WAF 42 ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ 26/2/24        

The old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is often thought to be an ancient Chinese proverb attributable to that most veritable of philosophers Confucius, but it seems that the phrase is of much more recent origin, and its credit to Confucius not only unfounded but also mischievous. Jack Trout, author of the much-acclaimed book on marketing called ‘In Search of the Obvious’, has suggested that the true translation of the Confucius phrase is ‘A picture is worth a thousand pieces of gold’ which, in English at least, doesn’t quite have the same ring to it!

It is more likely that the phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ originated in the USA in the early part of the 20th century, when the expression ‘Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words’ appeared in a 1911 newspaper article discussing journalism and publicity.

Other similar phrases popped up regularly in the 1920’s, but it is probable that the modern use of the term stems from an article in that infamous and widely read trade journal Printers’ Ink, wherein Fred R. Barnard (namesake of the English illustrator, caricaturist and genre painter noted for his work on the novels of Charles Dickens) promoted the use of picture images in advertising with the line ‘One Look is Worth a Thousand Words’. Adverts of the day, as any study of early newspapers will reveal, were as long on persuasive text as they were short on images!

Some years later another piece by Barnard appeared in a March 1927 issue of Printers’ Ink under the heading ‘One Picture is Worth Ten Thousand Words’, a phrase that he claimed to have been a Chinese Proverb. But Barnard was later quoted as saying that he had only called it a Chinese proverb ‘so that people would take it seriously’. 

That they certainly did, for it was soon thereafter credited to Confucius who would surely have turned in his grave at the thought. Fake news indeed!

Adopting that mantra, I offer below two pictures, worth together a thousand words, against which I pen an extra thousand or so words of comment. 

A building with a brick wall and a brick wall

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A building with a pipe on the side

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The second image above is an enlargement of a part of the first image showing the cheap and nasty rainwater pipes that serve the building they adorn in Bethnal Green. This of course is nothing unusual: similar miserable arrangements can be seen across London, and indeed throughout our entire country, as the processes of modern procurement, be they straight Design and Build or some other sort of Construction Management contracting, deliver upon us the worst in terms of poorly thought through and ill-coordinated detailing. First, they eradicated the craftsman. Next, they came for the designers….!

Design and Build is, as we well know, a misnomer, and the images above betray a complete absence of any design thought or coordination. The stormwater drainpipes, as shown, of course never appeared on any architect’s drawing: such information was no doubt completely absent from the concept information and left for the Trade Contractor responsible for ‘plastic guttering, downpipes, all hoppers, clips, brackets and fixings etc.’ You know the language!

So does any of this matter? After all the building that I illustrate is anyway wholly undistinguished….

The answer is a resounding yes, it does matter because something very precious is steadily being replaced with the banal. Wherever I walk around London, from the districts of Mayfair and Bloomsbury to those of Poplar or Acton, I find that older buildings never fail to delight in terms of the detailing, the craft, the skill, and the care with which they were originally designed and built. Against that, so much of the new disappoints in terms of the construction and the detailing, even when the design concept has merit. And much of that disappointment lies in the increasing absence of attention to design detail, and the absence craft in its execution, that hitherto gave delight. 

As a complete contrast take the Divinity School in Oxford and the drainage details there as evidenced in the pictures below:  

A building with a statue in the front

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A building with windows and a drainpipe

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A black pipe on a stone wall

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                              Divinity School, Oxford by William Orchard – built during 1480’s.

Commodity. Firmness. Delight?

Lest I be mistaken, I am not calling for a return to traditional forms of building and I fully recognise the need for modern, lightweight, components with ever greater strength to weight ratios; better thermal performance; and thinner envelope construction. But I am calling for greater coordination and care in the selection, arrangement and detailing of the components that we do use. Let us never forget that infamous metaphorical line by Mies van der Rohe: 

‘Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together’.

Louis Kahn of course famously suggested to his students that when stuck for inspiration they should have a conversation with their materials, asking ‘What does a brick want to be?’ In his book featuring Kahn’s wonderful Bangladesh National Parliament, William Hall reports such an imagined conversation wherein Kahn asked, ‘What do you want, brick?’.

‘I like an arch’ was the reply to which Kahn allegedly responded ‘Look, I want one too, but arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel…what do you think of that brick?’ But the brick remained firm: ‘I like an arch’.

Of course, whether lintel or arch it matters not, because in Kahn’s hands arch or lintel were both beautifully incorporated into the whole. That is the point, as is well illustrated in the images shown below:

A building next to a body of water

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                       Bangladesh National Parliament completed 1982 – Louis Kahn

A close-up of a building

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            Salk Institute for Biological Studies completed 1965 – Louis Kahn 

But it is more than just the detailing and the beauty that is compromised through the crudeness of contractor led design and construction; it is also function and, critically, safety. Post the awful fire at Grenfell Tower back in June 2017 there has been an enormous rash of litigation claims following the investigations of facades to high-rise residential buildings which the government put in train. 

Thick and fast have come the dismayed reports of the findings: missing cavity barriers (both in design and construction) to compartmentation and around openings; combustible insulation extensively incorporated (both in design and construction) in contravention of ADB2 guidance; service extract ducts and flues discharging into cavities and cladding surfaces that breach spread of flame guidance. The list goes on and on; the affected buildings run into their thousands; the costs of remediation into the billions.

Architects are not free of criticism in all this, but one thing is for sure: the transformation in methods of building procurement that has taken place over the last four decades, with the tendency to split the construction process into trade packages, and to transfer substantial parts of the design and specification responsibility to ill-trained construction surveyors, Design and Build contractors, and so-called specialist sub-contractors, has brought with it a terrible price.

If such a process delivers drainage arrangements of the like shown on the outside of my Bethnal Green example, just think what the inside, hidden, construction looks like!

UK Design and Build of course started during the Thatcher era – the first Design and Build contract was published by the JCT in 1981, just two years after she came to office as Prime Minister. Perhaps it is no coincidence that she famously claimed that Oxford’s ‘monumental buildings impress ….by their size rather than their exquisite architecture*’

Maybe she just didn’t see the drainpipes at Divinity College the way I do.

WAF 41: ‘Take a Letter……’ 22 Feb 2024

‘I’ve brought a crate of Christmas Cheer’ said the Murphy’s driver as he struggled through the door bringing three bottles of very fine brandy ‘for Mr Price’. I thanked him and thought no more of it until Cedric, upon returning to the office after a good lunch expressed his extreme displeasure.

After reprimanding me for accepting this delivery Cedric, in customary fashion, instructed his P.A. to ‘Take a letter….

Dear Mr Enright…’ began Cedric, to the clattering rat-a-tat-tat of the machine, ‘It is the policy of this office to refuse gifts of any kind from Clients, Contractors and Suppliers, past, present or future. Kindly arrange collection of the offending delivery at your earliest convenience’.

My goodness, Cedric had a way with words, and my, how things have changed since then both in terms of protocols and the very equipment through which we communicated….back in 1974 our office boasted one of the then state of the art IBM Selectric 1 electric typewriters. 

Distinguished by a sphere covered in the letters of the alphabet, the Selectric’s mechanism replaced the traditional ‘basket’ of individual type bars which, when manually struck, had swung up to strike a ribbon which in turn printed the individual letters upon the page. As well as speed, the ‘golf balls’ could be easily switched allowing multiple changes of font….all state of the art back then.  

….But I digress. I thought nothing more of this occurrence as we broke for Christmas, and indeed the matter had been long forgotten when, late in March, I heard a knock at the door followed by that same melodic Irish voice: ‘I’ve come to collect those bottles of Christmas Cheer’ said the driver with a wry smile. The contents of all three bottles had of course been long ago consumed so I was dispatched with some urgency to the Soho Wine Store in Percy Street to buy replacements, albeit at retail price.

I have many times used this story as an indication of the basic standards and integrity that are indispensable to trust. It goes to the heart of the very notion of professionalism and the importance of recognising its essential characteristics. A much-abused word today ‘profession’ is defined when ‘googled’ as ‘doing something as a paid job rather than as a hobby e.g. professional athletes, a professional golfer’. This is an appalling misrepresentation of the true meaning of this important word. 

What I learned through Cedric is that being a ‘professional’ involves the delivery of skill and knowledge that a client usually doesn’t have which, although for a fee, is provided with the client’s interest at the fore.

It is for precisely this reason that care and caution in relation to any gifts or inducements that might compromise the independence and appropriateness of our service is of such critical importance. Examples of the importance of this principle abound: you rely on the integrity of your dentist at check-up time: when told a filling is needed you trust the advice. This is of course why your doctor should never accept gifts from a drug company, for it is surely unthinkable that your prescription, in quantity or character, should be influenced by favour.

And its why we should all be pleased that, albeit late in the day, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) at long last, after a long period of mounting pressure and criticism, finally agreed back in 2016 to set up a code of practice in which its member companies would be obliged to disclose payments made to doctors and pharmacists. Back then, pharmaceutical companies were paying healthcare professionals a stonking £40 million per year in ‘gifts’.

I have never been offered any form of inducement to specify a product, or to recommend any particular construction company or sub-contractor and, although I occasionally hear of disciplinary action against architects in respect of such matters, my suspicion (and sincere hope) is that such failings are rare within our profession. Indeed, it is perhaps something of a surprise we must trawl way back to the days of Pontefract architect John Poulsen to find any really significant scale of corruption: he was jailed in 1973 at the Leeds County Court in a case that brought down the then Home Secretary Reginald Maudling.

All this I pondered when I received notification in early January that a bottle of wine had been delivered as a Christmas gift to me at the registered address of our company. On the recommended list of the Sunday Times Wine Club as well as the BBC Good Food Wine Club, this circa £18 Cabilié 2022 comes from one of the 100-year-old vineyards that Hervé Sabardeil recently purchased way up on a sparse, steeply terraced slope that forms part of the Agly Valley just north of the Spanish border. Little has changed there since Ceasar, probably sampling wine from the same vines, raced through the region en route to Spain some 2000 years earlier.

A map of france with a red area

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The gift had been sent by a company of consultant engineers who I initially had no recollection of having ever heard of. But a little searching on their website, courtesy of technologies somewhat more advanced than Cedric’s IBM Selectric, reveals that they were involved with one of my past projects, completed some ten years ago.

Pondering upon whether I should accept this gift reminded me of President Nixon’s famous half-hour TV presentation back on 23 September 1952 in which he tried to answer charges regarding his alleged abuse of political expense funds.

Perhaps its most memorable part was when he stared into the camera, paused for a lengthy period, and then defiantly stated that he was going to keep one gift ‘no matter what happened’: 

‘……One other thing I probably should tell you because if we don’t they’ll probably be saying this about me too, we did get something—a gift—after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was?

It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl—Tricia, the 6-year-old—named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.’ 

The ever-gullible American electorate of course bought his calculated and sentimental drivel, lock stock and barrel, enabling him to run as President Eisenhauer’s deputy and of course gain office as the Vice President. The rest is history…right through to Watergate some twenty years later. 

……Leopards and spots?

Chequers died in 1964 and is buried at Long Island’s Bide-A-Wee Pet Cemetery but the dog’s legacy rolls on: in 1999 the Nixon speech was placed sixth on a list of 100 Twentieth Century US speeches in terms of social and political impact and rhetorical artistry! Most of that kudos came courtesy of Chequers. Indeed, the USA celebrates ‘National Dogs in Politics Day’ on 23 September each year and the resident White House dog under each president holds the title: ‘First Dog of the United States (FDOTUS). You couldn’t make it up!So, I am going to keep my bottle of wine as well, and much look forward to enjoying its richness and the lovely velvety feel that the French call ‘gouleyant’. But Cedric’s story serves as a timeless reminder to us all of the importance, in terms of professional conduct, of restraint in these matters.

Potential implications upon Stadia Design of playing a single 60-minute game without a half-time interval, on a ‘stop – start’ basis.

It is understood that there is growing interest in an experiment to alter the format of a traditional football game, i.e. 90 minutes split equally into two 45-minute halves with a 15-minute half-time interval to a single, 60-minute game without an interval, but played on the basis that when there is a break in play, i.e. as a result of foul or a substitution that the clock is stopped, similar to other sports, i.e. American Football and Basketball. It appears that early experiments have shown that the duration of a football game played on this basis, results similarly in an approximate 90-minute game.

The potential implications upon stadia design as a result of the simple omission of the half-time interval within the sport of football could be enormous, and it is an experiment that has all stadia owners, operators and designers studying with keen interest.

For example, the extent of the provision of food and beverage services and the length of concourse concessions and numbers of points of sale, together with male and female toilet facilities, are designed specifically to cope with an exact number of spectators, nominally 50% of the terrace spectator population using either or both of the facilities over the course of the ‘half-time window’, considered as being 20 minutes in duration to cater for those spectators that choose to leave their seats 5 minutes prior to half-time in order to avoid the anticipated rush’. In its most simple terms, no half-time interval leads potentially to no rush and a completely different ‘science’ to be applied to design of stadia concourse provision.

An anticipated reduction in the intensity of use of both the concessions and the W.C. facilities as a result of the omission of the half-time interval, would obviously lead to a reduction of the provision required and, therefore, greater flexibility in stadia concourse design and a greater depth and breadth of concession food and beverage offer for example.

The greater flexibility may well, however, lead to what many spectators would consider as the inconvenience of spectators more regularly leaving and returning to their seats and the ‘imposition’ of having to stand to allow spectators to pass along narrow seat rows to the stadia gangways and vomitories.  The solutions, perhaps a complete re-think of the minimum acceptable terrace depths required to say 1100mm that readily allow spectators to pass along the seating rows or more radically, the introduction of ‘in-seat’ hospitality service. To the spectator with a more traditional view on the duration and make up of a football game as two 45 minute halves with a 15-minute half-time period, the experiment may seem alarming, but to those spectators with less traditional fan experience expectations, whom understand the potential theatre of say, the recently introduced experiments with the ability for the game referee to refer decisions to a video referee, a 5th game official, stopping a game as such a ……………. and perhaps being permitted may seem enormously appealing

230919 WAF 38: Goldfinger speaking…

I had an Erno Goldfinger experience to round off this summer. Not like the occasion when, telephoning his office, he was answered by a young architect imitating his Hungarian accent: ‘Goldfinger speaking’. The great man allegedly replied ‘This is Goldfinger and you’re fired!’.  Nor the occasion (as reported by John Grindrod in his brilliant book Concretopia) when the short-fused maestro sacked someone sitting in his reception who wasn’t even employed by him. 

Mine was an experience more akin to the two months Erno and his long-suffering wife spent living in east London, on the 24th floor of Balfron Tower, their balcony overlooking the Thames above the north exit to the Blackwall Tunnel. That is just about the point, as the incoming high tide began to ebb, that the big cargo ships and liners were gently manoeuvred by skilled helmsmen and their tugs into the locks that served the West India Docks.

A group of people standing on a rooftop

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Erno and Ursula on their balcony in Balfron Tower in 1968

Erno and Ursula had moved into the tower from Willow Road in Hampstead. (Their next-door neighbour was Ian Fleming who had adopted Erno’s surname for the lead villain in his 1959 book, Goldfinger. The film of the same name, the third in the 007 series, followed in 1964. By the time the architect moved temporarily into the tower in 1968, the Goldfinger name was already legendary.)

Erno told the Guardian in February 1968: ‘I want to experience at first hand the size of the rooms, the amenities provided, the time it takes to obtain a lift, the amount of wind whistling around the tower, and any problems that might arise from my designs, so I can correct them in the future.’ The following year he declared that ‘All architects should live in a home they designed.’

The reason for living in one of my own projects was far less laudable: my wife and I were asked to house-sit and look after our grandchildren for a week while their parents travelled overseas. I had designed alterations and a substantial extension to their two-storey home in north London, recently completed.

An interesting experience.  Nothing in the way of visits during construction, post-occupancy snagging, a client’s invitation to a house-warming party, or even a thank-you dinner, can match the reality of actually living in a home you designed for someone else. Especially when you do it with a young family still in residence.

Yes, the morning sun does penetrate as deeply into the plan as I had expected; the shadows on the (of course white) walls are indeed as sharp as I had hoped for; visual privacy from neighbours has been adequately secured despite the large expanse of new fenestration and bi-fold doors; the place does remain mercifully cool in this hottest of summers courtesy of cross ventilation; the kitchen works fine and the planning offers plenty of freedom and variety for the kids (five- and three-year-olds and an 18-month baby) in terms of play-areas and quiet corners. And then that important question: is there enough storage space for the plethora of kids’ toys, so that the swift transformation can be achieved post-bedtime? Happily, it all seems to work just fine.

A house with a fence and a red fence

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The Type 1 Cornish Unit

My son and daughter-in-law had purchased a Type 1 Cornish Unit, one of 30,000 prefabricated homes, made largely of pre-cast reinforced concrete planks, between 1946 and 1960. Their property was the end unit within a terrace of four and because their site was unusually large, we were able to create an extension that almost doubled the ground-floor living area. But it was the geometry of the available space that produced the real challenge, and greatest opportunity, as can be seen from the before-and-after plans below.

Diagram, engineering drawing

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Ground Floor Plan before alteration

Diagram, engineering drawing

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Ground Floor Plan after alteration

Most of us in the western world grow up in orthogonal spaces, but the spaces we have created through this expansion areis intentionally non-orthogonal. in response to the shape of the site. This is also notable within the section of the new living room, which has a mono-pitch roof and sloping ceiling. I am curious to know how this unusual ordering of space will impact on grandchildren as they develop. 

For example, will their creative play – so important in learning – be influenced by the angular geometries? Will their sensory responses to space be heightened? Will they be more demanding – or more tolerant – of the unusual in place-making and design?

How space impacts mood, behaviour and performance was my main reason for choosing Canterbury School of Architecture as my initial place of study: the course included a module on architectural psychology. Under that programme, I was fascinated to learn ways in which people are emotionally and psychologically affected by their environments, not only by the furniture arrangements, but also by room sizes and shapes, inter-relationships, décor and colour. (All this would prove to be especially useful when, years later, I was commissioned to design the Treatment Centre for Victims of Torture.)

As a child, my contextual experience was totally different from that of today’s primary school children. Our Victorian school was a grim, forbidding place: high window-sills offered some daylight yet no views out. Our desks were placed in traditionally regimented rows, one behind the other. The teacher’s desk was set on an intimidating raised platform. By contrast, our grandchildren share large working tables with other pupils in a classroom with low windows, all offering views to the playground. The teacher’s table is located centrally. 

Does my experience make me more receptive to hierarchical management structures? Will theirs accelerate development of teamwork skills?

A picture containing text, indoor, old, miller

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Traditional classroom set-up (source: Architectural Psychology,                                  RIBA Publications 1970)                                                 

Also notable in living in this house is the generosity of the urban planning and the commitment to landscaped public space across the estate – regular grassed areas, plenty of tree-planting and even beds of roses still maintained by the local council. And of course, in this town planned at the dawn of the modern motor age, comes a local parade of shops, local school and local pub. We can walk everywhere in terms of basic needs. All of which is great for the kids.

Talking of house-warming parties, back in 1978 Liz Goldfinger, a gracious, generous, and kind past-client, invited me to the celebration following completion of my alterations to her four-storey Victorian terraced house, in a quiet side road in Islington. 

In the corner of the main lounge sat an elderly man, hands resting on a walking stick, bow tie slightly crooked. This was Liz’s father, Erno, whose response when introduced to me still rings in my ears: ‘So you are the young man who thinks he is an architect’.


231019 WAF 39

The milkman was once an essential service available to all households but by 1995 doorstep delivery had declined to just 45% of the retail milk market. Today it is a mere 3%, and still falling.

Our milk came from Bartonsham Dairies located alongside the east bank of the river Wye, just south of Hereford. As a child I well remember the Friesian cows, interspersed with a few Jerseys grazing those pastures, all part of the alluvial flood plain that, through its annual flooding, supported grasses so rich in nutrients. 

We of course loved the Jersey cows with their gentle nature and light brown colouring, but commercial realities had already led to a strong preference amongst dairy farmers for the ‘Black and Whites’ as descended from the cattle of Friesland in north Holland and the Schleswig Holstein herds of northern Germany. 

Friesians are now the dominant breed in industrial farming worldwide, partly because of their robust health but mainly because of the comparatively high milk yields: 17.6 kgs against 11.7 average per day for Jerseys. Against that, Jersey milk is 15% richer in protein and calcium and contains considerably higher concentrations of the essential vitamin B12….and it tastes better! 

Gold, silver or red foil capped bottles which were delivered to our side door (tradesman to the side!) by 7 a.m. each morning, all against the night-time ritual of leaving ‘empties’, well rinsed and clean, on the doorstep for collection. I will never forget the chinking of bottles in their crates, the whirring of the electric battery-powered milk-floats as they stopped and started in the street outside, and of course the routine of Friday evenings when the milkman would call, leather money bag over his shoulder, collecting cash for the week’s deliveries.

Those milk floats, often to be seen ‘struggling’ back to the farm at walking pace with batteries deplete, were invented by Philip V Pocock who created SPEL Products, a company now dedicated to the manufacture of a wide range of products including GRP cladding panels – but that is another story… 

A red and white truck with a sign

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The point of all this is that I had, as a child, a clear understanding of where our milk came from: I often visited the farm when sent by bicycle to buy another ‘pint of gold top’ or some cream; and I walked the fields where the cows grazed and canoed the river adjoining the farm; I even knew the milkman. Likewise, the baker, the butcher and a host of other local service providers. Even where I did not know the producer, I was aware that much of our food – meat products, fruit, vegetables, and of course cider – were all sourced locally by our shopkeepers.

But those days, the ‘50s turning ‘60s, saw the closing of the era of (predominantly) local supply: indeed, during my grandparents’ lives, food had travelled an average of just eight miles before arrival on the table. Today, within the UK, the average food item travels 1,837 miles to get from farm to plate – it’s 1,500 miles in the USA, 1,864 in Canada and a staggering 43,496 miles per dish in Melbourne Australia!  If you want to stretch that further in the UK buy a MacDonald’s Big Mac for which the combined ingredients will have clocked some 8,000 miles en route to you.

And ‘waste’ is just as bad: everything that ‘emanated’ from the house of my uncle and aunt just outside Hereford ended up in the soil: they had an earth closet which was dug out regularly, the contents being dispersed across the garden as fertiliser; other rubbish was burned periodically, and nothing was wasted. The plastic and polystyrene packing and wrappings of today would have been rejected out of hand as they had no way to safely dispose of such dangerously toxic and carcinogenic materials…….

But it is not the issues of sustainability that I address here. Rather I wish to focus on the astonishing transformations to the fabric, rituals and ‘choreography’ of our cities and city-life that have taken place in the recent decades consequent upon the revolution in retail supplies and delivery. 

My first proper job was as a van driver employed by the local town grocer delivering orders around Hereford and to remote locations in and around the villages across the county, right up into the Welsh borders. That world came to a crashing end with the arrival into town of the supermarket chains. Buying patterns of generations were upended, seemingly overnight, as these new stores with their underground or closely adjoining carparks attracted shoppers to a single supply source: bread, meat, fish, fruit, indeed all groceries and the rest under one roof, transactions at one till. Rapidly all the local specialist food suppliers within the city centre were forced to close, their offerings (irrespective of the quality of product or service) too expensive and too inconvenient. 

This, of course, coincided with the shift to full time working for most women, so late opening and single point sourcing of supplies with convenient parking became agents for such change, and I get that, but gone for ever were the sights of locally trapped rabbits and pheasants, and the pungent smell of fish, in the stalls that had for centuries adorned the town’s historic and lively Butter Market. And gone forever was a way of life for traders and those who serviced and supplied them, for customers, and indeed for the entire city.

As with smaller towns across the country, Hereford was thus left with an abundance of clothes shops and other retailers but even there, as with food, ‘local’ was lost: the likes of Burtons, Dorothy Perkins, Stead and Simpson for clothes and shoes; Smiths and Menzies for magazines, Boots pharmacy and so on: these were the national retailers whose names and brands became the familiar backdrop to our provincial ‘high streets’. They now called all the shots, and they called them with little or no sympathy for local interests or tradition.

So, with their arrival came the rapid de-populating of town centres, for gone were the local retailers and with them the tradition of living (or at east letting out rooms) ‘over the shop’. The national brands would yield no space for access to upper floors (100% shop front being the mantra), and they would countenance no messy residential letting operations or problems with washing machines leaking from flats over into their retail outlets.

So, over the decades, those lovely provincial shopping streets with their three and four storey Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian buildings, hitherto occupied across all floors, became (save for some commercial lettings to small professional businesses) largely unoccupied save for the ground floor retail. You only had to look in winter months at the darkened upper floors in places as far afield as Canterbury, Tewksbury, or Blackburn for the evidence. Terry Farrell’s ingenious work for the Comyn Ching development in Covent Garden proffered an alternative to such waste, but alas, national retailers cared nothing for the towns that they exploited. 

So fast forward to today and the crisis in retail and I can see nothing but more seismic changes to come: Ocado – you now see their vans everywhere – are fast set to render the Supermarkets of Tesco et al completely redundant in another twist to the story of food distribution. (What is it about the British and grocery trades? Founded in 2000 in a single room in London this is now a £2.5 billion operation with major expansion into Europe, Canada, and the Far-East). 

Headquartered in Hatfield, they have no shops…simply warehouses such as their huge unit at Andover, full of high-speed ‘bots’ which ‘whizz’ about ‘picking’ products for customers’ orders from atop a 3D grid of crates packed with items. A 50-item order is completed in minutes, then bagged ready for transport. These videos and the photo below give a taste of tomorrow… today.

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Put simply, why would you contemplate the grim chore of pushing a trolley round a store, loading up the Weetabix and trooping home by car, when you have Ocado delivering to your home at pre-agreed times against an on-line order. 

And then there is the future of delivery by air not road: tomorrow’s tomorrow looks more like the world of Dan Dare comics with drones flashing about the skies, ‘dropping’ parcels to our garden pads! Fantasy? No…. it’s already in train with Amazon: 

A screenshot of a website

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A drone carrying a box

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Take a look at this video for the story: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-67132527.

What does this mean for the Basildons and the Barnsleys, the Peterboroughs and the Prestons of the UK? Quite simply this: Good News! With the demise of the dreadful supermarkets and national retailers we can now completely rethink the meaning of town. Remember Cedric Price’s adage: 

  • Medieval towns were like boiled eggs – citizens slept safely inside the gated walls and worked in the surrounding fields by day.
  • Industrial towns were like fried eggs….we worked in the centre by day and left to sleep in the suburbs.
  • Modern cities are more like scrambled eggs with the spread of work and residence well intermixed.

We now face a new era of great transition where we can turn our cities into the utopia that they really should offer….places of culture in its widest sense where we live in homes which are supplied with all our essential needs by robots. 

Incredible………And in terms of architecture and planning: nothing but opportunity as we completely re-think citizenship and the fabric within which it is hosted.

30718 WAF 37: Designing to order…

So, here’s a complex and controversial set of issues:

Presenting recently for the American news channel MSNBC, Johnathan Capehart described a recent decision by Republican appointed Justices in the Supreme Court of America that found in favour of a web-site designer who had refused a commission from a same-sex couple. The Court decided that forcing acceptance of such a commission ‘would violate (the designer’s) First Amendment Rights’ because she would be required to draft a wedding programme which would contain commentary that conflicted with her religious beliefs.  

Following the ‘six in favour / three against’ ruling, one of the dissenting judges, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, issued the following statement:

‘Today is a sad day in the American constitutional law and in the lives of LGBT people. The Supreme Court of the United States declares that a particular kind of business, though open to the public, has a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of a protected class. The Court does so for the first time in its history.

By issuing this new license to discriminate in a case brought by a company that seeks to deny same-sex couples the full and equal enjoyment of its services, the immediate, symbolic effect of the decision is to mark gays and lesbians for second class status.’

You can read an account of the case on https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/supreme-court-rules-designer-make-wedding-websites-gay-100539807 where the ruling is reported to have found in favour of one Lorie Smith, affirming that she can refuse to design websites for same-sex weddings despite a Colorado law that bars discrimination based on sexual orientation, race, gender, and other characteristics.

The report goes on to suggest that artists, photographers, videographers, and writers are among those who can equally refuse to offer what the Court called ‘expressive services’ if doing so would run contrary to their beliefs.

In contrast to her opinion, and in support of the ruling, Sotomayor’s fellow Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that the First Amendment ‘envisions the United States as a rich and complex place where all persons are free to think and speak as they wish, not as the government demands’ adding that the Court has long held that ‘the opportunity to think for ourselves and to express those thoughts freely is among our most cherished liberties and part of what keeps our Republic strong.’

Whilst the instincts of most of the readers of this column will likely be much in sympathy with the views of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, some may consider that the Gorsuch view that a ‘ruling against Smith would allow the government to force all manner of artists, speechwriters, and others whose services involve speech to speak what they do not believe on pain of penalty’ to be a matter of concern.

For example, such an instance could involve a gay website designer being forced to design websites for an organization that advocates against same-sex marriage. Such advocacy, however distasteful to, no doubt, most of our population is, after all, legal both in the USA and the UK. On that basis it would seem logical that the denial of web-site services would, as in the case of Lorie Smith, also be illegal. Would that be acceptable to all those who would have Lorie Smith prosecuted?

Gorsuch expressed further concerns in this respect as follows: ‘Countless other creative professionals, too, could be forced to choose between remaining silent, producing speech that violates their beliefs, or speaking their minds and incurring sanctions for doing so.’

Which brings me to reflect on architects and their rights, or otherwise, to refuse commissions on the grounds of personal belief. For example, I remember many years ago a well-respected London firm being pilloried in the Architects’ Journal because its design for a prison in the Middle East contained a gallows. This begs the question as to whether members of its design team should have been entitled to refuse to participate in such a project on ethical or religious grounds without fear of putting their jobs at risk?

Likewise, should a Muslim architect in the UK be entitled to refuse a commission to design an extension to a Christian Church on religious grounds? Or should an atheist be entitled to refuse a commission to design a chapel on purely non-religious grounds? Similarly, should an anti-abortionist architect be entitled to refuse a commission to design an abortion clinic, or a pro-abortion architect a headquarter fit-out for an anti-abortion pressure group? Perhaps even more controversial, should an architect be free to refuse a commission to design a surgery for ‘non-medically required’ circumcision of male children, a practice which is common within both Jewish and Muslim communities, and lawful in the UK if there is consent from both parents? 

Our world is becoming daily more complex in these matters, and many issues are being tested in open forum when in earlier times commissions that were not palatable to a particular architect might, perhaps, have been politely declined on the basis that the firm was simply ‘too busy’. But in these times of ever greater transparency, and dare I suggest it, ever greater intolerance, such conflicts are becoming more common and very much more public. Indeed, it is no stretch of the imagination to contemplate an architect being faced with the same conundrum as that which led Michael Black and John Morgan, back in March 2010, to bring a civil case against Susanne Wilkinson who, you may recall, refused on religious grounds to provide accommodation at her home, from which she offered bed and breakfast services, despite having accepted a reservation and received a deposit. She lost.

Of course, some may argue that whilst refusing to grant a night’s accommodation to a gay couple in a guest house, however small, can be readily likened to the reprehensible conduct of a publican refusing to serve a person of colour in a bar, it is quite different to accepting (or rejecting) an invitation to provide service as an architect – or as any other type of designer (for example: a web designer…). Others would surely disagree…

Wisdom might of course suggest that a gay couple would anyway be better not to employ an architect who, on religious or moral grounds, felt unable to design their house, but if legal precedent is to be consistently applied, then in line with the Black/Morgan v Wilkinson case, refusing such a commission for such reasons would surely be deemed illegal. But is it right that an architect in this position should be deemed guilty of a criminal act? Most would surely find such a reason for refusal both bizarre and unacceptable, but amongst them there will be those who see little sense in forcing an architect to undertake such work against penalty of prosecution. After all punishment, whether by way of fine or imprisonment, is unlikely to change the mindset of the offender, which is where the problem lies.

Against those conundrums remember that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act of 2013 specifically excludes marriages within the Church of England which is allowed to continue to apply the biblical definition of marriage as set out in Canon Law as being ‘in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better or for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side….Likewise, mosques and synagogues, and indeed any other ‘religious place(s)’ are so protected from any obligation to conduct same sex marriages on their premises. 

Then there is the common practice of refusing women free movement. I well remember attending Zaha’s funeral at the Regent’s Park Mosque, and hearing the loud and vain protestations of some of the architectural profession’s most eminent women as they were refused access to the ‘musallah’ (principal hall). Protest they might but to no avail: their entry was firmly denied as rightly, or wrongly, their menfolk (bar the occasional mild protest) acquiesced to the rigid segregation of sexes that Frederick Gibberd’s plan had anticipated. (Yes, he, the same protestant architect that gifted Liverpool its Roman Catholic Cathedral!)

Arguments around these sorts of issues will surely continue to escalate, both in their frequency and intensity, but it seems to me that there is a hidden danger in all this that those who insist quite rightly on promoting freedom may, in securing it, unwittingly be establishing what many might consider to be unfair restrictions on the liberty of others. 

Some may advocate common sense and tolerance as we go forward but, either way, we can surely expect increasing tensions and plenty of highly controversial rulings as the Courts are forced to engage in such matters.

230625 WAF 36 Read on……!

In our imagination, as one more frequently associated with a destruction of books which started with the burning of ‘un-German’ books in Berlin’s Bebelplatz Square in 1933 and ushered in some 12 years of uncompromising state censorship, Adolph Hitler had established, at the time of his death, a formidable personal library.

The conclusion of World War 2 saw some 1,200 surviving books, which comprised the substantial part of the remnants of his 16,000-volume collection, transported to the Library of Congress in Washington where they would be stored in climate-controlled obscurity for some 50 years in the rare book division. There they would remain inaccessible to the public, uncatalogued, and little studied, until Timothy Ryback secured permission to research the collection as a basis for his book, ‘Hitler’s Private Library’, which was published in 2009.

Amongst those collections, which had during the war been housed principally in the Berlin Chancellery, and in his private homes in Munich and at Obersalzberg (the alpine retreat he so loved) were Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gulliver’s Travels. Hitler ranked these as being amongst the greatest works of world literature. Niccolo Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ was also present as was, perhaps more surprisingly, the collected works of William Shakespeare, published as a German translation. The entire nine-volume set is bound in hand-tooled Moroccan leather with a gold-embossed eagle flanked by initials on the spine of each book.

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The collected works of William Shakespeare bound in                                                                  hand-tooled Moroccan leather.

Hitler considered Shakespeare superior to Goethe and Schiller in every respect, 

and frequently incorporated Hamlet into his everyday speech, regularly saying “Sein oder nicht sein”, and “Für mich ist es Hekuba“. Neither of these lines though have quite the ring or gravitas of their english counterparts: ‘To be or not to be‘ and ‘It is Hecuba to me‘.

He was also especially fond of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and in this respect one of his early sketch books dating from 1926 contains a detailed stage set for the play’s first act in which sinister facades define the murder scene…..perhaps a foreboding of his own encounter with assassination, albeit unsuccessful, at the Wolf’s Lair some eighteen years later.  

More surprising, perhaps, as found in the collection, are Hitler’s copies of two of Henry Ford books. The first entitled ‘The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem’ was based on 91 articles that Ford had published from 1929 onwards following his acquisition of the ‘Dearborn Independent’ newspaper. The second Henry Ford book, ‘My Life and Work’ had been inscribed by the German-American businessman Ernst Hanfstaengl, an erstwhile close friend of Hitler who had assisted in the editing of the ‘Mein Kampf’. Incorporated into the marginalia of these publications are a series of notes written by Hitler which serve as evidence of his strong interest in Ford.

The library also contained folios of Hitler’s artwork, including work from his experiences of the First World War. As with the war poets, novelists, and artists of both sides of the conflict, Hitler’s drawings and paintings tell us much about the impact of events on him, as well as what they reveal about the environment within which he and his fellow soldiers struggled to exist.

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Ruin of a Monastery in Mesen: Adolph Hitler – 1914 

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Sketch of his farmhouse billet near Fournes: Adolph Hitler – undated

Overall, the library tells us much about Adolph Hitler, both by way of the extensive marginalia that are to be found within many of the texts, but also as an indication of Hitler’s main interests. In this respect the original collection had fallen broadly into three parts: firstly, a military section containing some 7,000 volumes, many of them – especially those dealing with Napolean’s campaigns – particularly heavily marginated with Hitler’s notes. The second section comprise some 1,500 books on artistic subjects such as architecture, for which he had demonstrated a great love and considerable ambition, the theatre, painting, and sculpture. The third part of the collection reflected his rather quirky interest in astrology, spiritualism, nutrition, and diet.

But it is the sub-heading to Ryback’s work ‘The Books that Shaped his Life’, that I find so interesting: for it is this selecting of what it is that we will read that is so important in our study, and indeed in the very shaping of our careers as architects.

In terms of my early career that selection process took the form of a very dreary false start: indeed, I cannot begin to understand what the faculty staff were thinking of when they compiled a reading list of books that they advised us to acquire prior to enrolling for our first term of study back in 1971. Those texts are still on my bookshelf at home, all unread albeit with one notable exception. I don’t in any way question the worth of such publications as Kidson, Murray and Thompson’s ‘History of English Architecture’ with its opening sections on the Anglo-Saxon period and Norman Church Architecture through the Tudor and Jacobean periods to the end of the Victorians at page 298. But goodness me; only a mere 29 pages within Chapter 13 were dedicated to Modern Architecture in a book published in 1962 in the immediate aftermath of the Festival of Britain, the Skylon and the new town programmes that were transforming the then often bomb-damaged slumland legacy of the Victorian era. I wanted to look forwards and shape the future, not backwards!

And of course Nikolaus Pevsner’s ‘Outline of European Architecture’ was also on the list devoting some 403 stuffy pages of grim text to everything that wouldn’t interest my young mind at that time; that is until, finally, in Chapter 9 he let rip and looked to the ‘Present day’ for a refreshing 31 pages which gave us glimpses of the Barcelona Pavilion and Ronchamp. 

Even today, I do severely challenge the wisdom of offering such a turgid list to a first-year intake, particularly at a school that would attract low grade A Level achievers such as me.

The notable exception to which I refer was of course Le Corbusier’s ‘Towards a New Architecture’ which offered an electrifying introduction to my chosen career, with its provocative and beautiful images, its breath-taking optimism and challenging concepts such as ‘a house is a machine for living in’, and his commitment to mass production.   

So apart from that, I read next to nothing until I found myself in the privileged position of working my first ‘year out’ in the office of Cedric Price. There, some three months on and having given me time to settle in, Cedric called me into his private room adjacent to which were floor to ceiling shelves devoted to just a part of what I came to learn was his formidable 6,000 plus book collection.

‘What are you reading at the moment?’ he enquired against which I offered the disappointing reply of ‘nothing’. Cedric’s response was to promptly march me to the shelves where he instructed me to carefully select two books prior to returning. I chose works by two regular visitors to the office:  Peter Hall’s ‘London 2000’ (first published in1963) and Reyner Banham’s ‘Age of the Masters’. Blowing the dust off each volume, Cedric paused to thumb their pages, whereupon he carefully put Hall back on the shelf and handed me Banham with the comment: ‘I never lend two books at once!’. This was followed by the terrifying instruction for me to read it carefully over the next four weeks after which I would be invited to give a presentation to the office over morning coffee and brandy.

Thus started my own serious interest in books and reading, and the beginnings of a collection which has continued to grow to this day. I too write commentary in my books…..always in pencil which I see as non-defacement, and absolutely essential. Indeed, I cannot read without a pencil in hand.

Visiting the offices, and occasionally the homes, of many friends in architecture, I have always taken pleasure in scanning my eyes across their collections, and it is amazing how often the same great classics of architectural commentary are found on their shelves. In each case those libraries have informed, stimulated, and nourished the work of the offices in which they are housed, and in each case, they again reveal much of their collectors. I especially remember enjoying seeing the respective libraries of Rick Mather and Eric Parry, both generously available to their respective offices, and both clearly much in daily demand and use. So often on such visits I have wished for the time to not only browse the shelves in more detail, but to peep inside the books to see what more the marginalia might indeed reveal about their respective approaches to architecture and the incredible work that they and in Rick’s case, their teams, continue to produce.

Which takes me to the epitaph at St Paul’s Cathedral, which mercifully survived Hitler’s intense bombing campaign, ‘Lector, si momentum requires, circumspice’….’If you wish to see his memorial, look around you’. These words were memorably repeated within the eulogy of the brilliant engineer Sam Price at Peter Foggo’s memorial service in the now brutally destroyed Broadgate Arena. I could add to those fine words: ‘si vis scire quid opus suum certiorem fecit, vide in bibliotheca’…. ‘If you want to know what informed this work, go look at their library!’

230521 WAF 35 – Game Up!

Dame Judith Hackitt was awarded an honorary fellowship at the RIBA last month. Now a household name within the construction industry, the impact of her report ‘Building a Safer Future’ has been profound: it is no overstatement to suggest that the new Building Safety Act, which came into force this month, is built almost entirely on her recommendations.

The speed of her work was astonishing. Instructed on 30 August 2017, a mere 11 weeks after the fire at Grenfell Tower, Dame Judith published her interim report on 18 December 2017 and her final report on 17 May 2018 – an incredible achievement.

Another, in my view equally important, report was instructed in April 2021 by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). Led by Paul Morrell (ex-senior partner of Davis Langdon Everest Cost Consultants) and King’s Counsel Anneliese Day, ‘Testing for the Future’ was finally published by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) on 23 April 2023 – rather mysteriously a good 18 months after its completion. An obvious complement to the Hackitt Report’s focus on Building Regulations and Fire Safety in terms of statutory controls and design, this second report has investigated the territories of product testing, certification, and representation through trade literature – another world of astonishing mystery and confusion.

Despite Morrell’s thorough understanding of the UK’s extraordinarily fragmented construction industry, he must surely have benefited enormously from the partnership with KC Day who was recently described in language not common to her profession as “an absolute Rockstar at the top of her game”. Praise indeed for someone who, in 2020, was named ‘International Arbitration Silk of the Year’ having previously been shortlisted as ‘Professional Negligence Silk of the Year’, named ‘Construction and Energy Silk of the Year’ three times, and ‘Barrister of the Year’ in 2014 by The Lawyer. 

The Morrell-Day report should have an impact on the construction industry just as profound as that of Judith Hackitt, for whilst Hackitt has laid bare the confused complexity and ambiguity of a regulatory process which she described as ‘not fit for purpose’, Morrell and Day have opened the lid on a pandora’s box of misrepresentation and deception. They have also drawn attention to the extraordinarily fragmented nature of our industry which the following image listing the members and associate members of the Construction Industry Council (CIC), illustrates only too well:

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Apparently, British construction is represented by over 500 institutes, guilds, confederations, and the like….

In a fascinating early section of their report entitled ‘Mapping the Landscape’ Morrell and Day illustrate this fragmentation by reporting that in 2019 the ‘headline statistics’ across the entire UK industry – that is contracting, professional services, and product manufacturing – were:

  • total UK turnover: £432bn, representing 8.8% of UK Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 
  • number of firms: 407,754 
  • number of people employed: 2,243,000 (plus 843,000 self-employed, primarily in contracting) 
  • size distribution of firms: 

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It is not difficult to see that that such fragmentation has obvious and very serious implications with respect to regulation, control, quality and, in consequence, the safety of our buildings. Indeed, in a somewhat chilling passage of the report the authors describe in detail the realities of the industry’s trading conditions and the business models by which it operates in response to the forces of demand and supply:

……these forces, which have been the subject of constant studies, do not excuse the inexcusable: incompetence should not be tolerated, and there should be no hiding place for misconduct. They do, however, mean that propositions for change, including the expectation of a change of culture, are likely to succeed only if they are rooted in an appreciation of the powerful business drivers that the industry’s operating model responds to. 

These drivers and operational responses can be summarised as follows:- 

(1) a pattern of demand that is both diverse (from small refurbishment projects to huge new build infrastructure) and volatile (as the capital investment tap is turned on and off in response to economic cycles), compounded by constant bespoke variation of clients’ requirements; 

(2) an industry that is consequently reactive, waiting for the next enquiry before equipping itself to respond; 

(3) fragmentation within the industry, both in terms of the number of businesses and the way it organises itself, with fractures between design and construction management, between the management of construction and its execution, and between those who design and construct buildings and those who occupy them – with the critical consequence that nobody owns the whole process; 

(4) an industry that is not dominated by a small number of major players in the same way as more concentrated industries (the turnover of the largest UK contractor is about 15% of the turnover of the largest supermarket, and the market share of the top 5 contractors is less than 20%, compared with more than 60% for the top 5 supermarkets); 

(5) a high dependence upon subcontracting; 

(6) a highly mobile workforce, with a high proportion of self-employed (and, to date, a significant proportion of migrant labour), so investment in training is a particular casualty of market failure; 

(7) relatively low barriers to entry, with working capital largely provided by the industry’s customers; 

(8) notwithstanding low barriers to entry, relative protection from the high levels of foreign competition that have transformed other industries; 

(9) low levels of innovation, including slow take-up of industrialisation and digitalisation;. 

(10) a limited understanding and appreciation of how built assets actually create value, on the part of both the demand and supply sides, with the result that lowest initial cost becomes the principal driver; 

(11) consequently high levels of competition at low margins, often in the expectation that a margin can be created or increased by “playing” the terms of contract later, by driving down suppliers’ prices, or by product substitution; 

(12) the consequent prevalence of opportunistic tendering within the supply chain, rather than the assembly of a settled team that can strive for continuous improvement; 

(13) the absence of a feedback loop by which learning can be collected and disseminated; and 

(14) low levels of independent oversight of quality assurance and compliance. 

Make no mistake, this is sobering stuff which well illustrates the challenges we face in, for example, matching up to the performance and safety standards which are achieved within aviation design, production, operation and maintenance.

The authors concluded this part of their report with the observation that:

……..to the extent that a whole (construction) industry can be said to possess a culture (and, indeed, to the extent that such a diverse sector that represents almost 9% of GDP can be said to be a single industry), it is inevitably shaped by these forces.

This all makes for some very dismal reading, and it will be a matter of great interest and concern to see how, if at all, this Government, as well as future governments, respond.

For our part, we as design professionals have more than enough to do to get our own house in order, and in this respect, we will do well to take note of paragraph in which Morrell and Day remind us that:

‘products… (are developed)….. from raw materials (insulation for example) into a component (an insulated panel) into a system/assembly (cladding) and then into a completed building, with all of its systems and sub-systems, which must be built, commissioned, maintained and managed to serve its intended purpose.’ 

This again resonates with Dame Judith Hackitt’s view that building safety is contingent on safe systems. And here is the point: to date, with respect to the performance of buildings in conditions of fire, both the Approved Documents that provide guidance in terms of compliance with the Building Regulations, and the BBA test certificates upon which so much reliance has been placed by designers during product selection and specification, have placed far too much emphasis on the behaviour of discrete parts of buildings in isolation, rather than in the context of the ‘system’ or assembly of which they are but an isolated part.

That approach has been found to be as woefully lacking as it has been easily ‘gamed’ by manufacturers and suppliers whose interests and responsibilities stretch no further than maximising their market share and profit margins.

Thankfully, and not a moment too soon, their game is now up……. And if the Morrell and Day recommendations are adopted, those who design and specify buildings will find that the more comprehensive regulatory system recommended by Dame Judith will be complemented by a product testing and certification system that is easier to understand.

In terms of safe design and fitness for purpose can only be good news.

230416 WAF 34 – Send that email back……!

Some 20 years or so back news cameras caught the moment a scaffold collapsed in Knightsbridge, central London. Not an uncommon occurrence, but one not commonly ‘caught’ on T.V., so, as no-one had been injured, what could have been a tragedy made for some very entertaining viewing on the evening news. It had all started in the later afternoon as workers reported that the scaffold, erected along the pavement in front of a four-storey brick terrace, had become unstable.  

The project involved a terrace façade which was being retained as a frontage to what would become an entirely new office development; all that of course a whim of the planners who wanted to retain the street’s character. Thus it was that the early 19th century building, comprising 9” party walls, timber floor joists, and a mix of brick and stud internal partitioning, was stripped out to make way for a steel frame and concrete floors that would form the new structure to which the original brick façade would be secured.

I know about this because having seen the scaffold collapse broadcast during that news programme I was, some 20 months later, instructed to act as expert in defence of the hapless architect who was being sued for alleged incompetence and negligence in the matter. And so it was that I came to learn a little about the various types of scaffolding design used in the UK which are usually assembled from tubular steel, connecting fittings and timber boards – as opposed to continental Europe where ‘system scaffold’ assembled from modular units is preferred; or China and India where I have marvelled at the extraordinary use of bamboo scaffold, even for high-rise projects.

Herein, within the British scaffold industry, lies a wonderful world of components: single couplers, double couplers, swivel couplers, pin couplers, sleeve couplers, band and plate clamps, girder clamps, swivel girder clamps and so on – but I digress.

The important point for the purposes of this story is that there are principally three types of scaffold arrangement adopted here:

  • Self-supporting with lateral stability provided by building.
  • Self-supporting with lateral stability provided by raking shores.
  • Cantilevered off building (i.e., no ground support).

The scaffold in question had been of the first type; that is, self-supporting off the pavement in front of the building, deriving its lateral stability from the façade. 

All had gone well with the project until the contractor’s team removed, as part of a phased demolition programme, the party walls that had hitherto restrained the front façades. Anyone who has worked on such buildings knows that such ‘connections’ can, at best, be tenuous as Victorian builders often used a relatively poorly skilled bricklaying team for the party walls (which would be concealed by plaster and could be ‘rough’), other better skilled gangs for the rear elevations, and their most skilled bricklayers for the frontages. Such work practices inevitably led to sequencing delays where the bonding of party and front and rear elevations was less effective than would otherwise be the case had they been built simultaneously but, Hey Ho, that was the way they worked.

The problem here was, of course, that when even that lesser tying in of the partially connected party walls was rendered ineffective through demolition, the roles of the front façade and the scaffold were, in structural terms, reversed: the scaffold which had hitherto derived lateral support of the street elevation was now required to provide that support, albeit off a wholly inadequate base. 

As the workers smashed out the latter parts of the party wall they heard a loud bang, and fearing for their safety, scrambled out of the site and raised the alarm. The street was of course closed and cordoned off, crowds gathered, and the press arrived in good time to see the entire wall swaying in the wind until, just in time for that night’s News at Ten, down it all crashed.

So, I hear you ask, ‘what had all this to do with the architect?’ Well, read on……..

The losses were substantial and led to a heavy claim against the D+B Contractor; you know the stuff: escalation of work, abortive work, major contract overrun, L+A Damages and all that….and no doubt claims from local traders for losses during the street closure, and even the Council. As would be expected the builder co-joined the scaffolder who pleaded ignorance of the fact that the façade was to ever have been left unsupported, but it all shook down in the end to a defence on the contractor’s side that the external wall was adequately constructed to remain stable in its own right during the works, but could not carry the lateral load of the scaffold; and on the scaffolder’s side, that that method statement for scaffold erection and restraint had been clear from the outset: it was to be provided throughout by the wall.

And indeed, in that respect, there it was: a clear method statement that supported the scaffolder’s position. So, next came the second line of defence from the builder: the scaffolder’s method statement had anyway been passed to the Project Manager who had approved it. In, therefore, was dragged one of London’s major QS companies that had masqueraded as the Project Manager, howling and squealing as normal that they were only shuffling paper and were neither qualified to know, and indeed did know, nothing about anything.

The QS/Project Manager’s defence was that they had passed the method statement for scaffolding to the architect, and as he had not responded they had assumed all had been checked and was well….that having hitherto driven his fees through the floor.

Happily, we got the architect off, but it was a close-run thing, and therefore offers a significant lesson for us all: don’t let Project Managers, or anyone else for that matter, just send you stuff willy-nilly. This is particularly important in these days of easy copying of emails and the massive overload of information flows. Instead, instruct your teams to root out all such correspondence and, without fail, send it back, making clear that such work lies outside your scope of service and responsibility. In the alternative, agree to provide the checking required if you are qualified so to do, but get paid for it! Boring task I know, but a lot more fun than spending hours in litigation.

Indeed, with the new Building Safety Act coming live, it is more important than ever before that you limit your responsibilities to whatever they should be under contract, and that against them, you perform as you should.

230222 WAF Feb 2023:  A Pox Across Our Nation

It seems that an awful pox has enveloped large parts of the housing stock of our nation. Across the entire land, be it large city or small town, older Victorian stock, or the newer housing estates of the early and middle 20th century, that pox is everywhere to be seen. Indeed, barely a street has been spared.

Much of this takes the form of additions, be they new front porches, side additions, or the mutilation of roof lines to accommodate attic extensions. But window and front door replacements; new facias, soffits, gutters and downpipes; new plastic weatherboarding; and the frequent introduction of stone cladding, pebble-dash renders, or simply paint to what were originally traditional brick facades have also taken their toll and added to the visual dross that now surrounds us. And all that takes no count of the stripping away of finials and ridge tiles, the cheap and nasty plastic car-ports, the damage to fences, gateways, hedges and the like, or the sacrifice of front gardens to car parking.

Tragically, much of this havoc has been wreaked on some of the finest housing stock in existence. For example, at the Old Oak Estate in Hammersmith which has been described as the ‘culminating achievement of the (London County) Council’s venture into garden suburb planning before the first world war’*.

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The second photograph tells an entirely different story: a virtually identical architectural composition, the end property has been rendered, thus concealing its fine brickwork, and the third and fourth properties have been respectively rendered and painted, and clad in imitation stone.

And it does not stop there! Apart from being replaced with plastic windows, the window openings, and thus their proportions, have been re-configured to the end house, the transom and mullion arrangements have been varied, and a crude array of drainage pipes have been added. All in all, the architectural homogeneity of the original composition has been so heavily compromised that it is all but lost.

Another photograph, shown below, of a part of a terrace in the adjoining Wulfstan Street tells a similar story.

The care with which the pebble dashing has been applied is sure testimony to the owner’s aspirations and evident pride in the property, but again, the damage to the overall composition is extensive. Indeed, the full extent of that damage becomes all too apparent in the oblique view as shown below: the bay windows to ground and first floors have both been removed and replaced with much smaller plastic windows that severely compromise the amenity as well as damage the appearance.

The London County Council’s Chief Architect who oversaw the Old Oak Estate work was William Riley who John Boughton informs us in his splendid new book ‘A History of Housing in 100 Estates’, was a member of the Arts and Crafts inspired Art Workers’ Guild founded in 1884. Amongst Riley’s talented team was Archibald Stuart Stouter who designed three blocks in Du Cane Road, two of which are illustrated below. Happily, the fenestration of the first is largely undamaged, but the painted brickwork does much to undermine the integrity of the composition.

In contrast, the replacement windows to the building at the junction of Du Cane Road and Fitzneal Street have severely damaged the composition of that otherwise gem of a project. No doubt the Art Workers’ Guild would have had much to say on that score.

The scale of all this damage, when viewed across the nation’s housing fabric, is truly astonishing and it all seems to have happened, pretty well unchallenged for the most part, in only the last few decades. Indeed, for the first half century of its life Old Oak Estate, built as rented accommodation as part of a general movement towards much improved standards in public housing, would have remained virtually unchanged. 

Well maintained by its municipal owners, even the colours of the windows and doors would have been controlled as part of the routine and diligently applied maintenance and decorating programmes. (In this respect I remember the respective council landlords of the four council house that were my childhood homes in Cwmbran and then Hereford would not even permit tenants to paint their front doors: colours were chosen by the council and were uniformly consistent.)

I am not, of course, advocating that residents should be so restricted by their municipal or housing association landlords, but the value of maintaining the integrity of a housing terrace can be seen in the picture below, taken by me back in 1994, showing a row of obviously tenanted dwellings just a few miles north and east in Finchley. All the windows and beautiful doors remained at that time intact, and even the ridge tiles, finials, and front gates had been retained.

Sadly, as the recent shot below reveals, the properties have since been sold into multiple ownerships and consequently the architecture’s integrity is under assault – note the new roof, of different materials and without finial or ridge tiles, and the replacement windows absent of the original glazing bars! Architect Stephen Mullin, a scholar in the history of housing, talks in this respect of the ‘tipping point’ being when the assault on appearance reaches a level at which the essential integrity of the whole has been lost. Long Lane has clearly yet to reach that point, but examples certainly exist in the Old Oak Estate.

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The big change came, of course, with the introduction of Mrs Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ programme, as delivered initially by Michael Heseltine during the first of his two stints as Secretary of State for the Environment. A man of culture, he surely could not have anticipated the appalling damage that this single policy would cause to the architecture of our streets, our towns, and our cities.

E N D*S Beattie: A Revolution in London Housing / 1980 / p106