Friday, 29 June 2012

A tale of good chair for design

I spent  a brilliant day on Wednesday at the Royal College of Art, where students working on a project initiated by the American Hardwood Export Council are designing timber chairs that will be exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum as part of the London Festival of Architecture. They are students of product design not furniture students, so they are coming to the process with fresh eyes, and are enthused both by the potential of the material and by the challenge to consider the Life Cycle Analysis of their projects and make some decisions in accordance with that. They will be making their chairs at Benchmark, and logging all the materials and power that have gone into the making.
There is certainly no limit to their imaginations, with ideas ranging from a bench supported on the thinnest ply imaginable, to a floating chair, by way of an orthodox church seat and the lightest stool possible. If this project were all about enthusiasm it would already be admirable; what makes it fantastic is that the students are both engaging with the sustainability issues and facing up to, and overcoming, a range of technical problems that they have, of course, created for themselves. Just how do you stain timber with vinegar? How sustainable is a so-called bio-resin? How light and long can you make a bench? What is the best way to make an asymmetric folding chair? The results will be beautiful, quirky, clever, irreverent and mind-stretching. There are going to be some very exciting talents working in design in the next decade or so.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Celebrating houses from around the world

There was an extraordinarily international gathering at the Grange Hotel in the City of London yesterday, as 10 out of 12 of the winners of the Architectural Review's House awards attended the awards ceremony - quite an achievement as they came from as far afield as New Zealand, Australia, China and Borneo. It is always fascinating to see the best of house design, an area that has traditionally been a testing ground for the best of architectural talents, and for the production of new ideas.
The overall winner, John Lin from Hong Kong, was certainly in this tradition, with a prototypical rural house for China that addresses not only issues of sustainability but the changing nature of the Chinese countryside as it becomes increasingly dependent on handouts from family members emigrating to the cities. Lin is proposing a type of rural self-sufficiency which, he believes, is not isolationist but offers hope for the future. Quite a burden for one house to bear, but a well-deserved winner.
As AR editor Catherine Slessor pointed out, many of the winning houses take the form of objects in the landscape. While this allows the most creative sculptural expression, and also enables the design to frame views beautifully, it does seem as if this is the ideal condition, and in some ways the easiest, for the architects to address. But the selection does also include two houses from Japan, which, as is so often the case with great Japanese houses, create an oasis of calm and make the best of a chaotic urban environment.
We need perhaps a happy medium - great urban houses which address and enhance their environment. Too often though this is beyond the control of the humble architect of a single house. And there is certainly much to admire in the work of this prize-winning dozen - not least their determination to travel so far to pick up their awards.

Monday, 25 June 2012

How not to get work in a recession

We all know that these are hard times for the building industry and, especially for the small builder, the wet summer weather has not helped either. One told me recently that a job that should have taken five days had stretched over four weeks.
So we should applaud efforts to find work. But they can be counter-productive as in the case of the young man who approached my partner as he was on his way into the house. He was of course 'working in the neighbourhood' and offered first to fix the roof (not our area of responsibility as we are on the ground floor) and then to fix the admittedly dilapidated front path. When my partner said he would think about it and took a card, he thought that was the end of the matter. But no. Fifteen minutes later there was a ring at the front doorbell, and another young man stood there. His colleague had already set to work with a pickaxe. My partner, who has poor eyesight, expressed outrage but wasn't sure what had been done. They said it was an 'honest mistake' and scarpered.
Since when I have been trying to speak to the building company, with no success, and have also been in touch with the police. I would like some compensation. A job that needed doing some time is now urgent as the path is unsafe. And I know who I won't be employing to do it.
We make endless jokes in this country about cowboy builders. It is tragic that so many live up to their reputation.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Novel approach to architecture

I decided to read the novel 'Where'd You Go Bernadette' simply because it sounded intriguing. I had missed the line in the blurb that said 'To design experts she's a revolutionary architect' and when I heard the author interviewed she talked about the fact that her husband worked for Microsoft and about a trip to Antarctica. It is a really enjoyable novel, but also a great picture of a very particular architect, an eco pioneer before her time. The book name checks Michael Graves and Richard Meier, and talks about the soulless nature of a job quality controlling travertine for the Getty in LA. More than anything, it describes how unusual it is for a woman to shake up architectural practice. Bernadette is as far from Zaha Hadid as one could get (American,dedicated mother, obsessive knitter) and yet she shares the same kind of intransigent single-minded vision. It's a great read for anyone who enjoys architecture - or is fascinated by Microsoft or the Antarctic. And what is really good is that it makes Bernadette's role as an architect not just an attribute (a cooler job than being a company director) but a pivotal point in the plot and the resolution of the story. Worth a read.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The sound of good architecture

I had a life-changing - at least for a while - experience today, when I had my ears syringed. Not only did previously muffled sounds become louder, but I started hearing things that had previously been inaudible - the rustle of my clothes, the clicking of my mouse. What happens if your ears become blocked is that, almost imperceptibly, you use detail in the sound of your environment.
There is an analogy with architecture. In fact, sound is a much under-rated element of architecture. Acoustics are not just important in special places like concert halls, or in classrooms where students may miss a vital point. They are also vital in shaping the feeling of a space. Jo van Heyningen of van Heyningen and Haward believes that too little attention is paid to acoustics, and prides herself on having designed the only Oxbridge college hall where you can actually interpret speech. Her practice also paid a great deal of attention to the acoustic design of its own office, creating a feeling of calm and intimacy which is very special. She talked to me about it for the content of a book I have written, and her insights were fascinating.
But it is not only acoustics that matter. In all elements of design, where value engineering is king, detail can easily be blurred and lost in the same way as happened with my ears. I could still function, and so can most compromised buildings. But how much richness we lose when we compromise our architecture, in the same way that I compromised my hearing.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Can infinite freedom be justified?

I was struck by something that Felix Mara wrote in The Architects' Journal as part of his review of the Arcelor Mittal Orbit. When he first saw the drawings, he said: 'I was determined to like it, as it would obviously be controversial and I happen to believe, as far as the appearance of their work is concerned, artists and architects should have licence to do whatever they want. There is no shortage of people intent on standing in their way.'
Irrespective of what you believe about this particular project, is this a valid position? Work by artists and by architects is not necessarily comparable.If the art is not 'public art' but will exist within a gallery or private space, then we are not obliged to see it, and one can easily defend the artists right to do what they wish, within certain very specific bounds of decency - and perhaps not even there.
But public art and architecture form part of our daily environment. There have been plenty of anomalies in both the law and the application of the planning system, and the new National Planning Policy Framework is only likely to throw up a new set. But surely this is not an argument for no regulation at all - for saying that any building, providing it is functional and energy efficient, can look like anything, wherever it is. There are some very bad buildings, and there are some highly inappropriate ones - possibly good buildings in the wrong place. Sustainability, we are always told, is about much more than just energy saving. It is about building sustainable environments. Should all architects (and artists) really have carte blanche, everywhere?

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Change the building not the behaviour

Today I was at the Building Centre and in the ladies' toilets (which each have their own washbasins in them) there was a sign above the loo paper saying 'Please don't use the toilet paper to dry your hands as it will run out. Please use the hand dryers. These toilets are not serviced regularly.'
What could the facilities team have learnt? They could have put more loo paper in the loos since it was obviously needed. Even better, they could have provided paper towels as they were what people wanted. I can't believe that this was a purely environmental decision, since the debate about paper towels vs hand dryers is a finely balanced one. I think it was just a matter of someone deciding how things should be and then trying to make people comply.
A good facilities manager - like a good architect designing a building - should try to work out what people want and try to give it to them, not issue instructions to make them change their behaviour. Of course sometimes you need people to change their behaviour (usually to conserve energy) but the most successful systems are designed in ways that people want to behave, or at least can be encouraged to behave, rather than going against their instincts. That is usually the cause of many of the buildings that perform so much more poorly than was predicted at the design stage.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Bleak outlook - no outlook

No, this isn't a post about the state of the economy. It is triggered by a discussion on the website Quora in response to the question 'Why don't most casinos have windows?' The reasons given include the need not to distract people with an awareness of the outside world, not allowing gamblers betting into the morning to realise that the sun had come up (at this time they tend to be at their drunkest and apparently it is the most lucrative time), and because windows would help them find their way out. Of course there are security issues as well. In the days when books were seen as still having value, many university libraries were designed without opening windows to prevent students throwing books out to waiting friends. And I suppose, as well, that windows allow you to see in - and many people may not wish to be seen at the tables.
What is interesting about these issues is that they immediately make you think of why windows are so important in most buildings. About, in fact, the importance of daylight. There are a few buildings where we don't want it to intrude, such as the cinema (although this is probably why going to the cinema in daylight still feels faintly naughty). But most of the time it is good for us to see out, good for our well-being and our general happiness. Lighting companies work very hard to create lights that simulate the effect of daylight, sometimes even changing colour temperature through the day, but this can only ever be second best. For orientation, for resting the mind, for making us feel connected with the world and the passing of the day and the seasons, you can't beat a window.

Monday, 11 June 2012

No excuse for getting up late

You won't have to worry if your watch stops or your phone battery runs out, if you are staying in this special hotel room in Ghent, Belgium. Called the Hotel Gent, it is a project by Japanese artist Tazu Rous, who has constructed a temporary room around the clock tower of the historic station. Presumably the clock doesn't strike, or visitors would have to be issued with ear plugs.
These temporary hotel rooms are all the rage. David Kohn's 'Room for London' in the form of a ship is perched on top of the Hayward Gallery for the whole of this year.
Both would be fun to stay in, but I think that Kohn's is superior, as it enhances the building on which it stands. Ghent's clock tower appears to be wrapped in temporary scaffolding. And is there nobody in the town who actually likes to consult the station clock? Rous may be responsible for a few missed trains.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Good news from Spain and Germany

Can there be good news from both these countries? Given the economic crisis, and the fact that what will rescue one will be, at the least, unpopular in the other. Well it seems that there can, at least in the world of architecture.
Spain is to get its first significant building by Renzo Piano, an arts centre in Santander. I admit that my heart sank when I first read about this, thinking, oh no another museum that they can't afford and can't afford to run. But this one will be entirely funded privately, by the Botin Foundation which is putting up the money not just for the building but also for running it.  And the building should not only be a glory in itself (a modest, visually floating structure), but also involves landscaping and the reconnection of a cut-off part of the city.
What more could one want? What a lot of people want is a civilised, well-designed and affordable place to stay when they are travelling. That is what Generator Hostels aims to do, using cutting edge design and art works while still providing beds at between 17 and 37 Euro a night. It just announced its latest development, in Hamburg, as part of a 200 million Euro expansion plan. So, in very different ways, these are two types of affordable, well-designed developments. The staycation may be under pressure in the next few years.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Being clever with heat

Combined heat and power systems are increasingly popular, as is heat recovery. It always seems ironic to me that we are developing these technologies when, through better insulation, Passivhaus etc, we are cutting down on a requirements for heating. And when technologies such as solar thermal can easily heat hot water. Still we do need heat at certain times - the problem is that we don't always need it when it is available.
So it is interesting to see that scientists in Germany have come up with a new way of storing heat, for re-use when it is needed. The storage method, developed by Fraunhofer, is intended in the first instance for use with biogas plants, but since it is is simply a storage method, could presumably be used more widely. The technique, using zeolite spheres, occupies a quarter of the space of heat storage and in water and has the added advantage of not actually storing heat itself. Instead, heat is used to dry out the spheres and, when you want them to emit heat, you allow them to take up water again.
The principle has been known for ages, but the researchers have addressed important practical details. Hooray for science!

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Homes for grannies

I hope you all had a good long weekend. While the country was celebrating the jubilee of its favourite granny, the government made an announcement about a type of accommodation that the Queen is never going to need - the granny flat. It said it would introduce a council tax break for anybody converting a garage or other unused accommodation into a granny flat. This caused some confusion, as apparently they are already tax exempt. So the government back-pedalled and said it didn't just mean grannies (or grandpas) but any member of the family - including presumably adult children who have become part of the 'boomerang' generation, leaving home for university and then coming back again.
It seems that the government is changing its mind all the time about taxes and fiscal incentives, pace the pasty tax and tax exemptions for charitable donations, but this time it does seem to be doing something rather clever. It is breaking up our terribly rigid ideas of where we should live, that anybody with any aspiration to success should be a homeowner and, failing that, can make do with renting a self-contained flat. Some small places, almost but not quite independent of their owners, could suit all sorts of people at all sorts of stages in their lives, and perhaps ease our chronic housing situation and even, whisper it, pull inflated house prices down a bit. Just don't expect the queen to move in.