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Things are going to change and architects have a big part to play

Paul Finch
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Health isn’t the only thing we have to think about. The coronavirus crisis is encouraging new approaches to construction and planning and architects need to be active participants in these, says Paul Finch

Coping with the virus is bad enough, but there are other worries affecting architects which are understandably getting less attention than they would have done in normal times.

An obvious example is indemnity insurance. One hears that it is now extremely difficult to get cover for basement conversions, unless you have done lots of them before.

Still on the insurance front, it is proving equally difficult to get building cover for CLT or other forms of timber construction as a result of worries in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, and other well-publicised incidents.

The irony of restrictions on the use of timber at a time of pressure to reduce carbon emissions will be lost on no-one – except the politicians who rushed to restrict its use without thinking about the issue in the round. The RIBA committee dealing with this issue seems to be acting like a branch of the Building Regulations industry, rather than as a hub for the wide variety of views on this tricky issue.

Meanwhile, as housing start forecasts take a dive, we are reminded that if you depend on the private market to build out your social housing programme, you are likely sooner or later to come a cropper – in this case sooner.

But who will be brave enough to suggest that the requirement for ‘affordable’ homes should be limited to really big projects in the current circumstances, when the main thing is to get the market building again? Unfortunately, probably housebuilders themselves, which always sounds like special pleading on their part.

Government seems to be treating housing and planning in the usual way, hence the (to me) rather idiotic treatment of HTA’s project, blocked by secretary of state Robert Jenrick, over concerns around a handful of units with less-than-desirable views. Is this the same secretary of state who has shown no signs of doing anything about the scandal of ghastly little slums being built under permitted development office-to-resi conversions?

I love the true story about planning consultants buying laptops for their offices so they can work at home

As far as planning itself is concerned, government reforms must be regarded as being on the back-burner under current conditions – while the practice of the planning system itself comes in for scrutiny as a result of home working, virtual meetings and so on.

There is no reason why new approaches, encouraged by our current constraints, should not inform our future procedures. Some authorities have embraced enthusiastically the possibilities of remote working, analysis and discussion. Others have been slower (I love the true story about planning consultants buying laptops for their offices so they can work at home). Lessons can be learned from the former.

In future, will we pay more attention to the possibilities of drone surveys, Vu.City-style visualisation tools, virtual planning meetings and paper-free inquiries (this last a distant dream)?

vucity  greenwich peninsula view

vucity greenwich peninsula view

Source: Vu.City

The much-discussed ‘democratisation’ of planning should surely begin with easy access of the public to the information and the decision-making processes that inform the creation of our built environments. Why can’t everyone look in on planning committee meetings, and the reports and images that have informed officer recommendations?

Mass use of information and communications technology is making the procedures of public authorities look like something out of the 19th century, from which most of their procedures date.

This is as true of Parliament itself as it is of small local councils. The shock of the new at the Palace of Westminster (remote participation, social distancing) will surely inform Europe’s most expensive retrofit project at some stage – and, as far as the technology is concerned, should have informed it from the outset.

Things are going to change; change will often be for the better; architects should be participants, not observers.

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