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Shuttleworth calls again for end to 'glass binge'

Ken Shuttleworth has repeated calls made six years ago to stop the continuing glazing gorge, saying the ‘glass binge is over’

Speaking at the Bovis Lend Lease and AJ awards for architecture prize-giving dinner at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, the Make founder (pictured) asked: ‘Why are most of the award-winning buildings in the UK still fully glazed all the way round? We don’t need to grow tomatoes in every project.’

‘Lightweight fully glazed buildings with hermetically sealed curtain walls and huge reliance on mechanical systems make no sense any more. Office buildings of the recent past are like submarines – if the power goes off, everyone dies.’

Shuttleworth, who famously attacked floor-to-ceiling glazing shortly after leaving Foster + Partners in 2004, told the audience of property professionals his practice would never ‘contemplate putting full-height glass all the way round a building’.

He added: ‘It seems blindingly obvious to me, but buildings need to relate to their location and their climate. So, as architects building in the UK, we need to end our love affair with transparency.’ 

Speech in full:

It’s a great honour to be asked to contribute to one of the top events in the summer, social calendar (that is, of course, unless you work for Mace, McAlpine or Laing O’Rourke!)

In view of this august venue, I thought I’d better check to see if Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose statue smiled down on us in the Annenberg Courtyard as we came in, had anything relevant to say. His view was apparently that: “a room hung with pictures is a room hung with thoughts.”

Well, these are mine. We find ourselves in troubled times. After the near-collapse of our financial institutions, we remain in the grip of what looks to be the harshest economic recession in living memory. Not only do we face unprecedented cuts in public spending – and scarily, now there’s talk of anything up to 40% - but due to 4 unlucky breakaway goals, we lost 4-1 to Germany.

Not the most propitious of circumstances for architecture, you may think - yet I believe there’s never been a more exciting time to be an architect.

I’ll give you three reasons why this is so. The first is that our new age of austerity means saying goodbye to the excesses and architectural ‘bling’ of the last decade, whose passing many of us will not mourn; after all, unfettered self-indulgence rarely generates work as exciting or ingenious as that produced within tight constraints.

The second reason has to do with the fact that ours is an era of changing relationships, where the role of the modern architect is so far removed from the ‘bow-tied ruler of the universe’ to where more than 50% of architects are now collaborating with, or working for, contractors, who in turn now hold the balance of power. Again, because you can’t design in isolation from how something will be built, I see this as positive.

But the third, and by far most important reason is that man-made climate change is now universally accepted (with the possible exceptions of Nigel Lawson and of course, Stef Stefanou), and we as architects are engaged on all fronts with the challenge of finding workable solutions to a problem so enormous that it threatens the very essence of life as we know it.

To me, these three factors are all inextricably linked, in that I believe we can only combat the effects of climate change and the new austerity by finding ways to collaborate more effectively across this fragmented industry.

As architects, we still have the unfortunate reputation of being arrogant, self-important and sometimes downright rude to others in the industry, as if we think of ourselves as somehow superior.

Such attitudes have no place today. The perception is that that an architect is someone who knows very little about a great deal and continues knowing less and less about more and more until they know practically nothing about everything.

An engineer, on the other hand, is someone who knows a great deal about very little and who goes on knowing more and more about less and less until finally they know practically everything about nothing.

Contractors, by contrast, start out knowing practically everything about everything, but spend so much time with architects and engineers that they end up knowing nothing about anything!

But these stereotypes are fading fast. Any architect who still thinks they can ride roughshod over clients, consultants and constructors is quite simply living in the wrong era; now is a time for humility, compassion and sharing. This is the only viable model for the future of the profession, to the benefit our industry as a whole. The new architecture should not be about celebrating the individual but, as one of the most public art forms, it must be a celebration of society as a whole.

Indeed, this event itself symbolises collaboration, in that it’s a joint venture between the AJ and Bovis Lend lease. We all recognise that the balance has fundamentally shifted, with PFI acting as the catalyst for generating new relationships that will ultimately lead to contractors assuming even more power.

But, value is more than ever the name of the game - and as architects, we play a very important role, creating or destroying value with our pencil or our mouse.

The thing is, I’m an architect because, for as long as I can remember I’ve enjoyed building things. My Dad was a DIY fanatic, something he has passed onto me, and I vividly recall as a child helping him to build a garden shed for us to play in. In retrospect, it was an early lesson in the use of the correct materials, because what he chose to build it out of turned out to be less than ideal: asbestos!

So it was at a very tender age that I learned the value of working closely with whoever was actually doing the construction.

On one large project – long before the advent of computers - I was responsible for the internal partition package. The general arrangement plan drawing had to be 1 to 100, and as the drawing board was only AO, it went across 2 sheets. As we never put the two sheets together, the telephone equipment room, which spanned the two sheets, managed to get built without a door! An essential component you may think of any room!

 As a young architect just starting out, I used to avoid using reams of paper by doing detailed drawings at half full size so as to fit as many details as possible on an AO sheet.  They look pretty much like full size anyway.

To my surprise though, my drawings were met with a sharp intake of breath from the senior partner, who promptly insisted that I redrew the whole set at either; full size or 1 to 5. Completely baffled as to why, I started the drawings all over again and asked around the office for what reason could possibly lay behind this seemingly arbitrary, wasteful decision. I was met by a conspiracy of silence; nobody would give me a straight answer.

It was only much later that I discovered that on a previous project, the firm had had the door sets beautifully made with hinges and handles set in their frames - but as the detailed drawings were half full size, they all arrived on site only 3 feet high!

My favourite though, was on an early project; the contractor, closely related to people in this room, used a pole, rather than a laser, to check that the floor formwork was exactly level above the concrete slab below.  He kept the sacred pole locked in his office. He duly used it to set out the third floor over the second floor plate, which would have been fine if some wag hadn’t sawn 2 inches off the end of his stick, so the entire floor was poured 2 inches too low…so nothing that followed fitted.

With experiences like these, you can see why I’ve always been a great believer in working directly with constructors, and why I’ve never understood some architects’ aloofness towards the rest of the industry. Being on site or in the factory with those who have the skills to physically make things is part of the job I really enjoy. To me it’s part of the magic of being an architect.

My first project for a design and build company, was helping an Italian contractor bid for a large airport terminal building which he was supremely confident of winning because of the ‘special relationship’ he had cultivated – presumably at no little expense - with city officials.

Unfortunately that’s what also proved to be his undoing, because halfway through the bid period he was carted off by the Carabinari on corruption charges and thrown into a jail that he himself had built! Who said the Italians don’t do irony?

But what of commissions through more conventional channels in the UK’s new age of austerity?

As we all know to our cost, the whole construction industry has been on its knees. It’s been a very tough time for all of us, architects included, during which… the schools programme has been a lifeline to many practices and contractors alike.

But it’s a programme that Michael Gove, our new education secretary, had in his sights right from the start. Back during the election campaign, he accused architects of “creaming off cash” from the Building Schools for the Future programme. Well I’m sure I speak for everyone here who’s been involved when I say: Mr. Gove, you cannot be serious! Low fees were the order of the day on the BSF projects from the word go.

None of this is relevant now, of course. Because although he later apologised for his ill-informed remarks, the man responsible for the education of our children … last week axed the entire programme at a stroke, as I’m sure you’re well aware. And that means 715 schools will no longer be rebuilt or refurbished, including almost 180 new build projects. A sad day indeed for literally hundreds of thousands of this country’s school kids……not to mention all of us.

The CABE schools panel, which I chaired, also fell victim to Mr Gove’s brutal machete, and I believe made a huge difference to the quality of our schools. The talented architects, engineers and educationalists who made up the panel worked tirelessly together to improve the nation’s schools, and it’s nothing less than tragic that this pool of excellence is no more.

The education secretary’s harsh (and highly politicized) critique did raise some valid issues, admittedly. The need to minimise waste is indeed now greater than ever – and could start by re-examining the hugely wasteful bidding process for schools, when half of all the effort and investment… an entire team’s work… goes straight in the bin at a very advanced stage. This is no longer acceptable, in my view; in the private sector, the time period used to just bid for the BSF School would include building it as well! And quite apart from the fact thatsome report that academies are both cheaper and faster to deliver, BSF has never generated economies of scale for the simple reason that every school is different because, every project had an autonomous Head Teacher as a client. There is literally no consistency from one school to the next even in the same batch. But, Mr Gove throwing out the procurement system should not mean that the quality of the environment provided for our school children should suffer and I strongly recommend that the skills gained during the BSF programme including the Cabe design review panel should be redeployed in improving the future education environment….not scrapped out of hand.

What other fallout will there be from the age of austerity, then? One thing it does not mean is that we should be working for a lower fee - or even worse, no fee all!  To do so would be to devalue everything we bring to a building and the integrity of what we do. Can you imagine any other profession doing the same?

No, when times are tough, working more closely together is the way to improve efficiency and reduce costs and waste. Refreshingly, this brings us back to the fundamentals of architecture: old values, but with new aspirations fit for the current context.

Until recently, many projects sought to outdo each other by the complexity of their shape. This is now over; it’s time to change.

So we find ourselves in a new era of exploration to find a new paradigm for recession and post –recession architecture. And, that new paradigm has to have the challenges of climate change at its very centre.

Climate change is the big one. Its effects are increasingly plain to see, all around us. We’re in a finely balanced era between kicking our addiction to fossil fuels and embracing the next generation of sustainable and low carbon, power sources. As makers of the buildings that currently account for 60% of human CO2 emissions, we all have a duty to respond with low carbon, low energy solutions.

The next generation will look back on the last few decades and think ‘what on earth were they thinking of?’ How could they have been so profligate? Why did they think they could burn so much energy with no consequence? And why are most of the award-winning buildings in the UK still fully glazed all the way round for goodness sake? We don’t need to grow tomatoes in every project, after all.

At Make we wouldn’t even contemplate putting full height glass all the way round a building; we’d use higher performance materials to keep the solar gain down. The world has changed, and so must we.

It seems blindingly obvious to me, but buildings need to relate to their location and their climate. So, as architects building in the UK, we need to end our love affair with transparency. 

Lightweight fully glazed buildings with their hermetically sealed curtain walls and massive reliance on mechanical systems make no sense in this new world. The office buildings of the recent past are like submarines - if the power goes off, everyone dies. Whatever happened to opening the window?

I believe the glass binge is over!  We simply can’t carry-on designing the same old way in the Miesian tradition.

At Make, we’ve been campaigning for the death of the glass box. To us, again it seems obvious - but the resistance from some of our contemporaries has been fierce. We even got kicked out of our role of chairing the Glass and Glazing Federation!

We do, however, passionately believe in the need for a new architecture. We’re constantly exploring ideas for new directions. As far as we’re concerned, the shackles are off: we want new answers. We are in ‘search mode’….constantly exploring options. We want to help develop completely different kinds of buildings that chime with the low carbon agenda.

I believe we’re at a defining moment in architecture, and we need to take low carbon right into the heart of the design process. If we don’t achieve zero carbon buildings, the next generation will.

As architects we’re an inventive bunch. We have an almost childlike curiosity about the world around us, and this needs to be combined seamlessly with the acumen of other consultants and the experience of the constructors to deliver a new type of low energy architecture that’s simpler to build, more economically achievable, fantastic to look at and delightful to be in.

To paraphrase Bucky Fuller, we in this room - practitioners and contractors alike - are called to be the architects of our future, not its victims.  

Thank you.

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