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The Architects' Journal welcomes your letters, which should preferably be typed double-spaced. Please address them to the editor at 151 Rosebery Avenue, London EC1R 4GB, fax them on 0207 505 6701, or e-mail them to Victorian@ construct.emap.co.uk to arrive by 10am on the Monday before publication. Letters intended for publication should include a daytime telephone number. The editor reserves the right to shorten letters.

Traditional materials beat modern equivalents

Poor old Pawley's logic is in need of a bit of renovation again, I see (aj 9.3.00). There are some grains of truth in what he writes but why let facts get in the way of an (old) argument, eh?

Cast iron rainwater goods? There are more suppliers than ever and cost/benefit figures, too, to show their value in today's marketplace. Softwood windows? They are repairable and in whole life costings win out over the plastic jobs. Double glazing? Not cost-effective on energy savings alone as substitutes for single glazing in private single family dwellings (hence not promoted by detr) - there are better ways to save energy. Linoleum? The height of fashion in restaurants, cafes and bars all over the country. Timber floor boards? Look at the advertising in the weekend glossy newspaper sections - the market for floors of natural materials is booming. Nail plates? Check, for instance, the aj back catalogue of featured buildings. Timber carpentry is at a high point.

Artex? He is kidding, is he not? Check Yellow Pages to see how lime-based plastering and fibrous plastering has been revived. The point is that all these materials and their attendant services are still available, as are terracotta and faience; rubbing bricks; lead sheet roofing; thatching; stone tile roofing and so on - not because they are needed to 'replicate' the past in pastiche work, but because they are part of a continuing tradition and still fulfil technical building needs better than so-called modern equivalents.

Take his distemper versus emulsion paint example, as an instance. We still specify distemper and even lime wash because those coatings have water vapour permeability, textural and optical appearance qualities that cannot be matched in other paints. We lobbied for the retention of lead- based paint, again because of its special qualities.

Specifiers are returning to traditional materials for contemporary construction not out of nostalgia but because it makes practical sense. Engineers featured in your own columns, for example, are returning to hydraulic lime mortars for masonry walls on performance and sustainability grounds.

English Heritage employs traditional materials and techniques to conserve the historic built environment because they are authentic, appropriate, readily available and have (most importantly) stood the tests of nature and time.

John Fidler, head of building conservation and research, English Heritage

Making more room for organic agriculture

What a sad, silly article Martin Pawley served up in aj 24.2.00. Normally I enjoy Pawley for his unexpected viewpoint.

Clearly he believes in factory farming which extorts maximum yields of 'food' from land suffused with health-damaging chemicals; or maybe the endless sprawl of a Los Angeles is his ideal.

Richard Rogers is the scourge of his sarcasm but I, a mere architect, must follow Rogers' humane lead in the search for brownfield sites for housing at sensible densities. Thus will our green countryside be spared further destruction by quick brick developers and be left for enjoyment and the more land hungry growth of organic crops.

John Bancroft, Haywards Heath

Recent grads lacking architectural basics

Hooray for Rab Bennetts (aj 2.3.00) and Stuart Barlow (9.3.00)! For too long, the development of knowledge and skills within our profession has been hijacked by well-meaning theorists with little or no practical, let alone artistic, experience. The arguments have, of course, been well rehearsed and the 'old fuddy duddies' out in the field, so to speak, have often raised their voices previously (even in my own time at the aa, 1967-1977). But it all seems more pertinent now in the emerging virtual environments we are able to create with technologies that run the risk of eroding such basic skills as the co-ordination of hand (ie drawing), eye (perception) and brain (thinking). Originality is not and never has been commensurate with creativity.

Stuart Barlow refers to the nuts and bolts of putting buildings together - perhaps as realistic is the learning process of taking existing buildings apart and their refurbishment. His reference to the desire of many 'young architects' to take charge of design (is this media driven? How about the aj doing a feature on 40 architects OVER FORTY?) arises in my mind from the failure of our educationalists to understand, let alone being able to impart, the intricate subtleties of the briefing process. Banwell 1964, Latham 1994, and, most recently, Egan, all point to the failure of not only our profession but the industry as a whole in this fundamental sequence in the design and procurement path.

In addition to a lack of basic construction skills, there is a lamentable deficiency in the management of projects (I avoid the 'pm' term, as it often raises hackles). It seems clear to me that the emergent graduate is barely aware of the process of change, which is the common factor in the development of the built environment (ie as architects we change space, light, time, etc), but worse, as a result, they have no skills or expertise in the management/control of change and thus cannot comprehend the consequences of their actions nor consider themselves responsible.

How can we help? Well, we could try to clone Sam Webb, to name but one whose contribution has gone against the general trends. But seriously, if we as 'practitioners' want better 'results' we shall just have to roll our sleeves up and try to get involved. The profession can only be what we want and make it to be. However, judging from the apathy of the profession evidenced in the turn out of the recent arb elections I suggest that we don't hold our breath.

Simon Danischewsky, Fulbourn, Cambridge

Is Walsall bus depot

a convincing winner?

I have followed various public projects over the years in the architectural press and am continually mystified about the selection process that leads to built schemes, and whether this produces projects that serve best the public's needs.

For example, the Walsall bus depot has just been built and I have visited the finished product - I remember well the various competition images from years back, as I kept cuttings. The chosen design resembles more one of the non-winning entries rather than the winning entry. In fact, the only elements that are similar in the built scheme to the winning design are the ones that least work.

Is this usual practice?

Nicky Giffin, London SW15

Don't put us between a rock and a hard place

I refer to the in-depth feature on the magnificent Canon headquarters, Reigate (aj 9.3.00). Although the project's credit list of suppliers was extensive, once again the stone producer and type of stone used was omitted - an all too frequent occurrence. We are very proud of our award -winning Stoke Ground Bath Stone and were delighted to be selected for Canon's stone supply. A little credit please - it would go a long way.

Elaine Dickerson, director, the Bath Stone Group, Stoke Hill Mine, Limpley Stoke, Near Bath

Low fees for architects killing off design flair

Fee levels for the majority of mainstream practices are still too low. The design and build industry depresses fees and the profession is undertaking far too much front end design work for little or no reward.

This is serious because it leads to a devaluation of the single most important process where the architect adds real value - the ability to solve problems through design flair. Private finance initiatives have compounded the situation and many practices are having to undertake large amounts of work at risk if they want to be in the significant end of the public sector market.

Fee bidding for projects being advertised in the ojec Journal is absolutely lethal; we know of some practices bidding as low as 2 per cent for highly complex, lengthy medical building projects requiring a level of professional input which this sort of fee cannot possibly provide.

Both parties are irresponsible in this instance - the consultant for whom the bidding is suicidal and the client body for accepting his price knowing, cynically, that the consultant will lose money, or, worse still, fail, but complacently believing the authority has driven down its initial costs and satisfied standing orders.

Best value bidding may go some way to alleviating this state of affairs but I doubt if the conditioned reflexes of some audit-driven hospital trusts and university estates departments will understand the criteria or bother to apply them. The concept of 'partnering' on a long-term basis to improve the quality of the built environment will take many years to break down the arbitrary financial rules that public authorities have erected around themselves.

The mod and the Public Audit Office are encouraging new approaches and we are getting involved in the 'Building Down Barriers' initiative with its emphasis upon prime contracting based upon trust, sound supply-chain management, long-term partnering arrangements and cost in use criteria.

This could lead to a healthier industry and a better built environment eventually, but it will take time to bring about the attitudinal changes required in the collective mind.

As Cedric Price once said: 'The poor countries are short of money, but the rich countries are short of time, and it is the latter which may turn out to be the more serious problem'.

Tim McArtney, Crampin Pring McArtney Architects, Nottingham

Spotting the Scottish

by kilts and callipers

The aj I was reading today asks, should Scottish Parliament competition have been limited to Scottish architects? (aj 2.3.00). My comment is, how would entrants to this competition have been policed? Borrowing nose callipers from the Nazi archives? Checking what entrants wear under their kilts? Is this a serious question? (I guess to limit it to those practicing in Scotland has got real arguments - but they become social, rather than racial, at this point).

John McKean, Brighton,

via e-mail

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