Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Was Monday good news day?

A week ago on Monday was 'blue Monday', the day of the year when we were all meant to feel most depressed. For the construction industry though it seemed as if this Monday was more like 'golden Monday'. It was extraordinary to wake up to news which seemed to be all about creating construction work.
First there was the confirmation of the proposed route for the northern part of HS2, the high-speed rail line, although there will evidently be a lot of arguing about the route before this translates into real work.
Then there was the unrolling of the much-discussed Green Deal to the public, which should generate work at the smaller end of the market for approved installers.
And if architects, rightly, think that HS2 is too infrastructure based (although there will be new stations) and the Green Deal too small and trade based, then they can take heart that the embargo has, finally, been lifted on publicising Olympic work. OK this is too little too late, and of little benefit to many. And yes, there is plenty of bad news around with practices still going out of business, product manufacturers becoming insolvent, and the prospects for construction work looking gloomy overall. But how nice to have at least a little oasis of cheer. With gift horses so rare these days, we shouldn't look this one in the mouth.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The right time for consultation

There is an old story about a man who ran a raffle to win a horse. When the winning ticket was drawn, he apologised that the horse had died and refunded the winner's money, keeping all the rest.
John McAslan and Partners must be feeling like that unlucky lottery winner - getting the prize and having it snatched away at the same time - in Glasgow's George Square competition. While there is no suggestion of financial impropriety, Glasgow City Council's behaviour leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
At one level its actions make perfect sense. It has listened to local voices saying that they do not want radical changes to the square, and has decided simply to refresh it instead. This would be a prudent, popular move - if it hadn't waited until after an international design competition to make it. In the council's terms it has wasted money on the entire process. Even if it considers this money well spent to come to the 'correct' conclusion, think of the 33 practices that entered, the six on the shortlist, and the impressive panel of judges who gave up their time.
Time is money for practices these days, with little spare capacity. Choosing to enter one competition means turning down another. When I wrote BD's White Paper on how to win work at the end of last year, we looked at the reasons for entering competitions and also at the capital that practices can make from near misses. But in this case all six shortlisted schemes are tainted with a sense of being not good enough, and the disappointing outcome will leave all the participants feeling cheated.
Let's hope Glasgow isn't planning any other major competitions any time soon - if it does it may meet an understandable reluctance to enter.

Monday, 21 January 2013

What sort of housing do we want?

Architect Alison Brooks, no slouch at housing design herself, talks in a discussion run by The Architects' Journal, about the appeal of Victorian homes.
'Why are people willing to pay so much for a flat in a Victorian house?' she asks. 'Why are things like high ceilings and big windows and good proportions, and all these very simple, basic things that the Victorians did, deemed to be above the minimum provision right now?'
It is true that the Victorians inhabited their houses far more densely than we do now (even if they are divided into flats) but it does get to the nub of the problem with housing, as with much else today. Despite the recession, this society is still richer than it has been for almost all our history, yet we are constantly told that there are things we can't afford. In terms of housing, it is, as Brooks points out, because we are measuring the wrong things. Valuations are done on the basis of number of bedrooms rather than on a more sophisticated basis. Just as planning seems to be over-concerned with box ticking rather than encouraging imaginative and appropriate solutions.
Housing is a tremendously complex issue. Sweeping away all regulation is not the answer, as MP Nick Raynsford points out in the debate. But it does need to be freed up, and the right kind of development encouraged.
It is a dauntingly complex area, but one that the AJ is to be applauded for tackling in its 'More Homes, Better Homes' campaign. It will be fascinating to see what comes next.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Can tech companies save Detroit?

Sunday's Observer had a good-news story about Detroit. The city, which has been a symbol of urban failure, is now seeing some signs of resurgence, thanks to a modest influx of high-tech start-ups who seem relatively unfazed by the lack of services and facilities.
One of the problems that Detroit faces is that American taxes are levied almost entirely locally, so that with falling numbers of residents and of people in employment, the city is unable to pay for basic services. Hence, in addition to abandoned buildings, there are roads that have not been maintained, and the rising crime levels are made worse by poorly funded police and fire services. But evidently whatever other investment has been missed, there is decent wi-fi.
The situation in Detroit is so bad that there is almost a romantic aura surrounding it - particularly for those who have not been there. Both the main article and a review of Mark Binelli's book The Last Days of Detroit  use the term 'ruin porn' to describe the obsession with beautiful photographs of crumbling buildings. We should be wary of falling into that trap. And a few tech start-ups are hardly going to solve the problems of a massive poor and unemployed citizenry. But it is a fascinating place to study as the solutions that are mooted - whether this latest influx of the bright young or the moves towards urban agriculture - provide a test-bed of what can be achieved by a bottom-up approach when top-down has so manifestly failed.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Danger is not where you expect

Guardian writer George Monbiot has created quite a stir with an article entitled The Grime behind the Crime in which he reports research finding links between levels of lead pollution and violent crime. Serious scientists were interviewed about this on the radio this morning, and it seems as if the research is pretty watertight. They are showing correlation not causation, but it is fairly easy to imagine a cause. Lead poisoning is known to show brain damage, and damaged brains can easily be imagined losing inhibitions against violent acts.
This reminds me of the assertion by the authors of Freakonomics that legalised abortion in the US helped to bring down crime. Again their assertion was based on statistics, and again they had a reason - fewer unwanted children grew up in misery to become criminals.
What does all this have to do with architecture? Yesterday Building Design covered a report by the New Economics Foundation which said that Secured by Design techniques were cutting off school students by turning them into fortresses. The report was co-written by Anna Minton whose excellent book Ground Control argues, among other things, that living in gated environments increases people's perception of threat. Presumably the same will be true of children in 'gated' schools?
In a week in which the sociologist Jared Diamond has a new book out on the lessons that we can learn from traditional societies, including the fact that children need to learn about risk by experiencing it, it is worth asking again whether our ever escalating security measures are counter-productive - especially when the factors that influence crime seem to be so different from what we have all fondly believed.

Friday, 4 January 2013

New year no money

Happy new year. But a lot of people may be wondering just how happy a one it will prove to be. In personal terms of course pockets will be feeling empty after the festivities (and perhaps some imprudent expenditure during the sales). But it seems that the world of architecture and construction is feeling similarly gloomy.
Building has just reported that the British Council for Schools Environments has closed down.
The organisation, set up by Ty Goddard during the last government to gather and disseminate knowledge that could make schools better, has run out of money. Although Goddard ( who left some time ago) was no unthinking fan of programmes such as Building Schools for the Future, it was an organisation that looked increasingly uncomfortable in the new mean, lean days of stripped down schools. Although perhaps needed more than ever. But with no money to keep it going there was no option.
The Architecture Centre Network was a similar casualty of lack of funding last year, but has now come back, the AJ reports, as the Architecture Built Environment Centre. Congratulations and good luck, but the main difference between the old organisation and the new is that the new organisation (as well as extending beyond England to all of the UK) has no funding and no paid staff. In other words, it will be dependent on good will from hard pressed organisations already trying to make their own Architecture Centres viable.
The architecture centres will be trying to find money in a number of ways, not least through paid-for design reviews. Which, on a national scale, is what Design Council CABE is also endeavouring to do. Organisations are increasingly dependent on the one hand on goodwill, and on the other trying to find money from increasingly smaller pots, finding private funding for what were previously deemed government funded goods.
And it is not only this not directly commercial activity that has suffered. BD reports the latest financial problems at innovative developer Urban Splash. Unfortunately one of the developer's USPs is that it operates almost entirely outside London - which would be fine except that London is the only place where anything is happening. In the latest issue of the London Review of Books John Lanchester highlights how London is rapidly becoming an entirely separate economy from the rest of the country, to the ultimate benefit of neither. He also takes the government to task for severe economic failure. Not much hope there then.
As I said, happy new year.