Monday, 28 October 2013

Why disasters are less disastrous today

The worst of the storm is over, and for most it was quite exciting rather than life threatening. Obviously for the few people who died it was a tragedy, but these small tragedies happen all the time with road accidents in particular. And for those without power, it is very inconveniencing.

What has struck me is that nobody is writing about the cost to the country in terms of lost employment - so many people who couldn't get to work, etc. etc. This has been the usual refrain with such storms in the past. I think the reason is that so many people now have the technology to work at home, and the umbilical to the office is stretching more and more.

But of course not everybody can work from home. School teachers for instance have to go in, and one reason that there is less outcry this time is that so much of the country is on half term, which means there are no stories about closed schools, and the concomitant impact on parents' working arrangements.
But there are still a lot of people whose jobs require physical presence. It is interesting to think in how many cases that is essential. Carers, nurses and waiters are irreplaceable. Shop staff can of course be replaced in internet shopping, but you still need people in warehouses, and to make deliveries. And what about other tasks which we think are essentially face to face? You may need to visit your doctor to have your temperature taken or that lump on your leg examined, but could you then discuss the test results on Skype?

A lot of universities already use distance learning. Are we heading towards a society where only the carer, the nanny, the cleaner, the gardener and the road mender will actually have to work in the physical world? It might seem scary but it would reduce pressure on our transport system. Perhaps we won't need HS2 after all.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

A lot of cool air?

I hadn't heard of SheerWind until they started following me on Twitter. They offer, they say, a 'better way to harvest wind'. Their technology, which seems to be to do with accelerating wind down a tube, and using the Venturi effect before it goes through a generator, claims to work at relatively low wind speeds, and not to need huge wind turbines but just some relatively low interventions. I don't know if birds could fly in. I don't know how much electricity would be generated and if it is significant.

All I know is that they are American, that their apparatus looks a bit Heath Robinson, and that they have some great testimonials and supporters - and that it sounds exciting. Does anybody know any more?

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Still a place for the word and reading? Most definitely

I chaired a great discussion at BDP's offices on Thursday evening, on the subject 'In the image-driven world of architecture, is there still a place for the word?' The answer, to mine and most people's resounding relief was 'yes'. It came from two directions - the research that BDP had carried out among its own architects, and the experiences and research of some leading architectural publications.

Hugh Pearman, editor of the RIBA Journal, explained the work carried out prior to the recent relaunch. Most readers want a hard copy, he said, especially in an institution magazine since it is the hard proof that they are getting something for their membership fee. But in general, they like hard copy.
And while some said that there were too many words, there was also a hunger for long-form writing, particularly among younger architects. Pearman speculated that this was because they had less work and more time for reading.

Catherine Slessor, editor of The Architectural Review, which had its own major rethink a couple of years ago, stressed the importance of curation in the days when every image is instantly available on the internet. News sites such as Dezeen and World Architecture News are great ways of seeing what is going on, but then readers appreciate thoughtful writing and a magazine which chooses which elements to discuss - as well as a lovely object that they can keep.

Michael Hammond, founder of World Architecture News, stressed that he believed his service complemented and would not replace the printed titles.

BDP's research showed that while users used print magazines and online services equally, if they had to choose the most important, they mostly plumped for print. While the majority used LinkedIn professionally, only a third used Twitter, and Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram did not score significantly. The majority said that they would give between five and 15 minutes to something that really interested them.

As if on cue, at the end of the evening a young architect who had been working late at BDP joined us. She was offered a spare copy of RIBA Journal. 'Yes please,' she said eagerly, obviously off for some long-form reading.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Why nature is not just nice but necessary

Fine autumn days are a great time to get outside and enjoy the natural world, walking or running or maybe just looking around at changing colours. We all enjoy being in nature, but recent research by mental health charity MIND indicates that this can have an actual effect on our mental wellbeing. Being in nature, it seems, makes people with mental health problems better, and makes the mentally well more resilient. There has been research before, but this is a particularly sturdy piece of work.

The event at which this was mentioned, the launch of the People's Choice of best Green Flag park, also had as speaker the deputy chief medical officer from the Department of Health. He stressed the virtue of open space - it is true that we can exercise, which is good for us, but even without exercise, he said, these places are good for us.

Getting outside and interacting with nature is not just a matter of having some decent parks, although of course these are essential. We also have to get to them, and be encouraged to get to them, which means having streets that we can cross and cities that we can navigate - an integrated piece of urban design. And, of course, the natural experience does not have to be confined to parks. Street trees and even front gardens can play their part.

It may cost a bit to plant a few trees but as a health measure it is laughably inexpensive. Local authorities now have responsibility for public health. Anything that can help reduce illness, cutting down on attendance at GP surgeries and hospitals, reducing drug bills and, crucially, getting people back to work, is vital. It may not quite be the magic bullet, but the magic tree could save lives and money. Let's just hope the parks departments and public health are talking to each other.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Long live the straight line

On Monday I was at the Building Centre for the judging of the IBP Awards. The judging was in the basement, which is now pretty hard to get too, because the front staircase has been shut. You have to go to the back of the building, down a kind of processional stair and then work your way forward again.
The reason is not hard to guess. Following that route takes you past many of the exhibitors' displays, and doubtless they were complaining before that they were not getting enough footfall.

So I can grasp the commercial argument, but it is really wrong. Buildings are meant to work - you are not meant to be directed off in a direction you did not want. Where else does this happen? At airports of course. When I was at Heathrow Terminal 3 recently, it was necessary to walk through an enormous maze of duty free before reaching a spot where you could sit down or have a cup of coffee. Again, the commercial imperative is overriding common sense. Terminal 3 is also interesting because half of the shops have ceased to be useful stuff (somewhere to buy a cheap holiday top, top up on sunscreen, buy a paperback) and become designer outlets. I guess this is a representation of the global trade in high end shopping.

When I got to Singapore a friend pointed out that the low-end visitor who has a few meals and drinks and maybe buys a present from the family is neither common nor the target audience. Instead most people are there to do SERIOUS shopping - thousands and thousands of pounds worth.
So we are not only in the kind of world we want, but we are not allowed to travel in straight lines either? It was good to see though that even in law-abiding Singapore, outside Marina Bay Sands people had created a 'desire line' through the vegetation to cross the road more directly. It had been fenced off but the damage had been done.

Buildings and landscapes need to serve the needs of users. We should not be manipulated either into travelling in ways we don't want, or to spending money we don't need to or can't afford. Long live the straight line.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Talking architecture in Singapore

This year's World Architecture Festival is heading towards its conclusion in Singapore, with the announcement of the World Building of the Year due in a few hours' time. It is a truly international event, with delegates from 68 countries and a great spread of projects yet, like last year, the greatest interest comes from Singapore itself.

This is not just in terms of the many excellent projects that have been submitted from the city state, but also in the insight offered into the way it works. With its dense population, Singapore is determined to preserve and enhance quality of life. So, in new areas like Marina Bay, there is a policy of 100% minimum replacement of ground - in other words, at least the footprint of vegetation that has been destroyed by construction has to be replaced on the building's roofs and balconies.

The Singapore Sports Hub, now taking shape,is extraordinarily compact for such a facility, yet still manages to have a stadium that is a bravura feat of engineering, with the world's largest spanning opening roof, and local cooling of seating that can be zoned so that only those areas that are actually used will be cooled.

The funding is equally innovative, a public private partnership into which the government will inject operational money for community sports.
What an amazing place Singapore is . Now all it needs to do is sort out the ferocious nature of the air conditioning, which seems to give the lie to all the claims for sustainability.