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battle plan

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Tim Battle is forging a new career in organising and chairing conferences, communicating the value of good design after a lifetime in helping to make buildings work. And he is relishing the challenge .

Tim Battle is a man reborn. The ex-services engineer (and indeed engineer in the armed services), who built up Rybka Battle from a staff of four to more than 140 today, is now enjoying life as a conference organiser, a facilitator and a general conduit for ideas in built environment thinking.

'I'm absolutely loving it, ' he says of his new lease of life, the latest chapter of which concerns The Commercial Offices Handbook, which is by Battle and is out this week. 'It's the buzz, the adventure, the lastminute crises.'

An organiser par excellence, 65-year-old Battle is the type of man who, as it proves with this interview, manages to get a long document (the handbook, on a series of PDFs) emailed to me for 'background' before I've even walked up the stairs from the ground floor meeting room.And he is a man who delights in getting 'good people', experts in their field, to disseminate information through conferences and written matter.

This week's 'exciting venture' is the handbook, a kind of updated bible on best practice options in the offices sector. It may not sound like something to set the blood racing, but it has taken a year and a half to compile key contributions from Lord Rogers, Frank Duffy, Paul Morrell, Julian Barwick and others into a tome which Battle hopes will become required reading for architects and occupiers alike.

Neither is it the money (such as it is) that gives Battle satisfaction - it is the nigh evangelical mission to put across the 'unique', up-to-date thinking on this area, fulfilled.

'It's evangelical in the sense that there is a spiritual element to good design, ' he explains. 'And I don't mean C of E, Catholic, whatever. I mean that the human condition responds to good design. It can be an aesthetic element, it can be whatever you want - you get some buildings you go in which are just a turn-off.' Ah. Now we're talking. Could he be specific? Dish the dirt?

Battle is at first reticent on the buildings he feels do not register on this 'spiritual scale', and which are the products of developers clearly in need of some quality indicators. So he talks of their opposites first - some of the buildings he has been in which ooze quality. Battle cites Theo Crosby and the Unilever building at Blackfriars, central London. 'For two hours [Crosby] passionately explained to me how in restoring it he'd tried to recover and hold onto the original architecture. Then we went through and the whole building had a resonance and a feeling of completeness.'

Another he likes is the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster, which Battle commends for sitting effectively and without offence in the shadow of Westminster Abbey and Parliament.

So, onto the juicier bit - his hit list of offices which have failed to make the grade.

First, there's EPR's transport interchange and retail scheme in Hammersmith, which makes him splutter: 'God, it annoys me. It's a mess, so appalling. You look at it and it's as if someone has got a Lego set and had some pieces left over. And it's on the gateway into London.' The other is Owen Luder's Tricorn Centre, still standing in Portsmouth. 'It's so brutal it's beyond belief, ' he says.

The offices book deals with ideas about sustainability, landscaping, legal issues, core depths and natural light - a culmination of his work as editor of the BCO's guide to best practice. Unlike earlier versions, this one will deal with a range of options. 'I set up the whole ethos of saying a well-informed client is a better client, ' says Battle. It will tie in with his next project - devising a 'checklist' of key indicators for good design in fitting out commercial offices, which he will produce for the BCO later this year.

Battle wants to prove once and for all that a commitment to high design ideals bears a positive correlation with enhanced rents. In other words, good design makes you money.

CABE chairman Stuart Lipton has been saying much the same thing, and Stanhope's award-winning Chiswick Park project by Richard Rogers Partnership is being held up as a case study in this regard. Battle promises to 'take the scheme apart' but means it, not in a pejorative sense, but in a rigorous analysis of its good and bad elements at the AJ/BCO Spring Conference at the RIBA next month.

'We spend too much time producing products and not enough in thinking about whether the product is what the end user wants, ' says Battle.

He is also passionate about PFI and PPP projects, feeling they have the worrying potential of the inhumane tower blocks of the 1960s, which were spawned by knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Battle's immediate family is well versed in buildings and how they work. Son Guy is with Battle McCarthy - Tim laughs as he recalls being introduced on stage before him at one conference as 'Guy's father'. 'That was the best compliment I ever could have had, ' he smiles.

Another son, Stephen, is at the Aga Khan Foundation in Geneva, renovating old mosques around the world. And Matthew works for Interior, the office fit-out people, while daughter Amy is a new mother, having utilised language skills selling wine in Chile and Spain. Battle's wife Anne died in 2001 from cancer. But he channelled his grief positively, with a celebration of her life and a belief that you must seize opportunities that life throws up.

Future Battle initiatives include facilitating The Architectural Review's forthcoming future projects exhibition at the MIPIM conference in Cannes in March. Already, big names such as Foster and Partners and the Richard Rogers Partnership have signed up to show off schemes such as Swiss Re, recognising perhaps what a good marketing opportunity it represents.

And there will be more conference chairing that Battle, once a 'minor politician' as a left-of-centre Conservative councillor in Richmond, so enjoys.

'I'm in that wonderful position of being able to get onto a platform with a whole lot of interesting people and push and pull subjects, ' he says. 'So I see myself as a communicator and someone who's been around long enough to share what I feel strongly, and know enough clever people to inform about good buildings. I'm free.'

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