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Thursday, March 29, 2007
Some quick green links
The Low Carbon Buildings Programme is in even more disarray. Pathetic, on behalf of government, not to fund and manage this properly when there is so much demand out there.

Faithful and Gould have put out some rather arguable stuff about how zero-carbon developments will cost 30% more than normal ones built to current Part L. But this is because they claim that the only way for high-electricity use projects (such as dense mixed-use or office) to be carbon-neutral will be to use photovoltaics. I know that wind turbines won't do enough but what about CHP as well? Surely the future for this kind of thing will be mixed-modal energy sources.

The Observer on eco-homes (as reported here) seems to have highlighted an issue that all of us actually working in this stuff know - that stuff heat loads, the real problem with new-build homes is cooling. And yet, the government is so keen for us to never use a/c that it won't fund low-carbon cooling solutions like reverse-cycle ground source heat pumps.
British Land becoming 'carbon-neutral'
That is, if you count offsetting. The carbon-neutral rhetoric is here certainly being used as weak greenwash. British Land announce they will go carbon neutral by 2009. One really telling aspect of how they are approaching this came out when I read some of the details:

Their head of planning and environment Adrian Penfold on BREEAM. "If there's a criticism it doesn't focus enough on issues like climate change. It's watered down by other factors," he says and advocates adopting a "modular" approach to eco-measurement.. "There could be a module directly focused on global warming and other modules dealing with other issues, which would form part of an overall rating."

Herein, to me, lies the rub: BREAAM admirably tries to create a holistic understanding of sustainability. Hence it is not all about those carbon targets. It does matter where your building is sited, whether there is adequate public transport, and all those other aspects that I suspect is what Penfold means by being 'watered down by other factors'. A super-insulated rainwater-recycling biomass-burning business park is still not sustainable, if it is sited miles from anywhere and encouraging car use, or if it is displacing natural habitats of value. But these days, all anyone wants to talk about is direct carbon emissions, because it is (supposedly) easy to measure, and you can reduce them by doing things that are relatively easy, requiring only a bit more money, and that don't affect your core business model (as, for example, deciding never to build another out-of-town business park would).

There's a real danger here, and I'm not the first to point it out, that we are entering a world where only carbon (and, to a certain extent, water) matters. But sustainability is about systems, about how a system works from top to bottom and across scales; about networks of decision-making, about lifestyles and complexity. Developers like BL need to buy into this approach, if they are to have any integrity; looking beyond their direct 'footprint' to the implications of the things they do. They may argue that the systems thinking is for planners and policy-makers to do, not them; but that is clearly dodging the bullet.
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
What I've been up to
I generally don't blog about myself - but a couple of big projects that I'm involved with are kicking off at the moment and might be of interest. I'm working with 5th Studio on this very exciting new park along the Lea River from above the Olympics down to the Thames. A Lower Lea Valley Park has been an idea on paper for a long time; now we will try to set a framework for it to become real over the next decades. It's a big and ambitious project and will certainly be an interesting process.

And I'm working in my home county of Suffolk on another ambitious initiative: Suffolk: Creating the Greenest County. A cross-cutting programme that is aiming high, we are just starting to figure out what making a 'greenest' county might mean. But with a group of very radical and committed local people who are already engaged in ground-breaking work from local food hubs to eco-schools, waste and serious amounts of renewables in the form of the Greater Gabbard wind farm among other projects, this is no hot air pledge. I'm helping them put together a conference in the autumn that will start the process of engaging local businesses and communities with how they can put this into practice, as well as with the development of a strong brand and web resource that will allow wide local engagement and debate.

All exciting stuff and not the only projects on the boil right now...keeping me busy!
Thursday, March 22, 2007
Rouse to head Croydon
I was fascinated yesterday to read that Jon Rouse, ex-CABE supremo and current Housing Corporation boss, is moving on again to become chief exec of Croydon Council, at the age of just 38. Croydon is a political hotbed at the moment; having swung from Labour to Tory at the last local election, it has a multitude of large regeneration schemes on the table, not least the controversial and long-running Croydon Gateway saga.

It will be interesting to see how he drives forward the council - which, of course, has plenty of other things to worry about other than regeneration - and certainly will be tracked here, when he takes up post in the summer.
A green Brown Budget?
While the rest of the mainstream press is more interested in how he managed to wrong-foot Cameron in a way that bodes well for the coming battles between the two, here in the world of building stuff, we are interested in other matters.

The Budget was being touted heavily as a 'green' budget, and was alternately hailed as green by the government and not green enough by the RIBA - anxious to be seen to make comment, methinks. Meanwhile other important bits were that Brown's pushing ahead with the planning gain supplement, adding a sweetener to the local authorities that they will get to keep most of the revenues raised.

The green stuff included, as expected, stamp duty exemption for 'zero-carbon' homes up to £500,000, VAT at 5% for energy-reducing products, and increased funds (but still not enough) to the massively oversubscribed Low Carbon Buildings Programme. There was also an increase in road tax for the highest polluting cars, the return of the fuel escalator, and increases in both landfill tax (up £8 a year) and the aggregates levy. Householders gain tax exemption from income they gain through selling micro-generated power back to the grid, which will really make no difference at all seeing as this is generally around £50 a year. And, most meaninglessly of all, Brown announced a competition to develop the UK's first full-scale demonstration of carbon capture and storage, a review to examine the technologies for 'decarbonising' road transport, and an "intention" that, by the end of the next decade, all householders will have been offered help to introduce energy efficient measures.

All in all I'm not the only one to think that it's a timid Budget as regards the green agenda. But looking more broadly, I'm pleased that Brown has stolen some of the thunder from the Tories over tax and demonstrated the capacity to engage in the theatre of politics. I enjoyed the surprise factor of the income tax reduction; and look forward to seeing more of this confident, showman style in coming months.
Monday, March 19, 2007
Last week's linkage
Apologies for lack of posts. I don't think anything really exciting happened last week - or maybe I'm just being cynical, because it was MIPIM and everyone was too busy grandstanding each other.

But it's hard not to be cynical when you read this sort ot stuff - Peel Holdings 'announcing' a new multi-billion masterplan of large perspex blocks on a Liverpool dockside, just so they can inflate their land values that little bit more. Let alone Bellway announcing that they have reduced their carbon footprint by a third - through offsetting in Ecuador. Right. (Surely a worthy contender for one of Mark's eco bollocks awards?)

Then there is more traditional MIPIM crap such as overinflated towers being sold as "the defined height of luxury" with foyers "crystallized by Swarovski" and waterfront living that is - oh, 500m from the waterfront? Enough of a distance to get yourself driven in of of the fleet of Rolls-Royces that comes for free. Ugh.

Foster waxed lyrical about Russia - more stuff along the lines of "I can't think of anywhere in the world that will do what we're going to do." What, spend that much money per sq ft? More prosaically, Farrells is 'creating one of the most vibrant and walkable cities in Europe' in - erm, Coventry (didn't MJP try to do that?) with a coloured perspex commercial mixed-use scheme, although the project director admitted that 'major issues still need to be resolved', including possible funding difficulties. Another effort to raise land values?

The only non-MIPIM stuff was that attempt to create a stir over the green belt, featuring the unlikely alliance of the Guardian and CPRE. Well, let's hope for a more exciting week this time round - though with everyone's belated hangovers kicking in, I doubt it. But at least you'll have a Budget round-up to look forward to...
Sunday, March 11, 2007
Green linkage
Phew. Its been a busy week and so my sunday blogging is really just a way of clearing my virtual desktop of links for the week ahead. And yes, some of these links are more than a week old...

DCLG's new big idea is 'eco-towns' and David Lock is doing a study. These are effectively 21st-century garden cities but smaller - satellite towns of 5-10,000 homes, with good transport links to larger centres, as part of the New Growth Points plan. Precisely what the 'eco' bit means here isn't made explicit but I'm sure Lock will come up with some interesting ideas.

David Miliband gave a speech that sounded interesting but didn't have much concrete in it, about changing land use and farming patterns.

A city law firm (RPC) has come up with the idea that architects face lawsuits if they don't take account of climate change in their designs, through injury claims. Sounds like they are looking for an excuse to rake in millions more in fees, but we'll see.

The Church of England is planning a carbon audit of all its bishops residences as part of its ongoing reviews of its estate, and after initiating a wider carbon audit of its buildings last year.

In the rather dull world of Whitehall, the sustainable procurement action plan has been launched, while it was well-reported that the government has failed to meet its own targets for cutting emissions and waste, wuite spectacularly given that the targets were pretty low already. And Phil Clark has a useful policy round-up that saves me from doing some other linking.
Friday, March 09, 2007
In brief: architects in politics, takeovers, salaries etc...
Architect Kisho Kurokawa is going to stand for governor of Tokyo. I'm all in favour of this. Apparently he wants to abandon Tokyo's bid for the 2016 Olympics.

Castle Bidco has had a bid accepted for Crest Nicholson, at the enormous sum of £715m.

Apparently architects are experiencing a salary boom. Unfortunately, it seems from my personal experience that this is strictly limited to the large or commercial firms, not the small-to-medium design-led firms who also have lots more work on, but are still often offering shockingly low salaries. I think that people shouldn't stand for that, personally - I know how hard it is to find good staff and so the ones you have should be compensated accordingly. If you've got lots of work in the office and still can't afford to pay people decently, there's something wrong with your business plan.

IKEA's BoKlok flatpack homes have got planning permission for their inaugural UK site near Gateshead.

The infamous Vinoly Walkie-Talkie skyscraper has started its trial by public inquiry.

This was a non-story about the £60,000 house, which was never going to be sold for £60k. At the formula of equal portions site purchase, construction cost and profit, a sale price of £180,000 is around the expected mark, I would have thought.
Straw Bale House
It's Friday...so for your amusement, here's how a man built himself a whole new house, without planning permission, inside a dutch barn full of straw bales. Yes, really. Strangeharvest has a great series of images showing the process of carrying off such a feat. He lived there for four years while battling the council after neighbours tipped off the planners, and now has eight weeks to demolish the house.
Monday, March 05, 2007
In brief: China, Alsop, Prescott Lock and other stuff.
Apparently China no longer wants European architects indulging ego-trips on big budgets: ‘Some foreign architects are divorced from China’s national conditions and single-mindedly pursue novelty, oddity and uniqueness.’ The Chinese Construction Ministry has announced new guidelines to stop government officials commissioning public buildings that waste money and electricity.

Will Alsop and his long-term collaborator, artist Bruce McLean, are designing a £90m office block artwork. Hmm. The 43 floor building on Old St roundabout contains a business centre, apartments, a hotel and fitness centre, but also has 15 floors for a self-storage facility and so would not require conventional fenestration, thereby providing a large “blank canvas” for McLean.

Prescott Lock (not named after Two-Jags) is being re-engineered as a linchpin of the Lea Valley 'water city' concept, as well as helping the ODA meet a target of transporting 50% of its materials sustainably [however that's defined] by allowing deeper-draft barges further up the Bow Back Rivers.

Paul King, formerly of the WWF, and who oversaw its One Million Sustainable Homes initiative and the One Planet Living campaign, is to become the new chief exec of the UK Green Building Council.

The new Communities England agency is to drop the land purchasing aspects of EP, which it replaces. It will apparently focus on helping landowners bring “difficult” sites to market.
You've got to love a) the bling photo of Frank Gehry that accompanies this article and b) his totally nonchalant Californian attitude at the age of "I'm feeling fine, by the way" 78. "I've just turned 78 and am about to design the biggest Guggenheim yet. Can I pull it off?" Also love him dissing the new MOMA - "that's like a big, shiny department store." I agree. Dude, way to go (as they say...)
London's Climate Change Action Plan
Last week, Ken launched his Climate Change Action Plan for London. Let's be clear right now, the 60% CO2 reduction by 2025 that has been widely quoted as the "target" is not, in this plan, put forward as an achievable figure without significant nationally implemented change. It is simply the milestone for what London would need to do, in order to reach a Contraction and Convergence-based quota of emissions. He's aiming for a still ambitious figure of 30% through London-only measures.

I still think it is a good plan and have written about it here on WC but, because of this issue about what is realistic to achieve, has also been causing some strong feelings elsewhere in blog-world. I appreciate these sentiments but fundamentally, I think Ken is doing the right thing. Plans like this need to be ambitious - what would the point be of a target that was only what was unambiguously, conservatively achievable? A challenge and a high bar needs to be set up in order to spur both individuals and businesses on and to make the policital case for tougher measures, more funding and tighter controls. It shows us all how small change isn't going to make big things happen. I know Ken is also self-serving in placing environmentalism at the heart of his political platform while not guaranteeing much, but I think it is also smart to challenge others to join him in making it happen, rather than guaranteeing something that either can't be met, or will come across as unambitious and tokenist.

Put more briefly, I can't think of a better way to tackle the issue given the limited powers Ken has. And I think that it behoves all of us who do take this issue seriously to band together around initiatives like this that do have integrity, rather than to shoot them down.
Chicago, Bruce Mau and David Adjaye
I've been listening to the podcast of Bruce Mau talking to David Adjaye as part of Artangel's talks series around Longplayer. An interesting bit was about Chicago and Mayor Daley's fantastically interesting initiatives. Apparently Daley takes an artist to meetings with him where he has to make big decisions because "artists see things differently and see things that I don't." He's also insisting that from next year, all new buildings in the city have to be LEED (American equivalent of BREEAM) certified.

It has to be said that most of the talking is done by Mau, which pretty much figures, as Adjaye is a very good designer but doesn't have many verbally expressed opinions. I've met Mau (he even offered me a job although I didn't end up taking it) and one thing he is good at is talking. He is an excellent designer-thinker of, in a sense, the first generation of "designer" being a much broader term, and retains much more clear-sightedness than much of the design-based thinking that has come after him. He immediately picked up on the fact that the Idea Stores don't have bookshops: why? He isn't quite as blunt to Adjaye, but it is rather ridiculous. You could use the Idea Store computers to order online from Amazon but can't pick up a book or a magazine right there.

This isn't something that Adjaye had any potential to influence through the way that he interprets his position as a designer - he concentrates on physical typology and image. But Mau immediately leaps in on issues like that and puts them centre stage as part of what he sees as doing his job. Mau also says that he finds the idea of an 'architect' ridiculous. He calls design "an entrepreneurial model for thinking", when talking about the projects he does that aren't about objects, and cautions "if you are going to do that kind of work, your methodology has to be more robust than less". This is where a lot of the second-generation "broad designers" fall down, to me. Their methodologies become fantastically complex, which to me is the opposite of robustness. You can understand how Mau works in a sentence or two, but it is tested to a degree where it doesn't fall down.