Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Defining 'eco'

The current debate over the proposed 'eco-towns' that has had communities holding demonstrations, developers withdrawing schemes, planners and advisers worrying about transport and the usual suspects predicting the concreting of our verdant hills, focuses the mind on what we really mean by 'eco'. The isite blog has touched on this already, focusing on the rather weak green credentials of some of the probable eco-town projects, and I hear Rob has cogently summarised the issue for buildings as 'carbon, cost, comfort': "What's the point of creating a technically perfect low carbon building if the occupier doesn't like it or won't use it the way you want to?" (via Phil). At the larger scale: what's the point of building a zero-carbon housing estate town in the wrong place for transport, for local communities, for the bigger picture? Sustainability is not simply about carbon: it is about sustaining communities functionally and psychologically; reinforcing or creating a sense of place that engenders pride, that will encourage all generations to live there for the long term, as well as providing the buildings and services that they need to do so, and limiting our impact on the climate and environment.

Most local communities want affordable housing for their children, and lower carbon emissions; and it is easy to imagine a way of consulting over the location for new 'eco' development that would be vastly less contentious than getting developers to submit bids to central government. It is damaging to genuine efforts towards a lower carbon footprint that unsustainable projects such as some of the 'eco-town' sites are badged with the 'eco' label. Cynicism about the impact of low-carbon policies on everyday life is already increasing, and if popular suspicion reads every government 'green' initiative as a covert way of doing something unpopular, support for measures that might genuinely do good may well wither away.

The same goes for products that are dubiously badged 'eco'. Like the rest of the world, I was at Ecobuild for a few hours this week and left dispirited at the crude rebranding of plastic and aluminium windows, timber products shipped across the Atlantic, and unrecyclable insulation as 'green'. Prize for the most absurd 'green' product probably goes to the "basalt fibre reinforced polymer" wall-tie which is supposedly better than the steel one because it minimises thermal conductivity; this may never take off in the building industry but some of the more serious products are equally contradictory.

One problem is that the word 'sustainable' is so fuzzy that terms such as 'eco' and 'zero-carbon' have been seized upon as substitutes, although they tend to narrow the debate to something purely technical. There is a need to reclaim the debate from the point-scoring of codes and percentages, however difficult it is to do so in language that is clear and unambiguous. Otherwise there is no way that our carbon emissions are really going to reduce - we need to address the system, not just the symptoms.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Information and the city

For an immersion into the complexity of the information systems that surround us, I can't recommend highly enough Dan Hill's post over at City of Sound (a real must-read blog) on The street as platform. It's long, yes - but covers almost every use of data in our lives, from phones to Oyster cards, wifi to CCTV, and vividly demonstrates how this is changing the way we operate in physical space. As Hill writes, this is a "new kind of data, collective and individual, aggregated and discrete, open and closed, constantly logging impossibly detailed patterns of behaviour. The behaviour of the street."

The post describes no technology that doesn't already exist, which makes it all the more remarkable. And as Dan points out, "How much of this life of the street, this rapidly increasing torrent of human activity, is registered as a field of enquiry or activity in most planning activity?" This data-filled world presents huge challenges to the processes of planning, governance and management of the public (and private) realm.

The interface between the physical and the 'virtual' (not a good word, but it will have to do) and indeed the private and the public is becoming blurred to an extraordinary degree. Who is to govern the part of the street where my open wireless network is accessible, and where therefore someone might want a bench to sit on so they can use their laptop? Who decides whether the pavement in front of an office building can be monitored by the CCTV of the tenant? how does this overlap with the council-run CCTV system? If a widely circulated YouTube clip features a brutal mugging in a prominent London square, how do you persuade people that it is actually a safe place to eat lunch, and does this have anything to do with its physical design?

As architects, this is something we must take into account. It may mean that a commission to redesign a public space may in fact result in interventions in the data web much more than physical changes on the ground; but this is a difficult thing to persuade a client of, not least because to maintain a positive presence in the web requires more skilled ongoing management, and is more potentially controversial, than the cleaning of new paving slabs.

And, as Dan Hill says, "we should be aware of the limits of information services, until made physical. Either from a phenomenological point-of-view, or from the view that just says these systems tend to be transient, it's important to keep a sense of perspective". The physical is still important - it lasts, it is democratically visible and tangible to all users in the same way (though of course interpreted vastly differently), it has qualities of sensory pleasure or discomfort. But to pretend that we can opt out of the data network and experience purely the physical is now a fallacy.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Football Tuesday

At HAT we love football: we are annually bankrupted by our season tickets to North London's finest and daily readers of the best football blog. So we love this seasonal post about Shrove Tuesday football and the landscape of the playing field over at Sam Jacobs' blog, StrangeHarvest.

It also reminds me of the lovely project Play or Rewind by Cliostraat that superimposed games pitches onto the streets and piazzas of Siena.

Of course, urban games (Shoreditch golf, etc) are hip now, and football in the street features in glossy Nike advertisements and computer games, but surely the appeal of these comes from the fact that boys still kick balls against walls; use gates as goals; and the myth of Brazilian and African superstar players honing their skills barefoot in dusty urban streets. The formal pitch markings may have abstracted an urban landscape, as Jacobs speculates, but they are constantly being mutated back into urban specificity in return.

HAT Projects is recruiting!

We are looking for one or possibly two committed and enthusiastic Part I/II assistants to work on a range of projects we have in the office, including an exciting new art gallery. We are very committed to enabling our team to learn as much as possible about the building process and if you are capable, we will let you take on as much responsibility as you can. We're a small office so you will see every part of the process - we are not looking for CAD monkeys to be sat in a dingy corner, although proficiency with Microstation would be advantageous!

If you are interested, please apply by post with a CV and samples of your work, or email us if you have any questions.
Friday, February 1, 2008

Ikealand dreams

I'm sure everyone has already read about the opening of the first Ikea prefab development in the UK - cheap "houses for the many", in the words of Ikea UK's chief exec, echoing the utopian rhetoric of a previous generation of prefab developers in the 1950s.

All the technical stuff is interesting, all the ownership arrangement stuff is also interesting (how to stop these houses ever falling into the hands of the vaguely well-off) but for me the thing that made me love these ugly little boxes was to discover that every house comes with an apple tree in the garden.

Ikea creates a renaissance in orchards. We talk about healthy eating, design for healthy living; and isn't this one of the simplest and most human ways of actually achieving this?