200 Towers for London – We need more, not less.

There has been some fuss made recently about the number of tall buildings planned for London. Over 200 buildings over 20 stories are planned on sites in the city. Many are residential, some are mixed use but all of them are tall. The suggestion is that this amount of development will change London’s skyline for ever and London will not be the city it once was, or something along those lines. All of which is true. All of which is fine by me.

To decide that London’s skyline needs to stay as it is, is to decide that London is finished growing or changing as a city. Some Londoners love it so much they want to keep it just as it is, or mainly as it is. Of course everyone would like more cycle lanes, cleaner air, better buses, more tube trains, etc, just don’t give them any tall buildings please, this isn’t Manhattan!

London isn’t Manhattan, but it is a sprawling, disconnected, land-hungry mass of poor quality housing, some of which is rather nice and a lot of which is rather awful. Much of it is in disconnected, low quality, low-rise suburbs full of increasingly poor people. There is huge demand for housing which is not being met now and doesn’t look like being met any time soon. What new housing is being provided is largely in poor quality sites on post-industrial land. The density of new housing on larger sites is often kept down by a combination of GLA and Local Authority requirements and nimbyism.

None of the above says that we need towers on these 200 sites, but the market does. The amount of investment flowing into London at present is enormous, coming from all over the world in search of financial returns. Empty buildings in London are making a better return for investors than full factories in the far East, or most of the worlds banking institutions. So what should happen? The authors of the article suggest that we need a plan for London that dictates what good towers look like and where they should go. I would say that we already have a planning system including a London Authority and its enough already.

The towers on their own will not be enough to solve London’s housing problem, and the reason most of them are towers is because there are not many large sites on the market. Vacant land in London with good transport links is non-existent. The only way for a developer to maximise the returns on a small site is to go up. Developers know that towers are not the cheapest form of development, and they are not doing to to massage their ego’s. While towers are not an ideal form for many uses, developers have to make the most of the opportunities they are presented with. What the towers will do in the short term is make money for developers, contractors, architects and the construction trades that London needs. It will ensure that the skills this generation needs to develop and build low energy and highly sustainable buildings are retained in London and trained for the future.

None of the firms who are busy developing, designing and building those towers are on this list of signatories calling for tighter controls. Having experienced the deepest and longest recession in memory and only now seeing their balance sheets return to something approaching health, the last thing any one in the construction industry in London needs is another set of controls on development that will deter investment, slow down the progress of the planning system and curtail the delivery of much needed housing in London.

 

 

Construction Material Selection

There are three types of materials used in the construction of buildings. Those that are harmful to the environment in their production or use , those that are harmless and those that we aren’t sure about. There are  a number of methodologies for assessing materials and their use and many sources of information. I thought that it would be useful to summarise these in one place.

My view on this topic generally is that we have put it into the ‘too difficult to think about now’ box because there are no compelling reason’s to do so. There are no regulations to direct us in this matter, and there is no link to the market to tell us what the end users of our buildings want from us. I am convinced that a normal occupant of any building would be concerned to hear that there are materials used in the construction of their building that can be damaging to their health in any circumstances, but we make little or no effort to ensure that our buildings are as benign as possible for the occupant, and make no effort to communicate about it to the market. It is a specific area of market failure. If we compare the construction market to the food market, there are substantial efforts in the latter to explain to consumers what goes into their food, where it comes from, and concerns about health of consumers and farmers has largely led to the growth of the organic food market with no external regulation.

For BREEAM and Code for Sustainable Homes projects, there are guidelines to follow in the form of credits for Materials, which will point us towards the BRE Green Guide to Specification for Materials, which provide us with an A-E rating for the material in question. However it is not immediately obvious to any observer how or why the rating is given. There was a lot of concern in the industry when UPVC windows and timber windows were both found to be capable of scoring the highest rating. This is despite the fact that UPVC windows produce a lot of dangerous chemicals when burned. This demonstrates the benefits and problems of such simplified rating systems. If the analysis is sufficiently broad, almost any material can be found to have some advantage over another.

At the other end of the spectrum there is the Cradle-to-Cradle methodology which is really only interested in where the material came from, and where it goes after it has been used, it doesn’t concern itself with the operational phase at all. The Cradle-to-Cradle philosophy tests materials for either being sources of biological nutrients, in which case they can be composted, rotted, or otherwise consumed after use, or they are technical nutrients in which case they can be reused. In the case of composite materials the process for separating the two materials needs to be considered.

Both of these methodologies rely on a technique called LifeCycle Analysis (LCA). This aims to assess the impact of the material on the environment during its production, operation and recycling or reuse. LCA tools help to smooth the process of analysis by providing databases of material properties and impacts for the analysist to use, and lowers the costs of carrying out analysis. There is an ISO standard approach to LCA described in ISO 14044.

When selecting a material for use, you should ask yourself the following questions:

- is the material obviously harmful to the environment, to its producers, constructors or end users? The REACH database will help you to identify if it is a banned or harmful substance.

- How do I compare two similar materials? When comparing two similar materials check whether either one has an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) which is a report on its LCA. If both have one, then you should be able to compare the two materials.

- How do I compare one construction system to another? If the construction system you are using the material in has a Green Guide rating, then that will enable you to compare it to other similar systems using the same material.

- Am I worrying too much about small stuff? You can use a tool like eTool to test the overall impact of using one material in the building compared to another material, which will help you to assess the total impact. Otherwise there is a danger of spending a lot of time worrying about the wiring, when the main impact will come from the construction materials.

The field of material impacts is growing rapidly as we learn more and more about the harmful impacts materials have on us and on the environment around us. There is an increasing number of tools and protocols to help designers, contractors and clients to understand the materials that they work with every day. We shouldn’t wait for regulators to tell us things that we can already find out for ourselves, and our end users will be grateful that we took the trouble to make their buildings safer and more environmentally friendly.

 

Housing Standards Review Chaos (Updated)

The response from DCLG has been published here. This was published under the title, ‘Government sets higher standards for homes’ which wasn’t true, as the annoucement sets no new standards, and gets rid of quite a few, including the Code for Sustainable Homes. The title has been changed to ‘Government plans will make it easier and cheaper to build homes to a high standard’ which at least is accurate. It will be easier and cheaper to build homes to a less high standard than before. There is no mention of an exception for London, so the status of the London Housing Standards is unknown.

Previous blog starts here:

The Housing Standards Review is due to report back to the industry in march. My guess is that at the moment the DCLG is in a difficult position. London probably doesn’t want to give up on its Housing Standards, having spent years and millions developing them. Who can blame them? So I am guessing that London wants to be an exception to the dropping of the Code and any change to its powers as an authority. This is likely too put DCLG in an awkward position to put it mildly. Having proposed a raft of changes to the way housing is delivered across the UK, it now may end up having to restrict the changes to those parts of England outside of London. This highlights the fact that we have an increasingly two-tier economy. The South East and the rest. The economics of the South East means that there is little or no economic impact of any imposition of standards. The standards could be substantially higher and it still wouldn’t affect the business case for development.

For the Midlands and the North, the case is very different. There are many sites that are still marginal and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Companies that bought land there at the height of the market are unlikely to make a good return on them any time soon. You could say that the problem of overpaying for land is a problem for the overpayers and not for the rest of us. Isn’t that how the market is supposed to work? But at the same time, wherever there is a housing need it is unfortunate that those who need good quality housing aren’t able to get it.

The position is the opposite in the South East. Values are rocketing in London in particular, and this is spreading to some unlikely areas of the capital, where developers are marketing their products to less than knowledgeable buyers in the Far East, who only need to hear the words ‘London’ to open their cheque books. I hope those agents are quoting sensible rental income figures. (Who am I kidding?).

The other issue facing the Housing Standards Review is that many LA’s have recently rewritten their Core Strategies to cope with the changes in the NPPF. Having to change their Core Strategies to take on a further set of changes will be very expensive, right at a time when they are having to manage deep cuts to their budgets. How willing will they be to take this on?

It will be fascinating to see how this all works out in the end, but my guess is that the Dept has bitten off more than it can chew on this issue, and having taken on swingeing cuts itself when the coalition came to power, it doesn’t have the capacity to deal with it.

My prediction is that the Housing Standards Review will be a set of recommendations for further studies and reports and a promise to tackle it all if the Tories elected for a second term. Now is the time for the industry to get together and tell the parties what they want to see in the next set of election manifestoes.

Meanwhile the Code for Sustainable Homes will become out-of-date from the first of April because it refers to 2010 Building Regulations. What happens then? We need to know now, not after the 1st April. We are all working on development projects that need to be planned years into the future, and at the moment, the housing Standards Review is sowing uncertainty and confusion, which is exactly the opposite of what it was intended to achieve.

The 2015 Election and Housing Standards

The next year will be a defining one in the history of UK housing. In March (?) we expect to hear from the Housing Standards Review that there will be a once-in-a-generation set of changes to housing standards. This may involve extending the Building regulations to include spatial standards as well as standards for wheelchair housing. It will signal the end of the Governments use of the Code for sustainable Homes to set higher standards for affordable housing, and it will also end the DCLG’s ability to use this standard to indicate future direction for housing regulation. So, while DCLG can now use the Code to propose and test future regulation, giving housebuilders, designers and developers time to test, feedback and prepare for the new rules well before they come into force, in the future we will be back to using the Building Regulations Advisory Committee (BRAC).

There is no doubt that having a mechanism to test future regulation well before it is adopted has been a useful feature of the Code. Projects like AIMC4 have been spurred by the presence of the Code and have enabled housebuilders and fabric manufacturers to develop systems and processes that otherwise wouldn’t have been contemplated. Without this type of mechanism changes in regulation are subject to political whims, such as the delays to the announcement of the Building Regulations 2014 targets for Part L which means that designers and housebuilders won’t get access to new versions of the SAP 2013 tool until March this year, a month before they will be used. This is not good enough. Any industry needs time to understand new regulation before it is enforced, and a few weeks is not long enough.

Returning to the Housing Standards Review, I wonder whether ministers are going to take the political gamble of proceeding with the steps as consulted upon. A very wet winter has brought the subject of climate change to the top of the political agenda. The parties are scrambling to produce policies for the next election that demonstrate that they are taking flooding seriously, and that means taking climate change seriously. It is interesting that the Housing Standards Review doesn’t mention flooding or flood risk at all, and only considers water in the context of water usage and low water use fittings. SUDS is left out of consideration in the document, despite being an element of the Code for Sustainable Homes since 2007. The National SUDS standard being developed by DEFRA has been delayed since 2011, apparently by resistance from housebuilders who don’t want to incorporate measures into schemes because of the additional costs involved. The national standards came from the Pitt report which was prompted by widespread flooding in 2007. This omission will come under more scrutiny when the review announces its proposals.

later on in the year we will have the preparations for the 2015 election. Already Labour and the Lib Dems are making noises about housing in preparation for their manifestoes. Even the Princess Royal is getting into the act! Every man and his dog will have a housing policy by the end of the year. Including innovative measures such as:

-offering homes for sale in the UK first, and only offering unsold units overseas.

-using Government land for self-build-custom build-small developers only

-a land tax on land banking

-capital gains taxation for overseas buyers (why don’t we have this already?)

-confining growth to every rural village!

None of these are going to be popular with housebuilders or the Conservatives, but I can see the first being popular with UKIP voters, and anything that is likely to work for UKIP will get serious attention from the Tories as the UKIP vote eats into Tory seats.

The truth is that politics and housing do not work well together. Housing policy needs to be long-term to work, and the current set of knee-jerk policies look to be out-of-date even before they are implemented. The revolving door of the housing ministry has meant that no-one has taken the job seriously for a decade and that is at least partially responsible for the hotch-potch of measures and policies we are now discussing. The five-year window of opportunity granted by modern politics is simply too short for a housing industry to function. Getting a single site built takes at least three years, when you already have the land. The housing industry, including housebuilders, contractors, designers, housing associations and local authorities needs to take more control of its destiny, and tell Government what its policies ought to be.

Do we need Sustainability Rating Tools?

The Housing Standards Review is expected to deliver a response to the consultation on housing standards in the Spring. If the Prime Ministers recent speech is anything to go by, it will be a victory for those in the industry who want Building Regulations and no more, and a defeat for everyone else. His speech included the following…

The Prime Minister plans to help house builders by cutting down 100 overlapping and confusing standards applied to new homes to less than 10 – these reforms are estimated to save around £60 million per year for home builders, equivalent to around £500 for every new home built.

Until the papers are published we don’t know what those 100 overlapping and confusing standards are, but I am pretty sure that the Code for Sustainable Homes is going to be one of them. So the question is, what does the industry feel should happen next? My view is that the Code is generally beneficial, and has helped the industry to build higher quality and more environmentally friendly homes than would otherwise have been the case. It is also my view that it is too detail focussed, too bureaucratic, and has no post handover feedback built into it to test whether its features were helping or hindering people from achieving a more sustainable lifestyle. We need to learn quickly from mistakes and apply standards in a forensic way to achieve the results we want. installing features that residents won’t use or welcome is not sustainable, however well-meant it is.

I would be interested to hear what you think, do we need a replacement to the Code? Take the poll!

 

2014 Part L Transitional Arrangements – Bad for Purchaser and Industry

The announcement from DCLG on the transitional arrangements will surprise no one. As has become usual in the UK, a developer can register a site against the current regulations (2010) before the date the new regulations come into force (6th April 2014) and provided that the developer can ‘start work’ on site within twelve months, that entire site can be developed to 2010 regulations. Even if that site is for 10, 100, or 1000 homes. The only evidence that the purchaser will have is that their EPC will show a lower figure than a comparable home, but since this has no impact on the value of the home, the seller is better off, and the purchaser is worse off, but none the wiser.

I struggle to think of a comparable situation in other industries. Where else, other than in the housing industry, can you buy a ‘new’ product that is designed and built to standards that are out of date? In the clearance section of the supermarket, where you find goods dangerously near their sell-by date? In many other industries and sectors the implementation of new legislation will have an impact that needs to be thought through and change implemented in a logical way, and there is some logic to the DCLG transitional arrangements. But not much.

The reasoning behind transitional arrangements is that developers need certainty of their costs before they buy land in order to develop. Enforcing new regulations after they have started developing houses on a site would mean changes in specification and design, which would add costs to the development and lower profits. On the face of it that sounds reasonable. But what is the reality of the situation.

Regulations are never sprung on the industry, there are years of warning in place about up coming regulations, and developers are smart enough to build those additional costs into their development plans.

House prices are rising on average, even after inflation, so any increases in costs are likely to be absorbed by the developer charging a higher price in any case.

Where regulations are enforced, they rarely mean a change in design, instead they can usually be managed with a change in specification. The type of insulation used in the cavity can be changed, or the windows can be upgraded slightly. In many cases this has little or no effect on the final cost to the housebuilder as they have such a strong grip of their supply chain costs.

In the end, all this does is to damage the reputation of the industry and a more sensible approach needs to be taken. Home purchasers should not find themselves in a situation where buying a home on one plot gives them a house built to 2006 regulations, and buying a home on another plot nearby gets them one built to 2010 regulations, and there is no price difference!

The occupants of one home will surely visit the occupant of the other home at some point and wonder at the difference in specification and heating costs. They will find it difficult to understand that their home, although completed at the same time and apparently built to the UK Regulations, will have markedly different performance. If you add in the potential for a performance gap on top of this, and there is a lot of risk to the industry reputation.

The last time there was a change in the regulations, 174,800 plots were pre-registered with and that was in half the local authorities across the UK. This is not an unusual situation in the industry, at 125,ooo completions a year, it is more likely to be normal.

What seems particularly strange to me is that the regulatory bodies actively encourage this, LABC currently has a page encouraging builders to ‘beat the deadline’, because they are good Building Control Body and ‘know their stuff’. Is this how a regulatory body ought to behave, encouraging the avoidance of responsibility to the consumer while meeting the regulations? I understand it, but I cannot find anything to admire in it.

The construction of new housing is a very positive thing, it creates much-needed new homes and provides enormous benefits to society, but building what are clearly sub-standard homes in a market where developer profits have rarely been higher is a step too far, purchasers deserve better.

Government V Industry 2-0

Every Government has to forge relationships between its officials and industry. Some Governments are more successful at it than others. Some parts of industry are better at maintaining this relationship than others. These relationships depend on the same trust that all relationships depend upon. The trust that one side won’t let the other one down, that one side is listening to the other, even if not always agreeing, etc.. There is always some give and take in every relationship.

The message I get when talking to people now, particularly in the refurbishment part of the industry is that this relationship between industry and Government has broken down and isn’t likely to be fixed any time soon. The reason for this is money. Many companies have invested heavily in preparing for the Green Deal and the ECO legislation, and in the last Autumn it looked as though their investments were going to pay off. Orders were flowing in, the energy companies were starting to sign contracts, and the future was starting to look interesting, if not rosy.

Then Ed Milliband dropped his bombshell by saying that a Labour Government would freeze energy bills, and that this Government didn’t care about consumers pain in the face of high energy bills. I doubt if he or his advisers could have expected what happened next, because if they had, I don’t think they would have done it. The energy companies wailed that green taxes were putting up energy prices and with the help of certain newspapers and some willing bean counters in the Treasury, the Coalition bought that message. The result is that we all save £50 on our annual energy bills and the ECO legislation spending is extended over a much longer period.

The results are almost all negative in the medium and long term, but the short term gain for the Coalition is that it appears to be doing something. A poorly informed electorate will probably accept this and the world moves on. What it leaves behind is a wreckage of wasted time, lost earnings, cold homes, winter deaths, and higher CO2 emissions. I don’t see any vote winners in there, do you?

This is the second time that this Government has done this, with the FiTs changes carried out almost as soon as they came into power. For a group that you would expect to understand the rules of investment and business they seem to have missed some key classes. Investors like long-term programs, and they like to have some certainty. No industry likes uncertainty.

DECC are already talking about Green Deal 2.0, and hoping to engage the industry in discussions about how to improve the legislation to increase takeup. What do you do when a lover cheats on you and then asks you out on a date?

I’ll be washing my hair.

Biodiversity Offsetting Proposals – a Hedge Too Far

The UK Govt has signalled its intention to introduce the idea of ‘biodiversity offsetting‘ in the planning system. In simple terms this will allow developers of land that has some ecology value to remove the area that has value by replacing it with another area of similar or better ecology value elsewhere. Protected species legislation, SSI’s etc., are unlikely to be affected by this. It is designed to deal with areas where there is ecological value, where the ecology is not unusually valuable or a habitat for protected species.

There are some sensible sounding elements to the consultation:

-the areas in question must be independently assessed, and will probably be done using a system of accredited assessors, Suitably Qualified Ecologists?

-the new areas can be provided by a third party, e.g. RSPB, the National Trust, enabling existing areas of ecological value to be extended and improved

-the new areas could be considered nationally, e.g. a loss in London could be compensated for by an addition in Portsmouth, although there are a number of details to this that may limit the distance from the development site to the replacement site. In todays Times, the Environment Secretary suggests that ‘an hour away by car’ could be a suitable distance. Thus neatly displaying his lack of credentials to hold this position.

-hedgerows are excluded and must be replaced onsite

-SUDS may be considered as a ‘local’ offset, if a SUDS system that involves habitat creation is used, then this may compensate for other habitat loss on the same site

Equally, there are many aspects to this that sets my teeth on edge:

-the language of the document is almost unbelievably crass, the idea that ecology can be treated like pieces on a chessboard and moved about, almost at will, is treated as though this were normal practice. Quoting examples of best practice from Australia isn’t helpful. Looking to Australia, under its current Government, for examples of environmental protection is a bit like asking a mugger for advice on security.

-local people surrounding a development parcel may not appreciate the nicety that a part of their local well-loved area was not unusual or home to valuable species. Replacing this elsewhere, ‘within an hours drive by car’ hardly represents a reasonable ‘replacement’ in human terms, even of the replacement is much better in environmental terms. The consultation considers the ‘environment’ as a set of numbers to be maintained and ‘grown’. While this may be realised in national terms using this offsetting process, the result for individual places where development happens is that they will be poorer, with lower levels of environmental quality, and with less consideration given to ecology than is currently likely to happen.

-there is no discussion about the economic loss of arable land

-there is a bizarre, and even more crass, suggestion that developers might consider ‘ecology banking’ where they buy in advance, or enter into agreements in advance with ecology providers, to create areas of ecological enhancement before they need them. The principle of applying a monetary value to ecology can be helpful, up to a point, this is going beyond that point. The banking system is years away from re-establishing its credibility with the average person, and using this type of language is simply poor judgement by Defra that will do a lot of damage to otherwise potentially helpful proposals.

Cities 2.0 RE:WORK

I attended an event at the Tobacco dock last week on the subject of Future Cities/Smart Cities/Cities 2.0. You wait years for this type of thing and then two of them turn up at once. The event format was dominated by speaker sessions with little time for questions. I think that with hindsight the organisers could have left some speakers out and extended the time for discussion. Tobacco dock is also a questionable venue in the middle of winter, it was very cold. It would have been better to put everyone into an auditorium where conversation would have been easier between sessions.

Summary

If you are in a real hurry… this event looked at many of the issues that future cities will need to address and what design ideas and technologies are available that may help them to do that.

If you are in less of a hurry… this event selected a number of interesting people from around the world with ideas relevant to future cities and asked them to present them to an audience of data analysists, transport specialists, infrastructure designers and masterplanners. The sessions were split into Urban Mobility, Cities of Tomorrow, Prototyping and Smart Citizens, Sustainable Cities, the Internet of Things & the Socially Driven City, synthetic Biology and the Living City, and Digital Fabrication.

If you are in no hurry, here is a synopsis.

Urban Mobility

  • Frauke Behrendt from the University of Brighton showed some results of a study where she gave e-bikes to a number of people who didn’t currently cycle and studied what happened. A great piece of work that demonstrates how cycling can transform urban mobility quickly and relatively painlessly without needing new and expensive infrastructure.
  • Erik Schlangen, from Delft University showed off a system for repairing concrete and one for repairing roads, the concrete system uses bacteria which are put into the concrete mix but stay ‘asleep’ and then activate when the concrete leaks to plug the crack. Then they go back to sleep again! The road system uses steel wool embedded in tarmac, when the tarmac loses its grip on the aggregate a machine goes over the road surface and using induction heats the wire wool, melts the ashphalt and it regains its grip on the aggregate. They think it needs to be done every three years or so to keep roads in good condition.
  • Fahim Kawsar from Bell labs, showed some research on urban mobility using TFL anonymised data to track movement in and out of intersections, transport nodes and major routes in London. This research showed that there are distinct patterns of use of London’s infrastructure, and I suggested to him that this could be used to identify places where there was good infrastructure but low levels of use, hinting at opportunities for development.
  • Nick Bromley from iCity Smart Cities showed that using mobile phone usage data a similar level of detail can be achieved but which continues to actual destinations and doesn’t stop at transport nodes. This is done using the MAC address of phones, so no-one is tracking actual people, just the hardware, and there is no link between the hardware address and the person. (unless the NSA/MI6 are involved, in which case all bets are off).

Cities of Tomorrow

  • Andrew Hudson Smith talked about the work of CASA at the Bartlett, UCL. He talked about developing a new science of cities to help us to understand how urban mobility, health, transport and economics works and how to help it to work better. He suggested that we are going to see a new transport layer made up of drones delivering goods and services for us in the next decade. See this article about a certain well-known company testing their use for deliveries.
  • Paul Hirst of Disruptive Urbanism wondered what we were trying to achieve in cities. Are these efforts aimed at helping people to be happier or more productive, using less energy or being more comfortable?
  • Manu Fernandez of Human Scale City was clear that technology on its own is not enough. He wondered what cities would be like if we changed pedestrian crossings to always be on, and cars had to press the button to cross? He suggested that a use of technology to control infrastructure would fail, but one which hands control to citizens would succeed.
  • Lean Doody of ARUP suggested that technical integration is the easy part, its more difficult for us to cooperate in an urban environment than technological integration would suggest. The fact that we can talk to anyone in the world easily doesn’t mean that we talk to our neighbours more than we used to.
  • Scott Cain of Future Cities Catapult described the job of the Catapult in joining together expertise in future cities. There is an investment programme of 10 Trillion dollars planned in global cities over the next decade to meet rising levels of urbanisation. The job of the Catapult is to bring expertise together to help meet this global demand.

Prototyping and Smart Citizens

  • Alicia Asin of Libelium showed the use of sensors in urban areas to allow people better control over their lives. She showed examples of sensors being used to hlep people find a parking space, or to show people what the local air quality is like, data is there for a purpose, to remove uncertainty. She suggested that the use of open-source technology like Raspberry Pi and Arduino boards may allow future citizens to access open data themselves and to relay it back to others for the common good. See this open source Geiger counter as an example.
  • Joel Gethin Lewis of Hellicar & Lewis showed some of their work creating interactive installations that bring some joy and happiness to the urban experience.
  • Priya Prakash of Design for Social change talked about setting up Changify.org, a platform for enabling change in urban environments by bringing together interested parties. This team are working with Southwark to develop the Elephant & Castle Neighbourhood Plan.
  • Sam Hill of PAN Studio talked mainly about their work with Bristol City Council to provide text addresses for inanimate objects in the city. These could then accept text messages from people and respond with some helpful and sometimes less helpful information. A charming and witty project that shows that successful engagement need not always be about purpose and outcomes, sometimes fun and humour is enough.

Creating the Sustainable City

  • Phillip Rode of LSE Cities talked about research into what control cities have over some of the critical elements of being good cities. He oberved that many cities have no food policy, the one thing that every one in a city needs every day! There is a great variety of approaches to energy policy, in some countries the energy system is owned by the city and in others the city has no control.
  • Alsion Dring of elegant embellishments talked about their development of pollution eating facade treatments and their work to turn biochar into a useful production material. Her ambition is to turn consumption into a sustainable activity rather than trying to stop it. This is an interesting approach and it turns the usual environmental message on its head. Turn biochar into a material that can be used to make furniture out of, for example, and then encourage people to buy it and then send it to landfill. The biochar will lock up carbon for centuries and stimulate a renewable materials industry.

The Internet of Things & The Socially Driven City

  • Carlo Ratti of MIT showed some work from the Senseable City Lab. He showed a brilliant project where he tagged several hundred pieces of rubbish and then tracked their progress to waste disposal sites. The result was a bewildering pattern of networks some of them criss-crossing the US as these unwanted items were delivered to their final recycling or waste disposal site. He then showed another drone related piece of work where a drone showed a Harvard student how to get around MIT.  I was left thinking that the Harvard student would have been much better left to ask MIT students how to get around MIT, since his/her purpose in coming there was to meet MIT students and learn from them, rather than following a drone around campus. Drones seem to me to be a technology in search of a solution, rather than the other way around.
  • Marc Pous, from theThings.IO talked about the use of open source software and hardware to enable citizens to do their own thing to control their destinies rather than cities thinking that they need to use control systems to make citizens lives easier.
  • Mischa Dohler talked about how difficult it is to engage with citizens in their busy lives and how you need to develop empathy before you can enable engagement.

Synthetic Biology & the Living City

This section was frankly disappointing.

  • David Benjamin of The Living demonstrated how sensor data can be tied to visual signs to quickly illustrate to urban dwellers what air or water quality is immediately without needing to go through further data processing and relay to apps.

Digital Fabrication & 3D Printing

  • Enrico Dini of D-Shape showed his technique for printing buildings using sand, and then suggested that since there was lots of sand in deserts we should build cities there. This is a leap of imagination I din’t follow as we have been moving our construction materials to where we want to live for centuries, not the other way around. His illustrations of the types of buildings that could be built from sand were attractive, and interesting, but ultimately unconvincing.
  • Gilles Retsin of SoftKill Design showed a design for a house constructed from the smallest possible amount of material made into very intricate components. The problem was that it wasn’t a house that anyone could recognise as a house or live in. It was more an exhibition of itself than a realistic architectural proposition.
  • Fabio Gramazio from ETH showed examples of robots being used at ETH to build interesting shapes that human bricklayers would have difficulty with. For example, a winery facade made from bricks that rotate a few millimeters to create a ventilated facade that is still structurally sound. He then made an intellectual leap from small structures of brick made from drones to large structures made from larger drones where the construction elements are not bricks but individual homes.

All the projects in this session made a similar intellectual leap from a fascination about the use of a particular type of manufacturing to an idea about cities. The manufacturing ideas are strng, but the ideas for scaling it up were all weak. The idea of designing places around the technology that makes them is similar to the intellectual leap that led us to Brutalism, and Plan Voisin. Places should be about the lives of people that live in them, and not about the technology that makes the places. I think that 3D printing and new construction techniques have an important role to play in future cities, but I didn’t see it here.

End Ecocide in Europe

This is a message from the End Ecocide in Europe team. If pleading with people doesn’t work, or educating them takes too long, and when your own Government gives a tax rebate to fracking companies, perhaps its time to look at the legal process for help.

“End Ecocide in Europe is a grass-roots initiative aimed at protecting ecosystems on which we all depend for life. We can achieve that by making severe cases of environmental destruction a crime for which those responsible can be held accountable. This crime has a name: Ecocide.

Vote to end ecocide today at www.endecocide.eu.

Ecocide is defined as the “extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystems of a given territory”. We want ecocide to become a crime for which those responsible can be held accountable. To learn more watch this animation.

Today, we live in a world where the “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment” (Art 8.2 Rome Statute) is a war crime but during peace time corporates destroy the earth in a severe way without facing any consequences. We believe it’s time to update the law.

That’s why we have proposed a law to the European Union – when at least 1 million EU citizens support it, the European Commission will have to consider our proposal. The European Citizens’ Initiative is a direct democratic tool which politicians can’t ignore. Vote now at www.endecocide.eu.

The initiative is entirely run by volunteers. It’s a true citizens’ initiative and therefore YOU can also do your part. Just take it on and speak about it wherever you can, encourage all your friends and family to sign and spread it in your unique network. Share our video and follow us on Facebook or Twitter. If you want to do more, please have a look at our Get Involved section and contact Lucia, our volunteers coordinator (lucia@endecocide.eu).

More information can be found at: www.endecocide.eu and www.ec.europa.eu/citizens-initiative (on the European Citizens’ Initiative in general).

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead.

YOU can become part of that change!”