Tuesday, 26 November 2013

New Blog Page

Our blog has moved and is now part of the Rooflight Company website. Please click here to be redirected to the new page.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Sainsbury's is victim of its own success

The decision to demolish the 'green' Sainsbury's store in Greenwich, east London is both disturbing and fascinating. This award-winning building by Chetwood Associates has reached the end of its usable life just 14 years after completion, not through any fault of the architect or architecture but because it is now too small for Sainsbury's and not suitable for use by the new tenant IKEA. IKEA has pledged to use as much of the demolition material as possible, but one can be sceptical about how significant that can be, given how formulaic IKEA stores are. A little hardcore perhaps? Twenty years ago, we would probably have seen the demolition of this store as part of the cycle of replacement and renewal. Although it won prizes, deservedly, it is not amongst the most stunningly beautiful buildings and will probably not be greatly missed apart from by those who enjoyed shopping there. If it had hung on another 16 years of course, it would have been eligible for listing, in recognition of its unusual typology - but that will not happen now. What has changed in the past 20 years, and most particularly in the last five, is a concern with embodied energy. As buildings become more energy efficient in use, so the significance of that grows. Throwing away a building, even with a little bit of token recycling, is just so wasteful. The irony is that it may be the very elements that made this building so striking that hastened its demise. An anonymous, modular box is easily extended or adapted, but the Greenwich Sainsbury's had character which is both laudable and difficult to adapt. Let's hope that the lesson learnt is not that we should revert to an unending diet of the bad-neighbour boxes that blight so many of our high streets and out of town areas.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

It's a long way down ...

Thanks to the Think Tank Blog for pointing out the Roof Topper series of photos by a photographer who likes to get into scary places and take even scarier photographs. I'm not quite sure where the photographer is in the shots, but they certainly make for unusual views and - for those of the vertiginous persuasion - stomach turning ones. Rather than celebrating tall buildings as a sign of business success or decrying them for desecrating the city, Roof Topper sees them as a playground and a challenge. He brings back the excitement that even the dullest building can offer when it is still under construction, when visitors can go up by ladder, travelling in a juddering goods hoist or, as once you could do and I did, be taken up in the bucket of a tower crane.

Monday, 11 November 2013

You shouldn't try to be right all the time.

I was in Cornwall at the Eden Project this weekend. It was, to my shame, my first visit. I was interested to see how the ETFE panels on the biomes were faring. The answer was, not fantastic, but well enough. They mist up a little, and you can also see some lines of discolouration where strips of the material have been joined to make up the hexagonal panels. Building these panels up from strips was not ideal, but it is the sort of thing that you do when you are a pioneer. When Grimshaw designed the biomes, really wide strips of ETFE were not available - now they are. Should the architect have shied away from the material, because it was just too early in its development cycle? I don't think so. ETFE was the solution to achieving transparency and insulation without the weight that glass would bring. And if it had not been for Grimshaw's bold move, the technology of the material would never have advanced so far. Eden was a brave project and there were all sorts of things that didn't quite work at the beginning and had to be put right or adapted. These problems change. This year for instance rabbits devastated the vegetable garden. But it is still a resounding success, both as a visitor attraction and as an educational proponent of sustainability. The beauty of the masterplan has been compromised by a 'temporary' structure in front of the biomes which has become permanent, housing ice skating in the winter, but that is a way of generating much-needed revenue in a recession and offering a facility to local people. Eden is being asked to consult on developments all over the world. The BRE Solar Centre is about to move there, and Eden is hoping to pioneer the use of geothermal energy in the area. It is lively, dynamic and interesting, and that does not always go with perfection. We should hail the courage of such projects which have the vision to get most things right and the pragmatism to cope with those that go wrong.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Stay at home and trim the fat

There are many interesting aspects to the new building for the WWF in Woking, designed by Hopkins Architects and aiming for BREEAM Outstanding, and most of them relate to the emboded energy.
Atelier Ten has combined a number of techniques to make the building as effective as possible, but these, although the practice pioneered many of them, are no longer new. Which is not a criticism. But by driving down the energy in use, it has made the embodied energy far more significant. Working with Sturgis Carbon Profiling, the team has managed to greatly reduce the embodied energy by techniques such as using low-carbon concrete in the piles, but the most exciting area is the way in which the sheer volume of material in the building has been cut. Some of this is through clever engineering - Expedition Engineering has managed to make the columns impressively skinny, adding elegance, improving sightlines and reducing the volume of concrete. But perhaps the most impressive is that, by working with Alexi Marmot Associates, WWF has managed to reduce the number of desks it needs and hence the overall building envelope. We hear a lot about flexible working etc etc, and sometimes this just sounds like a way for companies - quite legitimately often - to save rent on city-centre sites. But I had never thought about the effect on carbon before. By doing a careful analysis and introduced hot desking and informal spaces that can be used both to improve experience and to provide some 'flex', WWF has shurnk the overall envelope of its building. This both reduces embodied carbon and cuts the amount of energy needed to run the building. And it looks like a great place to work. Win win.

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?