Sunday, 30 September 2012

Doom and gloom or a new way of working?

Things can't be good if you can encapsulate the state of the construction industry in a tweet, as Simon Rawlinson of EC Harris did a few days ago. He wrote: 'Workload has fallen in real terms in 5 of the past 8 quarters. Value of work awarded over last 12 months back to pre-1980s boom levels.' There is no way you can spin that to be positive.
Yet it is notable when talking to architects that many of them are desperately busy - often too busy to talk. For some this means that they have found their niche or have a fantastic reputation and are bucking the trend. For others it is a rather febrile busyness - a lot of pitching for work, doing the same jobs for less money, or replacing bigger jobs with smaller ones. Staff numbers may have shrunk, and they are trying to keep the output going with fewer people. One architect I visited recently started giving the team free lunch in the office to make up for cutting wages (although they had subsequently reinstated the wages - and kept the free lunch!).
The struggle to survive is not always successful. One of the latest failures, as reported in the AJ (sorry, subscription barrier) this week, was Manchester based MBLA, a multiple award winner with a 24-year track record, so scarcely naive or inexperienced or untalented. It was sunk, apparently, by a bad debt.
Yet the magazine also reports every week on the establishment of new practices, of which there seems to be an inexhaustible supply. Some of these may be 'virtual' practices, with no offices and the principals also doing  other things to make ends meet. Anybody setting up a full-on practice is creating a hungry animal that needs constant feeding. Even a small office and a couple of staff rack up the costs, and there is inevitably a gap between establishment and receiving fees.
I was talking to somebody this week who has been analysing some of the larger practices' figures and reckons that many of the 'successes', the ones we would never doubt, have worrying levels of debt.
Young architects are willing to duck and dive; an increasing number of the more experienced are becoming independent consultants, lending their expertise to projects with no risk. But what about those who should be mid-career, growing an office, or progressing through one? These are difficult times.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Hooray for PV

According to a report by the European Commission, two thirds of the new PV panels installed in 2011 were in Europe. Enough, in fact, to power the whole of Austria, although spread around the continent the effect is rather less impressive.
Still, it is good news. China is apparently the fastest growing manufacturer of PV, but European countries are at least exporting manufacturing equipment there. And growth rates of between 40 and 90 per cent a year worldwide since 2000 are encouraging. We may not be doing much that is right in relation to the environment, and PV may not be the best solution all the time,but at least we are taking it seriously.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Exceptional effort reaps results

The village of Vernazza in Italy's Cinque Terre looks picture postcard perfect. Its multi-coloured houses tumble down to a tiny harbour, framed by the hills that surround them which stretch to the sea in a mix of wild plants, vineyards and olive groves. It is linked to its neighbours only by boat, by footpaths and by a railway that, boring through the rock, is a triumph of engineering.
Life is not always idyllic however. Last autumn there was exceptionally heavy rain which led to landslides rushing through the narrow streets, wrecking homes, taking down power lines and killing three people. Their bodies were eventually washed up somewhere near St Tropez in France.The entire village was evacuated for clean-up and restoration of power and water.
So you might expect to see a pretty devastated place. Not at all. There is the occasional building still undergoing work, but the village is pretty near pristine. This evidently is the result of a lot of effort, and money. This is even more surprising, given that Italy does not have an ideal reputation for clearing up after disasters. The earthquake at L'Aquila, for example, abandoned many to temporary homes for an unforgivably long time.
So how did Vernazza do it? It is a small, relatively contained community. And it lives on tourism, with most visitors in rented rooms rather than massive hotels - for which there is no space. Footpaths are maintained to a high level (although one, between Manarolo and Corniglia was destroyed by another landslide three years ago and has not yet reopened, forcing visitors onto a longer and even more picturesque route). Visitors are charged 5 Euro a day to use them. If Vernazza, often described as the jewel of the Cinque Terre, had not got its act together, the results would have been far more devastating for the economy than the initial disaster.
The UK has just achieved the near impossible with the Olympics. The inhabitants of Vernazza have done something similar on a far smaller scale. Both deserve congratulation.

Friday, 21 September 2012

What use is architectural education?

A huge headline on the front of yesterday's Evening Standard, the London local paper,  reads 'A degree in architecture ....but all I can get are menial jobs'. The paper highlighted the plight of 24-year old Debo Ajose-Adeogun who found that his architecture degree from Birmingham University was of no help in finding a proper job. On graduation he returned to his home in Newham and, inspired by the Olympic construction, applied for jobs with developers but without luck. He had an eight-month contract with a housing association but is now a sales assistant in Stratford mall.
'I've made more than 250 applications for an entry level job as a designer, architect's assistant, surveyor or something in the housing construction sector but all I've managed is three unsuccessful interviews,' he told the paper.
The interview is part of a larger article about graduate unemployment, and another interviewee is Bradley Bloom, who studied architecture in Glasgow. After the housing development on which he was to work ran out of money, he searched for months and finally found a job in Holland. 'If I want to work at what I was trained for and develop my career, I have to leave London and go abroad,' he said.
Of course, if the paper has the details right, neither of these graduates has been trained for anything. They have architecture degrees which, with further study and experience, could lead to them passing part 2 and part 3 and becoming architects.
In easier times, architecture degrees were seen as a good introduction to a subject and, if students did not wish to go on to become practitioners, could suit them to find related work in the built environment. There was some discussion about whether those who failed to take qualifications were in fact 'failures' and 'dropouts' or whether an architectural degree could be regarded as a valuable piece of education in its own right, before going on - probably - to do a targeted qualification in something else.
What an architecture degree was never intended to be was a vocational qualification in its own right. The tragedy for these two young men is that it seems that nobody told them this. They may not have wanted - or had the resources for - further study. Instead they have had three years of intellectual stimulation and hard work, and have doubtless improved their spatial awareness and imaginative abilities. But they have not been fitted for the jobs that they so desperately want and need.
Another article in the paper, this time in the recruitment section, is called 'It's all about the face value'. This says that you don't only need to be seen in order to progress at work - you also need to be around to get the work in the first place. It gives the example of a woman who found herself a job after networking like mad while on work experience. The paper does stress that this was paid work experience. But this does seem to be another example of the truism that it is not what you know but who you know that counts. And if you have money behind you to allow you to dip into unpaid work, it helps.
I suspect that the disillusioned architecture graduates were never told any of this. Architectural education is demanding and expensive and produces too many graduates for a profession that is perilous and often poorly paying. Nobody should be discouraged from following their dreams but in this case it seems that the dreams have become more akin to a nightmare. What a shame that these two graduates were not given some insight into the true state of affairs. It might have helped them to make different decisions about the courses of study that they followed.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Extensions are not easy

Despite a headline reading 'Industry backs Cameron's home extension plan', a story in BD this week was ambivalent about this proposed relaxation of planning. It stressed both that this was unlikely to make much difference to the overall health of the industry or provide a bonanza for architects, and also that it is important to retain design quality.
Domestic extensions - even entire new houses - are the way in which architects have traditionally started their careers. And the successful and established then often turn their back on this work, passing it on to colleagues who have just set up for themselves. The reason is that domestic work is so difficult and, properly budgeted, does not earn money. If you are a sole practitioner, with few overheads and plenty of time (ie not much work) then you can certainly earn something from it. But for a larger practice, with running costs that are substantial, it is likely to be at best a loss leader. The degree of complexity may be as great as in a project of five times the value, the client cares passionately and so is likely to change their mind, and their are likely to be unexpected discoveries plus all the difficulties of working with the small end of the building trade.
On the other hand, architect-designed extensions can be great, transforming not just the new space but the whole feel of a house. The best deal with levels and the all-important question of light. I saw a really good one yesterday, albeit on a house of a scale to which most could not aspire, which replaced a terrible off the shelf conservatory. Those conservatories are already a blight, and for larger extensions one could envisage other ill-conceived off the shelf solutions - perhaps going the other way, and being under- rather than over-glazed. Rooms which are currently well-lit could become poky and dark.
There is also the issue of paving over gardens, which may have serious implications for drainage on the larger scale if there are too many of these extensions.
Quick fixes are rarely simple.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

A roundabout tale

I love this inspirational story - and the ability to use the word 'inspirational' without referring to Paralympians. The prolific and wonderful blogger who runs Spitalfields Life posted this gorgeous image of a late summer garden.

Nice - but so what? Lots of people have slightly unruly but charming collections of flowers at this time of year. What makes this special is the context:
This 'garden' is in the middle of a roundabout in Hackney, east London. According to Spitalfields Life, the woman who gardens it started doing so on her own initiative 10 years ago, before the advent of the guerilla gardening movement, because she was so depressed by the state of the roundabout. Later she came to an accommodation with Hackney Council which means that her work is officially sanctioned.
She still has to find a gap in the traffic to dash across with extracted weeds - not your typical health and safety approach. 
Best of all, there is an annual lavender harvest, with which locals help. The gardener then makes lavender bags and sells them to fund the purchase of new plants.
This is not only an inspiring story, but a great example of the way that interventions by dedicated individuals can help make our cities better places.