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Friday, May 25, 2007
Gateway disarray
Not only is the design bad (at the ‘Middlesbrough level of the Premiership – with some more akin to Watford, without, of course, the same fear of relegation’) despite the threat of Housing Corporation funding being withheld for badly designed schemes. But we should be building at twice the rate we are.

The National Audit Office has published a rather damning report which says that the government is no longer accurately counting the number of units being built, and criticises the DCLG for "having no cost strategy". Hang on a minute - how can it have no cost strategy at all? Apparently they lack "a single costed plan for the programme to join up local initiatives". Forgive me, but that seems to be a basic omission.

So it is business as usual in the marshlands of Essex and Kent - the government playing catch-up to the developers who are racing ahead on their own isolated patches, with a total lack of effective, strategic leadership, no matter what Judith Armitt may be trying to do (and I'm sure her intentions are the best.) There are signs of progress in the London areas where the LTGDC and other agencies seem to now be taking a firmer grip - Design for London flexing its muscles by pressuring Barratt to upgrade its design team quality, as a recent example. But beyond the M25 it is, sadly, another story at present.
Sunday, May 20, 2007
RIP Sandy Wilson
Colin St John Wilson, seminal professor at Cambridge architecture department (where I studies though not, of course, under him) and best known or infamous as the architect of the British Library, died last week. It is funny how the press fell over themselves to eulogise him although most of them were very dismissive of the BL when it opened. But the reminiscences of him were largely just - his wide scope of interests (including an extraordinary mid-century art collection), his belief in a humane, nuanced and warm architecture, his admiration of Alvar Aalto (which prompted many borrowed architectural motifs) and his work at Cambridge. Like myself, and indeed like a former assistant to Wilson and subsequent Cambridge professor Peter Carolin, he actually applied to Cambridge to read History and switched to architecture.

I most recently went to the new wing at Pallant House which houses his art collection in a building he designed in collaboration with MJ Long, his 'life' partner, and her firm Long & Kentish. It was a serene and noble building, responding to its setting in historic Chichester with grace but not condescension, and appropriately of its time, despite its Aalto references. He is an architect who will be sorely missed, even if much of the architectural world has learnt to appreciate his merits only on his passing.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Brown's eco-towns
Talk about the five 'eco-towns' that Gordon Brown would like to propose has filled the trade press and had significant mainstream press coverage too. Common mis-perceptions have been that these are actually new towns (they aren't - they are existing development sites or areas that he would apply new 'green' rules to), and he has also attracted criticism (epitomised by Jonathan Glancey) that this is merely greenwash over the same old 'unsustainable' growth areas. Because Brown commissioned the Barker reviews of both housing supply and planning, and those reviews raised the hackles of people who, fundamentally, want to contain development and seem to believe it is impossible to build new housing developments that actually do have a sustainability of their own, sections of the commentators have already cast Brown as the bad guy who doesn't care - who wants to erase our green fields at any cost and carpet the land with Wimpey homes.

But it may be that actually he does mean it when he talks about sustainability. I'm loathe to judge either way before the detail comes out. It is true that many developments that completed recently have not epitomise sustainability - lacking shops, schools, local jobs. But that does not mean it isn't possible to do better - and indeed, that there may be projects in the current pipeline that will do better. It is notoriously difficult to phase the development of major employment opportunities and housing in tandem. Inevitably, for some time, there will be commuting one way or the other. And I do sometimes wonder how many of the critics have actually visited a representative spread of new housing developments. Sure, they aren't all pretty, but some are actually sensibly sited near town centres and services, and meet real needs for local housing.

And let's at least praise Brown for committing to some action, unlike the Tories who have yet to detail any concrete plans for implementing their new-found greenness and passion for new housing (for fear of upsetting their voters who are anti-development, I might suspect). Given that these 'new' towns will be built anyway, one way or another, isn't it better that he makes them conform to at least some green standards (renewable energy, sustainable drainage, higher building performance)?

We can't afford to be anti-development for the sake of it; and it is a fallacy to claim, like Glancey, that urban infill can provide the quality of life and housing, or the quantity, that will solve our housing problems. Reviving local economies needs housing nearby, and building the housing may actually precipitate people who live in it deciding to set up businesses locally, in the medium term. London can't and shouldn't provide all the jobs, if you are serious about sustainability; the rest of the country isn't just for leisure and holiday homes. So let's just give these new developments a chance - and the greener they are, the better.
Friday, May 11, 2007
School with no playground
No, this is not about a failing inner-city school that has been found to have no outside space, but the most expensive new flagship school that is being designed not to have a playground. I thought this was quite an extraordinary story. The Foster-designed school in Cambridge will treat its pupils like employees so, it is believed, they will not require free time outside. What this says about our approach to workplaces is also somewhat weird. Most workers leave their office for lunch, even if only to stroll to the local sandwich shop - a degree of freedom the school's pupils will not be allowed.

There are sports pitches, but no playgrounds - and an argument is being made that this will reduce bullying. But bullies do not need playgrounds to operate - and children do need spaces to learn to socialise and negotiate public behaviour. And in a word of warning the article ends:

'A school without a playground has been tried before - at Unity city academy in Middlesbrough, said to be modelled on a Tuscan mountain village. Two years ago, Ofsted said it was a "failing" school, with the lack of playground contributing to "the negative attitudes of the pupils". The school hurriedly got itself a playground.'
Seattle and other green news
A few items caught my eye recently among the burgeoning quantity of green-themed news...

Seattle has approved an interesting new green building code that requires developers to provide elements from a menu that includes green roofs and walls, permeable paving, biodiverse habitats and garden space. Clearly modelled on the Malmo BO01 code, developers are awarded points per element, weighted according to their 'greenness'.

BioRegional Quintain are the poster boys (and girls) of the zero-carbon development sector but CABE has criticised a current project for not carrying through its sustainable ideals in a more holistic way, in the masterplan. The 40 acre, 750 home scheme near Middlesbrough was masterplanned by Studio Egret West.

The Think conference came up with a so-called 'action plan' in relation to environmental issues. Not sure what, if any, impact this will have. I'm intrigued by the idea of buildings having a master 'off' switch - something I've been thinking about in terms of domestic energy use - though obviously things like freezers and computer servers will have to be wired into a separate system with backup.
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
Shooting from the HIP
The 'controversy' over HIPs and, in particular, the energy performance certificate part of them continues to rumble on in the media and in Parliament, though my hunch is that they are unlikely to be halted. I find it all a storm in a teacup (or should that be a hipflask?) and this Telegraph article to me sums up the fallacy of the arguments being made against them.

So older buildings come out badly on energy performance? Well, that's not a flaw in the rating system, that's the point of the system. We know that old buildings are not efficient, and we also know that it's often hard to retrofit them so that they will ever be so. But that's the idea - to encourage people to buy houses that are more energy-efficient, and provide the incentives to upgrade the kind of stock that can be retrofitted easily. The idea isn't particularly to make life hard for the owners of £900,000 thatched farmhouses featured in the Telegraph - but they may as well come to terms with the fact that yes, their property leaks heat and costs a fortune in CO2 every year. Perhaps they might then consider switching to an A-rated boiler, installing double glazing or installing loft insulation - all of which are practical and simple steps.

So their assessor was misguided to suggest that these particular home-sellers add wall insulation. But to be fuming because your energy-efficient lightbulbs don't count (what on earth stops a new owner putting in incandescents?) is going a little far. As the report says, a badly-insulated Victorian home uses five times as much energy as a new one. It's about time our national obsession with the charms of a 'period' property got a reality check.

I own a Victorian pub conversion flat in London, and my partner has just bought a 19th century stable block conversion in Essex fields, so we are in precisely this predicament - loving the quality of the buildings and now racked with guilt about their energy inefficiency. But in London I have double-glazing and a decent boiler. My bills are manageable and being in a flat reduces heat loss. And in the country, we are seriously considering alternative energy sources and other steps, for precisely this reason. I think this is a reasonable price to pay for our selfish benefit in deciding to live in a beautiful but impractical building.

You buy an expensive, wonderful designer dress rather than a practical, simple one from M&S because it makes you feel good. You know that you will get cold and have to buy a new coat to go over the top. That's the deal. Why not the same for houses? Stop moaning, middle classes...
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
Abu Dhabi 'zero-carbon city' unveiled
Billed as the 'world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste city' - I think Dongtan (covered recently by WIRED) might have words to say about that - this is a Foster-planned project, to house 50,000, in the desert state. The hubris of the Gulf states knows no ends - and has ended up with a perfectly square walled mini-city (50,000 surely isn't really city-sized?) in the middle of nowhere, with a science and technology institute developed in conjunction with MIT, "research facilities; world-class laboratories; commercial space for related-sector companies; light manufacturing facilities and a carefully selected pool of international tenants who will invest, develop, and commercialize advanced energy technologies."

Oh, and lots of monorails, which will provide the "personalised rapid transport system" for this car-free development. And "surrounding land will contain wind, photovoltaic farms, research fields and plantations, enabling the city to be entirely self-sustaining."

Sounds completely bizarre and thus, believable for this part of the word. Photovoltaic farms - alas, sadly, not actually growing giant crystals in ponds of ionised solution in the desert - are of course hardly 'zero-carbon' to make. And the energy needs of an airconditioned research centre in the middle of the desert are going to be pretty phenomenal. Let's not start questioning the sustainability of the whole thing on the macro scale, however, as that will be never-ending...

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