Wednesday, 30 May 2012

School report in green ink

Congratulations to Greenwich University, which has topped the People & Planet Green League for sustainable universities, scoring 55 out of a possible 70 points and putting it very comfortably in the category for first class honours (qualifying score 40). The university has decreased its carbon emissions since 2005 by 22% and buys 96% of its electricity from renewable sources. If we could all do this, the impact would be tremendous.
Yet these are not the achievements about which the university boasts. Its proudest achievement, it says, is its sustainable food policy, with organic milk and free-range eggs all bought locally. And the league looks pretty widely, including the incorporation of sustainability in the curriculum, and the university's ethical investment policy (the only area in which Greenwich fails).
What a contrast with the failed institutions, which scored as low as five points. League tables are often seen as pernicious, but in this case if they encouraged universities to increase their efforts, they could make a big difference.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Time really is money

If I want to do anything quickly today it seems I am going to have to pay for it. I was sent a file with the unusual suffix.rar and discovered that I can download it - if I buy a piece of software online to help me do it. The file transfer system YouSendIt becomes increasingly restrictive if you want to use it for free. I moved to WeTransfer which is a joy - but you have to put up with adverts. We are all used to the distinction between first and second-class post, and Amazon offers both free delivery - slowly - and faster delivery that you pay for. Then today I wanted to download a pdf of an American magazine and discovered that it would take two minutes if I paid for it - or 41 minutes for free.
These are the choices that I face as an independent freelance. I am careful with my money, but also fairly flexible. This is analogous to the situation of small architects' practices, although the volumes of high-quality information that they have to move about are greater, and so are their costs. In larger organisations the budgets will be in place, but there will also be protocols, and an individual is unlikely to be able to make a payment or download software without management approval. Somehow we all still feel that moving data around and sharing it should be free or free-ish. It never has been of course. Think not only of postage, but of the many messengers who used to move drawings and documents around cities, and of the costs of printing and binding. The internet has confused us all and just as there are problems with illegal downloads of music and film in the consumer market, so there are fairly regular swoops on practices in the architectural world for software piracy - much of which is the result of muddle and misunderstanding rather than a real desire to rob. It is an area where we all need to become wiser - and faster, and a little poorer.

Friday, 25 May 2012

The elephant in the office

There is a supplement out with today's Guardian, an annual report called Great Workplaces which is produced by Great Place to Work. I have a few issues with this. The winner is Admiral Group, the financial services and insurance group. Also featured are McDonald's restaurants, Pokerstars, and KFC UK & Ireland. I always feel that these companies have to make their working conditions good, because it is everything but the work that makes people want to be there. Whether it is the package, the prospect of promotion or a feeling of importance that keeps people there, it is unlikely to be the work itself.
Not surprisingly, there are no architects on the list.The nearest one gets to creativity are some advertising and media companies (plus Microsoft which may be a very interesting place to work). And from another angle, the nearest approach to our industry comes from Autodesk, which sells CAD and BIM to a huge proportion of the architectural community.
Architects are not the easiest of employers, although some make a real effort. But their staff are not there for the welcome packages, the onsite swimming pool or the dedicated pensions manager, all of which feature in the survey. Some architects may be attracted more by the IKEA approach, which donates its waste for 'innovative repurposing'. But the reason happy architects are happy is because of the work they do. And many of them of course also work in great offices. Which is my other beef. So much thought and effort goes into the best office design, to make it attractive, effective and inspirational, yet it receives no mention here. Is it really so irrelevant?

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Re-use not recycling

There's a really interesting piece on the AJ's Footprint blog covering a workshop on demolition and recycling. So many calculations about embodied energy make assumptions about what will happen to materials at the end of a building's life, that it is fascinating to learn about what is done in reality, about the potential and the pitfalls. The holy grail, of course, is to actually re-use materials, ideally in situ. It was enlightening to see how little brick was actually re-used at the Olympics. On contrast, at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, 90 per cent of the brick from the previous building is being used - perhaps a question of scale? The re-use is assisted by the fact that the original building was old enough to have used lime mortar, which is much easier to break up than modern, cement-based mortars.
The AJ article also looked at Oxford Wood Recycling, an admirable organisation that belies its name by concentrating on re-use and recovery rather than recycling. It is unable to satisfy demand, an indication that there is certainly room for more such enterprises - especially if the demolition industry can get organised.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Inspiring architecture for Everyman in Liverpool

I had a fascinating day in Liverpool on Saturday, looking at the construction site for the new Everyman Theatre and having a whistlestop tour of the city, after visiting a photography project to use pictures of local people on the building's facade. What was extraordinary was the level of engagement, the fact that although this is a relatively major project that has had to jump through the usual hoops of funding and planning, it was loved, on an individual level, by so many people.
The contractor, Gilbert Ash, had been brought in because of its exemplary work on the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. The artistic director of the theatre, Gemma Bodinetz, was excited and on top of every detail if amazed she was in charge of such a project ('My husband told me it took me five years to get the colour of our kitchen wrong,' she said). The architect, Steve Tompkins of Haworth Tompkins, is so 'hands on' with his projects that on several of them he has actually completed bits of work to his satisfaction - a bit of deliberately rough plastering, washing off just the right degree of  fines on the concrete, or getting his entire office making light fittings.
All these people have track records, so their attention to detail is evidently commercially viable, if not a way to get rich. It just takes dedication - and giving up Saturdays. At a time when we are so oftentold finance  demands the lowest common denominator, it was inspirational to see such a different approach.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Life-cycle lessons from American hardwoods

Last night the American Hardwood Export Council presented some preliminary results from its high-level life-cycle analysis. Rupert Oliver of Forest Industries Intelligence, who helped brief PE International, explained that one of the benefits of LCA analysis is that it helps people make better, and better informed, decisions. For example, the results show that transport has far less impact on carbon dioxide generation than the amount of kiln drying. Thicker wood takes longer to dry and therefore generates more carbon dioxide. And oaks, which are slower drying, also generate more than other timbers.
Nevertheless, American hardwoods arriving in the UK have significant net  amounts of carbon dioxide locked up. The challenge for architects and furniture designers is to maintain that net balance - partly through the amount of energy they put into processing, and partly by keeping the material in as raw a state as possible. Recycling and burning of waste timber for fuel are easiest without added preservatives and glues.
The specific figures apply to American hardwoods, but many of the lessons apply to those working with timber in general.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

For the love of civil engineers - and the Severn Barrage

'I love civil engineers' was the surprising declaration from architect John Lyall, speaking at an RIBA panel discussion last night called 'The Olympics: Power Dressing'. It became less surprising when you realised that civil engineers have given him a whole new field of endeavour, since he was invited to join a bid for the sewage network under the Olympic Park, which resulted in him designing the Pudding Mill Lane pumping station, and then several related commissions.
So why does he love them so much? Partly it seems because they have an innocence about architecture and so are surprised and delighted by what can be achieved. And partly because their budgets are large and so spending a fraction extra on the building element can be easily absorbed. At Pudding Mill Lane Lyall actually saved money, by designing a circular enclosure that was supported by the caisson below rather than requiring separate foundations.
He decorated the external wall with original drawings by the great sewage engineer Joseph Bazalgette, a reminder that civil engineering was once a heroic discipline. And had the buildings to match, such as some of the great pumping stations that decorate surprising corners of London. Lyall himself won a much bigger project as a result of his Olympic work, a giant sludge processing plant at Crossness, that will transform the waste from south London into fertiliser.

For architects these areas are exciting because the buildings they design are so definitely needed -  a counterpoint to some of the follies that have been built as part of the more misconceived arts-driven projects.  Here we have civil engineering in need of a building rather than a building in need of a function.
So perhaps it is not surprising that one of the architects best known for getting things done - Marks Barfield, the conceiver of the London Eye - is in a group backing the latest attempt to get a Severn Barrage built - a project that recently hit the news as Peter Hain quit the shadow cabinet to work for its realisation.  The project is still controversial, but represents an enormous potential win in terms of green electricity. In straitened, non-frivolous times, there is great satisfaction for architects in engaging with the issues that really matter.

Monday, 14 May 2012

On charm, treehouses and flashy icons

If you are currently stuck in your office, wouldn't you rather be - even in the rain - in the AirHotel, as described in The Guardian today? An installation for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, it consists of seven different suspended structures - treehouses really - in which visitors can book to spend a night.

This is a definitely temporary installation, but there are more permanent ones dotted around the world (I wrote about quite a few in my book Micro). Not all hang from trees. Some float, or are underwater, or are reinterpretations of the mobile home. But the best of them tend to put you back in touch with nature, and simplify life. At the AirHotel, visitors are only allowed one string bag of possessions!
Architects tend to love designing such tiny structures, as do artists, since often they are simple enough not to require formal architectural skills. The great thing is the sense of delight that they engender - something that many larger buildings signally fail to do.
A recent article on Architecture Source asks 'Are Architecture Icons Overexposed?' For many of us this is a tired old debate, but it seems it has just taken off in the UAE where there is only now emerging a kind of weariness as every new building seeks to outgrow and outshine its predecessors. The author writes 'It seems unrealistic that people are getting tired of great or impressive buildings. More likely, we have simply upped the ante both on the page and off.' She seems to have missed the point. Bigger and brasher is really not better. Wouldn't it be great if these zoos of bling could learn something from tiny projects?

Friday, 11 May 2012

Bah to Bauhaus at the Barbican

Brian Sewell, the Evening Standard's splenetic critic, reviewed the Bauhaus exhibition yesterday and found it 'the perfect blend of the instructive and the entertaining'. He also described the Barbican, where the exhibition was held, as ' London’s most grim accumulation of bleak and brutalist buildings, opened in March thirty years ago and now looking very seedy' but said that its gallery is 'one of the most accommodating in Britain'. Well, Brian, I know you are used to disagreement,. so I am happy to say I disagree on every count.My heart lifts every time I go to the Barbican. I love following the meandering route to reach the pool and hanging gardens at its heart. I love the solidity of the inside of the building, the hammered concrete, the wooden block floors, the brass handrails.
But I do not find the gallery particularly easy. particularly the upper level with its small spaces and dark ceiling. And I found the Bauhaus exhibition a disappointment. This school, despite lasting for only 14 years, through one of the most turbulent periods in German history, had an enormous influence, with staff including Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Paul Klee and Moholy Nagy. But although all the names were there, one didn't get a real impression of the influence. And it was hard to understand whether work was by students or teachers.
There wasn't much feeling of what it was like to study there (apart from parties - there were evidently a lot of parties), and it was hard to grasp the connection between the school and the commercial work. There was no connection to the political world outside, just an accidental mention of printing 'emergency currency' in enormous numbers.
Some parts were fun - particularly the visual material relating to the building at Dessau, including a film of 'modern' domestic life, and it was great to see the furniture. But fundamentally the show was dull - which surely Bauhaus never was.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

A day of BIM

It was very interesting yesterday to chair a panel discussion at BIM Show Live with three architects discussing the benefits that they were enjoying from employing BIM. Particularly enlightening was David Miller of David Miller Architects, an enthusiastic proselytiser for the technology, even if he got into it almost by accident. He laid out all the ways that BIM was helping to make his practice more profitable, and win bigger projects. He and the other two speakers are the subjects of three of the 10 architect case studies included in Building Design's White Paper on BIM which becomes available today.

Talking at dinner afterwards with Mark Stodgell and James Savage of Pozzoni, and with Simon Rawlinson of EC Harris who is deeply involved with the government's BIM strategy, it was interesting to hear them talking about how clients do not want to hear about clash detection, because that is part of the service they think they should be getting anyway. Instead, they want ways to reduce the cost of building and, crucially, operating, their buildings.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Jolly hockey

As a devout hater of sport, I was amazed to find myself (of my own free will) at a hockey match on Saturday. The reason was that it was one of the London Prepares events prior to the Olympics and it was a great opportunity to experience the Olympic venue  - even on a cold wet day and in the least glamorous of the sporting enclosures. It was basically just a load of stands piled up around a pitch.
Despite the fact that so much has been done in such good time, there is still planting to complete, and so some areas are fenced off. And the wide paved areas feel unnecessary and daunting without the enormous crowds that will occupy them.

Part of the purpose of these preliminary events is to test out mundane elements like security and whether there are enough toilets in the right places. It all went pretty smoothly on Saturday. The stadium looks as one would expect - a deliberately simple structure. The real standout, even from a distance, is the velodrome. There is something about good architecture that just declares itself, and this has the advantage of standing on its own, without the temporary accretions that mar the aquatic centre.

There is a real mixture of building types, as one would expect given the number of temporary venues, each designed for efficiency and for minimal environmental impact as well as for the comfort of athletes and spectators. The real interest will be in visiting the park once it is in legacy mode and seeing how well it hangs together. In the meantime London Prepares demonstrated that London is pretty well prepared.
Oh, and the score? Germany 2 - India 1. I managed not quite to see any of the goals being scored, but it was still a great day out.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Depressing view of India

There is a very downbeat interview with Indian architect Charles Correa published by AFP, in which the great humanitarian architect bemoans the rapid growth of towers in Indian cities which he describes as 'the kind of cloned building that used to be done by Stalin and the Russians or in the Bronx that people just hate and dread'.

The problem seems to be twofold - on the one hand the determined selling of 'modernity' to people who are learning to associate 'traditional' building with the old fashioned, with slums and with something to be shunned. The other is the sheer pace of construction, as the country urbanises so rapidly.

Sensitive, intelligent architecture is by definition relatively slow. It takes time to understand the demands of place and people and context. It is much faster to throw up clusters of identikit towers which are of course dependent on cheapish energy and good servicing to keep their lifts and air conditioning operating.

Correa's proposed solution is to encourage the growth of small and medium sized towns rather than herding everybody into megacities. An interesting idea, though we know that cities grow to meet demand, it is really hard to plan them and make people come.

In contrast, a feature in this month's Architectural Review looks at a brickwork house in Delhi's Defence Colony that provides an alternative to the relentless bling of much luxury housing. It is an interesting project but one wonders just how much difference a single house can make. (Non subscribers to the AR can see this project and others on the architect's website).

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

In my very polite opinion

Today is the first national Good Manners Day, an attempt to improve the way that we treat each other. So, very politely, I would like to discuss good manners in architecture - if that is OK with you.
Most of us think of good manners as a good thing in general life - treating others with courtesy and consideration rather than being selfish and self-centred. There can be a downside as well - a veneer of good manners may mask all sorts of manipulations beneath the surface, and veer into a kind of hypocrisy.
'Polite' is a distinctly ambiguous term in architecture. It suggests a lack of ambition, and of boldness. It can too easily segue into the boring. Yet, just as we believe we should respect the people around us, so buildings should in general, respect their neighbours. But just as, if we were all endlessly polite, there would be no surprises, no comedy, no performance art and no peaks of excellence and surprise, so a society which only had  polite and considerate architecture would be lacking in spark.

Our best cities are not the easiest to live in. They tend to be overcrowded, dirty in places, a little bit threatening and generally exhausting. Yet they draw people because they stimulate, they challenge and they enhance creativity. We still want proper road manners, some basic courtesy and as much smooth running as possible in our best cities - but not too much. And our buildings should be generally liveable, usable and workable. They should exhibit harmony and consideration - but not all of them and not all of the time.