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What to Believe
 

Do we believe that the advance of robotics, automation and artificial intelligence will destroy millions of jobs and create economic havoc or will it create new wealth and new more rewarding jobs? Are we technology optimists or pessimists?  For many with repetitive rules-based jobs, particularly in the manufacturing sector, the future looks bleak. For others with an ability to learn new skills and think creatively and analytically the future looks bright. The construction industry is moving in this direction – houses or parts of more complex buildings can be built in factories for site assembly, robots can lay bricks, giant 3D printers can make houses out of concrete and digital cutting machines can make complex objects.

TOSY Ping Pong Playing Robot Photo humanrobo

TOSY Ping Pong Playing Robot Photo humanrobo

The report JOBS LOST, JOBS GAINED: WORKFORCE TRANSITIONS IN A TIME OF AUTOMATION by the McKinsey Global Institute discusses the issue. On the optimistic side it states Even with automation, the demand for work and workers could increase as economies grow, partly fuelled by productivity growth enabled by technological progress. Rising incomes and consumption especially in developing countries, increasing health care for aging societies, investment in infrastructure and energy, and other trends will create demand for work that could help offset the displacement of workers.’ The underlying assumption is of continuing global growth with the question being of how it is serviced.

But do we even really believe this? Are we not already well into period of economic adjustment that started with the crash of 2008? An ‘economy of less’ where unserviceable debt and growth in population, resource use and emissions meet the fixed limits of the planet. Or are we entering an economy of more? What side of this argument are we on and what will the collision of robotics, automation and artificial intelligence with the fixed limits of the planet look like? It’s going to get very interesting!

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Very Dotty
 
Bridget Riley Op Artist in the 1960s

Bridget Riley Op Artist in the 1960s

Bridget Riley ra-two1981 (Left) and Big Blue 1982 (Right)

Bridget Riley ra-two1981 (Left) and Big Blue 1982 (Right)

I’ve always been a fan of Bridget Riley and remember visiting the retrospective of her ‘stripe’ paintings from the 1960s and 70s at the Serpentine Gallery in 1999. More recently we took at day out in summer 2015 to the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea to see her ‘curve’ paintings (1961- 2014). Last weekend all five of the Miller family popped in to see her third solo exhibition of mostly ‘disc’ paintings at the David Zwirner Gallery in Grafton Street in Mayfair featuring recent work from the last four years.  The amazing thing is that despite the obvious differences between stripes, curves and discs there is no doubt that they are all the work of a single artist with an endless fascination with repetition and the interaction between shapes and colours.

Bridget Riley Cataract 3 1967

Bridget Riley Cataract 3 1967

We walked up from the Royal Academy where we met for a snack and visited the ‘Charles I: King and Collector’ exhibition featuring the impressive collection which was broken up when he literally lost his head in 1649. The Van Dyck portraits of Charles I are especially impressive but touch on the king’s self regard which caused the second English Civil War and cost him his life.

By the time we reached the David Zwirner Gallery we were in the mood for something a bit more contemporary than Charles I and the the Bridget Riley exhibition is certainly that. It is displayed over three floors in a Georgian townhouse.

For some ‘dotty’ reason we started goofing about – striking poses and taking lots of mobile phone photos amongst the paintings – thinking we weren’t being watched only to discover as we left that the front desk has CCTV cameras. How embarrassing – but I’m sure Bridget Riley would be pleased we had such fun.

Bridget Riley Curves Wall Painting 2015 at Bexhill on Sea

Bridget Riley Curves Wall Painting 2015 at Bexhill on Sea

Diana and Bridget Riley Disc wall painting David Zwirner Gallery 2018

Diana and Bridget Riley Disc wall painting David Zwirner Gallery 2018

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Money Laundering CPD
 
Donald Trump in Palm Beach photo 内閣官房内閣広報室

Donald Trump in Palm Beach photo 内閣官房内閣広報室

As in most professions architects are required to undertake Continuing Professional Development (CPD) which involves structured or informal activities recorded as learning points. In many practices some of the content is delivered by approved providers at lunchtime seminars where the level of attendance is determined by the quality of the free drinks and sandwiches on offer. Some of the subjects are so boring that they’d qualify for the Guest Publications slot on ‘Have I Got News For You’.

The best learning is where the subject is actually cutting edge and of interest because as an architect you’re learning new stuff every day anyway in the normal course of events. Here’s a new one (at least to me) they could try which caught my attention on account of stories relating to Donald Trump (Buzzfeed, Reuters, Irish Independent) – ‘Money Laundering in Construction’. CPD Question: Money laundering in construction – discuss.  CPD Answer: One version might be the purchase of property by drug dealers or other criminals through anonymous offshore shell companies. When the property is sold on, sometimes shortly after it is purchased, the money is ‘clean’. Another might be cash investments for an equity stake by anonymous offshore shell companies in real estate developments such as golf courses. Even if the golf courses lose money the investment has become ‘clean’.  CPD Examiner: Very good 10 points.  That’s enough CPD for now.

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Carillion
 
Carillion signboard photo Terry Robinson

Carillion signboard photo Terry Robinson

The press, media and many MP’s are running around with a sense of righteous indignation over the collapse of Carillion – the construction, maintenance and facilities management company. The trouble is they don’t know who to direct it against. Has the government messed up – or has it done rather well to get projects constructed this cheaply? Is the company to blame for poor management – or is its demise the inevitable result of contracts that lump massive risks onto single contractors with wafer thin margins? Carillion had become more or less an arm of government. Is this purchaser / provider model a good one or should these services be brought back ‘in house’?

The fact is that Carillion was a Frankensteinian monster created out of disparate parts in response to government policy in the form of the PFI / PF2 private finance approach to the procurement of infrastructure and services. Except that Victor Frankenstein’s project started out with a noble motive which PFI never did.

Carillion’s liquidation coincides perfectly with a report into PFI / PF2 by the National Audit Office which doesn’t come to any definitive conclusions but states bizarrely, even after all these years, that ‘(the) overall performance of PFI has not been quantified’ and ‘HM Treasury has noted that the higher cost of private financing means that the economic case for the model rests on achieving cost savings in the construction or operation of the project; or through the delivery of a qualitatively superior project’. For all its numbers, graphs and charts one thing the National Audit Office can’t quantify is the sheer ugliness of the buildings. Badly designed by architects on a limited service and a tiny fee and poorly constructed of cheap materials, PFI / PF2 projects stand as a damning indictment of where we are as a society in every way.

Whatever the savings have been in the past the government is going to have to pay more in the future and an awful lot more now to get these particular projects finished by someone else. An audit will be needed to establish what stage the work has reached and the true state of the partially completed work. Another contractor will need to be found who will want more money than Carillion was expecting plus a premium to make a suitable team available at short notice.

There has been just too much politics involved in the delivery of public infrastructure for too many years. The return of a traditional and common sense approach is long overdue.

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An Elizabethan (not much) Drama
 
HMS Queen Elizabeth with HMS Sutherland and HMS Iron Duke photo UK Ministry of Defence

HMS Queen Elizabeth with HMS Sutherland and HMS Iron Duke photo UK Ministry of Defence

The mainstream media seems to be getting dafter and dafter – perhaps in an effort to keep up with what passes as ‘news’ online. Take the latest ‘news’ that the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is undergoing sea trials, has been leaking. Read on and it transpires that this is a faulty seal in a propeller shaft which is scheduled for repair while she is ‘alongside’ at Portsmouth. The repair will take a matter of days and be carried out by the shipbuilders at no cost to the navy and with no impact on the sea trials. HMS Queen Elizabeth is the largest warship ever built for the Royal Navy, she pushes the boundaries of cutting edge technology in many respects – but that was last week’s news. A minor snag, discovered during sea trials in a ship of this size is not news at all. In fact I’d be more worried if the technology used in such an important project was so ‘safe’ that there were no snags.

London Millenium Bridge photo Alison Wheeler

London Millenium Bridge photo Alison Wheeler

In the same way every architect designed building is a ‘one-off’ – responding to the client’s needs, budget, site, wider context etc. If there hadn’t been innovation with the attendant risks we’d still be living in caves.

My favourite example of the value of taking a risk is the delightful Millenium footbridge (the ‘wobbly bridge’) which crosses the River Thames between the Tate Modern and St Paul’s Cathedral. The ‘blade of light’ design by Arup, Foster and Partners and Sir Anthony Caro initially suffered from lateral vibration caused by pedestrians crossing the bridge exacerbating the ‘wobble’ by matching their steps to it. The problem was solved at no cost to the client by the introduction of various ‘dampers’ to control movement. The bridge now looks impossibly slender – as it was intended to. If the designers had designed a risk free bridge at the outset, based on known technology, it would have been a lot more ‘clunky’ and less elegant than it is.

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An Unlikely Hero
 
Red Admiral

Red Admiral

Small tortoiseshell

Small tortoiseshell

My career as a butterfly collector lasted the length of a childhood summer afternoon during which I netted, I think, a red admiral, a small tortoiseshell and a cabbage white before losing interest and becoming somewhat remorseful.

I remembered this little armageddon when I read about the ‘ecological Armageddon’ for flying insects that is currently being reported in the press. A 75% decline in 25 years in the total biomass of flying insects has been measured in nature reserves across Germany. More research is needed but if such a decline is for real and repeated across Europe it will have a disastrous effect on the ecosystem – including crops.

Cabbage white

Cabbage white

Step forward an unlikely hero – Michael Gove – who as environment secretary has just confirmed that the UK will support a ban on the use of neonicotinoids which is the group of neuro-active insecticides, chemically similar to nicotine, credited with the massive decline in the bee population. Hopefully he will move on to ban the array of other dangerous pesticides used in modern agriculture but Gove is not a believer in ‘experts’ (famously pronouncing during the EU referendum campaign that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’) so might take no heed. He is not a believer in architecture either claiming as education secretary that the schools building programme was wasting money with architects ‘creaming off cash’. He went on to ban curves and reduce space for corridors, assembly halls and canteens in the ghastly standardised designs that he championed.

Let’s hope that as environment secretary he turns out to be more of a lover of the natural environment than the he was of the built environment when education secretary.

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Nostalgia’s Not What It Used To Be
 

An interesting episode of ‘Analysis’ on BBC Radio 4 last week looked at the overdue restoration and renewal plan for the Grade I listed Houses of Parliament which MP’s are due to debate this autumn following a report by a parliamentary joint committee which warned of ‘an impending crisis‘. Apparently Barry and Pugin’s mid 19th century masterpiece is in a dire condition with problems that include a basement crammed full of electrical and data services from so many eras that nobody knows where many of them go, outdated fire safety measures, crumbling masonry, asbestos, outdated hot and cold water and outdated ventilation. The building could come to a sad end at more or less any time due to either a single catastrophic event such as a fire or a combination of system failures. The options are basic repairs, a partial move out and a full move out. None are cheap with the most expensive being costed at £7.1 billion.

Debating chamber Scottish Parliament

Debating chamber Scottish Parliament

The necessity for this work is being seen by some as an opportunity to open up public access to the building and facilitate a new form of politics but why not relocate entirely? If we were starting with a blank sheet of paper (and £7.1 billion buys a pretty big sheet) nobody would locate Parliament at an inaccessible location in the heart of London in a building which reflects a Victorian style of politics. A return to the existing building is just so much nostalgia (‘a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past’). There is talk of temporary relocation outside London while the restoration is carried out but why not a permanent relocation and a single move to a ‘state of the art’ new home. Scotland got a new parliament and Wales got a new assembly.

It’s easy to be focussed on London and the south east but both are overcrowded and talk about investment in the regions needs to become action. It’s time to move Parliament to the heart of the UK to be closer to the people who elect it. The physical centre point of the United Kingdom is somewhere in Lancashire and the centre of the population is somewhere in Leicestershire. Either of these counties would welcome the massive investment as would cities like Birmingham or Manchester.

Why not a two stage competition? The first stage would be to select the location (like the competition to host the Commonwealth games) and the second stage would be an open architectural competition to select the architectural design. Barry and Pugin’s appointment for the current building was the result of a competition so there is plenty precedent and every reason to expect a successful outcome like there was 180 years ago.

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At What Cost?
 
Grenfell Tower fire 2017 photo Natalie Oxford7

Grenfell Tower fire 2017 photo Natalie Oxford

In her response to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry terms of reference the RIBA President Jane Duncan was right to draw attention the Institute’s disappointment ‘that the terms of the Inquiry do not explicitly mention the overall regulatory and procurement context for the construction of buildings in the UK. We consider this examination crucial to understanding the often complicated division of design responsibilities and the limited level of independent oversight of construction’.

I think the inquiry will highlight the inadequacy of the minimum standards of the current Building Regulations with regards to external cladding but it remains to be seen whether what was actually installed was even in accordance with them or in accordance with what was designed and specified.

By ‘independent oversight’ Ms Duncan means the appointment of an architect to administer the contract and make regular site visits to see that the materials and workmanship are in accordance with it. So much work nowadays is procured using the currently fashionable ‘design and build’ approach with no independent architectural input when the work is on site. This contrasts with the traditional approach where the contract is administered by the architect who acts as ‘impartial arbiter’ (independent of the client and the contractor).

‘Design and build’ may save some fees but at what cost if the work is incorrectly constructed? How do we know until it is too late if defective work is covered up – as it was in the case of the 17 schools that had to be closed in Edinburgh last year when the inexplicable absence of external cavity wall ties and internal masonry wall head ties was discovered after a wall fell down.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry must make sure that it sheds light on the full context for the decisions that led up to the tragedy.

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The Gravy Train’s Back
 
Ninewells Hospital Dundee

Ninewells Hospital Dundee

In my first job in the early 1980’s I worked in an office with an architect who had spent 15 years working in another practice on the Ninewells Hospital project in Dundee. Can you imagine it? 15 years on a single project! Ninewells was a famous example of one of those government funded projects that overran in both time and budget. The site was purchased in 1955 and the hospital eventually opened in 1974 with some sections not finished until 1975.

After experiences like that it was no wonder the government was attracted by the private finance initiative (PFI) approach to the procurement of public infrastructure projects. Complex and voluminous contracts dreamt up by lawyers and financiers, allowed private consortia to design, build, operate and maintain public facilities such as hospitals and the government could keep the capital costs ‘off balance sheet’. After dumping all the risk onto the private sector it should have come as no surprise that the private sector priced in this risk and healthy even excessive profits were made. The PFI has been responsible for producing some of the ugliest and most cheaply constructed buildings in modern times. The fees paid for architectural design were very low and, as the saying goes, ‘if you pay peanuts you get monkeys’.

The PFI was modified and improved in terms of design quality, risk transfer and more transparent accounting but this happened in parallel with the whole process becoming discredited and seen as poor value for money. So the PFI gravy train came to a halt.

Start the gravy train

Start the gravy train

But wait – the gravy train could be back on track (albeit heading in the opposite direction) as the shadow chancellor John McDonnell announced at the Labour Party conference last week ‘We have already pledged there will be no new PFI deals signed by us in government. But we will go further. It is what you have been calling for. We will bring existing PFI contracts back in-house’. So the lawyers and financiers will be back in business – this time preparing complex and voluminous contracts to unwind the existing ones that they created.

Why does designing and constructing buildings have to be so expensive and complicated?

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Whose Ceiling?
 
Demolished ceiling at 15 Small Street Bristol.

Demolished ceiling at 15 Small Street Bristol.

Once again it takes some sort of ‘tragedy’ to make anything happen. In this case it’s the relatively minor ‘tragedy’ (by comparison to the havoc being wreaked by hurricanes in the Caribbean) of the demolition of an important ornate Jacobean ‘pendant’ ceiling at 15 Small Street in Bristol which has made the national news http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-41109143. Dating from the 1620s, the ceiling was demolished by its owner in a successful pre-emptive bid to avoid it being listed by Historic England. The building was the subject of a planning application for sub-division into student flats. Bristol’s Conservation Advisory Panel applied for it to be spot-listed. The building was being assessed but the owner deferred a scheduled site visit by Bristol City Council planning officers and before an inspection could be arranged the ceiling was demolished.

The straightforward ‘legal’ answer is that the building was not listed and the ceiling was the property of the owner so nothing illegal occurred. Buildings are either protected by listing or they are not. The owner most likely took advice on the legal position before acting.

Firestone Factory, London - before demolition in 1980

Firestone Factory, London – before demolition in 1980

The Bristol case has echoes of the infamous case of the art deco Firestone Factory in London which was demolished over a bank holiday weekend in 1980 in anticipation of it being listed. Apparently the preservation order was prepared but nobody was available over the bank holiday to sign it. The outcry led to the listing of 150 examples of early modern architecture.

But the case highlights a need to provide interim protection for buildings being considered for potential spot-listing. The non ‘legal’ point of view is that historic assets are held in trust for future generations. A balance needs to be struck. Not least because there would be a disincentive to own and take care of historic buildings if the constraints of listing made them impossible to use.

Similarly mature trees are either protected by a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) or they are not. From time to time I have to advise clients in advance of making a planning application that would impact the roots or canopy of adjacent, sometimes mature, trees that it would be in their interest to fell the trees before a planning application is submitted if they are not the subject of a TPO as otherwise they would become a material consideration in the planning process which could adversely impact the success of what is being proposed. So we are all in this (though a tree can be replaced but a Jacobean ceiling can’t) . We want to maintain the best of what is there but we also want to see progress. Removing the prosecution-free period between an application for a spot-listing and the decision would be a sensible balance between the narrow sanctity of private property ownership and the broader notion of the importance of retaining ‘collective memory’.