Implementing Zero Carbon in London

Now that we are almost upon the deadline for the introduction of zero-carbon (GLA) in London I thought that it was timely to comment on it. 

Firstly. Brilliant! In a time when politicians appear to have taken leave of their senses permanently, it is reassuring that here (surrounded by the metropolitan elite) some things stay the same. We have a group of politicians willing to lead on principles rather than on the basis of prompting by tabloids or by their lesser selves. Well done London!

Secondly: Brilliant! We have a piece of zero-carbon legislation that has learned from the recent past, from multiple consultations by DCLG and the Zero Carbon Hub and run with it rather than reinventing this particular wheel. More importantly, it sets a precedent for other devolved authorities to follow. London can afford to lead on this one, to get the idea moving, to introduce developers and their design teams to the idea and to pioneer mechanisms for using the funds in a transparent and timely way so that developers can see the benefits to them. 

Thirdly: There is work still to do, as there is little clear understanding about many of the aspects of the new legislation. Can we claim a credit for making improvements above regulation? For example if the team introduce dimming into the building, can they claim some CO2 reductions below the line of the regulatory calculations. If the designers use a timber structure, can they claim some embodied energy reductions? When are the payments to be made? When the building is designed, or when it is built? There are likely to be differences between the two.

I think that it would be useful if the GLA held some workshops about this new legislation and had an open discussion about these questions, to help to introduce the legislation and to hear from design teams and clients how it can work best for them and for the GLA. It is very important that this new effort succeeds, it is practically the only star left in the low-carbon buildings firmament, so let’s make sure that it burns brightly and it isn’t extinguished at the first sign of difficulty.

‘Heart in the Right Street’ a report by Create Streets

I attended the launch of this report last week, at the invitation of its author, Nicholas Boys-Smith, I felt compelled to do so, as he claimed that I had in some small way inspired him to write it. Two years ago he made a presentation at HTA and at one point I challenged him to back up some of his claims for how certain building types were ‘better’ than others, with evidence. He felt then that his answer was unsatisfactory, and when the opportunity arose to produce this report, he used it to provide a better answer. I may not agree with everything in the report, but I wish everyone took my questions as seriously!

Attendees to the event were given a sort of ‘cheat sheet’ with ten guidelines for how to create good cities, and the report presents the evidence culled from numerous studies to back up the ten points. I paraphrase them as follows

1. Provide Greenery

2. Build more houses than apartments and build at higher density than the suburbs, but lower than necessitates high rises.

3. Build at human scale and never house children in high-rises.

4. Created connected walkable environments

5. Mix up land use with many uses

6. Block sizes should be ‘not too big’ and made up of individual buildings, not super sized buildings occupying a single block

7. Minimise internal communal space and corridors

8. Beauty matters, 

9. Create mixed facades at street level, shops, entrances, etc.

10. Make neighbourhoods dense enough to be walkable, 150-220 homes per hectare.

Most housing designers wouldn’t be too frightened by this, in fact most would support most of them, if not all of them, most of the time. But probably wouldn’t support all of them all of the time. The report is well researched and documented and could be recommended for no other reason than its bibliography which provides any interested party with a serious amount of good reading material. He references Charles Montgomeries Happy Cities book a lot, which is a good thing, as well as academic research from around the world on city living in Singapore, Vancouver, Newcastle, Copenhagen, Hong Kong and, of course, London.

About the only area where I find myself violently disagreeing with Nicholas is on the subject of ‘Beauty’. He maintains that beauty is not really in the eye of the beholder and he points to a lot of research to suggest that people do know what they like, and what they like is not liked by architects. He goes on to suggest that if more new development followed his rules and was also liked by people (because it conformed to a more general sense of beauty), then more high density life would  be allowed to happen and we would all be better off. 

I find it optimistic that changing the appearance of some modern development would make its neighbours welcome it any more than they do, motivated as they often are, by concerns over traffic, schools, and a general incoherent fear of change.

The simple reality, as I see it, is that architects don’t exist to provide what people ‘like’ any more than any artist exists to provide what people like. You might say that architecture is not ‘Art’ but you would be wrong. The purpose of Art is not to comfort and reassure, but often to challenge, sometimes startle. I do agree that housing architecture should never terrify or induce fear, that would be going much too far, but trying to create an environment like the Disney Main Street is something housing architects are not supposed to do. That is the job of set designers, a different species entirely. Our job is to create good neighbourhoods where people will want to live, but we must also always deliver good value for our clients. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

This is a good and well-researched project. It’s aims are positive, and well-meant, but sometimes overstepping the bounds of academic research into populist polemic. All housing architects who take their work seriously should read it and be as knowledgeable about the research as the author is. Housing architecture is a serious responsibility and not to be taken lightly, and this work echoes that seriousness by providing pointers to a lot of recent valuable research, as well as pointing to many areas where further research would be useful and welcome.

A point that doesn’t really come across from the work, although it is one of the ten guidelines, is that suburban density is not high enough to create successful living environments. Much much more of modern housing is built at suburban density than any other density, and in terms of numbers, the towers that he dislikes so much will only ever provide a fraction of the new housing in cities, whether they are liked or not. Suburban density causes so many other problems in the form of long commutes, high CO2 emissions, use of agricultural land, than high-rises do, but the idea of suburbia is not disliked by the general population nearly as much as they dislike high-rise living. 

If this book has any impact on policy, I would like it to prompt a review of the density of new suburbs. We are fooling ourselves by thinking that low-rise low-density suburbs are the answer to any of our housing problems.

On the one had Nicholas would have it that the people are right, to seek their idea of beauty and to decry high-rise living, but on the other hand they are wrong to hanker for the suburbs and the inevitable burden on the planet and personal isolation it brings. I think he wants to have his cake and eat it. But, don’t we all?

Building your Sustainable Library

You wait a while for a good book and then two come along at once. 

I attended the UK launch of two different books relevant to you this week, the first was ‘Sustainable Cities – Assessing the Performance and Practice of Urban Envrionments’ edited by Pierre Laconte and Chris Glossop and published by I.B.Tauris ISBN 978-1-78453-232-1.

This is a portmanteau publication, containing a number of chapters written by other authors, some of which will have been published elsewhere in some form, but not all together as in this case, and not carefully considered for their relevant to this important topic. 

The question of sustainable cities, what defines them, what standards allies to them, how do we choose indicators to assess the, and when we build them how do we know we have succeeded, are all questions tackled by authors in this publication. Given that we have now passed the point at which 50% of the worlds population lives in cities, there is hardly a bigger question for sustainability specialists to work on. If we can crack this, we can avoid runaway climate change.

Authors include Dr. Kerry Mashford, the late Sir Peter Hall, Chris Glossop and Dr Ian Douglas.

I also attended a lecture given by architect Stefano Boeri on his recent project in Milan, Bosco Verticale. The event was hosted by the Engineering Club at the Congress Centre. (A few architects turned up)

Bosco Verticale translates to Vertical Forest, and his two buildings in Milan, evenly constructed for Hines, and then sold on to Qatari Diar, demonstrate what he means by this. Each apartment has a tree on the balcony, several metres tall, together wth a quantity of shrubs and smaller plants. The publication ‘un Bosco Verticale, a vertical Forest- instructions booklet for the prototype forest city’ published by Corraini,  ISBN 9-788875-705411 was available on the night and furnishes a lot of background information to the project including the following numbers. 

The project provides two hectares of forest and 8900 Sqm of balcony area.

This includes 711 trees, 5,000 shrubs, 15,000 perennials, absorbing 19,825kg of CO2 per annum.

There are approximately 1600 birds and insects (although how they could know this is not explained!) This includes a box of ladybirds imported from Germany to eat aphids and other pests. (I don’t know why they needed Germany ladybirds)

The design uses 94 species of plants, giving it a very high level of biodiversity.

The trees are planted in steel-lined planters to prevent the roots cracking the structure, and they are loosely tied back to the structure in case they could be blown off iin hurricane level winds. The steel-linings will also constrain the growth of the trees so that they cannot get too big for the space available or too heavy for the structure. They are a bit like enormous  bonsai trees. They are maintained partially from the balconies, but the outer sides are pruned by gardeners that abseil down the outside of the buildings twice a year. While this might sound outlandish, consider that many glass buildings are routinely maintained by abseilers. 

The result is extraordinary, a pair of buildings that look like no others, and a second project is underway in France. Stefano was quite straightforward in admitting that it took some time and a lot of effort to convince his clients that this could work. There are elements of what was built that he will change the second time, and he has plans to continue to develop  the idea on a larger scale.

He was asked many times by the audience about squirrels, which he was not in favour of, but which he expected to arrive anyway, and also about fruit trees, as none of the species used are fruiting trees. He cited concerns about the dangers of falling fruit as the reasons why they weren’t used. This sounds to me like a problem that could be solved, and would add a further beneficial dimension to what is already a beautiful and convincing idea. 

This is an inspiring idea and one that merits your attention.


Is London going to go Zero Carbon?

Business Green reported an interchange last week between the Mayor and Green Assembly Member Darren Johnson  in response to his question about the Mayors position on Zero Carbon homes. Boris’s reported response was

“What we are looking at is making sure that we can continue, through the London Plan, to ensure that Zero Carbon Homes are delivered in London and we will be issuing further guidance in due course to provide industry with the certainty it needs about how to do that.” 

Boris reported that London aims to achieve a 60% reduction in CO2 by 2025 and has achieved 14% to date. This represents a per capita reduction of 20% as London’s population has grown by 600k during the reporting period.

It is heartening to hear these words from the Mayor, and I hope that the candidates for the Mayoralty are listening. If devolution is to mean anything it should promote the ability of cities in the UK to sidestep the damaging and short-sighted environmental policies of central government.

Having recently completed a large zero carbon scheme at Hanham Hall with low-rise construction and learned what it means for most of the UK’s housing development, I thought that it would be useful to share below some analysis that we have done to assess how tall buildings can achieve the zero carbon standard. Given that many of the buildings that are proposed for the capital in future are going to be tall it is interesting to assess how the regulations might affect those building types.

The analysis has been done for a twenty five and a forty storey tower with six units per floor to demonstrate how different systems meet the targets. We tested gas boilers, CHP with gas backup, all-electric heating and hot water and finally Air Source Heat Pumps. Three of the four rely on a communal hot water distribution system, the all electric system being the exception.

Energy Options to meet the London Plan and Zero Carbon

Energy Options for a 25 Storey Tower to meet the London Plan and Zero Carbon



Energy Options fora 40 Storey Tower to meet the London Plan and Zero Carbon

What the research shows is that for taller towers there is no difficulty in meeting the current definition of zero carbon. In fact it shows that achieving it is technically easier than achieving the London Plan, as the London Plan has a lower emissions target than the Zero Carbon definition. This is assuming that there is no special treatment for electric heating or hot water, unlike the current version of SAP which is based on comparative performance rather than on a definite figure as set out in the Zero Carbon Hub’s definition.

Based on these figures I would say that towers should be forced to meet the lower emissions target of 10kg/CO2/sqm since in both gas-based options this target can be met. Perhaps an all-electric version could be left as it is at the higher 14kg/CO2/sqm.

It also shows that a very efficient 25-storey building can meet the targets irrespective of the energy system used, the top graphs shows that it can achieve the target in all four options, even an all-electric option. The 40-storey is not so easy. My assumption is that only the roof can be used to house renewable energy,  but for the 40-storey version it would be necessary in the electric options to put some pv panels on the facade to reach the target.

But of course the technical success is not the full picture. In addition to the Fabric Energy Efficiency target of 39kwh/sqm/yr that apartments have to hit, and towers have no difficulty doing so, there is the Carbon Compliance which is shown in the graphs above, and again there doesn’t appear to be much of a problem for towers, but finally there is the Allowable Solutions element which says that whatever CO2 emissions remain must be offset. This offset is achieved by multiplying the tonnes of CO2 emitted, by the figure of 30 years, and by an agreed sum for each tonne. Currently the GLA uses £60/tonne. This produces a figure of approximately £1,000 per apartment to offset the emissions elsewhere.

Sadly the all electric system is unwelcome in London as it it not seen as ‘futureproof’ according to the gas-led ideology preferred by the GLA. This is understandable as an all-electric system does not emit the lowest CO2 emissions possible, at current levels of grid CO2 intensity. What will be interesting to see is how long before the grid CO2 intensity drops to a low enough level to change that thinking. The Committee for Climate Change has suggested that we need to stop burning gas by 2035 to meet our carbon budgets. What is the point in investing in gas burning equipment and networks now if they have to be decommissioned in less than twenty years time?

Certainly an all-electric system is the cheapest to install, avoiding the central distribution system, and it could be argued that an all electric system is just as futureproof as a hot water led system as the Grid is inherently flexible. Interestingly our research also suggests that in the majority of cases an all-electric system is cheaper than a communal system for residents as the standing charges are lower, even if the energy bills are higher than gas. The standing charge is used to create a sinking fund to replace the communal system. If there is no communal system the sinking fund is either not needed or is much smaller, thus lowering residents total bill. The cheapest system of all to run is an individual gas boiler, but no-one would consider installing that into a tower, and it has a higher maintenance and replacement cost than an all-electric system.

A major hole in this analysis is that it is carried out using SAP, which is pretty poor at dealing with apartment buildings. The energy for pumping heat around the building is ignored, as is the energy for ventilating corridors, pumping hot water, lifts, communal lighting etc, etc. Since the communal spaces in these buildings are not heated, SBEM isn’t particularly useful either. As buildings get taller these additional energy uses and losses will become more a more significant part of their energy use, we need better tools to assess them, and more regulations to deal with their particular demands.


Five Ways to live sustainably.

How do we live sustainably? The holistic nature of the problem makes definition difficult, but that doesn’t prevent us from having a go at it. We must try and define the problem, as this is usually the first step towards finding a solution. 

Problem: We are not living within our environmental means, we are exceeding our emissions budget. To put it another way, we are in environmental debt. To continue to get into environmental debt just leaves another problem for our descendants to solve. If that weren’t bad enough, this environmental debt is already causing the climate to change in unpredictable ways, affecting our oceans and the biosphere dramatically. So not only will we leave a mess behind, but it will be a dangerous and unpredictable mess!

Solution: To stop eating into our environmental capital, our rainforests, oceans, atmosphere and biosphere. 

That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it. But of course it isn’t that simple, mainly because we are either unaware of the cause of environmental debts or because our supposed happiness is predicated on a way of life that is inherently damaging, and we are unwilling to give up this way of life. Old habits die hard.

The change of habits and the introduction of cleaner systems does come at a price, change costs something, whether in time, materials or opportunity costs. But the cost of innovation is usually short-lived and then pricing tends to return to a level below where we started from. This is what pays for innovation and it doesn’t happen unless that promise of low costs is there.

Clean Energy: We need to replace our dirty grid with clean energy, which will take more than a generation as the lifespan of these systems is very long. But this has already started and there is widespread recognition that this needs to happen, so that battle is largely won. Sadly we have a government that doesn’t quite see this, but fortunately governments are temporary. Support a clean energy project near you today!

Get rid of the gas-guzzler: We need to stop using combustion for heating and transport. The Internal Combustion Engine has had its day, lets bury it with full honours and move on! Fortunately cars and domestic boilers have a relatively short lifespan and give us regular opportunities to change our habits. We will need to make a decision to take a risk by changing to a hybrid or fully electric vehicle when the opportunity offers, or to install a heat pump. We can’t rely on a push from government.

Buy Wisely: We need to stop importing goods from economies that aren’t moving in the direction of emission reductions, both to guarantee local jobs and to reduce the emissions of transporting goods half-way around the planet when we could easily make them on our doorstep. It would be nice if a carbon tax was added  to imports that highlighted their environmental costs, but we can add that cost in our mind when we think about pressing that button online. 

Waste: We need to reduce waste to a minimum, wasted materials, wasted energy, wasted heat. This is the most difficult one, as it is so closely related to behaviour. Persuading people that a walk to the shop is better for them and for the planet doesn’t sound difficult, but some people love their cars. There is an interesting shift in the use of health gadgetry to inform people about their health related behaviour that will help to achieve this. Insulating our homes will be a once in many generations cost. Consider whether you want your children to inherit an expensive home to inhabit, or a low energy home. If you only consider your own costs you won’t be motivated enough to spend the money.

Move into Town: We need to stop seeing a bucolic life in the country as the barometer of success. The country has nice views and fresh air, but it also has long travel distances to the doctors, the shops, the post office, the theatre and for every trip you have to make, the delivery van has to make one too. Move into town! Open a tea shop!

2 Billion Cars

2 Billion Cars, a book by Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon.

The VW Boardroom decides to cheat its emission tests

The VW Boardroom decides to cheat its emission tests

This book is a very interesting read, particularly at this moment, with the backdrop of the VW emissions scandal in the media. The book covers the recent history of both the oil industry and the car industry, in the context of regulation, efficiency and the drive to reduce emissions.

In particular, the part where the book describes how European and Japanese manufacturers made progress in the US market when they offered more fuel-efficient cars with lower exhaust emissions makes for painful reading. American manufacturers fought tooth and nail against higher efficiency and emission standards for decades, and watched with surprise when they were blindsided by foreign manufacturers who saw this demand coming. Those manufacturers must be feeling a little schadenfreude at the moment as they watch VW and other manufacturers admit that they were cheating on their emissions scores.

There are good chapters on the oil industry and how it works, on the growing demand for cars in Asian economies, and on the regulatory regime in California. The book is a really useful reference on the development of fuel-efficient cars including hybrids, the introductions of regulations worldwide and the resistance of the US-based car industry to improving fuel efficiency.  I expect that the book will appeal most to people interested in transport and sustainability problems (which ought to be most of us!)
Some of the points made in the book

1. Since growth in car usage in developed countries has flatlined, or started to decrease, all the growth in vehicles will come from developing countries, with annual growth rates in vehicles about 7-8 percent annually. Whatever India and China do will have the biggest effect on greenhouse gas emissions. The recent pictures of Beijing and Shanghai smog are testament to the growth in those cities of the number of cars but equally their failure to control emissions. (to be fair, not all of it is from cars)

2. There are large parts of the world where infrastructure costs mean that people will continue to use their cars and will not have public transport available to them in the foreseeable future.

3. The chapter on oil is particularly interesting, and how the oil ‘market’ is really not a market, but is in fact carefully managed supply by the oil producers, many of who are using oil to prop up their economies, and often they are among the few non-democracies (or failed democracies) on the planet. When you think of the success of the developed economies that based their success on ‘Guns Germs and Steel’ you wonder at the current level of success being enjoyed by places like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Venezuela and how they are going to make use of it. The signs so far is that they are going to waste the opportunity. Therefore, making the personal passenger vehicle more environmentally-friendly is key if the rest of us are to stop this haemorraging of wealth into corrupt nations that aren’t going to use it wisely.

4. The chapter on the oil industry also highlighted that we are nowhere near peak oil. The amount of unconventional sources such as fracked gas and tar sands is large enough to blow any chance of staying within the 2 Degrees target. So gas and oil usage will have to be further regulated if we have any chance of managing climate change risks to acceptable levels. (is there such a thing?)

5. The authors are very clear that the best way to promote energy independence and reduce emissions is to impose very high fuel performance standards. Government, they say, should never “bet on a technology winner”, but should instead make performance-based goals the only measure of success, both for fuel performance standards, and exhaust standards. (there are interesting parallels here between the support for nuclear energy by some governments and coal by others)

6. The chapter on California was particularly interesting, highlighting why it is in a unique position to influence national policy on sustainable transportation, and how it can therefore influence policy globally. There are parallels with the role of London in the UK, setting higher standards for buildings and cars, and trialling new technologies before other cities. Sadly, the book was published before Tesla really got going, and I hope that the authors do a revised edition soon to cover the meteoric rise of the electric car worldwide in the last five years.

7. The chapters on the history of the American car manufacturers are instructive for a number of reasons. It is an object lesson on how large corporations lose contact with their customers and focus on doing what they have always done instead of being innovative and market-facing. (The idea that markets are always alive to the demands of the market is an over-simplification of reality)I am reminded of the behaviour of UK housebuilders here as they avoid regulation by complaining that the market doesn’t demand energy efficient homes, and that that adding efficiency increases costs.

8. The way that the US manufacturers used perverse incentives to create gas-guzzling vehicles at the point where they should have been investing in R&D of more fuel efficient engines and vehicles tells you a lot about the behaviour of corporates. What well-run company would have bought Hummer? General Motors, thats who.

9. The authors felt that one of the best hopes to increase fuel efficiency when the book was written was to use plug-in hybrids, like the unexpectedly successful Prius. They rightly point out that hydrogen-powered fuel cells remain a laboratory project.

My only quibble with the book is that its already a little out of date, the authors failed to mention the potential for renewable energy and battery storage to play a major role in energy management and the use of smart grids, but since these ideas are relatively recent perhaps its forgivable. Another reason for a new edition.


VELUX Daylight Symposium 2015

The Location: The event was held at the Tobacco Dock, a reminder that some reused buildings provide stunning locations for events, and in this particular case the event was held in daylight. It may sound obvious, but most conferences are still held in locations where daylight is excluded, in case it interferes with the presentations. The usual result is a lot of sleepy attendees watching a lot of fairly tedious slides. When light levels are lowered, our bodies natural inclination is to go to sleep, a fact that the designers of most auditoria seem to have ignored. 
The lantern lights of this tremendous building were modified by simple banner-like screens to prevent glare and the two days were spent with the delegates bathed in full daylight but still able to view the screens. I cannot emphasise enough how much nicer an experience it is to spend a day in this way, rather than buried in the bowels of some convention centre.


The Content: The Daylight Symposium is a unique event, bringing together the worlds leading experts in daylight research and practice. It happens every two years and brings together the authors of CEN standards, the authors of daylight calculation software, the research community working on the effects of daylight on productivity and well-being, and the authors of guidance on the provision of daylight in design. There were also a few architects like me who tried to keep up with the science and not make fools of ourselves by asking really stupid questions, like, ‘what is the difference between lumens and luminance?’*

Some Conclusions

Over the two days I listend to a diverse range of speakers, from all over the world, many technical, some beautiful, all of them interesting. There were some particular highlights for me.

Daylight Autonomy, The CEN Daylight Standard draft appears to signal that the time has come to move on from Daylight Factor as a means of measuring daylight in architecture. Daylight Factor is a simple metric that predicts the amount of daylight in a room expressed as a percentage of the daylight available from an overcast sky. There are several problems with this.

Daylight Factor is not comprehensible to most people, including many professionals. It doesn’t relate either to the location of the space being examined or to the likely weather conditions in that location. So a room of the same size will achieve the same results in Iceland as in Uganda, despite the available daylight being quite different in the two locations. It doesn’t take into account the availability of greater amounts of daylight and sunshine available under typical weather conditions, so a part of the country where there is routinely a lot of sunshine will appear to perform as well as an area that has much less sunshine. As overheating becomes more of a problem, this is counterproductive. 

The CEN recommendation, based on several presentations during the event, is that we move to a measurement based on the availability of light in the room for a proportion of the day. This is similar to Daylight Autonomy, the US standard used in the LEED sustainable buildings assessment method. The draft CEN standard will suggest that we use a measure of the light levels in lux in the room expressed as the time that a desired light level is exceeded in a proportion of the space. The example given as a minimum is 300 lux in 50% of the room for 50% of the time. 300 lux is enough light to read, write or carry out office work, so it is adequate for many activities likely to be carried out at home. 50% of the space allow for variations in the lighting, particularly spaces only lit from one side. 50% of the time allows for variations over the day, so a room that is well lit in the morning can still comply with the requirement, as well as a room that is well lit in the afternoon, or early evening.

The draft CEN standard suggests that there could be three levels of such a standard, a minimum, set at 300 lux, a good at 500 lux and a high at 750 lux.

Rendering with Daylight: A particular bugbear of mine is architectural rendering that shows interiors bathed with light, when in fact such light is either impossible or unlikely at best. This doesn’t do anyone any good. Architectural rendering has a purpose, but that purpose should not be to mislead the designer or the client. It was heartening to see a presentation of Keyshot, a photorealistic lighting tool that can interface quickly with the VELUX Daylight Visualiser. They are both written by Luxion and they are now capable of interacting with each other. The VELUX tool can check the daylight in the room and Keyshot can produce a verifiably accurate daylight render. It can also deal with materials,textures and artificial light, but the important point is that it renders daylight accurately so that designers can check what actual difference their design changes make to the spaces rather than being fooled by a rendering engine that allow the designer free rein with the amount of light available. (In case you think that software doesn’t mislead, and I am overstating the point, one well-known and widely used rendering tool allows the designer to make the sun bigger!)

Thought Provoking: Paul Bogard: The organisers, VELUX, like to intersperse the hard science with some thought provoking speakers, and this time there were two presentations, one at the end of each day. The first by Paul Bogard was not about daylight, but about darkness. His book, The End of Night concerns the fact that most children in developed countries have no idea what a starry sky looks like. I was lucky enough to grow up in a rural area where starry skies were often visible, and the full majesty of the universe could be felt by anyone coming outdoors after dark. Today there are few places in the Western world where this is possible without having to get into a car and drive long distances. Will we end up in a world where fewer children want to become astronomers because they are unaware of the possibilities, or fewer philosophers because they haven’t seen how small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. Paul points out that much of the problem is caused by security concerns and homeowners and property owners being sold lighting systems that waste a lot of light, and don’t even provide good security.

Thought Provoking: Olafur Eliasson: The presentation at the end of the second day was by Olafur Eliasson an Icelandic artist who, among other works, has filled the Tate turbine hall with a sun, and put large chunks of Arctic ice outside a hall where one of the COP talks was taking place. Bizzarely, one of the delegates contacted him a year later to ask him to bring the ice to the next COP. He had to tell the delegate that sadly, the ice had melted, but that there was more available in the Arctic.

He presented his kickstarter project with Little Sun which aims to bring artificial light to countries where children currently cannot read or study after dark unless they use kerosene lamps. His talk was deeply contemplative, almost mystical. His use of language was amazing, given that he works in Berlin and was born in Iceland, so must use at least three languages every day to express the most complex of thoughts. Two thoughts that stayed with me are:

The Shaping of the world is the creative act, and not the work itself.

Cultural institutions allow people to share without agreeing.
* ‘Lumen is the total luminous flux emitted by a light source, and luminance is the amount of light emitted from a surface in a particulat direction’ Obviously!

Jane Jacobs on Street Life

In her book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs paints a rosy picture of urban street life. Particularly urban street life and the urban children she observes in it. She writes about the children playing in Hudson Street where she lives in Greenwich Village and draws firm conclusions from her experience.

She observes that shopkeepers are part of the lifeblood of the street, they partially supervise the children playing, tell them off for being troublesome, help them out when they need it, give directions to strangers and hold keys for residents who are away for the weekend. She notes that they don’t become close friends with many people, but have a relationship based on nods and smiles and the occasional sentence in passing. A relationship based on mutual self-interest. The shopkeeper is saying, ‘I’ll keep an eye on things and you can trust me because I need to retain your trust” 

She observes that the children benefit from the mixture of parenting from their real parents and the guidance and commentary they get from neighbours, shopkeepers and passers by. This tells the children that the world in general cares about them and takes a small but important interest in their well-being. They in turn learn that its important that they too take an interest in the world and the well-being of their playmates and the world around them. Soon, they too begin to offer help to strangers, giving directions or advice.

At no point does she mention the impact of traffic on active play, there probably wasn’t so much of it that it had a major impact on Hudson street, although photographs taken at the time show plenty of cars parked on the streets of New York in the 1950’s. She does state that to be effictive ‘play’ streets, the ‘sidewalks’ should be ‘thirty to thirty-five feet wide’ to accommodate any kind of play that could be required, but acknowledges that the requirements of traffic mean that there are few streets of that width even then.


Greenwich Village,New York, 1950’s Getty Images

She strongly criticizes the idea that ‘managed’ or supervised play space in parks is any substitute for ‘unmanaged’ street play. Her main problem with ‘managed play’ is that children beyond a very young age don’t want to be actively supervised by their parents and lose interest in such play very quickly. Play spaces in parks are also unsafe because they are usually too far from street life to be supervised by the passers by. She also critizes the lack of male intervention in such places, where children are usually supervised by their mothers only, in contrast to the street where they are supervised and protected by, and able to interact with, a host of different people, men and women, young and old, locals and passers by.

The image she paints is idyllic in some senses, a loose community of neighbours who look out for each other, particularly for each others children, while still going about their business in a normal way. Its the perfect mixture of privacy where no-one is prying into your personal affairs (associated with village life) and still enough human interest to know that if you didn’t show up to buy a pint of milk your neighbours would check up on you to see if you were OK.
The street itself had the interesting feature of steps up to the front doors of houses or apartment buildings. These steps gave places for residents to survey the street for a long distance from an elevated position in relative security. They gave children a small place to sit and play out of the way of passers by, but most importantly gave residents a place to watch, interact with or supervise the world as it went by.

Fast forward to London 2015.

Shopkeepers are rarely, if ever, at the front of their shops. Their windows are full of goods and it is often impossible to see the street from inside shops, particularly greengrocers and supermarkets. Even if the street were visible, the shopkeepers rarely own their shops as so many of them are chain stores and the staff are rotated on a regular basis. As automated tills come in the number of staff is dwindling, and the ability of shopkeepers to participate in street life diminishes. As retail moves more to the Internet, fewer and fewer shops are needed to sell goods on the high street, as they are being undercut by online businesses. 

The bright spark in this is food retailing, which appears to be getting stronger, and the increase of street life that comes with it is enormous, even if a lot of it includes the use of tables on already too-narrow pavements. Waiting staff come out to the street to bring food and deliver orders, deliveries come and go and the ballet of the street expands instead of contracting. It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next decade. 

No-one plays on the streets for any length of time, and hasn’t done so for a generation. Children’s play takes place either in their back gardens, or in schools, or, for a short while, in the street while they go to, or come from, school. This is also supervised play insofar as there is almost always a parent or two there to ensure that they get to school on time. This concerns the minority of children who actually walk to school, most of them are driven by parents fearful of their children being hit by a car while walking to school. 

Public parks are often empty, they are very busy on sunny weekends, but often deserted in weektimes, particularly the play areas, children are often brought there to play on their way home, and then ferried home for dinner, by car.

Children are not usually let out to play before or after tea/dinner. They sit at home playing video games instead, possibly playing with their friends in nearby homes, but only connected via cyberspace. If they do meet their friends to play it is usually organised by parents and the children are delivered and collected, by car.

Cars parked in the street take up about 50% of the land left for the street. Pavements are wide enough to allow two buggies to pass each other and no more. Parents don’t let their children play in front of their houses because they are afraid that they might be abducted, or damage a neighbours car, and in any case there isn’t room for them to play in. 

The only extensive street play I have observed is streets being taken over by parents in high-vis jackets to close it off to through traffic, with the support of the local council. Children are encouraged to play in the street, but supervised by their anxious parents. I can image how Jacobs would laugh at this. I am sure these street closures are helping people to get to know each other and to enable their children to be more active, but it is hardly a solution to the problem, more of a symptom. The presence of hundreds of cars means that the kinds of games children would like to play cannot be played, there simply isn’t the space. 

Disability legislation means that it is now almost impossible to design houses with ‘stoops’ or steps in front that provide places to view or supervise the street. Residents of new neighbourhoods will be on the same level as those passing by, and rooms on the street frontage are that much darker and noisier as a result. Ideally the ground floors of urban buildings would always be gven over to commercial uses, but it is unlikely that there will ever be enough commercial uses to go around.


We don’t appear to have learned very much from the mistakes or from the successes of the past as described by Jacobs, modern places are still mainly designed with traffic in mind, not with people in mind. Traffic engineering rules, bin lorry sizes and utilities have a  much stronger voice when it comes to the design of places than any consideration of what type of society a place is likely to foster. Children are given play areas which are intended for them to play in, but what child wants to play in an organised way? Some of these places, usually corraled by railings, are even intended for ‘doorstep’ play. Play, by definition, is not organised. 

Finally, Jacobs firm belief was that public street life allows people to interact with each other equally, because everyone has the right to be there. The street is the ultimate social leveller.

‘If there is no public street life, and there are only opportunities for formal interaction, this tends to suit a self-selecting confident middle-class.’

The Triumph of the City – Edward Glaeser – A Review

Edward Glaeser has penned this work on the benefits of the city from the perspective of the economist.  A useful and unusual perspective, the first major work on cities  from an economics perspective since Jane Jacobs penned ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ and ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations’. 

The book is wide in scope and exhaustively annotated, and suitable for use as a textbook as well as being an interesting read. Every town planner and every city councillor should be forced to read it and not allowed to make a single plan or decision without  reading it.

Glaeser is not such a good writer as Jacobs, but he does create some pithy one-liners that could go on a city planners or mayors annual calendar.

The essential ingredient for the success of the modern city is the accessibility of talent. The basic premise of the book revolves around this statement.

Cities and Talent

Glaeser writes extensively on the subject of cities abilities to attract talent, including presenting many case studies of city growth and city failure around the globe over the last two centuries.

When presented with a series of trade-offs including the cost of housing, the ability to earn high wages and the potential to be close to good schools, families will make a decision to go to the city or suburb that gives them the best likelihood of success. Cities that cannot provide all three are likely to be limiting their ability to attract the greatest amount of talent.

He points out the particular problem of enabling and maintaining good schools in inner cities and although this is heavily US-centric there are relevant comparisons to be made in the UK, particularly in London where there are fewer good schools in inner city areas and many families move to the suburbs in search of good schools.

Glaeser points to many examples of cities that have used good education systems, particularly universities, such as London, Paris, Boston to keep their best and brightest people and to attract outsiders: ‘to thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively’ and ‘Because the essential characteristic of humanity is to learn from each other, cities make us more human’

He points out, rather romantically for an economist, that the advent of the connected society through cyberspace has in no way lessened the neccessity of face-to-face connections with talent. ‘connecting in cyberspace will never be the same as sharing a meal, a smile or a kiss’

The Sustainable City

He makes the point that were China and India to live the way the US does, and follow a path of abandoning the inner city for the ‘exurbs’, would raise the planets CO2 emissions by 139%. He suggests that there is some evidence that the Chinese ‘get’ density in their deign of places. Whether there is evidence that the Chinese ‘get’ quality of life in the same way, I am less sure. But his central point is well made, we can only offer convincing advice to developing countries if we are seen to be busy repairing the damage we have done ourselves already. The US has some way to go on this point.  ‘The only way the West can earn any moral authority on global warming is to first get its own house in order.’

Being an economist, and having dealt with the improvements that many cities have made to their transport systems through congestion charging, he points out that ‘Unless we charge people for the carbon they emit, they won’t emit less’.

He suggests that the exurbs are a temporary phenomenon and limited to some places, rather than having a general future. But he doesn’t have the evidence to back this up. ‘I suspect, that in the long run, the twentieth century fling with suburban living will look, just like the brief age of the industrial city, more like an aberration than a trend.’

Misguided Conservation

He makes a strong point about misguided conservation in places like California. (it could easily be London) where he points out that Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) only assess the impact of develoment being built, and not the impact of it being built elsewhere instead; which is unfortunate because elsewhere in the US is a place like Houston where there is less development control than in California and where more houses are being built, and which are therefore cheaper and more attractive to workers and familes. But the result is a higher overall carbon footprint because Houston is uninhabitable without air-conditioning. And everyone drives everywhere. Conservation in California keeps California the way the rich Californians like it, but means that alternative places which are less suitable for sustainable living are used instead. In the UK, substitute Surrey for California and the result is largely the same.

He maintains that people who fight dense development in order to protect local low density life or green spaces  are simply moving the problem elsewhere, an elsewhere that is further from services and transport infrastructure that will mean more develoment on green field sites and more car travel.

‘The interests of people who oppose change are certainly comprehensible, but their interests usually don’t match the public interest.’

Policy should aim to encourage development in those parts of the country where it makes most sense, near to infrastructure and jobs, and not on creating areas of land like Green Belts that have little or no real environmental benefit but which results in more sprawl further away from economic centres and longer commutes for workers who cannot afford urban prices. ‘Urban living is sustainable sustainability,rural ecotowns are not.’ 

It seems to me that the difference between the UK and the US is that the results of long commutes is less obviously harmful in carbon terms as our cars are more efficient and public transport networks are good, but if you look at Charles Montgomery’s book on Happy Cities, you will see that the costs of long commutes include broken marriages and unhappy children because of the absence of one or both parents for most of the day. Environmental reasons are not the only reasons to be concerned by the need for long commutes.

On Urban Poverty

He takes a seemingly rather cold hearted look at urban poverty and points out that ‘Cities will always have poor people, and this is a sign of success, not failure, as cities should attract poor people who want to improve their lot’. Certianly the history of London and New York bears this out as places where waves of immigrants have come, found places to live near to the ports, worked in these cities, gradually become part of society and then moved from the enclaves where they started out together for mutual suport and eventually merged with society as a whole. There is a building in the East End of London that has been a mosque, a synagogue, and a church at different times as different cultures arrived and left.

‘Cities especially benefit from an influx of talent, because immigrants help urban areas play their crucial role of connecting countries.’

He deals well with the economic benifits of collecting talent in the same location, both for cultural movements and technical innovation. The problem is when cities create areas of poor people who will always be poor, as has happened in many areas of the UK where social housing has been built in large clusters. Sometimes this has resulted in creating communities where unemployment and benefit dependency has become a way of life and difficult to disrupt. He pours scorn on efforts in many US cities where attempts at regeneration have focussed on building infrastructure and housing in failing places where neither were needed, and suggests that a better use of money would have been to give it to the disadvanteged and allowed them to move to wherever they would prefer to live. A chilling piece of evidence that he provides is that poorer children displaced from New Orleans have demonstrated improvements in school results in the communities they have moved to. Sometimes, he suggests, new buildings are not what is needed.

On Management

‘The more centralised a nations government, the larger its capital city, because people are attracted to power as ants are to picnics’

‘Much of the world suffers under awful governments, and that provides an edge for those cities that are administered well’ He doesn’t examine the different types of civic government that have worked well, but its interesting that the examples he cites tend to be places where a strong individual took control, often for a sustained period. The same can be said of the failures.

‘..among cities, failure seem similar, while success seem unique’

Glaeser identifies a common problem of political and cultural attitudes to city life, which has often found its way into city management in the past, and still does today. Political animals who must attract votes from the wider community don’t always understand the particular needs of the cities under their control, or even how to ensure that they are managed properly. The conflict between what is good for the country, and what is good for the city is dealt with through a number of case studies. His comments about the negative impacts of taxation could have been written about the UK.

‘Cities can compete on a level playing field, but over the past sixty years America’s policies have slanted the field steeply against them. In the areas of housing, social services, education, transportation, the environment and even income taxes, American policies have worked against urban areas. Cities have managed to survive despite these advantages because they have so much to offer.’

When it comes to managing a city budget, he is unequivocal:

‘As much as I appreciate urban culture, aesthetic interventions can never substitute for the urban basics.‘ These are Safety, Education & Transport.

His case study on Singapore is very interesting as it demonstrates how a city-state can function without a rural hinterland. ‘Singapore’s success illustrates the irrelevance of acreage’. Again, he makes the point, as Jane Jacobs did, that cities are really the economic engines of a modern society, and as they need resources it doesn’t appear to affect their success or failure where those resoures come from. Provided the city can attract and keep talent, and maintain a good economic strength, it can afford to buy the resources that it needs. He fails to point out that the resources also come with a carbon footprint and outsourcing production of resources, such as food, from long distances, has the same effect on CO2 emissions as curtailing developent within its boundaries.


If you are interested in urban design, sustainability, town and city planning, then this book should be on a shelf close to your desk, alongside the works of Jane Jacobs and Henry Montgomery.

Happiness and Well-Being in Housing Design

This is an unusually long post. So make a cup of tea or pour a glass of whisky before starting.

In 2008 the UK Govt Foresight commissioned the New Economic Foundation to investigate well-being. The context was a concern among policy makers that Gross Domestic Product may no longer be the sole measure of success of Government policy. Many surveys have shown that even while GDP rises, happiness and well-being do not rise with it. Money does not buy happiness it seems.

The result of this work was a report called The Five Ways to Well-Being which contained some recommendations for you to follow. You might call them the Five Pillars of Happiness? These are described below. The italic descriptions below are NEF’s attempt to create short versions of the Five Ways that are easily communicated and understood.

This work prompts a question for designers. What does this mean for the design of places for people to live in, and how ought we design them differently if we have well-being in mind. Is Well-Being equated to Happiness and are either of them capable of being designed into a development? Is well-being or happiness so strongly related to an individuals personal circumstances that it is not subject to outside influences and it is unwise for a designer to ever suggest that one can design in happiness or well-being? The NEF research suggests that it is possible for people to influence their own happiness, and that there are objective as well as subjective elements to it, hence the Five Ways. Walt Disney gives it a good try in the various Disneyworlds around the globe, but those are hardly places that can, or should, be duplicated, and in any case, there aren’t enough Mickey Mouse suits to go around.

What is also interesting about this research is that it suggests positive action towards a positive goal, rather than positive actions to prevent negative results. Most regulations are aimed at preventing negative results or outcomes such as fire, accidents, structural failure, lack of space and so on, but what could design become if it aimed at positive outcomes instead? Of course many designs are aimed at positive outcomes, hospitals, schools, and many other building types, but the positive outcomes are usually measured by asking whether the temperature in the building is maintained at a steady level, whether the building uses more or less energy than planned, and whether the maintenance bills are low. While all of these are important, we rarely look at the well-being of people who use or live in them to assess the success of our buildings. Granted this can be difficult to measure, but part of the Office of National Statistics work on Well-Being suggests that it is possible to do, and is already being done in small unconnected ways in different disciplines.

It seems to me that housing and its relationship to well-being has a particular role here, insofar as people spend more than half their time at home, and probably change homes less frequently that they change their jobs. Creating a professional expectation that designers should try to enable well-being in their designs, and crucially, check whether they are succeeding, is likely to lead to better outcomes. I think that this expectation applies particularly to the designers of house types used by the major house-builders, as these will be built many times over, thus repeating the same mistakes over and over again, or improving the lives of occupants over and over again. If we are going to build something many times, lets build the right thing, and not the wrong one.

Reading through the five ‘Ways’, which are intended by NEF to explain to laypeople how to interpret the research, it is possible to link all of them to interventions in the built environment in some way or other. Either through direct interventions, or through the creation of space for something to happen. Some issues can be considered and responded to in parts of buildings or in the public realm between buildings, other issues can be responded to by creating spaces that in turn encourage actions by others who will follow on after the designers work is done. The designers job is to create a stage for the actors to use, an environment where things are more likely to happen than not.

The Five Ways to Well-Being:


Connect with the people around you. With family,
friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work,
school or in your local community. Think of these as
the cornerstones of your life and invest time in
developing them. Building these connections will
support and enrich you every day.

For designers, I think this means creating opportunities for people to meet, to create streets where they can interact, and to bring the activities that stem from entrances and pathways together to create places where the greatest number of people have the best chances of interacting. Making the ground surface the place where it all happens, pedestrians, drivers, bus passengers and cyclists, all merging together and creating possibilities for activity, commercial and social.
This also means enabling people to see each other, to be visible to each other. Places where windows and doors are visible from the street and the street is visible from inside homes.

This means that creating shared spaces is important, where people can mix and meet each other, where children can play and parents can interact, allotments where they can work together and community spaces where they can gather to plan their joint future or knit, play bridge, practice yoga or get married.

This means that high density mixed-use is better than low density monoculture. The more people that are mixed in an area and the more uses, the more likely people there are to meet people like themselves, and make connections, or find appropriate work. This refutes the idea that anyone will find happiness by buying a large plot in suburbia and driving there and back without ever seeing their neighbours.

(See Charles Montgomerys excellent book on Happy Cities for many examples of broken families and difficult lives created by the long commute to and from suburbia.)
Be Active

Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game.
Garden. Dance. Exercising makes you feel good. Most
importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy and
one that suits your level of mobility and fitness.

For the designer this means creating readily available opportunities for exercise. Streets that are designed to be walkable, and enjoyable to walk along. For this to be true, there needs to be variety in the character of the areas, and potential for change so that seasons can be marked in changing colours of leaves and birdsong, as well as the visible changes in family life that goes on in homes. Washing on the line, children’s toys in the garden, bicycles parked in front of houses all give interesting clues to the life being lived inside. Green spaces also need to be provided, and designed so that they can be used as stopping points, or provide opportunities for more active exercise through fixed equipment.

Inside the buildings and houses, the stairs should be designed to be more prominent than the lift and designed to be welcoming rather than forbidding. Landings could have a window seat so that older people can still use the stairs, but have an excuse to stop and rest and enjoy the view.

Inside homes, spaces should be created to enable and encourage exercise. Why create a dining room with fixed furniture that is used once a month, and no exercise space. Put in an exercise bar and a mirror instead and celebrate the idea of exercise without making it seem too obvious. Use the mirror to increase the light in a room to make it more attractive to be in. Put in a wooden floor with underfloor heating so that it is comfortable to use all year around.

The availability of fresh air for health is important, as is the ability to filter out pollutants. Residents should have both opportunities, together with daylight at different times of the day to ensure that they get sufficient light to read or work by, and enough light to set their daily circadian rhythms.

I learned recently that bungalows produce a condition called ‘Bungalow Knee’ by doctors, where older residents knees seize up through lack of activity. This is the first such condition caused by a building that I have heard of. But it raises an important question about regulation and comfort. Providing ease in the form of level thresholds, ramps and stair free environments may be good for the less able among us, but are we inadvertently designing out the exercise in our environment to solve the problems of a few, and denying the regular exercise that the rest of the population needs? Similar evidence is growing around the provision of overheated environments in care homes where any interruption in the heating system produces a lot of ill-health among residents whose systems have become accustomed to constant temperature and are no longer able to regulate their temperature.

Take Notice

Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the
unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment,
whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to
friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are
feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you
appreciate what matters to you.

For designers this is directly related to the ‘Connect’ and ‘Be Active’ ‘Ways’. Perhaps there is a prompt here for design to be more creative and to design in features that catch the eye, or which change when looked at from different angles. Buildings that have some greater level of detail that is only visible when you get closer, or a roof-level feature that is only visible from far away. The designing of opportunities for public art into a proposal is a potential route to creating places that catch the eye and encourage curiosity. The natural world is also a very interesting and varying thing, so creating opportunities for diversity in planting, and places for birds to live and roost, and bats and animals to live can all contribute to the rich experience that this ‘Way’ calls for.

The aspect of the design of homes that is most relevant here is the design of windows. It would help this ‘Way’ to create windows that provide different kinds of views, to the immediate outside, and to the distant horizon. If there is a tree in the street, a window should frame it. A window with a seat to sit in and to enjoy the view. A picture window that is low enough so that the view can be enjoyed while sitting or lying down. A window positioned to bring sunlight into the bedroom. A rooflight to bring a view of the sky into the middle of the house.

Keep Learning

Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for
that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix
a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your
favourite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving.
Learning new things will make you more confident as
well as being fun.
The response for the designer here is to create spaces where things can happen. Putting seats in the right place on the street so that people can watch the world go by, or take a break in a busy day. Create spaces in residential buildings that can be used for short periods of work so that they can run small businesses from home, and they can learn from our neighbours who can pop in to help them. Make sure that spaces in residential buildings are flexible enough so that if people want to have a hobby, they have space to do it in. Make sure that the building acoustics are good enough for someone to learn to play the drums or bagpipes without annoying the neighbours. Create communal spaces where people can run short courses for their neighbours, or have a party for the residents of the building.


Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone.
Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look
out, as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked
to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and
creates connections with the people around you.

Designers can respond to this idea with a home that creates zero harm by being very energy efficient, sympathetic to nature in its design, manufacture, operation and reuse. It may not be able to ‘give’ directly, but we can design it to ‘take’ as little as possible. We cannot help people to volunteer though, this one is almost out of the hands of the designer. But it can be helped along by creating places in a masterplan where community groups can meet and decide how they want to work together. By creating Community Interest companies that can run a development after the developer has left, and which create opportunities for people to develop skills in managing their local environment in a responsible way.


All of the Five Ways resonate with me, as directions that designers should keep in their minds while designing. It is not sufficient to design to meet regulations, there are other responsiblities than the clients direct needs and the regulations imposed by society that a designer should recognise.

In a period where the intention is to design and construct a lot of housing, we would do well to make sure that it is all of the highest quality as it will be there for many years after we have left, affecting the well-being of its residents and through them the success or failure of wider society.