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Weekend roundup: Designing a ‘human warehouse’

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This week’s top stories reviewed by the AJ’s Simon Aldous. Ben Adams Architects in firing line over office-to-resi PDR scheme • AHR sells overseas office for one pound • Non-architect fined for illegal hashtags • Sheffield buildings in danger from cuts, warn heritage groups

‘It is impossible to imagine a building without imagining a day in the life of its inhabitants’ pronounces the website of Ben Adams Architects in a large typeface, outlining one assumes the practice’s guiding ethos.

Interesting words in the light of the architect’s latest design, an office-to-resi conversion of Haringey’s Alexandra House which takes full advantage of the permitted development rights (PDR) system for bypassing planning controls.

If they truly want to imagine the life of the scheme’s inhabitants, they could follow the lead of Ernő Goldfinger, who lived in a flat in his Balfron Tower for two months. They would, by all accounts, find it rather on the poky side, with some of its 219 flats believed to as small as 16m², and would face the choice of either being overheated or deprived of sunlight, it is claimed. Local architect Colin Kerr has described the proposal as a ‘human warehouse’.

National space standards specify the minimum size for a one-person one-bedroom home should be 37m², however, PDR rules mean such conversions are able to proceed without having to go through the normal planning process.

Levitt Bernstein’s Julia Park, who has been a vehement critic of PDR office-to-resi schemes, criticised Ben Adams’ scheme not only for its small unit sizes, but also because all the flats would be single-aspect. ‘Because the building faces north/south,’ she told The Guardian, ‘half will get no sunlight and the other half are likely to overheat without mechanical cooling.’

Ben Adams’ response to Kerr’s criticism was to say that his calculation of the floor sizes was erroneous and all the units were at least 21m². The AJ team, however, is not without architecturally qualified journalists, one of whom measured the submitted plans, and concluded that some of the second-floor units were around 16m². The practice later revised its statement, removing the 21m² reference.

Writing in the AJ, Park says most of the blame for such schemes lies with the government and unscrupulous developers. ‘But it’s that bit worse when you see an architect’s name on the drawings,’ she adds.

So what is a practice like Ben Adams Architects doing creating such a scheme? The firm appears to have some prestige and has won and been shortlisted for numerous awards, including several for its Nobu Hotel in Shoreditch.

Responding to the criticism, it said its ‘design response … will seek to maximise the opportunities available within the client brief’ – the client, in this case, being billionaire Andreas Panayiotou. But does there come a point when an architect needs to reject the client brief?

Kerr argues that, faced with this kind of commission, architects need ‘to stand up to a client who may not fully appreciate what they propose. And in the last resort, walk away.’

Former RIBA president Ben Derbyshire has gone as far as to suggest that the scheme, by not being in the public interest, contravenes the RIBA Code of Conduct. Such a contravention could ultimately lead to expulsion from the institute.

Poll: Should the RIBA take disciplinary action over architects who design permitted-development conversions with units below minimum space standards?
• Yes
• No
Vote here 

Last week’s poll asked: How far do you think the design for this year’s Oxford Street lights has been influenced by 3DReid’s competition entry for a lighting scheme two years ago? While only 15% believed the two schemes were entirely different, 43% were of the opinion that it bore only a passing resemblance. Meanwhile, 26% said it had a strong resemblance, while 16% went so far as to say it copied the design.

Want to buy a practice? Yours for a quid

Shutterstock pound coin

Shutterstock pound coin

Bargain of the year is surely the Kazhakstan office of UK-based AHR Architects. Safe to say no one will be buying any private yachts off the back of this sale, which brought in precisely one pound.

AHR demerged from Aedas in 2014, taking with it outposts in Kazakhstan, Poland and Russia. But following a ‘strategic review’ of the practice’s international business, it decided to get shot of the Kazakh arm, selling it to the local management for almost nothing, despite it having net assets of £432,000.

AHR has eight UK offices and was 16th in this year’s AJ100, employing 102 architects. Those figures show that its overseas figures accounted for 11 per cent of its total fee income.

As a result of the Kazakh sale, it has written off £2.6 million, though its latest annual report nevertheless shows both turnover and operating profit each increasing by almost £1 million in 2018.


Shutterstock hashtags

Shutterstock hashtags

An East Midlands man who is definitely not an architect has been fined £9,800 by Derby Magistrates Court for falsely claiming to be one. While Tim Foster’s company is called BDS Architecture – which is, of course, absolutely fine – the eagle-eyed ARB spotted the word ‘architect’ being used in more below-the-radar ways, in particular in hashtags on social media as well as the website metadata.

Foster and his company were each found guilty of four charges of misusing the title of ‘architect’.

Foster, who now has a criminal record, initially told the court he was unaware he was not permitted to use the word ‘architect’, this despite the ARB having issued numerous warnings.

The company website now states ‘our designers are not architects, they are designers with a wealth of architectural design experience’.

The site also includes a logo indicating Trusted Trader status from Derbyshire County Council. The council says it is looking into this, but it does raise the question of why it is doling out such status without what might think to be some fairly basic checks – unless he’s lied about that too.

Planning dept cuts threaten Sheffield’s built heritage 

sheffield victorian buildings shutterstock s

sheffield victorian buildings shutterstock s

Heritage organisations have expressed concern over the stewardship of Sheffield’s built heritage after the city’s council announced its intention to cut 40 jobs from its 100-strong planning department.

Local authorities nationwide have experienced huge cuts in central government funding in the nine past years of imposed austerity, and Sheffield is believed to have a £23.7 million funding gap for the coming financial year.

The Victorian Society says the cuts present a threat to the city’s heritage, asking: ‘Who will protect Sheffield’s historic buildings from circling developers? … Sheffield risks losing the historic fabric which makes the city unique.’

And Henrietta Billings, director of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, said: ‘These cuts send out the message that the council is in retreat – and that the city’s historic buildings, civic character and quality of future development are up for grabs.’

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