Sunday, 23 December 2012

Beware of bearing gifts

A long discussion has been running on The Architects' Journal's LinkedIn page about the Yunnan Kunming Wenhua Technology Co in China. The thread started six months ago, and is still active.
This is a company that is scamming aspirant architects by dangling potential contracts in front of them, and then asking for presents - cigarettes, mainly, but a lot of them - and also asking for money up front to defray bank charges before transferring funds.
The sums seem relatively small for the effort that goes into them - for instance the company has laid on lavish banquets - and gulled architects' seem mostly to suffer lost time and travel costs rather than having their accounts plundered in a serious way. Which makes it all a bit mysterious.
This is at another level from those international lottery wins and transfers of inheritances to which we have all become wise on the internet. China is a promising market, and architects know that it does not operate in the same way as the UK, so are ready for things to seem a little strange. They may not have suffered much financially, but pride must be dented at the very least, and it is not nice to see hopes of work evaporate.
Let's hope this scam dies out in 2013.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

No hard sell at Christmas

Blogger Lucy Mori has written about how architects should remember still to market themselves at Christmas. She illustrates her blog with  pics of family Christmases replete with the kind of festive jumpers  no self-respecting architect would be seen dead in - certainly not when marketing themselves.
And that is the problem.
Mori is not suggesting a hard sell - in fact only what she calls a soft version of the elevator pitch. But she says that friends and family include potential clients and that the architect should both make them aware of what he/ she does for a living, and sound confident and optimistic. No potential client wants to meet somebody self-denigrating or lacking in confidence.
That is undeniably true but what that means is that the architect who obeys Mori's dictum is always 'on'. Obviously non-stop moaning doesn't make for good company, but if an architect has had a hard year, who can they be frank with if not their nearest and dearest?
PR Leanne Tritton wrote a piece in last week's BD entitled 'In hard times a break is more vital than ever'. Part of this was about the importance of the office party but she also discussed the importance of switching off and recharging at Christmas. With all offices shut, this is probably the only time of year when there is no need to keep responding to emails and texts (I know Tritton is keen on holidaying beyond reach of either). But it will hardly be a break if you have to be on your best, cheery, positive, elevator pitching form just in case you encounter a potential client. Maybe at Christmas even those with secret or not so secret doubts should let their fronts slip and just be themselves.

Monday, 17 December 2012

My first tweet up

Last week I went to my first tweet up, organised by Building Design and held at the offices of Feilden Clegg Bradley. I'm not sure that I came away able to tell the difference between a tweet up and a booze up, but it was certainly a good evening. I guess the difference is that it is a self-selecting group of common interest, rather than an invitation list that somebody had decided to compile. So more democratic - in the spirit of Twitter.
I was there specifically to give a brief talk about the white paper How to Win Work which I wrote for BD (with case studies written by staff members). This looks at everything an architect should do from determining their business plan and marketing strategy, to appraising competitions and deciding which to enter, right through the PQQ process and presentations to how to make the most out of a near miss.
It isn't the sexiest subject but really important and fascinating once you delve into it. So much of it seems like commonsense, but so few architects apply this commonsense. Interviews showed that many submit 'last minute' CGIs, don't research potential clients properly, and even seem bored at interview. I was shocked to learn from a survey BD carried out as part of the research that a third of practices employing more than 15 architects don't even know how much they spend on entering competitions.
The best lessons for me? That it is vital to get to know potential clients before entering a competitive situation, and that not publicising the work for which you don't want to be known is as important as publicising the jobs you do want to be known for.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Let's be sensible about housing

 Michele Hanson's latest 'A certain age' column  in today's Guardian is a corker. After telling us about her friend Clayden being attacked by cows on Hackney Marshes, she says she thinks she is trying to make herself think of urban life as rustic to compensate for the fact that planning minister Nick Boles wants to concrete over most of the countryside.
'How I wish I was planning, and housing, minister instead of Bolesy,' she writes. 'My plans are more sensible: use all brown-fill sites [I think you mean brown-field Michelle], fill all couuncil voids, cap rents, sto VAT on renovation of existing dwellings, and decriminalise squatting. That should help.'
It certainly should. And seems like plain common sense. Someone else who is advocating common sense is Piers Taylor in The Architects' Journal last week touched a nerve when he wrote a column 'An architecture of circumstance would help local character evolve'. OK, the title isn't all that catchy but he was arguing for planners to stop 'meddling and micro-managing' the appearance of housing. Britain should be more like Almere in The Netherlands, he argues, where builders have certain restrictions on volumes, space between buildings etc and then can build what they like.
The interesting thing is that the illustration he shows from Almere is of houses that all look like a family - as did streets of Victorian houses built in pairs by speculative builders. There might be an argument for more restrictions if the result, over the last few decades, had been lots of lovely houses. But it hasn't. Most houses have been ugly, shoddy, small and inflexible. Looser planning restrictions wouldn't necessarily put an end to that. But if they allowed us to build more houses, the market might kick in and people would no longer buy the worst. So here's to more freedom - but not to build over all our green land.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Hooray for the highways engineer

There are few jobs more derided than that of the highways engineer. Architects, landscape architects and urban designers all love to complain about highways engineers' lack of foresight and imagination, their box-ticking approach, the way that they litter the environment with unnecessary and ugly street furniture and with ill-considered signs. And often these criticisms are valid.
So it is worth considering the other side of the coin, what happens when this work isn't done at all. There is a salutary article in this week's Observer magazine about a road in Bangladesh that has been built with none of the correct considerations. Headlined in the print edition 'Is this the most dangerous road in the world?' the shocking piece strongly suggests that the answer is yes.
Funded by the World Bank, the road runs from Dhaka to Sylhet and replaces an older road on which there were constant delays. Now traffic moves much faster, but the side effect is a horrific toll of deaths, largely of pedestrians and of rickshaw users. There are no crash barriers, there is no central reservation and, with a river running alongside the road, a significant proportion of the casualties (government figures say that there are 180 deaths a year but the actual figure is believed to be much higher) die by drowning.
Doubtless in this country we could have a more imaginative approach, and successful projects such as the Exhibition Road shared surface in west London have only been achieved in the teeth of opposition from the unimaginative.
But Exhibition Road is appropriate (although some argued strongly that it was not). The enormous shared surface of the Dhaka-Sylhet is a shared surface too far, that is not only inappropriate but lethal. We have a government that seems to think that the only way to promote development is to tear up regulation. Bangladesh's death highway is a salutary reminder of what happens when you do so in an inappropriate manner.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Make yourself at home

Smugness is not attractive so like everyone sensible I try to avoid it. But if I were to be smug about anything it would be about where I live. My small, not terribly convenient flat is in an inner London suburb where, if I were buying now, I would not be able to afford to live. There has been a ripple effect in London where successive waves of buyers talk wistfully about areas that their elders found barely acceptable. Now it has reached the point where first-time buyers, even in well-paid jobs, cannot afford to live in the capital at all unless subsidised by serious rich parents.
Housing starts are at an all time low, much of which is built is ugly and cramped because housebuilders can build anything they like, knowing it will sell. This despite the fact that potential buyers still find it hard to get loans, and even those living in social housing in London are being priced out. There was a touching interview on Radio 4 yesterday with a woman who is working part time and having her benefit cut. She is looking at moving to Birmingham or Glasgow but this would mean giving up her job and becoming even more dependent on the state. In The Guardian yesterday, Steve Rose wrote a feature headlined 'Squatters are not home stealers,' saying that the government has misrepresented their position in order to pass its laws on squatting.
In fact everything the government is doing in regard to housing seems to be driven by either rigid ideology or blind panic. Not enough housing? Let's tear up the Building Regulations. Still not enough housing? Let's allow people to build everywhere and disregard the green belt. House builders are not short of sites, and are not prevented from building by Building Regulations. Instead the situation is far more complex, tied up with the market and, it is true, by planning problems in dense areas.
In this dense tangle, what can architects do? According to The Architects' Journal, quite a lot. One of the comments on the launch of its More Homes, Better Homes campaign says that what we need are not more homes but fewer people and a redistribution of employment across the country. Maybe, but that is a big ask. In the meantime what we need are homes built now (or converted from existing buildings) in places where people want to live and, crucially, homes that people want to live in now and in the future. This means decent space standards for activities we can't yet contemplate, higher ceilings to retrofit fans that can cope with climate change, and the creation not just of reasonable individual homes but of proper functional neighbourhoods. It is a big ask, but the special intelligence of architects should help unravel it. The AJ is planning to publish a manifesto. It should be fascinating and, one hopes, influential.