This week’s top stories reviewed by the AJ’s Simon Aldous: Coronavirus prompts increase in home-working • Government swings a wrecking ball at retrofit • Resurgence in council housing • Parliamentary refurb in doubt • Grenfell inquiry ‘horsemeat’ allegation • Call to boycott housing competition
At the time of writing, there are still been fewer than 800 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK, with it appearing to disproportionately affect footballers and politicians.
But with the situation predicted to get far worse in the coming weeks, many architectural firms are looking at their working practices to protect their employees and prevent further spread of the virus.
Already several of Britain’s largest practices have ceased all business travel and many studios are looking at whether their staff can work at home so they minimise contact with other people.
An initial straw poll by the AJ suggested that architects were ill-equipped to do this compared with some other professions. Unless they already had work laptops, it was unlikely they could simply do their work on their own computers, which might lack the necessary processing power and software, while certain CAD programmes such as Revit were difficult to use effectively with only one screen. And what about the collaborative nature of much work?
We also recalled the case of Pepper Barney the former BDP architect who had a request to work at home turned down in 2018, with her employers asking how they’d know she wasn’t spending her time watching Grand Designs. Clearly there is an element of distrust by some firms that their staff will put in the hours if out of the office environment.
However, large numbers of architects responded by saying not only did they have the capability to work remotely, they but were already doing so.
Bell Phillips director Hari Phillips said most of his practice’s team would be working from home for the foreseeable future, speculating that this ‘could be the future’.
And David Simpson of Associated Architects said he’d just spent the day working from home, ‘holding meetings with colleagues and collaboratively editing a PowerPoint over TEAMS, and sharing my screen so others could see my work. Very productive.’
This is not the experience, however, of Darling Associates, which this week confirmed nine redundancies. Managing director Chris Darling told the AJ that the firm’s ethos was to work collaboratively in teams ‘and home-working does not work well for us’. He added that the coronavirus crisis was ‘directly affecting us with staff off work self-isolating and unable to work productively’.
Poll: In the light of the coronavirus, would you be able to work effectively from home?
• Yes (I’m an architect)
• Yes (I’m not an architect)
• No (I’m an architect)
• No (I’m not an architect)
On a similar theme, last week’s poll asked whether you had changed your working habits amid the coronavirus outbreak. 49% said they were washing their hands more often, while 10% said they were working from home and 5% reported avoiding public transport. However, 36% proudly announced they hadn’t changed a thing.
Shutterstock wrecking ball
Is it possible those in government are not keen readers of the Architects’ Journal? Our RetroFirst campaign has called for government action to encourage the reuse of existing buildings rather than demolishing them and rebuilding – a process that causes far more damage to the environment.
But this week’s budget seems to have done the very opposite. Perhaps predictably, chancellor Rishi Sunak sat on his hands regarding the tax discrepancy whereby VAT is charged on most refurbishment work, while new-build is usually zero-rated.
Then the next day, housing secretary Robert Jenrick announced an extension of the permitted development rights rules so that ‘vacant commercial buildings, industrial buildings and residential blocks’ can be demolished and replaced with new-build residential units without going through the usual planning process.
Jenrick’s statement does suggest an acknowledgement of PDR’s well-publicised failings, which have led to slum-like office-to-resi conversions. He says the resulting buildings must be ‘well designed’ and ‘meet natural light standards’.
Presumably the local planning department will need to ensure these criteria are met; in marked contrast to the current permitted-development system. It’s an important caveat that could equally be applied to office-to-resi permitted developments, though the statement makes no suggestion it will be.
None of this sits well with tackling the climate emergency. The budget included a tree-planting programme, a tax on plastic use and investment in electric car chargers – but these seem pretty cosmetic in the context of the vast amount of carbon emissions resulting from new-build construction.
It does, however, seem in keeping with Boris Johnson’s overarching strategy for the next few years: to boost the economy through a massive £600 billion investment in infrastructure, including £12 billion for the Affordable Homes Programme.
And Jenrick indicated that the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s works may have had some influence, saying a National Model Design Code would ‘set out clear parameters for promoting the design and style of homes and neighbourhoods local people want to see’.
There will, however, be questions about who will carry out the construction work – what with our ready supply of cheap eastern European labour about to be shut off.
The upshot is that this budget could be good news for the workloads of architects and the construction industry generally, but dreadful news for the planet.
Council housing is on the rise, but its resurgence is partially shackled by Right to Buy rules, TV architect George Clarke told Parliament’s housing select committee this week.
While the number of new council homes built in the last financial year – 4,330 – is the highest since the start of the 1990s, it is tiny compared with 1975/6, when more than 165,000 were completed.
Right to Buy, introduced by the Thatcher government in 1980, is almost certainly the main reason for this. As Clarke explained, the rules allow council tenants to buy their home at a heavily discounted price with most of the receipts going to central government. The council only gets to keep a third of the money raised.
‘This money is taken away from local need and taken away from council budgets: councils have less and less money to replace any housing which has been sold off,’ Clarke said, describing Right to Buy as ‘a dark cloud hanging over council housebuilding’.
The leader of Conservative-controlled Swindon Borough Council was hardly cheerleading the government when he explained why, despite the current restrictions, council housebuilding was rising. David Renard, who is also housing spokesperson for the Local Government Association, said that government policy was causing many private renters to run into financial difficulties, which led to them running back to the councils.
At the moment, councils have to pay for costly temporary accommodation (£1.2 billion a year) so increasing their housing stock can save money in the long term. Similarly, they can ensure the housing is built to a higher standard – if it is more durable this will also cost less over the years.
Which is all fine and dandy until the tenants use Right to Buy to take the housing from the council. One way to at least delay this has been demonstrated by Doncaster Council, which has built 450 council homes since 2013. A clause in tenancies means tenants cannot claim the Right to Buy discount until they have been in their home for 15 years.
Parliamentary refurb could be ditched, says report
The government’s £600 billion infrastructure programme may not extend to MPs’ own workplace. According to a report in The Times, BDP’s £4 billion refurbishment of the Houses of Parliament could be shelved in favour of a downsized scheme. A much-reduced programme of works, costing £200 million, would spruce up the House of Commons while MPs relocated to the House of Lords. The Lords, meanwhile, would sit at the nearby Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre.
The move could be a mixed blessing for conservationists. Concern that the Palace of Westminster was not being properly restored would be balanced by relief over the future of Richmond House. The Grade II*-listed building was set to be all-but gutted to make way for a temporary Commons chamber designed by AHMM. However, the Times report has been denied by the House of Commons Commission.
Grenfell insulation compared to horsemeat
Another week of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry saw Studio E associate Neil Crawford hit out at the manufacturer of the insulation used to clad the tower. Crawford, who managed Grenfell’s refurbishment from July 2014, accused Celotex of providing misleading data on its RS5000 insulation product, commenting: ‘It’s masquerading horsemeat as beef lasagne and people bought it.’ He also hit out at the government for failing to amend the ‘unfit’ Building Regulations despite knowing of the resulting fire risks.
Later in the week, the inquiry heard that Studio E project lead Bruce Sounes had urged his client, the tenant management organisation, not to show the refurbishment fire strategy to the fire brigade because they might support a ‘severe interpretation of the regulations’.
Call for boycott of government future housing competition
The Ministry of Housing has launched a competition to design a Home of 2030, organised by the RIBA with support from the Design Council and the Building Research Establishment. The contest seeks proposals for high-quality, low-carbon and age-friendly homes. But architect and engineer Maria Smith has called for a boycott of the initiative.
Writing in the AJ, she says it will simply generate ‘cheap media content and the appearance of action’ while ducking the need for robust legislation. ‘What say we boycott this atrocity and instead just tweet @mhclg all the low operational and embodied carbon buildings we’ve already designed with technology that already exists and see whether they lift a finger to see them implemented,’ she says.