The Great Fire of Barking 9 June 2019
It was ‘Barking mad’ to construct the balconies of the flats in the recent Barking fire of timber. Perhaps they should have built them in Dagenham instead which, as they say, is three stops past Barking.
The use of external timber cladding in high and medium rise buildings has become increasingly popular as it is fashionable, ‘eco’ and above all cheap – seemingly ignoring the obvious fact that wood catches fire easily. The more that timber is exposed the more easily fire can cross the facade of a building and leap from building to building – a lesson that was learned 350 years ago in the Great Fire of London after which brick and stone replaced timber.
Over recent years I’ve seen more and more timber used on the facades of high and medium rise buildings and thought ‘how on earth do you access that for maintenance?’ Maybe the more obvious question would be ‘how will that burn?’ In the case of the Barking flats it is suggested that they ‘received approval by the relevant authorities’. They probably did as balconies do not normally form part of an escape route and the purpose of the Building Regulations is to save life not property.
The Great Fire of London September 1666 artist unknown
In this article in the Sun on the Barking fire ‘Dad-of-two Carl, 40, said he had just ten seconds to grab his children and run. He said: “Apparently there was a flat that started a barbecue, the barbecue was on a carpet and there was a mattress on a wall. The barbecue fell over, I don’t know how, the barbecue fell on to the carpet and caught alight.”’ Sounds not dissimilar to the Great Fire of London which started in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane when a spark from his oven fell onto a pile of fuel nearby.
Temporary increases in the Permitted Development (PD) regime that allowed homeowners to build bigger single storey rear extensions without the need for planning permission which were due to expire 30 May 2019 have now been made permanent. These increases cover single storey rear extensions of up to 6m on semis or terraced homes and up to 8m on detached houses.
Edwin Booth, Hamlet, 1870. PD, or not PD, that is the question.
PD rights are a bit of a minefield as the rules are often hard to interpret. There are frequently misconceptions about PD and these are the ones that I commonly come across:
- PD is what is permitted without planning permission. It is not necessarily as much or as good a solution as what might be available if a planning application is made and approved. So PD may not be the optimal solution.
- PD rights are often hard to interpret for a specific project and if a property is subsequently sold the incoming purchaser could seek confirmation that what has been built is indeed PD. Therefore in most cases clients apply to the local council for a Lawful Development Certificate which is in some respects similar to a householder planning application. So an application to the council may be needed in any case.
- PD rights are restricted in ‘designated areas’ such as conservation areas, National Parks (such as the South Downs National Park), an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) (such as the High Weald AONB) and for listed buildings. So PD may not apply.
- Building Regulations approval is still required. So a set of design drawings will be required in any event.
Always worth talking to your local architect to avoid a missed opportunity and/or a costly mistake.
Skilled craftspeople of all kinds will be needed to restore Notre Dame cathedral in Paris following the fire that destroyed the gothic oak frame and roof, the spire and most of the interiors. Master carpenters and stonemasons will be needed to get roof and the walls back together and then a raft of specialists to reinstate the interiors. Cathedral grade skills like these are in such short supply nowadays that it could determine how quickly the work proceeds. The astoundingly complex oak frame and roof, known as ‘the forest’, were held to be one of the greatest masterpieces of Middle Age design and construction.
This assumes that the intention is to faithfully restore Notre Dame. In the world of architectural conservation there are various philosophical responses to fires such as this. ‘Ruinists’ say leave the building as a ruin – a romantic ghost, ‘modernists’ say replace with something that speaks for its time, ‘replicationists’ say what was there must be restored. The ‘replicationists’ will surely prevail at Notre Dame but what does ‘replication’ mean? Does it mean an authentic reconstruction of the whole thing using the original materials and techniques even where hidden from view or does it allow the use of equivalent modern means to achieve the same effect?
Sagrada Familia aerial view
Sagrada Familia Exterior view
After the fire that destroyed parts of Windsor Castle in 1992 it was decided that, with the exception of the areas that were redesigned such as St George’s Hall, the work would use whatever modern materials and techniques were necessary to recreate the interiors that were destroyed by the fire. This is in contrast to the reconstruction of the roof of York Minister cathedral which was exactly replicated in oak after the fire in 1984.
Sagrada Familia interior view
The fate of Notre Dame makes me think of another great European cathedral – the as yet unfinished Sagrada Família in Barcelona – started in 1882 and now 70% complete. Heaven forbid but how would you ever approach an ‘authentic’ restoration of a hybrid building like this. Antoni Gaudí‘s early work was in traditional carved stonework but from 1998 whole parts of the building have been prefabricated and craned into place. Large steel reinforced precast concrete elements, modern high-strength concrete, stainless steel, engineered wood, glass and light metal elements have all been used to speed up construction, increase safety and reduce cost. As well as this 3-D computer aided design has been extensively employed. The result is spectacular but certainly one to have the philosophers scratching their heads over what is meant by ‘authentic’ restoration.
Photo: burj-al-babas facebook 1
An awful lot of what is going on in the world at the moment seems to make little sense. This is Burj Al Babas a development of 732 identical chateau-style villas in the picturesque mountains of northern Turkey which has reportedly gone bankrupt with $27 million of debt. The project was targeted at customers from Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. These photos, with their large OMG factor, ask more questions than they answer. What is the point of this unsustainable eyesore? Visitors from the Gulf are supposed to fly in and relax in a development of identical Disneyesque houses, crammed together with no regard to context. It doesn’t work architecturally, ecologically or even financially. Is the world of the very rich a theme park?
Photo: burj-al-babas facebook 2
I don’t do any work for the ‘volume’ housebuilders here in the UK. For the most part they use ‘standard’ house types which are ‘tweaked’ in terms of the external materials to provide a bit of regional character (brick, stone, render walling / clay tile or slate roofing etc). They are site specific in terms of the mix of house types and the estate layout. But at least they serve their market and provide ‘real’ homes.
I do one off houses and house extensions, usually to character homes, where context is all important. Set in its dramatic mountain forest landscape the Burj al Babas development could have been an exemplary sustainable development referencing the local Ottoman tradition of wood frame construction.
A newly built radio telescope operated by a Canadian team of astronomers has detected a second repeating source of radio waves known as fast radio bursts (FRB) that travel at the speed of light. FRB 180814, as they have called it, appears to originate about 1.5 billion light-years away. FRB’s were thought to be one offs but now that two repeating sources have been discovered the hunt is on not just for more but for a theory of what they are and why they are repeating. Who knows what it is, but I know what it isn’t. It isn’t the extraterrestrial life or alien spaceships that are already being talked about. I’m pretty sure if extraterrestrials wanted to be in touch they’d have been in touch by now in a more obvious way. But there is something so human and imaginative in the belief that we are not alone, we are not all there is and there is something bigger out there.
Gregory Peck in the film version of Nevil Shute’s ‘On the Beach’
The classic post-apocalyptic novel, ‘On the Beach’ (1957) by Nevil Shute is set in Australia where a group of characters await their certain end with the arrival of deadly radiation spreading towards them from the northern hemisphere following a nuclear war. All human life in the northern hemisphere has been wiped out but a glimmer of hope emerges when a faint morse code signal is detected coming from an abandoned navy communications school in Seattle. The submarine USS Scorpion is dispatched to sail from Melbourne to establish who is sending the signal and how they survived. Upon arrival Lieutenant Sunderstrom is sent ashore with a protective suit and oxygen tank. He finds that the mysterious radio signal is the result of a broken window frame swinging in the breeze and occasionally hitting a transmitting key.
The Queen’s Window at Westminster Abbey by David Hockney photo Westminster Abbey
Was David Hockney having a laugh with his iPad design for the recently unveiled Queen’s Window at Westminster Abbey depicting a ‘country scene’ to commemorate the reign of Queen Elizabeth II? I mean it has garish colours and is totally out of scale and out of context with the gothic stone window frame, the north transept and the Abbey itself. It’s not in tune with the ‘spirit of place’.
He probably wasn’t having a laugh. This is what he does and I get it – the whole point is that it is out of scale and context and the colours are intended to scream out like a neon sign.
What I can’t decide is whether the choice of Hockney rather than a leading contemporary stained glass artist was dumb or inspired? Was this a totally bonkers choice and process where, like in the tale of the emperor’s new clothes, nobody felt able to state the obvious given that the Dean of Westminster and the Queen were involved or am I totally out of touch with the role of contemporary art in historic settings?
Once the novelty wears off etc……
Race Bank – the fifth biggest wind farm in the world opened 13 June 2018 off the Norfolk and Lincolnshire coast with 91 turbines such as these Photograph SteKrueBe
It has been predicted that the coming scarcity of fossil fuels will cause significant problems for transportation, power and the production of food and manufactured items. But this recent study in Nature Climate Change suggests that the accelerating spread of renewable energy together with energy efficiency and climate policy may be substantially reducing demand to the point where a global financial crisis could be triggered not by a lack of fossil fuels but by a global wealth loss of US$1–4 trillion in oil related assets left ‘stranded’ by reducing global demand for fossil fuels as the ‘carbon bubble’ bursts sometime in the next 15 – 20 years. And this study in Nature Energy projects that by 2050 global energy demand will be around 40% lower than today – despite rises in population and income and growing global economic activity.
So potentially no return to horse drawn carts and manual farm labour and a real hope for a clean energy future. It’s all moving very fast with renewables but not fast enough to deter the fracking industry which remains intent on making a final fast buck at huge environmental cost before everyone finally wakes up. Cuadrilla (known in these parts for their involvement at Balcombe) have applied for final consent to frack (not just test drill) at Preston New Road in Lancashire. The economics of shale oil don’t add up – leveraging cheap debt to make money in the short term for insiders at the expense of losses for long term investors. It would be tempting to think that the investors had it coming except that it’s all of us one way or another through our pension funds etc.
You couldn’t make it up (unless it’s a fake painting)! The Terrus Museum in Elne near Perpignan in Southern France has discovered that more than half of its collection of paintings attributed to local Catalan painter Étienne Terrus (1857-1922) are fakes.
Étienne Terrus – Collioure in the Pyrenees (authentic)
82 fakes have been identified and only 52 paintings have been authenticated. If they don’t know what a Terrus painting looks like in his home town what are visitors supposed to think?
It sounds like the plot for a French farce or a sequel to Gabriel Chevallier’s classic comedy ‘Clochmerle’ and what a great addition to the French comedy tradition a book or film based on the story would be.
Clochmerle originally published 1934 Penguin edition
The basic outline (all true) would be: The town spends an estimated £140,000 over 20 years acquiring the works. Local community groups raise funds and take donations, municipal funds are provided and some works are bequeathed by a private collector. £265,000 is spent on refurbishing the museum which is due to reopen. Before the opening guest curator Eric Forcada raises doubts about the authenticity of the paintings so a commission of experts is appointed who conclude that more than half the museum’s collection is fake including paintings that depict buildings that didn’t actually exist in Terrus’ lifetime and others where the signature is readily wiped off. Yves Barniol, the mayor says “a catastrophe …it’s intolerable and I hope we find those responsible”. Marthe-Marie Coderc, president of the local association Friends of the Terrus Museum, says “Maybe we were a little naive”.
One good thing is that the museum with its 52 authentic works in now ‘on the map’. In my imaginary book or film version the writer would add a comeuppance for the fakers and a happy ending featuring a big street party with flags and a brass band etc.
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.
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
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.