Tuesday, January 29, 2008

PlanningAlerts.com

Another great site from the guys at MySociety, designers of ultra-simple and ultra-brilliant websites that enable us to write to our elected representatives, get your council to fix those broken streetlights, make communal pledges, and more. Now you can get email updates whenever a planning application is filed in your local area (up to a 2km radius) through PlanningAlerts.com.

They've also done some more work on their brilliant travel time maps, integrating all sorts of fantastic stuff (how about being able to easily see where you should buy a house given your price range and the length of time you want to commute to work? or whether it is quicker to drive or take the bus?)

I just wish that someone (i.e. the Department of Transport) would give them some proper funding so they could roll this out for the public to use, rather than just drip-funding another little teaser. This web app would be so incredibly useful for anyone working in planning and, I bet, would turn a few accepted wisdoms on their heads about where new development should be encouraged if we really want to promote public transport...
Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ecocities

Back in July, on my old blog, I wrote about this BBC article about the less rosy side of the much-hyped Dongtan 'ecocity'. It's been back in the news recently following Gordon Brown's trip to China as an example of British expertise helping the Chinese address environmental issues, and I was surprised, listening to the Today programme the other day, that a critical perspective on the project seems to have disappeared again.

Another person expressing untempered optimism about Dongtan (though he has the sense to ask whether a few projects like this can really save the planet) is Hugh Pearman here. Not only Dongtan, but Foster's huge square 'ecocity' in Abu Dhabi, the huge 'zero-carbon' Pearl River Tower and Rem Koolhaas in the Gulf are held up as exemplars. But where is the sustainability in an eco-suburb for the wealthy, the creation of any new city in a desert region, no matter how it then powers itself, or an expensive skyscraper whose hi-tech component parts will have huge amounts of energy embodied in their prototyping, construction and transportation?

I have a tendency to question altogether the prevailing eco-wisdom that dense urban living is more sustainable than a revisited ruralism. At the present it is true that Western-style rural life is often car-dependent and energy-intensive, while dense and walkable urban areas are certainly better than sprawling suburbs. But visit countries such as India and the boundaries between rural and urban become blurred and perhaps point towards alternative visions; and even here, in Essex, to see the amount of enterprise that occurs in the villages and farms around us is staggering. The big sticking point is transportation but in terms of food miles, energy generation and water conservation to name but three areas, country life has definite advantages.

Ultimately, country and city will have to exist in balance, but this doesn't mean focusing all our energies on visions of urban futures. I've spent some time looking at potential models for new rural development but we need both policy and the private sector to put more energy into ex-urban areas. This is a theme we will be returning to again and again, as we look out from HAT HQ onto fields, and talk to our neighbouring rural entrepreneurs...
Friday, January 18, 2008

Design and build

In the UK, 'design and build' generally refers to a form of procurement where the building contractor takes responsibility for the design of the building as well, leaving a limited role for the architect. In the USA, the phrase normally refers to the reverse - an architectural practice that also builds its own projects, generally private homes or small residential/commercial developments. A 'design-build' approach is also practised in several architectural schools, most notably the Rural Studio in Alabama where I spent a year, but also in Kansas, Parsons School of Design, the University of Texas and Washington State.

Here in the UK, there have been very few examples of practices taking this approach - Turner Castle for example. But it has hit the headlines again with the news that Tom Heatherwick, star designer of bridges and public art installations, is going to act as main contractor on the 300m2 Aberystwyth Arts Centre in order to 'liberate their working methods'.

It seems that the tipping point was the cladding, which "just wasn't possible for a contractor to price". We are used to architects developing bespoke material solutions for their projects - I think of the extraordinary lace concrete cladding that Caruso St John are using in Nottingham - but usually this takes place within a more standard form of contract, and often causes big issues in terms of nominated subcontractors, performance specifications and cost certainty. But for Heatherwick to take contracting into their own hands - particularly for a public building such as the Aberystwyth Arts Centre - potentially lays the practice open to far more risk and liability and also may expose the client to huge cost issues if things do not go to plan, as there will have been no competitive tendering process. I wonder how this sits with the procurement policies of the commissioning body.

But we also have sympathy for this approach. As architects we are fascinated by the potential to use materials in new ways and to test out fabrication processes in advance rather than designing purely on paper. Here at HAT HQ we have a workshop below our studio in which we hope to be able to do some of this, and Alex de Rijke says that they are planning to build a fabrication workshop near their studio to develop their work on engineered timber. Surely a process of prototyping means less risk in the end product than the traditional method of leaving it to the contractor to figure out, or the failures that every Cambridge graduate of my generation will be familiar under the heading of 'Corten Catastrophes' - where a good idea on paper ends up dripping horrible stains all over the place in practice.

Equally, with more architects trying to do small developments of their own - the awkward pocket sites that no commercial developer likes to deal with, a few units here and there - there is more incentive to turn contractor as well and take the whole package into one's own hands. At HAT we are also interested in this approach, Tom having worked in the past on similar projects with MOOarc. But for a public arts building? That's a brave step.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Housebuilding and the credit crunch

Much Christmas chat touched on what the effect of the credit situation would be on the UK construction industry. Today, news comes from Persimmon Homes that their sales fell since August, and they blame it on the credit crunch.

On the one hand, we have a much-vaunted 'housing crisis' which is blamed on high prices and low supply; hence a raft of growth areas where ambitious targets for new housebuilding are set. On the other hand, these targets will not be met by the private sector if buyers can't obtain mortgages and there is a squeeze on credit that affects the financing of speculative development. At the same time, construction costs are rising as a result of the Code for Sustainable Homes, for example.

Projects may well go on hold in areas which have low consumer confidence - parts of the Thames Gateway, for instance - fuelling calls to aid housebuilding further by relaxing regulation and planning restrictions, or to invest further funds into development areas via English Partnerships and other agencies. It's notable that Persimmon's lower-priced social housing arm, Westbury, continued to see growth on the back of government support; more of this 'support' will undoubtedly be needed if Gordon Brown is to fulfill his pledge to put housing at the top of his agenda, and the increased targets that he promised to fulfill.
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The two faces of prefab

Prefab is a buzzword that comes around in cycles, but it feels like this time around the buzz has lasted for years despite limited realisation of the vision. On the one hand: prefab as Dwell magazine chic is exemplified by the news that MoMA in New York is exhibiting five architect-designed prefab houses this year, ranging from Horden Cherry Lee's Micro-Compact House to a house supposedly designed for New Orleans reconstruction but that really smacks of fantasy (laser-cut pieces assembled with a rubber mallet). On the other: prefabrication as a 'modern method of construction' (MMC), the answer to expensive labour, skills shortages, quality issues, and other symptoms of a malfunctioning Western construction industry - Travelodge is planning to build half its hotels with modules readymade in China.
Friday, January 4, 2008

Our newest employee hard at work!

On a personal note, we are delighted to welcome into the world our first child, Iris - seen here already ensconced in the studio!

Happy 2008 to you all.

Iris in the studio