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Weekend roundup: Building the slums of the future

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Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: Fear over low-quality office-to-resi • Amin Taha champions alternatives to concrete • Church despairs of Cardross • Parliament refurb will not be a money feast 

In the context of the housing crisis, legislation that makes it easier to turn redundant office buildings into homes may seem a smart idea. So why has RIBA president Ben Derbyshire suggested architects boycott such conversions? 

The reason is that the government wants to encourage conversions by expanding its permitted development rights programme, which allows projects to bypass the planning process. (The same mechanism that will enable more rooftop extensions.) 

Critics claim that the lack of scrutiny over what form the resulting housing takes is helping create the ‘slums of the future’. 

A scheme at Grange Mills in Balham, south London, seems to exemplify how permitted development rights can be exploited. Last June, the site’s freehold owner submitted a prior approval application by architect PJMA to convert the building into 13 flats. But at the end of the year, a separate property firm, Caridon Developments, submitted its own plan with double the number of homes – the smallest of which is just 18m². 

Levitt Bernstein’s head of housing research Julia Park describes it as a ‘truly awful’ conversion with ‘impossible proportions’, poor air circulation and a lack of daylight. ‘I’m completed baffled by the idea that anyone could think this is an acceptable place to live,’ she says. 

It follows Park’s highlighting, last August, of another such conversion, at Newbury House in east London – 60 flats as small as 13m² which The Guardian speculated might be ‘the worst new flats in Britain’. 

And examples in a RICS report on permitted development show these are far from isolated examples. 

The government has often sought to blame the planning system for the shortage of housing (as opposed to its own failure to build homes), but removing any quality threshold does seem rather at odds with its proclaimed desire to make buildings more beautiful.

Would an architect boycott help? Or are architects, in fact, the only hope for ensuring these conversions are done well? One commentator tweeted: ‘There is a huge group of non-architects more than happy to take on this kind of menial “squeeze as many units into a box” work.’ 

Cardross seminary – it’s with the angels now

Cardross b&w

Cardross b&w

Can only divine intervention save St Peter’s Seminary at Cardross from its continued decline? 

That was presumably the thinking when the Scottish government effectively washed its hands of the 1960s Brutalist structure, maintaining that its future was ‘a matter for the Archdiocese of Glasgow’, which owns the building. 

The building was designed by architects Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan, working for Gillespie, Kidd & Coia, and is widely regarded as one of the best examples of Brutalist architecture in Scotland. 

But it began its steady deterioration after the church closed the seminary in 1980 following a decline in numbers entering the priesthood – though precisely why fewer men wanted a celibate life, living in a Brutalist structure in the middle of nowhere has never been explained. 

There had been a ray of hope in recent years. Arts organisation NVA planned to overhaul part of the seminary, which it wanted to turn into an arts space attracting 50,000 visitors a year. 

It hired architects McGinlay Bell and Avanti to carry out the £10 million transformation, but the entire project collapsed last June after NVA failed to secure critical funding. 

The church is not exactly embracing this affirmation of its responsibility, describing it as ‘a huge albatross around our neck’. 

‘We can’t sell it, we can’t give it away, we can’t demolish it,’ said the archdiocese’s Ronnie Convery, rather suggesting that only its Category A listing prevents the church taking a wrecking ball to the whole thing. 

But Avanti feels the church’s position is ‘unduly pessimistic’. It argues that work carried out by NVA over the previous 12 years means the building is in a far healthier position than previously. Extensive surveying has been carried out, all asbestos stripped out and consent secured for a range of essential work. 

Nevertheless, for all of this to mean anything, someone is going to come up with some funding. And it doesn’t sound as if the church is interested.  

King of the new stone age: can Amin Taha lead a charge away from concrete? 

Clerkenwell close by groupwork amin taha 0

Clerkenwell close by groupwork amin taha 0

One of the questions in last month’s AJ Christmas Quiz asked which criticism Amin Taha had not faced from Islington Council over his controversial 15 Clerkenwell Close building. 

The answer was that councillors – while calling it ‘hideous’ and claiming it differed from the project granted planning permission – had never accused it of using unsustainable construction processes. 

And for good reason. As the profession faces a soul-searching crisis over its preference for concrete – now identified as responsible for some 8 per cent of global carbon emissions – Taha’s use of stone appears to be an exemplar of good practice. 

In an interview with the AJ, the architect says stone can use as much as 90 per cent less embodied carbon than concrete. 

Taha’s experimental style shows that you can be inventive and creative with other materials – such as the wicker balconies and brick lattice cladding at his (mostly CLT) Stirling shortlisted Barrett’s Grove

Such arguments, however, have failed to prompt any backtracking from Islington, which is still threatening to order the building’s demolition – an action that truly would be environmentally indefensible. 

Taha’s engineering collaborator Steve Webb of Webb Yates Engineers is fully on board with the practice’s eco-friendly quest and is unimpressed by apparently environmentally minded architects who fail to spot the area where they can make the greatest difference. 

‘An architect goes out and buys locally grown tomatoes at the supermarket, gets on their bike to work and thinks they are an environmentally conscious person while designing a concrete or steel-frame building,’ he told the AJ scornfully. 

Taha is not a complete eco-saint, however. The terracotta-coloured exterior of his building at 168 Upper Street may be designed to match its brick neighbours, but it is cast in concrete (though the frame is timber). In contrast with Clerkenwell Close, this project apparently received a standing ovation from Islington’s planning committee.  

Poll: Which of these should architects boycott?
• Concrete
• Office-to-resi conversions
• Both
• Neither
Vote here

Alas, a money feast is off the menu

Shutterstock money feast

Shutterstock money feast

BDP’s forthcoming £4 billion refurbishment of parliament may involve a decant, but there will be no decanter or lavish platters on offer. MP Edward Leigh has demanded that the board overseeing the project keep the process as short as possible and not allow architects ‘to see this as a money feast’. 

Ah, the legendary money feast – something that older architects tell disbelieving newcomers, recalling the days when partners would sit around the table, carving into a freshly baked pie literally crammed with gold coins. 

Sadly it all came to an end in 2010 when then education secretary Michael Gove abruptly halted the Building Schools for the Future programme, saying: ‘We won’t be getting Richard Rogers to design your school; we won’t be getting any award-winning architects to design it; because no one in this room is here to make architects richer.’ 

Quite so. As the government has subsequently shown, the people it is in the business to make rich are landlords, able to claim vast amounts of taxpayers’ cash in the form of housing benefit; housebuilders who have become multimillionaires courtesy of its Help to Buy subsidies; and of course the directors of contracting giants such as Carillion, handed billions in public money to take on contracts they prove incapable of fulfilling. 

Heaven forbid that any money should go to those actually trying to improve the quality of buildings. 

Also this week

  • Fosters and Calatrava’s competing proposals for Chicago’s O’Hare Airport have been revealed. The practices are among five teams shortlisted to design an $8.5 billion expansion of the airport, which is the sixth busiest in the world.
  • SimpsonHaugh and Partners’ 54-storey Manchester skyscraper has been scrapped. Developers said they had dropped plans for the residential-led building, set to form part of the St John’s Place mixed-use scheme, as a result of ‘unresolved development issues’. 
  • Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s much-awaited Barbican concert hall has received a funding boost with the City of London Corporation approving £2.5 million for further work on the project. The building, expected to cost £250 million, will replace the Museum of London, which is moving to West Smithfield.

Simon Aldous’s Weekend Roundup is emailed exclusively to AJ subscribers every Saturday morning. Click here to find out more about our subscription packages

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