The Ethics of Development (part II)

In the last article ‘The ethics of Development Part I’, I set out the framework within which I think the profession can begin to consider the ethical impact of projects that they are involved in.  This has come about because last year I was asked to speak about ethics and architecture at the APRES 2016 conference. I accepted the invitation because I thought that it would force me to confront the question: What does ethics mean in a professional context?. These articles are the result.

Since ethics are primarily about how we deal with each other, architects might be forgiven for wondering what it has to do with buildings built with, hopefully, inert materials. But since the purpose of building is to serve the needs of people, clients, users, occupants, and society, there are ethical implications to every act related to design and construction, some of which are covered in part by legislation, and many which aren’t.

The central question of ethics, as I see it, is ‘are we being fair to everyone involved in the process of design and construction?’

A further question we need to ask ourselves is: Does our professional ability and knowledge mean that we should take an extra level of care for everyone and everything affected by our work, even when legislation and guidance are absent?  A check through the two codes of conduct that architects should follow is revealing insofar as it reveals an inadequate response to today’s environmental crisis.

The RIBA Professional Code of Conducts states:

Members shall respect the relevant rights and interests of others.

The ARB Architects Code states:

12.1 You should treat everyone fairly. You must act in compliance with your legal obligations. You must not discriminate ……

The RIBA Professional Code of Conduct states:

3.2 Members should be aware of the environmental impact of their work.

Note: Aware! But not asked to do anything.

The ARB Architects Code states:

5.1 Where appropriate, you should advise your client how best to conserve and enhance the quality of the environment and its natural resources.

The ‘where appropriate’ has me baffled. Where would it not be appropriate? Given that every project an architect could be involved in must have an impact, how could such advice ever not be appropriate?

In my previous article I set out the four areas within which to consider the ethical implications of any project, here I expand on those with examples of issues to consider, this is not meant to be exhaustive, only indicative.

  1. The stages of the building over time, its design, construction, operation, and demolition. What are the impacts of the building on people over time? How does it change over time? Are we aiming for the greatest good for the greatest number of people?

For example, a question we might ask in regeneration projects, or in any design project where an existing use is being closed or moved to facilitate the new project, ‘Are people being treated fairly to enable the design and construction process to happen?’

This question is particularly relevant to regeneration projects where the lives of people who live within the regeneration zone are going to be disrupted to enable the regeneration project to happen. Care must be taken to ensure that they are treated fairly and end up being beneficiaries of the project. If they are to suffer the disruption of moving and being rehoused, possibly more than once, then surely they should enjoy a share of the benefits of the project that they are enabling to happen.

Historically, many slum clearances happened without the agreement of residents, work was done to them, and not with them, and happily, we no longer behave this way in the UK. Other countries do behave this way, there is plenty of evidence of such clearances happening in China over the last decade. But whenever I hear the word ‘decanting’ (a shorthand term for moving people out of their buildings into other accommodation) I feel that while we may have moved on in terms of how we work, but not all of us have moved on it terms of the way we think. Decanting is something you do to wine. Perhaps we should use the word ‘disrupting’ instead?

At the same time, we must ask ourselves whether people who are on the housing waiting list are being treated fairly.

Across England, there were 1,183,779 households on the social housing waiting lists in 2016. If we take an average household size of 2.3 from the last census, that gives us a figure of 2,722,691 people.

The needs of such people, often housed in substandard accommodation, at high costs to the country, and often overcrowded, should be given sufficient weight when deciding what to do in any situation.  There may be a temptation to give more weight to people who are already living locally in any planning decision, but surely the need of those not present have equal weight, and if their need is dire, greater weight than the incumbents?

  1. The context for the physical building, the immediate location, the wider context and the global context. Do we aim for the greatest good or the least damage to the planet?

In recent years we have seen a huge rise in the amount of legislation, guidance, and advice related to greening the construction sector. Building Regulations, green building standards, and policy have all pushed the sector to make massive improvements in the performance of buildings. But two issues remain, the policy has become patchy as first the Coalition and then the Tory Government pulled back on the scope and level of intent of such policies, and the analysis of completed buildings demonstrates that many are not achieving the environmental targets that were originally set.  

Should the architectural profession have a set of core standards that give guidance and support to professionals working on projects where clients or local policies don’t support or actively work against environmental targets or where national policy vacillates due to political expediency? If we are to have a Government propped up by the DUP who claim that climate change isn’t real, we need protection against potential further backsliding. Particularly at a point in time where we are leaving the EU and will no longer have its substantial support for environmental protection.

Should the profession refuse to work on projects where there is an unwillingness on the part of clients to meet their environmental obligations? Would this strengthen our position as expert and impartial advisors, or weaken it?

  1. Those affected by the purpose and use of the building, the client, the funders, owners, operators, those nearby, the neighbouring region and the rest of the planet. Do we aim for the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people? If so, how do we account for this and what do we mean by benefit? Is it financial gain, safety, better services? How do we compare these against each other in terms of the benefits they bring as well as the difficulties they cause…

Some of these effects are covered by the law, Building Regulations or a duty of care, but much of it isn’t.  As we build at higher densities, issues occur which are new in the UK and poorly considered by our regulations, other countries with more tall buildings are further advanced than us in some respects. When more people move into an area, the balance of the community is changed. While some argue that an influx of new people into an area is beneficial as it brings more economic activity, those living in the area previously often feel threatened by new neighbours, rightly or wrongly. Increased levels of traffic is often a bone of contention but is probably used as a stalking horse for the real objection, which is to any new development, regardless of its impact on traffic.

It is important that we are clear about the benefits that new development brings to an area as well as acknowledging the impacts that it causes.

4.The needs of the users, ranging from the most basic ones of shelter to the most sophisticated level of personal development. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs provides us with a ready-made structure to use here so we may only need to assess how this structure relates to our work as designers and whether we are giving due attention to the different needs of building users. A fundamental issue is whether we know how well or badly we are currently doing before we even start to think about improving matters.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is well worn, but relevant to the built environment. It proposes that our human needs are hierarchical and dependant on each other. Only by fulfilling basic needs of shelter and nourishment can we begin to achieve well-being, good mental health, and fulfillment. An ethical view of this would support a designers ambition to create buildings that help their occupants in achieving as much of the hierarchy as possible. From shelter on the one hand to enabling self-actualisation on the other. This makes the basic point that buildings are for people, not for architects, and it is only by fulfilling the needs of the people living in our buildings are we fulfilling our own needs as professionals.

Do we know how well we are doing? Mostly not. Post-occupancy study happens in a tiny fraction of the built environment, even of the part of it designed by architects. Without a better evidence base, we risk becoming irrelevant as others who lack our design drive are enabled by technology to sample the needs and desires of people and to provide it to them through technology that bypasses us. A connection to our audience is essential for the profession to thrive, and our audience is the user of our buildings, not each other.

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Amber Rudd Green?

If the Tories want to achieve any progress on climate emission reductions, and its not clear that they do want to, despite the Rt Hon Amber Rudd’s speech last week, then they have to set out clear market signals that they mean to do so and that they will do so in a way that supports a market which lasts beyond this Parliament. This is too serious an issue to be left to individual Governments to deal with and to be subject to political whims. If ever there was an issue that needed cross-party agreement, this is it.

Clouds over the Capital

Clouds over the Capital

Amber Rudd’s speech on climate change at Aviva sets out some important pointers for how the Government plans to deal with a low carbon economy over the next decade. Having wiped the slate clean of environmental legislation over the last month, their plans appear to be based on a fairly simple idea, that the markets can solve the problem. Given that the environmental problems that we face have arisen because of what Lord Stern called ‘the largest market failure the world has ever seen’, it seems optimistic to me to believe that this approach will work.  That the markets can actually do the work that is required without some significant action by the Government through legislation and policy seems to me to be both unproven and naïve. It is unfortunate that the regulations that the Government has recently abandoned were all sending the right signals to the market; that this Government supports concerted action on climate change mitigation and would use a series of long-term initiatives to achieve that.  In contrast to this, large numbers of the companies who should be lining up to enter this new ‘market’ have objected in the strongest terms to the recent dropping of ambitious environmental targets. It is hard to believe that Amber Rudd has the backing of the Cabinet when she said. ‘We are committed to taking action on climate change and we are clear that our long-term economic plan goes hand in hand with a long-term plan for climate action.’

However hard it may be, I feel that there is little to be gained by complaining that this Government is heading in the wrong direction, because we simply cannot see into the future. There is no getting away from the fact that progress in achieving emission reductions through policy and regulation has been achingly slow. The Committee for Climate Change reflects that much of our current emissions reductions have come about because of the recession and less than one percent of the emissions reductions have come about through environmental improvements. In order to achieve our Carbon Budgets we will need to de-carbonise at a rate of 3% per annum. In order for this Governments plan to work, the market has to be three times more effective in delivering emission reductions than regulation has already achieved.

All of this effort could have been achieved more easily if we had kept some of the previous Governments policies going and not abandoned the ones that were working. I agree that the Green Deal was flawed, but it could have been rescued with a proper finance package, instead of abandoning it entirely. Similarly the zero-carbon housing regulations were heading in the right direction and had massive support from industry, ( with the usual exception of the housebuilders who don’t support any regulation that impacts on their bottom line) and also could have been made to work with some effort. Again this has been unceremoniously binned, sending housing regulations back to 2013, there to stay for the foreseeable future.

What the Tories don’t appear to understand, or are just ignoring, is that in order to create a functioning market you need investment. In order to attract investment, you need certainty, and in order to create certainty you need good governance that doesn’t change the rules without consultation. The stated objective of this Government, to achieve emission reductions through the market, has already been made very difficult by their wilful and short-termist treatment of the companies already active in the market. There is no way that we can achieve the emission reductions we need under the Climate Change Act, without the help of companies providing solar energy, wind farms, low-carbon energy, and insulation. But in dropping planned regulations including zero-carbon housing and the Green Deal, this Government will have alienated most of the companies in all of these sectors.

When the Green Deal closure was announced Amber Rudd MP said,: “ It’s now time for the building industry and consumer groups to work with us to make new policy and build a system that works.”

Having spent a good deal of time working on the development of the Green Deal and on the zero-carbon legislation I imagine I would be one of the people that the minister means when she says ‘building industry’. But why should I spend my time working with Government? The time I spent with the last three Governments has been wasted, as they have shilly-shallied with policy and regulation for a decade, only to bin all that effort when the colour of the party changes. I am certain that many large companies who have invested in Green Deal training and certification will think long and hard before coming back to the table for more.

Angus MacNeil, chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee said, commenting on the Green Deal announcement: “The government has once again slipped out another announcement about cuts to green policies after parliament has risen for the recess. The Green Deal wasn’t working as well as ministers had hoped, but removing government support without bringing forward an alternative strategy is likely to cause further concern among businesses investing in and delivering energy-efficiency measures.”

It is possible that the long-term plan to reduce emissions will be met by extracting large amounts of shale gas to replace existing coal-fired generation, and by constructing new nuclear power rather than insulating homes and building new energy efficient ones. But both of these strategies are very risky propositions, and will continue to meet opposition among voters, and neither are likely to deliver much in the way of emission reduction during the life of the current Parliament. For every Tory who supports a ban on onshore wind, there will be two Tories who would be anti-fracking. Nuclear will continue to be eye-wateringly expensive and it will be difficult to convince an electorate that you are looking after their energy bills when you spend billions on a few projects that will always cost more than budgeted, and leave an expensive radioactive mess to deal with for the next 10,000 years or so.

A long-term decarbonisation plan for the UK needs to be just that, long-term. Energy efficiency measures in the building stock will need a programme of improvements and finance that lasts from now until 2050. Regulations for new housing that meets EU targets for 2020 needs to be considered now, and once set, needs to be left alone for the industry to develop solutions to meet it. Industrial research needs time and money, time that lasts longer than the life of a parliament, and longer than the political life of most politicians.

“We are committed to climate action; committed to economic security; committed to decarbonising at the least cost.” A. Rudd Aviva speech.

The future of our planet is at stake, nothing less. If the market is to be the vehicle that we use to cut emissions, so be it, but it needs to be a market with solid foundations that is left to function for decades, and not moments. The Tories have started their term in office badly, and have lost the trust of many in industry within a few months. If they are going to deliver on their promises, they need to start acting on them and delivering real change that both those in industry and ordinary people can understand and support. In the year of COP21 Paris when the world expects the UK Government to lead on climate action and to sign up to a global deal, they could have hardly gotten off to a worse start.

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.

Summary

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.

END

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.

MMC: Evolution or Revolution?

 I spoke last week at the Residential Construction Network hosted by the RICS in Westminster.
The three speakers were myself, Paul Inch from Innovare and Jean-Marc Bouvier from Nudura Insulated Concrete Formwork.
I introduced the topic by pointing out the continuing and rising gap between housing production in the UK and housing need. See image below. At current levels of construction and demand we will see two million people short of a home by 2030.
 The Housing Gap
My view is that offsite construction is needed to fill the gap because the gap is mainly made up of people who cannot afford to buy their own homes at current prices, and are unlikely to ever do so. Affordable housing including shared ownership models needs to be provided for them by Registered Housing Providers(RHP’s) and by the Private Rental Sector(PRS).
There is little or no motivation for the private sector to build more housing than their current capacity to deliver. The hostorical figures show that speculative housing rarely delivers over 150,000 homes per year. They are making good profits with current numbers, so why would they change a formula that is working?
The current housing industry based on speculative housing for sale tends to use traditional construction methods as the average rate of sales on sites is slow and building faster doesn’t actually make much difference to them. What does make a difference is changing labour rates, particularly in a boom which makes their land and construction pricing difficult to predict. The regular boom and bust cycle in UK housing means that they are unlikely to either dramatically change their levels of housing supply or change the way that they build.
A possible solution to the problem is to marry up the large balance sheets of local authorities and RHP’s and use additional borrowing to construct homes offsite. This would require decisions on the part of these large clients to support a new industrial sector, housing manufacturing. A medium sized factory could supply 2,000 homes per year, but investors will only commit to constructing such facilities with a confirmed pipeline of demand. There can be competitive tendering, but between similar factories, and not between factories and site operations. This is not to promote more expensive housing, but to give factories the support they need to get going. Clients need to decide that this is the route to deliver affordable housing and government needs to support them in any way it can.
Ten new factories every year for five years will deliver 50,000 new dwellings that we are currently not building, from finance we are not using. That will go a long way to closing the gap in the housing supply. Once the market in offsite manufacturing is more mature, it can expand to take up the remaining gap and supply products to the sale market. The factories can be distributed across the country to places where there is greatest housing need and staffed by locally trained people. These plants can be set up and be running within a year, particularly if they use timber frame manufacturing. The jobs will be stable long term ones, possibly as many as 100 per factory. Thats 5,000 jobs within five years without counting the site works and the finishing trades on site. Its not wise to construct entire dwellings in factories, some work needs to be done on site to prepare foundations, and to finish the facade and roof on site.
Paul Inch, Business Development Director, Innovare
Innovare are one such factory, constructing homes and schools from their factory in Coventry using Structural Insulated Panels. They have a strong history of building high performing homes and buildings that provide very well-insulated building fabric. This is achieved by constructing using large format panels containing the building structure and insulation. Speed of construction is much faster than traditional methods and the quality of the final building is higher, particularly delivering low levels of air leakage and reducing the heating demand from the finished building.
In Paul’s opinion, RHP’s should use the market to deliver their buildings and not try and go it alone. There is a lot of manufacturing skills in the market and it is best left to the market to provide it rather than try and bring it in-house as some RHP’s have done.
Jean Marc Bouvier Director of International Sales and Business Development
Jean Marc Bouvier from Nudura Corporation, a supplier of Insulated Concrete Formwork products described their system. It provides large insulation panels that fit together much like Lego and are then filled in with poured concrete to form the walls of the design. It is a very rapid form of construction and delivers very high performance buildings. By using large lightweight elements the construciton process is safer and quicker, and because of the pured concrete there are no air gaps in the construction. Another benefit is that it is very resilient to wind effects and is being used to construct storm shelters in the southern regions of the US. Like SiPs it enables a highly productive delivery, with far fewer man-hours required to deliver the finished building compared to traditional building methods.

Zero Carbon(2016) Exemption Proposals

The plan to exempt small sites from zero-carbon legislation strikes me as being a total waste of time, energy and money and I cannot fathom why DCLG are wasting their precious time (and mine if it comes to that) with it.

The consultation document can be read here. The main elements are
– The proposal is to exempt small sites from the Allowable Solutions element of the Zero Carbon(2016) proposals. That is, the CO2 offset payment for that CO2 not mitigated on site by the development multiplied by 30 years multiplied by the agreed cost of CO2 per tonne.
– The consultation seeks views on the proposals including
The definition of small sites
Whether the exemption should relate to developers who are small or to any developer developing small sites
Whether the exemption should relate to Allowable Solutions only or whether the exemption should relate to Carbon Compliance as well
How long a time-frame the exemption should last for.

The problem I have with this is: where is the evidence that this is going to promote development? I haven’t seen any. Figures from the consultation document point out that 10% of planning applications in the UK measured by unit number were for single dwellings. That amounted to 24,000 units. So that tells me that there is a lot of activity in this sector and we can expect that to continue.
The Allowable Solutions impact of about £2-3k per plot will act as a small disincentive to development, but since many of those applications (my conjecture) are for the people who will actually live in those homes, the additional costs can be weighed against a lower cost of living for the occupants. The savings in fuel bills over the lifetime of the dwelling will pay for the relatively small additional cost. This is a calculation that many people will be able to do, and probably will realise that if they increase the build specification slightly they will reduce the Allowable Solutions costs and save themselves even more money. This seems to me to be a virtuous circle. People build more efficient homes for themselves, and they save money over and lifetime and there is less CO2 produced. This sounds like a market actually working. So why does the Government think that this is a market they need to interfere in before they actually have it in place?
The likely time frame would be from 2016 until the next issue of the Building Regulations, around 2020. This would allow the costs of the Zero Carbon (2016) to drop and the costs of Allowable Solutions to be absorbed. Again this seems to me to be counter productive. The way to reduce the costs of the Zero Carbon (2016) standard is to have everyone use it as soon as possible. This will bring down the cost of the insulation and window products that are needed to reach the standard, and then they will be available to all and not just the large housebuilders with very cost-effective supply chains. This proposal risks creating a two tier industry with higher costs of smaller builders and lower costs to larger builders.
The problem lies with the speculative nature of so much of our housebuilding. The builder of some of these small plots doesn’t know who the buyer has, and therefore has no interest in how that buyer lives in the home. There is no way for the lower costs of living in a more efficient home to be passed on to the developer in a beneficial way. A developer cannot build a more efficient home and offer it on the market for a small premium, this benefit is simply not recognised in the valuation of a property.
So, can I suggest that a more effective way for the Department to spend its time and mine, would be to investigate ways of making the speculative housing market function as a better market instead of trying to undermine those elements of future legislation that are likely to help it to function as a better market. But in an election year, perhaps that is too much to hope for.

Building on the Green Belt

Paul Cheshire of the London School of Economics came to HTA last month and presented his thoughts on Building on the Green Belt. It was at once appalling and fascinating. I think it is worthwhile to explore ideas that are superficially appalling to analyse why they affect us in this way and whether our sensitivity to them is real or something we have learned without really absorbing the rationale behind it. The history of civilisation is full of bad ideas that were once held to be good ideas but which we now find appalling. By we, I largely mean Western civilisation. By bad ideas I mean racism, fascism, UKIP, factory farming…those sorts of ideas. What seems obvious to one generation can often appal the next one. Think about 70’s fashion!

Building on the Green Belt(BoGB) has come to attract the same strong reactions as some of those ideas above, whether one is for or against, there is no real middle ground. The cause against BoGB is is largely emotional and visceral, its ‘green’ land, the reasoning goes, so it must be nice, its surely full of woodland and trees, it harbours the last vestige of medieval connectivity with the ‘land’ that feeds us. We will all choke to death on the fumes of cars and buildings if we allow this to continue, etc., etc.,We are carpeting over England’s green and pleasant land and we mustn’t allow it to continue, or even think about allowing it to continue. Is any of this true?

The problem with all of this is that there is enough truth in it to make it believable to the average voter, and therefore completely toxic to our current crop of rather spineless politicians. Were BoGB to happen it will inevitably destroy some areas of land that have some ecological value, and will inevitably carpet over some of the ‘green and pleasant’ land. But the argument is more complex than this. By not BoGB we are curtailing the supply of land for housing in a way that was not envisaged when the legislation was enacted. We are in a period of chronic under-supply of homes and young people have little chance of getting an affordable home to live in unless we act to increase supply. London in particular is being constrained to the point where housing ownership is becoming impossible for young people on a normal wage.

To change the housing market we need to be building many more homes that we are currently building, this appears to be generally accepted. Some of these can be delivered in dense new apartment developments close to jobs in city centres. But high density development is slow to bring through the planning system and often controversial. On its own it won’t be enough.

I dislike the idea of BoGB as much, and possibly more than most, I prefer to design dense environments for people to live in, as I believe that high density living brings with it high-quality services. If I had my way we would all live in terraces or apartments and the suburban semi would be banned. Fortunately there are a lot of people who disagree with me and who want to live in the suburbs in a semi and they should have what they want. Shouldn’t they? Is owning an environmentally damaging house with four cars and garden in the suburbs an ‘inalienable human right’ or should it be classified as something that previous generations longed for and could afford, but which we cannot? Do we recognise that the costs of allowing everyone to own their own patch of grass two hours commute from where they work is neither good for them nor good for society as a whole?

To look at the figures dispassionately, 13% of land in the UK is Green Belt land. Audacity.org have produced a nice map illustrating the many designations of land used in England to prevent development. Their research demonstrates that we have built on approximately 10% of our land, leaving the remaining 90%, much of which is unavailable for development. The illustration of Green Belts around the main population centres demonstrates that they are doing their job of curtailing the growth of those centres, and putting pressure on nearby smaller towns to grow instead.

Unfortunately this land use planning strategy is not matched by an economic strategy that is helping to create jobs in those smaller towns. The result is a working population in the cities that must commute long distances to work and puts increasing pressure on the transport system. See here for statistics showing that a decade ago about one third of London’s working population commuted into London. One of the results of this has been the construction of more roads through the Green Belt, which has further degraded it, on top of the highly industrialised agriculture practised in most of the Green Belt which has denuded it of trees and wildlife. It may be green in colour, but much of it is grey in environmental terms, ecologically poor, with sparse areas of ecology poisoned by pesticides and curtailed by the machinery of the supermarket supply chain. Is it really worth protecting? Are we being realistic by calling it the Green Belt? Are we using the right yardstick to measure it against? Should we call it an Environmental Zone or Green Zone instead.

The decades-old principle of home ownership will soon be at an end unless these conflicting strategies are resolved. Land use designations including the Green Belt have become an inconvenient sacred cow that is preventing our cities from expanding. Growth is being pushed out to smaller dormitory towns, and pushing up the price of land outside the Green Belts to levels where starter homes require subsidy to be affordable. The policies discussed in the recent round of conferences include subsidies for first time buyers is a direct result of a set of planning policies that limit the opportunities for development.

I suspect that the Green Belt could be made smaller, more environmentally beneficial, and much more meaningful in real terms by being ‘masterplanned’ and ‘activated’ more thoroughly. The reality is that most Green Belt land currently performs little useful function other than to curtail development. Given that our wildlife population continues to plummet, we cannot argue that Green Belts have fulfilled a function of protecting wildlife. To live up to its designation Green Belts need to be transformed into places where nature can thrive and also be enjoyed by the urban population they are intended to support. A series of Environmental Zones surrounding our cities which contain leisure activities as well as a proportion of responsible farming, new woodlands, wind turbines, biodiverse places rich in ecology and protected by future generations and bounded by dense high quality homes seems to me to engender the best of both worlds. The costs of these changes would be borne by the sale of a proportion of the land for new housing.

Since many of these areas are already well-served by public transport little new infrastructure would be needed. The existing infrastructure is currently under-used as these outlying areas have not been able to expand since the transport network was installed decades ago. By creating jobs in these locations we would also reduce the need for expansion in the transport network and balance the current concentration of jobs in the centres of our cities with a new set of suburban desirable locations for people to live and work. The Green Belt was a good idea and it has left us a legacy of potential that we can use, but on its own it is not enough to guarantee a positive future for our major cities.

Assessing Microclimate in Urban Environments

“People, life and vitality are the biggest attractions in a city. We see it in the choice of peoples seating, where the most populated benches are located, how people choose to sit on sidewalk cafes facing the people walking by rather than the buildings behind them.
The biggest quality of a sidewalk café is simply the interaction with other people. Do you have a choice between walking through a deserted, empty street and a street with other people walking, people will choose the liveliest street that provides them with more experiences, visual variety and a feeling of safety.” Jan Gehl 2002

This quotation from Jan Gehl, and many others like it, have brought home to the design professions how much we had moved away from a human-centric design philosophy to a building-centric and car-centric design philosophy for much of the 20th Century. Even now we are still living with many of the mistakes made in those decades, a car dominated lifestyle, buildings that don’t address the street, housing with high level access walkways, large highways that unsympathetically cut through historic urban fabric, the list is a long one.

Considering the human impact of buildings and the quality of spaces between them means that we should spend much more time considering, drawing and analysing these spaces than we previously did. The tools are now more available to analyse these spaces than ever before, now we just need to use them more often. Here are some examples of the tools available and where to use them.

1. One can use tools like IES to assess the Wind Microclimate between buildings. The tool uses historic weather data to predict the wind conditions between buildings by calculating how the shape of the buildings that are there already and that are in our proposals will affect the wind speeds throughout the year. This calculation is usually carried out at pedestrian level because that is where the pedestrians are, as well as at higher levels where people might sit on balconies or on roof terraces. The results are compared against the Lawson criteria for pedestrian comfort, a scale that compares the type of activity with the prevailing wind speed. Activities such as sitting outside cafes and window shopping are suggested to be best places where the Beaufort Level 3 ‘Gentle Breeze’ is not exceeded for more than 1% of the time in a simulation. It is a notable failing in the Lawson Criteria that it doesn’t adequately deal with cycling and ‘windiness’. Cycling and wind are are particular problem as this combination presents a risk to life where cyclists can be blown into traffic by sudden gusts of wind, a problem not normally faced by pedestrians. Any suggestions by readers as to what an appropriate criterion would be are welcome.

2. IES can also be used to assess the solar irradiation on roofs to highlight locations for renewable energy systems, helpful in determining whether some buildings overshade others or whether some roofs will get ehough solar insolaton to make it worthwhile putting renewable systems there art all.

3. One can use ENVI-met to carry out a similar assessment, but with the additional sophistication of assessing the impact of planting and street trees on the local environment.

4. We can use ECOTECT to evaluate the solar incidence on the facades of buildings to tell us whether the cafe will be in sunshine for long periods of the year and whether people will get too hot sitting there and whether we should provide an awning. Ecotect is useful for many other type of analysis as well, but its imagery for this type of use is particularly helpful.

5. We can use simple tools like SketchUp to look at shadows cast by our designs at a early stage to assess the impact of one design versus another by comparing the impact at the equinoxes and solstices. This is paricularly helpful as it can be done easily and quickly by the designer in the tool that they are woring on (assuming that they are using SketchUp for early stage designs) and gives them immedate feedback. The other tools used here are for more specialist use and are typically used by consultants who specialise in this type of analysis.

6. There is a substantial piece of work being carried out at MIT to develop a suite of tools for urban design analysis based on the Rhino modelling software. This suite is intended to include tools for early daylight, energy and embodied energy analysis. It is still a work in progress but highlights the level of ambition made possible by readily available computing power. An example of the progress to date is the DAYSIM engine used for modelling daylight in and around buildings.

These are just some examples of the tools available to investigate whether the spaces we are creating between and around our buildings are going to be fit for purpose and enjoyable to use. Here is an example from the Kings Cross masterplan of a very successful intervention, a set of sout-facing steps connecting to the canal. It was popular before the astroturf was added, being a sheltered and sunny place to sit and chat, drink a coffee or eat lunch, now it is both sunny, and more comfortable to sit on.

 

Sitting in the Sun

Sitting in the Sun: Kings Cross

Housing and Overheating

Introduction

Dealing with overheating in UK housing and apartment design is quickly working its way up the list of priorities. I still have difficulty believing that DCLG decided to ignore this in the Housing Standards Review, but they did. Despite the Climate Change Committee report on Climate Change Adaptation stating that :

Many homes, hospitals and care homes are already
at risk of overheating. By the 2040s, half of all summers are expected to be as hot, or
hotter, than in 2003 when tens of thousands of people across Europe died prematurely.
A standard or requirement is needed in order to ensure new homes are built to take
account of the health risks of overheating now and in the future. Cost-effective passive
cooling measures should be adopted rather than relying on air conditioning, which will
be expensive and exacerbate the urban heat island effect.

But meanwhile, other, more responsible organisations are ploughing on regardless. The TSB ran a project called Designing for a future Climate and the outputs are here, for anyone interested in the topic, this is essential reading.

The Zero Carbon Hub have just kicked off a project to look at overheating specifically, and will report back early next year.

But what are practitioners to do now? What is a responsible approach?

I propose the following four steps.

1. Don’t use SAP

2. Carry out simulations, and choose the criteria carefully

3. Don’t believe everything simulations tell you

4. People will adapt, make the buildings ready for adaptation

The Detail

 

Firstly, lets agree that SAP is an inappropriate tool for providing the answer. Overheating will occur in fairly specific circumstances, caused by a complex mixture of factors and may only occur for a specific set of hours in a particular apartment. For example west facing apartments are likely to overheat in the evenings while east facing apartments in the same building may not overheat or overheat at different times of the day,  and the strategy for dealing with the problem is likely to be different from the east side to the west side. Overheating is elevation specific, not plan specific. SAP is not sophisticated enough to tell us when overheating is likely to happen in time, and therefore is unable to point towards useful strategies for dealing with it. There are a number of other tools on the market capable of analysing the problem such as IES and TAS. These are designed for the purpose and are much more appropriate for this use.

Secondly, we should be carrying out simulations on a regular basis of current apartment schemes to assess whether they overheat using current weather as a minimum, and preferably also assessing them with 2050 and 2080 weather predictions.

The standards to use for testing should be adaptive standards such as EN 15251 or CIBSE TM52 for buildings occupied by able and healthy individuals who will adapt to external temperature and who can control their environment, or who can go for a walk in the shade or go to the swimming pool on hot days.

For buildings where the occupants are young or old both of who have difficulty regulating temperature, and who may not be free or able to move to colder places or unable to close shutters, we should use the more risk averse CIBSE Guide A which sets a temperature level that must not be exceeded for a set number of hours per day.

Thirdly, lets agree that simulations are useful and necessary, but again are only guides to likely scenarios and are not facts. Here is a good illustration of the problems caused by taking simulations at face value.

Whilst working on a recent project we were presented with some analysis of overheating carried out by a well known and respected firm of engineers. Among other sensible suggestions they recommended reducing the size of the windows by 50% to reduce the likelihood of overheating by about 1% for the 2050 high emissions scenario. So, to explain, the suggestion was to reduce the area of glazing by 50% because simulations suggested that this reduced the likelihood of temperature in the apartment exceeding an agreed limit by 1% of the time the apartment was likely to be occupied. 1% of the occupied time for an apartment is about 1% of a year, so lets say 3.5 days in total. To reduce discomfort in 2050 for a three day period, the suggestion was to reduce the quality of life for the remaining 18,250 days. We won’t succeed in adapting to climate change by building buildings that no-one likes or wants to live in.

Fourthly, I believe that we will adapt both our behaviour and our ability to deal with warmer climates. The rate of change is slow enough for many species to migrate ahead of changing climate, so why can’t human beings adapt their behaviour too. Wearing different clothes, travelling at different times, closing shutters before going to work, having a siesta are all cheap ways of adapting to warmer climates. All of this makes simulation difficult. A simulation will assume that people in 205o will be cooking using the same equipment that we are using today, and it will assume that the heat gains from cooking will contribute to overheating. It is likely that people will change their cooking habits in warmer summers to avoid cooking at a time of the day when it contributes to overheating, but a simulation run using one of the currently available tools isn’t able to model changes of behaviour and lifestyle over time.

Our buildings need to be designed to accommodate shutters or blinds on the outside of buildings for those parts that are vulnerable to overheating. It may not be necessary to install them now, but it is likely to be necessary in the future, so design them in now. They are a familiar feature to anyone who has been to southern Europe and everyone understands how to use them immediately.

New Housing Quality Standards

There is a lot of discussion and movement currently on the topic of Housing Quality Standards. With the Housing Standards Review a lot of questions were asked by DCLG, but in truth, many of them went unanswered. The cessation of the Code for Sustainable Homes leaves a gap that is not going to be filled by Building Regulations because low carbon housing, even very low carbon housing, is not the same as high quality housing.

With the announcement of the London housing Zones, which will be developed to the mayors Standards, the question must be asked, what the Mayors standards are going to be, if the Code is not to continue?

Most of the issues contained in the Code are not moving to Building Regulations, and the ones that are are not going to be as demanding as the requirements of the Code. My view is that we need more demanding standards than Building Regulations to offer customers choices in the quality of home they want to buy, to encourage innovation in the supply chain, and to point the industry towards future changes in regulation. In the Housing Standards Review, space standards, overheating and daylighting were all mentioned, all of them are important, but none of them are currently regulated. Since the outcome of the HSR there has been a further announcement that ‘minor’ development may not be subject to Building Regulations 2016, and we await further detail.

So we are moving towards a situation where instead of one national standard, we will have two, one for major development and one for minor development, and where local Core Strategies will continue to call for development to meet the Code for Sustainable Homes since it is a very expensive process to change Core Strategies these will remain in place for some time to come. In London we appear to have a different view where the London Plan will remain in place and Code Level 4 will continue to provide a benchmark for new homes, probably because any viability argument against providing sustainable homes would be unconvincing.

The BRE has announced a consultation on the future of sustainability standards, and is suggesting the preparation of a new BREEAM standard for homes which would work in a similar way to other BREEAM standards. The consultation is open until the 25th July and I encourage you to submit a response.

The Housing forum is running a project called Mind The Gap which is trialling the idea of Performance Labelling for Homes. This is using BIM to produce a series of metrics about home performance characteristics, such as space, daylight, energy use, running costs. Could we create a market where house purchasers and tenants compared existing and new homes using the same benchmarks?

My view is that we need a much more ‘consumer’ focussed standard than the Code for Sustainable Homes ever was. The Code never became a part of the house purchasing story, many housebuilders who build Code homes never even attempted to use this as part of their marketing material. The Code was seen as an imposition that added cost but never as a benefit that added value. Any new standard must bridge this gap.

I am on the Technical Advisory Board of ActiveHouse, a pan-European effort to encourage the delivery of homes that are substantially higher quality than normal development but in terms that most home occupiers would understand: warmer, brighter, more spacious, healthier, cheaper to run. These are terms that any purchaser or future tenant can understand and we need to work together to develop a housing industry that speaks about and markets development in those terms, rather than focussing entirely on CO2 emissions which, though vitally important,  are baffling to the majority of people.

This week I spoke about this at the CIH annual conference in Manchester in a Kingspan sponsored event, together with Shelagh Grant of the Housing Forum and Martin Townsend of the BRE. The room agreed that we need standards that go beyond Building Regulations, and my belief is that these standards will only work if we in the industry create them for our customers. I will be hosting a series of workshops at HTA on this topic over the coming months, let me know if you want to be involved.