Friday, 30 March 2012

Solar power all day every day (nearly)

There is a fascinating post on Building for Change about research at MIT into designing three-dimensional PV 'towers'. The idea is that, with cells aligned in a variety of ways, they will provide a steadier output than at present, being effective for more of the day and coping better with cloudy conditions.

They will be more expensive than current on-building installations since not all of the cells will be working all of the time, but this will be less of an issue as prices fall. By providing a more even output, they will interface better with the grid and individual users will need to 'top up' less. These are still early days, but it would be interesting to compare these with 'conventional' PV coupled with a storage system.

The towers could have a great future though. There is even talk of mobile towers used for recharging cars in a car park. Should we expect a lot of stand-alone totem poles in the future? They would work best out of the shadow of the building. But local authorities would have to resist the temptation to drape them with signs and banners.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Lonely days in Australia

I admit that I have never been to Australia, but I always think of it, in the cities at least, as a pretty sociable outgoing place. So it was surprising to see this report from Architecture & Design saying that people's lives are becoming lonelier, and that architecture is, at least in part, to blame.

Some of this is to be expected, such as the statistic that more people live on their own. This is just a reflection of demographic changes across the developed world. But the report goes on to say that people should be able to interact better in public spaces - and that architecture is making this more difficult. A report called Social Cities, produced by the Grattan Institute, argues that Australians need everything from more sports facilities to the occasional bench around the edge of a public square, to create environments in which people can be with other people - and if not, it warns, health could be at risk.

Designers and developers pay too much attention to the material wellbeing of our cities and their efficiency, the article says, and not enough to the mental and social wellbeing of its inhabitants.

It is always good to see a call for better urban design, particularly when the Grattan Institute stresses that many of its suggestions are eminently affordable.

Australia may be a long way away, but it sounds as if there could be lessons for the buttoned-up Brits.

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Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Plans for the future

Last week may have seen the first day of spring, but today is far more significant - it is the day that the National Planning Policy Framework finally becomes law. There has been so much argument about it that it has almost felt like one of those things that would never happen - and now here it is.
Lawyers and specialists have pored over the detail, but it is unlikely until it is actually applied that we will really understand what it means. Some things are certain however. It is much shorter than what went before, and it is intended to be 'pro sustainable development'. This of course is what has caused consternation among countryside lobby groups. There is certainly plenty to worry about. Even the British Property Federation, which is broadly supportive, believes that there should be a stated preference for brownfield sites and existing settlements.
But the shortness is almost equally important. Legislation has a tendency to get longer, as new exceptions and conditions are introduced to prevent abuse. In the case of planning policy, this had reached the point where nobody felt that anything could be done. Radio 4 this morning interviewed a developer and a local activist in Yorkshire, where a proposed development took 10 years to get through. For the developer this was frustrating. The local protesters felt that they had done pretty well to hold it back for that long. But I thought, why bother? If it was going to happen in the end, was all that effort really worthwhile?
We can be sure of a few things. Planning needed to change. The new legislation will get longer as exceptions and conditions are introduced. Unexpected weaknesses will be discovered. There will be some bad faith, and some truly lamentable decisions. We do need more houses. Other than that - it's up for grabs. We should be in for an interesting year or two.

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Monday, 26 March 2012

Designing for the biscuit barrel

Rowan Moore wrote an intelligent, considered review in The Observer yesterday of FAT's building for the BBC in Cardiff. This is a building with some very odd and special needs, in a very difficult position, and FAT's response has been to treat the only element it can, the facade, and do so in a way that is both playful and thoughtful. Moore quotes Sean Griffiths of FAT saying one of those things that is so blindingly obvious that we often ignore it - at our peril. 'Most people don't go into most buildings,' he says. 'The facade is what they experience. If you mention the Taj Mahal, what people think of is the facade.' This is both serious and naughty at the same time. Griffiths knows full well that his building will never be Cardiff's Taj Mahal. It could just get on the odd biscuit tin, but it will never draw the crowds. Yet there is a truth in what he says about the way we experience buildings. Judged by weight of numbers, there are more 'users' passing by than actually entering buildings. So who is the client?
Buried in the piece is a rather depressing lesson. FAT, says Moore, would have liked to influence more than just the facade, to design key spaces such as the canteen, but this was not to be. 'Computers and Excel spreadsheets make the world,' Griffiths told Moore, 'and it's a strange assumption to think that architects have any power to change it.' One has to admire his pragmatism, while deploring the circumstances that make it necessary. Clients, it seems, will spend money on pleasing the passer-by, but the occupants of buildings are not so favoured.

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Thursday, 22 March 2012

On carbon footprints and keeping it simple

At Ecobuild yesterday I had a long talk with a consultant who has carried out a detailed carbon footprint analysis of the relevant merits of liquid propane gas and oil for people who live off the gas grid (LPG won). Although this was done for a manufacturer, it was carried out by an independent consultant and peer reviewed. And he had no industry axe to grind. His next piece of work was on the impact of the production of blue jeans, and was just as fascinating if less relevant.
It was refreshing to talk to somebody who dealt in the world of hard facts although it did strike me that working out the carbon impact of fuels is much simpler than it is for most building materials. After all most of the CO2 emissions come from burning the fuel. But there are other organisations taking carbon footprints and life cycle analyses seriously, and although in buildings one always has to weigh one impact against another, it is valuable at least to have the facts to do it with.
There were lots of exhibitors at Ecobuild telling us that their products are the best. I met a small-scale installer of solar panels and asked him how he chooses which to use. He said he deals with a big and reputable supplier and lets them make the decisions! Everybody needs to concentrate on the areas where they can hope to make a proper judgement, and rely on others for help where they can't.
Still, it is worth remembering that sometimes things are simpler than they seem. The man who did the carbon footprint analysis reminded me that it is almost always a decent proxy for overall environmental impact. So most of the time, we can concentrate on carbon and ignore the rest - not because the rest is unimportant but because it usually follows along.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The periphery becomes central

I was talking to a designer yesterday about Le Grand Paris, President Sarkozy's ambitious project to improve the troubled periphery of his capital. Paris will get two new metro lines, and a major extension to a third, linking peripheral areas as well as giving them better links to the centre. There will be 53 stations, and 95% of the construction will be in deep tunnels. Truly a Grand Projet!
It is interesting that these links are going to be made at a time when the way that we use our cities is changing. As more people work from home at least some of the time, there is also a growing interest in 'third places', whether coffee shops, satellite offices or shared serviced spaces, where it is possible to leave the chaos of home without trekking to a city-centre office. This could change the pattern of occupation of our cities, with more activity in out of town centres than usual, especially near those new transport changes. And, of course, people will want to make more journeys in a circumferential rather than a radial manner. Le Grand Paris could just be the future.

Monday, 19 March 2012

In praise of scruffy parks

There is a great piece on Salon by Will Doig about the way our parks are being over-designed and nature is being squeezed out. He makes a great argument for 'boring' parks where people can make their own fun, rather than a managed series of events with little room for spontaneity - or interaction with the natural world.
City planning already removes much accidental space, with the increasing privatisation of public spaces (anybody who has not read Anna Minton's Ground Control really should) and the proscribing of many activities. Doig says it is the parks from the 19th Century that offer the most unmediated experience, but even they are being gussied up. Fancy parks look great on the model and in photos but may be far less good for our mental and physical health.
I have always suspected that architects hate plants, because they are not controllable, grow in unexpected ways and even die. Now it seems that urban designers and landscape architects feel the same way.It is ironic if, just as we are coming to realise the importance of plants for well-being and there is a growing enthusiasm for vegetable growing and guerilla gardening alongside the new prevalence of green roofs,  plants should be squeezed out of our parks. Let's hear it for scruffy grass, a duck pond and a flower bed - for parks that won't win prizes but may just allow people enough relaxation to have some prize-winning ideas.

No time for retirement

One of the current discussion threads in the RIBA's Linked In Group is about the age at which architects should retire. The consensus is that they can't or shouldn't.
We are used to the grand old men (still mostly men) of architecture whose practices create some of their best work at an age when most other citizens would be putting their feet up or indulging their hobbies. Lords Rogers and Foster are the highest profile examples. And the clue of course lies in the word 'hobbies'. For many architects, nothing could be more interesting than architecture, so why shouldn't they continue doing what they love? Few will manage to emulate Brazilian superstar Oscar Niemeyer, still designing on the wrong side of 100, but many would love to try.
The situation is not all sunny though. None of the contributors to the Linked In discussion are famous and many sound pretty dissatisfied. Several are certainly working because they have to, and have cashed in pensions in order to keep their practices going. Worrying about the best design solutions in your 60s and 70s may be stimulating; worrying about paying the bills is less so.
The other problem is the dilemma facing young architects and would-be architects, struggling to find work in a cruel economic climate. Should older architects retire to make way for them? This is not an easy question. Architects running their own practices can't simply step aside for younger people. And many younger architects are responding to the difficult economic climate by setting up their own practices. The Architects' Journal has been profiling one a week for ages, and the list seems endless. This is a situation where the market really will decide, as clients choose their architect perhaps on the basis of experience, or perhaps on the basis of youthful enthusiasm. Many of the younger practices are expanding the traditional idea of what constitutes architecture, and finding work through new avenues. Perhaps some of the non-retirees should do the same, and develop new 'hobbies'?
One at least has an idea. David Grube, who runs an eponymous practice in Sheffield, suggests that 'Grumpy old  architects' could be a natural successor to 'Grumpy old men'. I wonder if that could work.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Model behaviour

It was fascinating while visiting an architect yesterday to see the model shop. This is a practice that is fully committed to BIM (Building Information Modelling) and uses parametrics to explore numbers of different options. Yet, when it wants to decide which to go with, it makes physical models and interchanges alternative elements to see how they look as you walk round them. However good an architect is at envisaging design in three dimensions, nothing beats actually looking at the relationship between elements on a model - especially if there is curvature involved.
This reminded me of the history of Twentieth Century design where almost all technologies have been additive, rather than superseding each other. We still have telephones, and radio, and film - only the telex has gone. When architects started using CAD there was a fear that drawing would disappear but there has been a growing understanding of its importance and the pleasure it can offer by young architects. Physical models are also likely to remain important, and it is also exciting to see people actually making things. The smell of sawdust and glue can't be beaten, and reminds us that architecture is not a purely theoretical discipline.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Breakfast of champions?

What did you have for breakfast ? Did it set you up for the day? You may think that this is an entirely private matter, but the Olympic Delivery Authority would disagree. As London's Evening Standard reported, the ODA was so worried about the performance of hungry and hungover builders that it started providing porridge on site and so cut down on the pre-lunch accidents by builders more concerned about what was for lunch than about doing their jobs properly.
The ODA is only adopting a practice that has been common in some schools for years, as teachers realised that pupils who had not had a proper breakfast couldn't concentrate. In that case they were putting their education and future prospects at risk. In the case of the construction workers, the consequences could have been more immediate, since construction is still a very dangerous industry.
It is interesting that this alternative to the conventional builders' fry up or bacon butty is being discussed in the week when we are told that we should all cut back on red meat and especially preserved meats. And this is not the first attempt to improve builders' health - previous campaigns have included making them cover up to prevent skin cancer.
There is a huge contrast between many builders' attitude to food and the carefully honed diets of the athletes who will be competing on the Olympic site in a few weeks. As the building industry strives to become more professional, should builders be encouraged to take a more 'professional' attitude towards diet and health? Or is this a step too far, and undue interference? Are the mug of tea and the sausage sandwich important cultural elements of our construction industry?

Monday, 5 March 2012

Conservation Architects ... have your say!

Take a look at our Reeds Mill case study and tell us what you would have recommended on a project such as this:

We're interested to hear your views on conservation and what regulations you would enforce if you were responsible for setting the rules.

We look forward to hearing from you!