Dame cathedral in Paris following the fire that destroyed the gothic oak frame and roof, the spire and most of the interiors. Master carpenters and stonemasons will be needed to get roof and the walls back together and then a raft of specialists to reinstate the interiors. Cathedral grade skills like these are in such short supply nowadays that it could determine how quickly the work proceeds. The astoundingly complex oak frame and roof, known as ‘the forest’, were held to be one of the greatest masterpieces of Middle Age design and construction.
This assumes that the intention is to faithfully restore Notre Dame. In the world of architectural conservation there are various philosophical responses to fires such as this. ‘Ruinists’ say leave the building as a ruin – a romantic ghost, ‘modernists’ say replace with something that speaks for its time, ‘replicationists’ say what was there must be restored. The ‘replicationists’ will surely prevail at Notre Dame but what does ‘replication’ mean? Does it mean an authentic reconstruction of the whole thing using the original materials and techniques even where hidden from view or does it allow the use of equivalent modern means to achieve the same effect?
Sagrada Familia aerial view
Sagrada Familia Exterior view
After the fire that destroyed parts of Windsor Castle in 1992 it was decided that, with the exception of the areas that were redesigned such as St George’s Hall, the work would use whatever modern materials and techniques were necessary to recreate the interiors that were destroyed by the fire. This is in contrast to the reconstruction of the roof of York Minister cathedral which was exactly replicated in oak after the fire in 1984.
Sagrada Familia interior view
The fate of Notre Dame makes me think of another great European cathedral – the as yet unfinished Sagrada Família in Barcelona – started in 1882 and now 70% complete. Heaven forbid but how would you ever approach an ‘authentic’ restoration of a hybrid building like this. Antoni Gaudí‘s early work was in traditional carved stonework but from 1998 whole parts of the building have been prefabricated and craned into place. Large steel reinforced precast concrete elements, modern high-strength concrete, stainless steel, engineered wood, glass and light metal elements have all been used to speed up construction, increase safety and reduce cost. As well as this 3-D computer aided design has been extensively employed. The result is spectacular but certainly one to have the philosophers scratching their heads over what is meant by ‘authentic’ restoration.