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Weekend roundup: A bridge you say?

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Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: Prime minister considers Scotland/NI crossing • Anger over HTA block behind Hoover Building • Fosters posts record turnover • AJ launches RetroFirst campaign

Boris Johnson’s modus operandi seems to be well established now: waffle vacuously and then, if something more substantial seems necessary, propose a bridge.

As London mayor he spaffed (I believe that’s his favoured term) £43 million on a never-built Garden Bridge. While foreign secretary he proposed building a cross-channel bridge to France – which it was estimated would have cost hundreds of billions. And now in the top job, Johnson has suggested that a bridge linking Scotland with Northern Ireland could be the key to breaking the Brexit deadlock.

As we know, as he himself has proclaimed, Johnson isn’t one for hearing about flaws in plans; he wants a can-do attitude that steams ahead regardless – until it collapses under the weight of its own preposterousness.

But whether this bridge will be built will be of little concern to the construction professionals beside themselves with glee at Johnson’s latest wheeze. Bouygues Travaux Publics and Cimolai SpA walked away with £21.4 million for its work on the Garden Bridge after signing a contract for the work before key funding – and indeed land – had been secured for the project. There was also a fat payout for engineer Arup (£12.7 million) and even some golden crumbs for the architects, with Heatherwick Studio collecting £2.75 million.

While a Scotland-Ireland crossing was first proposed over a century ago, the idea gained fresh traction last year. Scottish architect and academic Alan Dunlop had responded to Johnson’s Channel bridge idea by suggesting it would be ‘cheaper to move France closer to Britain’. But clearly the idea got him thinking about an alternative crossing, and by September he had revealed some initial sketches.

The shortest distance between the two nations is 12 miles, and Dunlop suggested it would cost around £12 billion to build a bridge over that route, between Torr Head and Mull of Kintyre. However, this would involve a subsequent very long road route to Glasgow and he believes connecting Bangor with Portpatrick, while more than twice the distance and accordingly more pricey, would be the preferred option. By way of comparison, the world’s longest bridge over the sea, linking Hong Kong with Macau, is 34 miles long and cost £14.5 billion.

Brexit does not seem to have been at the front of Dunlop’s mind when he championed the bridge a year ago. Rather he was coming at it from a Scottish perspective, saying it could help to create a ‘Celtic Powerhouse’.

Indeed it’s hard to understand just how such a bridge would affect Brexit. The problem that seems to be proving insurmountable with any deal is the EU’s insistence of free movement between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, ie the backstop. The DUP opposes this on the grounds that this would effectively create a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. A physical link between the two land masses might reduce such a sense of border but surely that would only exacerbate the issue of free movement with the Republic.

In any case, since the prime minister expelled 21 MPs from his party, he no longer has a parliamentary majority either with or without the DUP. But following the expected election, it is possible he will need that party’s support again so he may not want to burn any … oh, what’s the word?

Weekend Poll: Is a bridge linking Northern Ireland with Scotland a good idea?
• Yes
• No, waste of money
• Not if Boris Johnson is backing it
Vote here

Hoover’s neighbour sucks, say critics

Hoover neighbour mk

Hoover neighbour mk

HTA Design, the practice chaired by former RIBA president Ben Derbyshire, has raised hackles with plans for a 22-storey tower that would sit behind the much-lauded Hoover Building in west London.

The project would create 305 homes and is set to go before Ealing Council’s planning committee next week, but critics fear it would dwarf the Grade II-listed Art Deco landmark.

As if to preempt such criticism, HTA says it has tried to ‘respect and complement’ the Hoover building, by adopting ‘well-known Art Deco motifs’ in the design of its tower.

It is, however, debatable whether this is a productive approach. Arguably a more anonymous building would let the 1933 landmark stand out more, rather than risk it being subsumed by a giant pastiche.

Historic England, however, is less concerned with the proposal’s stylistic details and more with its bulk. Writing to the council, it argued: ‘The Hoover Building was designed to be an eye-catching landmark in fleeting views along the A40 … the proposed tall building would appear as arguably the dominant feature along much of this stretch of roadway.’

The Hoover Building was designed by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners. Last year Interrobang completed a conversion of part of the building into 66 luxury flats.

Fosters posts record revenue – but UK work slumps

Foster cash

Foster cash

Foster + Partners has recorded its highest ever turnover, despite UK revenue falling by 7 per cent. According to figures for the year up to 30 April 2019, the practice’s annual turnover was £258 million, compared with £212 million the previous year – an impressive rise of 21 per cent.

Pre-tax profits rose slightly to £21.5 million with the company’s 155 partners sharing a £25.3 million ‘partnership payment’. Norman Foster himself pocketed a £6 million dividend. According to the Sunday Times Rich List, he now has a fortune of £170 million.

Fosters attributes the results to soaring workloads in the Middle East, Far East and South America, which combined accounted for nearly three-fifths of revenue. This also rose in Africa, North America and continental Europe.

The UK, however, is another story, with revenue down 7 per cent to £21.2 million. Indeed, since the completion of the Bloomberg HQ last year, the practice’s highest-profile British schemes seem to have faltered, with the London mayor’s rejection of its Tulip tower and Suffolk County Council’s cancellation of its Ipswich bridge scheme.

Does this matter if the practice – the UK’s single largest employer of architects – is thriving? It might if Brexit takes the harsh form threatened. The practice employs a considerable number of staff from other EU countries, saying its international workload requires a highly diverse workforce. It has already warned that it will consider moving its headquarters out of the country if a Brexit deal – or lack of deal – prevents it from attracting world-class talent.

The prospects of it staying put may, however, have increased this week after the government announced it was bringing back post-study work visas for international students, meaning graduates can stay in the UK for up to two years after completing their studies.

Speaking to the AJ last year, managing partner Matthew Street said that excluding students from migration caps was one of the ‘two things we’d ask from the government’.

AJ launches RetroFirst campaign

Retrofirst logo

Retrofirst logo

The AJ has launched its RetroFirst campaign, to champion the reuse of existing buildings rather than knocking them down and starting from scratch. 

Buildings are responsible for between 35 and 40 per cent of the UK’s total carbon emissions. But while progress has been made in reducing the energy consumed in use, their actual construction is responsible for a large proportion of total whole-life emissions – around 35 per cent for office developments and 51 per cent for residential. And with some 50,000 buildings demolished every year, this is a level of emissions that could be significantly reduced if the retrofitting option was prioritised.  

The campaign has three demands: that reuse is promoted through new clauses in planning guidance and building regulations; that the government insists all publicly funded projects look to retrofit solutions first; and that the VAT rate on refurbishment, maintenance and repair work is cut from 20 per cent to 5 per cent. Currently new-build typically attracts a 5 per cent rate of VAT, giving a tax incentive to demolish and rebuild. 

The campaign launch came in the week the AJ also announced the winners of its annual Retrofit Awards which cover 18 different building categories. This year’s overall winner was the Ty Pawb, Featherstone Young’s conversion of a car park and market hall in Wrexham into a community centre.

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