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Weekend roundup: ​Architects fight climate change – unless it’s ‘unnecessarily complex’

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This week’s top stories reviewed by the AJ’s Simon Aldous: Newham hires architect to replace timber with concrete on dRMM design • Trump: all federal buildings must be Classical • Furore over Crystal Palace subway competition • Grenfell inquiry backs architect’s immunity request

Does support for more environmentally friendly architecture endure only as long as it doesn’t involve ‘unnecessary complexity’? Is that the yardstick by which the profession is going to save the planet? 

The architects at Stirling Prize-winning practice dRMM must have felt they were doing their bit for cutting whole-life carbon emissions when they designed an 11-storey mixed-use scheme for East Ham using cross-laminated timber (CLT) for its main structure. 

But now the client, Newham Council’s housing company Red Door Ventures, has hired another architect, Studio Partington, to redesign the scheme replacing the timber structure with concrete – its key ingredient, cement, is believed to account for 8 per cent of all global carbon emissions. 

The switch appears to be part of a post-Grenfell backlash against using any timber in tall buildings. Just over a year ago, the government brought in a ban on using combustible materials for the external walls of housing blocks taller than 18m, but the result is that many housing developers are running away screaming at the idea of using CLT anywhere on high-rise projects. 

dRMM director Alex de Rijke has said a CLT structure will still comply with the Building Regulations so long as it was placed ‘inboard of the façade zone’. And he stressed that mass timber structures were ‘inherently safe’ in a fire. 

Studio Partington has argued that if it had kept the CLT frame this would have meant introducing three different structural systems within the building, ‘leading to unnecessary complexity’. It also says that switching to a reinforced concrete frame will provide ‘cost efficiencies’ that will allow improvements elsewhere, including an increase in the number of affordable homes within the scheme. 

Studio Partington is one of the 870 practices to sign the Architects Declare pledge. Signatories commit, among other things, to ‘evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown, and encourage our clients to adopt this approach’. 

But if signing the pledge is to mean anything, practices need to show a little more resilience when clients attempt to stem a project’s environmental credentials.

Classicism Trumps all

Tradtrump

Tradtrump

UK architects may have despaired when then housing minister Kit Malthouse presented a Neoclassical Alabama courthouse as the kind of architecture we needed to aspire to. But at least Malthouse was only a junior minister with little clout. In the states, it is the president expressing such stylistic taste – and he wants to make it compulsory. 

It has emerged that Donald Trump has written a draft order demanding that all new federal buildings are Classical in style. The order states that ‘the Classical architectural style will be the preferred and default style’ for new and upgraded federal courthouse buildings. 

This rips up the previous Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture drawn up in 1962 by the Kennedy administration, which warned against any official government style, stating ‘design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa’. 

Trump’s own buildings have been a far cry from the Classical style, favouring the modernist International Style. So what might have motivated this move? Many critics have been quick to seize on comparisons with dictators such as Hitler and Mussolini, who also favoured an overt or stripped Classicism in architecture. ‘Take care of the company you keep,’ tweeted former RIBA president Ben Derbyshire

Trump appears to have been influenced by the National Civic Art Society, an non-profit organisation that promotes the decidedly Scrutonesque argument that ‘architectural elites’ have pushed modern architectural styles while ignoring public opinion. 

The society’s chairman Marion Smith said Trump’s order ‘gives voice to the 99 per cent — the ordinary American people who do not like what our government has been building’. 

So maybe this has little to do with Trump’s personal taste and plenty to do with trumpeting a ‘populist’ policy in an election year.

Poll: Why is President Trump seeking to impose the Classical style on all new federal architecture? 
• He sees himself as a Roman emperor 
• He empathises with 1930s European fascists 
• He has a genuine love of the style 
• He sees it as a Populist vote-winner 
Vote here 

Last week’s poll asked whether witnesses at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry should be given immunity from prosecution for any evidence they give in the interests of getting the best understanding of the tragedy. 68% said they shouldn’t have immunity while 32% said they should.

Crystal Palace subway furore

Crystal palace subway image by tim nw

Crystal palace subway image by tim nw

A competition to find an architect to restore a disused subway at Crystal Palace has triggered a storm after RIBA president Alan Jones criticised its assessment criteria, which give more weighting to price (60 per cent) than design quality (40 per cent). 

The competition, for Bromley Council, involves a Grade II*-listed underground link, built in 1865 to connect the actual Crystal Palace with a nearby railway station. The subway, designed by Charles Barry Jr, is noted for its Italian-style fan vaulting made of red and cream brick. 

It was closed after the train station shut down in 1954, and is now on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register, so Bromley’s intention to renovate it should be welcome. 

Instead, the RIBA president says the proliferation of tenders seeking the cheapest design team ‘is responsible for driving down standards within the built environment’. He suggests an ‘appropriate balance’ would be 30 per cent cost and 70 per cent quality. 

Bromley, however, insists his fears are misplaced. It says the competition brief had very specific requirements, including the inclusion of a conservation-accredited architect on the team, and stresses that ‘tender returns that do not meet the essential quality requirements will fail, irrespective of pricing’. 

Architect Russell Curtis of Project Compass, which campaigns for procurement reform, is not persuaded. 

He argues that architects’ hourly rates don’t vary that much ‘certainly not in London’ so by putting such emphasis on price, Bromley is, in fact, likely to give the job to whichever practice is prepared to spend fewest hours on the project. 

If you feel you might be the right practice for this type of job, you have till 28 February to submit your application.

Grenfell inquiry backs immunity request

Shutterstock grenfell

Shutterstock grenfell

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry has decided – if with a heavy heart – that the quest for truth outweighs the quest for retribution. 

Inquiry chair Martin Moore-Bick has agreed to ask the attorney general to grant immunity to Studio E Architects and other corporate witnesses. If granted it will mean that any evidence they give to the inquiry cannot be subsequently used against them in any criminal prosecution. 

Studio E, which designed the housing block’s refurbishment, including the combustible cladding panels that caused the fire to spread so rapidly, had said that if such immunity were not granted it would claim privilege against self-incrimination and refuse to answer questions. 

Moore-Bick stressed, however, that such an arrangement would not give witnesses blanket immunity. It would not, he said, apply to any statements or documents already in the possession of the inquiry; nor would it apply to answers given by one witness that could be used as evidence against another witness. 

Lawyer Michael Mansfield, who represents two of the survivor groups, had previously condemned the application for immunity, saying: ‘It’s barely a week ago that the representatives … were standing here commiserating with the families … and at the same time saying they [the families] are entitled to answers to the questions and the truth.’

  • 5 Comments

Readers' comments (5)

  • Hello AJ,

    On the DRMM building having to, perhaps undergo a speedy if not expedient rethink against new client personnel and criteria. Many years ago the AJ used to publish typical/latest construction details which I think was a collation of the preceding year's featured projects?

    You could rethink these as a series of "typical" CLT details (other materials too) for small and tall buildings, office and residential spaces? Building a database for sustainable and cost effective/attractive construction methods. The AJ has the qualified staff, readers, building industry consultants and suppliers to volunteer information which could exceed the CO2 reduction targets. With such a wide audience, you could/should be key in that process. Let us know if we can all help?

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  • Can we put a stop to this misinformed discussion once and for all?

    The simple fact is that the DRMM 'timber' building had considerably (approx 1750 cu m) more concrete in it than the revised SP building.

    Architects should stop preaching and collaborate with the consultants who understand structural design and embodied energy properly. CLT is a good material for certain applications but in this case its not the most suitable for material efficiency, operational energy, embodied carbon or Part B compliance (as described in the current regulations).

    We will publish a full analysis of the scheme in the context of the RIBA's carbon challenge, which we sincerely hope architects will take the time to study and understand, perhaps before making simplistic arguments (characterised by the discussion here) to clients who are entitled to rely on our expertise and impartiality.

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  • Hopefully my words weren't accusatory more "if criteria change are there alternatives the AJ could help present to us all", not leave a question mark hanging there? These situations are never really binary, I think we all know you, as with so many other architects are doing the best possible. Perhaps an independent website where everyone can upload ideas to share but the AJ does have the immediate and wider audience. Good luck with the project in any case.

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  • This response was intended for the AJ and architects in general, but especially high profile architects who should know better!

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  • Apologies again if you've been hauled over the coals with it all, I know what that feels like and certainly didn't mean you to be the focus of attention. Poorly expressed frustration that what are logical, inexpensive, ultimately better structural solutions aren't shared enough. We're often in the same situation, something appears unusual or a new mix of structural typology has to be proven. Sometimes we're asked to undertake desk top studies of others too. Wholly contrite and will word such comments more carefully in future.

    Wouldn't it be good to share what we learn on load-bearing CLT and other timber, stone and brick structures, self-supporting so on? Helpful to clients, architects and consultant groups if we had access to proven structural typologies that meet regs, are cheaper, CO2 negative or reduce embodied CO2 by 90% today, not in ten or twenty years time. They are only the structural starting points to the architecture and not a style dogma. We're forever grateful to other architects and consultants who have often been sitting on ideas for years with little opportunity to share. The AJ could bring back their details publication as a free online resource, perhaps as a sort of "robust structural/sustainable/cost proven" set. Demonstrating how less material can achieve the same outcome, whether it is later further elaborated or not. I better step off the hobby horse now, sincere apologies again for the insensitivity and good luck with it.

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