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Note: This blog is no longer active - please visit my new site at HAT Projects where you will find our new blog!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008
New company, new website, new blog
It's been a while - but I'm hoping that for those of you who haven't trashed me from your RSS feeder, this will pop up as a little surprise. I've been busy - new house, new baby, and a new practice, HAT Projects, set up from our studio here in Essex and currently working on lots of fun stuff, including the feasibility study for a new art gallery in Hastings. All of which means a new blog, which can be found here, so I hope you'll all migrate over and have a look, and sign up to a new feed!
Monday, July 02, 2007
The other side of the Dongtan 'exemplar'
I thought this was a good piece of true BBC reporting, exploring whether all is as rosy as it seems in the creation of the 'exemplar ecocity' at Dongtan. None of it surprises me - that it will probably become a "suburb for the rich", that it is being accompanied by potentially disastrous development of shipyards and power plants nearby. But I have been surprised that the building and development press have so far been so blinkered as to the reality of what modern China means for projects like this.

There is the kind of wishfulness (exemplified by much of what Norman Foster says) for the speed and decisiveness of a totalitarian government in making 'big things happen' - architects and developers appear to long for European systems to work so smoothly. But they seem willing to disregard the trophy nature of these projects; the lack of a strong environmental policy from China in any strategic way; the social consequences of mass relocation of people, moulding of land, creation of new 'utopias' with no context to serve political ends.

But while we criticise our government for token gestures in proclaiming tiny new 'ecotowns' on ex-MOD sites, or hailing a fifty-home development as a national showcase for sustainability, we should remember that the 500,000 homes of Dongtan is exactly the same tokenism relative to the scale of China's development over this decade. And at what cost?
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Crap Calculator
DEFRA have launched their new online carbon calculator, as David Miliband proudly announced on his blog. I'll give you the link in a second, but don't all rush - because this has got to be a prime example of how not to design a user-friendly online tool.

Think irritating flash popup that does that thing where it fills your entire screen. Then takes several minutes to load due to the volume of gratuitous animation. Then every time you fill in a question, takes ages to move onto the next one, and even more time when you finish a 'section'. And an html version that runs even more slowly, if that is possible.

When all you need is a series of simple questions in html, with almost no graphics, running on a nice fast server so that you don't get so irritated that you stop bothering half way through and never do find out quite how much you are damaging the environment. I applaud the idea behind a good online calculator (this one includes a postcode function), but guys - this is really not the way to do it, when there are plenty of other ones out there that are, well, just a whole lot easier to use.

The link is here, if you want to experience the full horror yourselves. Oh yes, and it has possibly the least memorable URL known to man, just to top it off...

UPDATE: Adrian suggests in the comments that the server is simply overwhelmed by too many hits. I can't really believe that so many excited Britons are logging onto this website as to 'overwhelm' it. FYI, I originally wrote this blog post in between waiting for it to load the next question. Several hours later, I still haven't been able to finish the questionnaire. Surely DEFRA could have managed to host this on a server that would cope with the attention...and that they haven't done so is just sheer incompetency on their part.

(And now I can't load the developers blog either, so they must really be having problems!)

On the way they are calculating carbon footprint, there seem (at the halfway point that I've managed to get to) to be some questions that are more aimed at encouraging behavioural change than contributing to the calculation. If you have already entered the amount of electricity you use each month, questions about how much you use your washing machine are pointless. And other calculators that are available are more effective, showing the amount of carbon each particular element is contributing to the whole rather than simply a sum total. But all these points pale into insignificance alongside the fact that in nearly eight hours I've not managed to actually work through the damn thing to the end.
Friday, June 15, 2007
Greening Suffolk
A quick update from a project that I'm working on in my birth county of Suffolk - the new initiative Suffolk: Creating the Greenest County (skeleton website here that we launched a couple of weeks ago) which is starting to gather momentum. Not nearly as fluffy as it sounds, the project is bringing together lots of passionate and active people in the county to strategise some ambitious targets, and the actions needed to get there.

As part of this we're holding a conference in October that will spread the message wider to community leaders, business, and the local authorities, and start to get them all to consider what their organisations or communities can do to contribute to the bigger aims. It's very much going to be a hands-on event with a series of seminars on different themes that are all about stimulating discussion, creating learning opportunities and sharing experience from those who've already started to take action. But we're also talking high-level with keynote speeches that will address the 20-year scenario for Suffolk and the big debates over how the county needs to adapt.

I've started to nail down panel members for the seminars and have some really interesting people lined up but there are a few spaces left to fill: so I thought I might open it to you to see if you have any smart suggestions. I'm specifically looking for someone to contribute on post-occupancy of sustainably designed buildings and behavioural change of building users. In addition we're still developing the focus for seminars on transport (green travel plans and so forth) and waste minimisation. And any ideas for other interesting people would be gratefully received!
Friday, June 01, 2007
To reduce, or to adapt?
The debate that Nigel Lawson has so effectively ignited by arguing that we should concentrate on adapting to climate change rather than stopping it, is an interesting one and exactly mirrors a (less polarised) conversation I had a few weeks ago with one of the leading City investors in low carbon technology. It is foolish to claim that Lawson doesn't have a point. Climate change is happening, and even if we do manage to turn the ocean liner around, the emissions that we have already produced will continue to have an effect for many years, and it will be decades, if not longer, before the effect of any cutbacks we make now will be felt. And that's without even getting into the possible effect of feedback loops. It is not enough to put our collective heads in the sand, hope that the government legislates for carbon cuts and that the problem will go away.

So like it or not, we have to concentrate on adapting to the effects of a warming climate. Strategies for our water resources (rainwater and aquifers), for sea level rises, for extreme weather events, for agriculture, for buildings - all of these need to respond to the reality of ongoing climatic change. How will we grow crops, what kind of seed stocks will we need, how can we keep our buildings cool in summer, where will our water come from if it doesn't rain for four months of the year? These are enormous, but also solvable, challenges. They are opportunities for those who are entrepreneurial enough, but also ask tough questions about the way we manage our land and lifestyles on both macro and micro scales.

But just because we need to adapt doesn't mean that we shouldn't also look to cut our energy consumption where at all possible. The two are sides of the same coin; we need to get smarter in both directions, if maintaining our quality of life, and our economy, is to be sustainable at all. We need to use less and make better use of what we have. Water provides a really clear example: we should be implementing low-water agriculture and buildings, at the same time as collecting rainwater more efficiently for distribution, and recycling the water that we do use. On the issue of carbon, we can't just adapt our way out of climate change that is reaching unheard of speed, with unknown consequences. We have to cut our emissions as well as finding ways to cope better with the implications of what we've already done to the environment.

The other aspect of this approach is that it reduces the pressure to 'prove' or 'disprove' climate science (although, to be frank, one might think that the debate should be over). Solar flares or whatever your chosen theory, the world is getting hotter and we have to adapt to this. Also, whether or not carbon emissions are the primary cause of the heating, they certainly aren't helping, so cutting back on them is undeniably a good idea. We can't do anything about solar flares, so let's tackle the bit we can. It's a bit like genetic causes for obesity: you're not sure if you have them, but even if you might do, that doesn't excuse your overeating.

Finding the way forward to both reduce and adapt sounds like a double whammy for policymakers that is hard to stomach. But it is the only answer to the predicament we find ourselves in; and actually, reducing our consumption is simply one part of adaptation, and vice versa. Your business is asked to cut emissions by 25%? You do this through adapting: your building to require less airconditioning or lighting; your processes to require less refrigeration or heating, despite changing temperatures outside. What is more, for the public to see both aspects being addressed may make measures that tackle each side of this equation easier to stomach. It answers the frequent comment that 'at least global warming means decent summers' by saying yes: enjoy them, but here's a low-energy air-con system that you can use when it gets too hot, and a way for you to avoid that hosepipe ban by being smarter about your water, or by not needing a hosepipe in the first place.

The message should be not that the world is ending, but that it's changing; and here are the ways that we can, and must, adapt to both the good and the bad side of that.
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.