Friday, 31 May 2013

A little rant about percentages

Sorry to go a bit off-piste, but I am going to talk about the weather. The Independent reported the Met Office saying that this has been the coldest spring for 50 years. It is a story we are all interested in as we continue to shiver in our thermals.
The paper gives some figures - that the average temperature for the past three months has been 6.0C which is 1.8C below average. This, it says, means that the temperature has been nearly 25% below average. My first thought was that it was more than 25%, since 1.8C is more than 25% of 6.0. But they had been careful, and worked out that 1.8C is nearly 25% of 7.8C. But they have missed a larger point. Zero Centigrade is an arbitrary point - it is for instance different to zero Farenheit. It is 273 degrees above absolute zero. So I suppose if you wanted a percentage figure it would have to be 1.8/ 280.8 - which is definitely not anywhere near 25%.
There are two points to learn. One is the problem that so many people who are skilled with words in this country are innumerate and technically ignorant. The other is that the construction industry, which loves to bandy round statistics with little basis, needs to be careful. Increasingly there is a desire for measurable benefits to justify expenditure. If the basis for these figures proves to be flawed, it may result in a significant setback and loss of confidence.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Kew gets a Corten House

Tim Lucas of Price & Myers is one of the most talented structural engineers around. So you would hardly expect him to live in a boring house. And indeed he does not - or will not. Working with architect Piercy & Co, he is building a house for himself in one of the loveliest areas of London, Kew (yes, home to Kew Gardens). And he is doing it in CorTen steel, one of the materials that divides opinion sharply. Architects tend to love it because it is an 'honest' manifestation of a material with no external coating. Many other people think 'why is that steel rusty'? In fact the warm orange-y patina that it can develop sits well with a natural environment, especially as it is never pristine, or too crisp.
Lucas is using it for his house partly because he can, I suspect, and also because steel allows a degree of prefabrication that means that the need for access is limited on what is a restricted site. The site is of an unusual shape, which meant that a conventional shape of house would not have made the most of it. All these reasons must have helped the Lucas family get planning permission despite, for example, objections from local MP Zac Goldsmith. But so did a charm offensive - including a barbecue for the neighbours.
All this is detailed in a blog, kept mainly by Lucas' wife, Jo. Well worth a look - as will the house be, once complete.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Remembrance and future in the Olympic Park

I went to an event on Saturday that was both enjoyable and sad. It was the celebration of the life of John Hopkins, the landscape client of the Olympic Park who had much of the responsibility for making it so wonderful. He died suddenly earlier this year, aged only 59.
The event was held at the Olympic Park, on the north lawn, part of the northern part of the park that will re-open in July. it is still a busy construction site, and access was very limited (we had to be bussed in), but even the small part we could see looked splendid. Nicholas Serota, one of the stellar cast of speakers at the event, quoted Christopher Wren's memorial plaque in St Paul Cathedral 'If you want to see his monument, look around you.'
Visitors when the park re-opens will be able to walk on the Hopkins Meadow, which will include an American oak planted in his memory.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Harsh financial truths about architecture

Last week The Architects' Journal published the AJ100, its annual survey of the UK's biggest practices. Much of it is a celebration of success, with awards, new entrants and even the respondents feeling reasonably upbeat about the future. But it also contains some sobering truths.
I found the most sobering aspect to be the table that showed the architectural fees delivered out of UK offices per member of architectural staff.
At the top was Populous with a very respectable £271,000 per architect. Foster and Partners, which everybody sees as a high earner, was in fourth place at only £171,000 per head but one must remember that much the work delivered out of the UK is built overseas and so was not eligible. What was really worrying was the bottom end, with several practices reporting earnings of less than £60,000 per architect, and the lowest, Reiach and Hall, scoring only £50,000. What makes this really disturbing is that, while Reiach and Hall has 21 architects, it employs a total of 37 staff - a fairly average ratio. So the fee earnings per member of staff are just over £28,000 per staff member - a figure that is certainly not sustainable, given that accommodation, tax, national insurance, computers etc all have to be paid for.
If this were a one-off it could be seen as a criticism of an individual practice and of bad management. But the other low-earning practices are in a similarly difficult position - and these are the UK's biggest practices and, by some measure at least, the most successful.
If you want an indication of just how quickly things can go wrong, then read BD's interview with Ian Simpson. His is a practice that was seen as, and really was, hugely successful. Yet the interview is headlined 'How I lost millions in unpaid fees'. Simpson describes how his world 'caved in' in one week in summer 2008, as he was, ironically, celebrating the practice's success. Jobs just stopped and on some he never saw the fees again.
He survived by cutting fees to the bone. 'We didn’t want to be discarded because we were too expensive so we always do a really detailed analysis of time and resources so we can determine where the money’s going,' he said.' I even know what we spend on pencils,'
These are hard times, and it is not surprising that we are seeing a rash of business failures. It is heartening though that Simpson, back on his feet, is now helping another practice that ran into trouble.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Should we be allowed to get up to no good?

Horticulture Week reports that Richmond Council in southwest London has rethought its new policy of leaving parks unlocked overnight. Apparently it introduced the policy on 1 April, only locking one particular garden after that date. But it has now bowed to pressure from residents (and no less a figure than local MP Vince Cable) and is to start locking three parks again.
The concerns were about antisocial behaviour, noise and litter. Richmond Council says it has done this because it is a 'listening council'. And fair enough. But it does raise questions of how polite we want our public spaces to be - not to mention whether they are truly 'public' if they are locked at night. Litter is of course an issue that can be dealt with by more frequent collection and clearing. Noise? well, city streets are already noisy, and if people are misbehaving in a serious way they can be dealt with. The interesting issue is antisocial behaviour. I live near two commons and I am not sure that I would walk over them alone at dead of night. Quite a few antisocial things go on there. But it does not mean I think they should be fenced off. If people know the risks and are willing to run them, so be it - and if they want somewhere to cruise or misbehave in other ways, then the semi no-go area of a darkened park or common seems a reasonable choice.
Of course nobody wants to have to avoid discarded needles in the morning, but locked parks also usually are locked to early morning exercisers. And cities are a mix of types and activities - even the law-abiding may have had a less than upstanding period in adolescence. Shouldn't we accommodate everybody and allow there to be some less than perfect places in our cities?

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Could biogas be the answer?

There is something very appealing about the use of biogas to generate energy. Animal waste is a great source of pollution (not least with methane, which is a terrifyingly potent greenhouse gas) and yet it could be a 'free' source of energy.
The idea is not new.350 homes in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, for instance, receive their electricity thanks to the excretive efforts of chickens.  As so often, once one gets beyond the pilot plant the difficulty is cost. A report by YourIs. Com, the European research media centre, looks at the impact of the EU's Farmagas programme, which finished in 2011.
The purpose of the programme was to disseminate information to farmers, particularly in Eastern Europe, about Biogas. But, the study finds, take-up has been low in Hungary, Romania and Poland despite these largely agricultural countries having considerable potential.
The problems it identifies include high intial costs, the relatively low price of electricity, and the regulatory framework. And its recommendation? Government subsidy. We know this can work. Germany built its PV market in this way, and subsidies here had an enormous impact as well, even if they did skew the market somewhat. Whether in these straitened times those subsidies can happen remains to be seen. But the cause is such a good one - not only generating 'free' energy but also removing a pollutant, that we have to hope it will. Unlike growing crops for biomass, biogas production works in tandem with food production, not against it.