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Weekend roundup: Foster tower tragedy

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Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: Foster tower tragedy • Borrowing cap scrapped • Cladding ban confirmed • Macintosh listed building ‘mutilated’

A man has been killed by a window pane that fell from the top of a recently completed Foster + Partners building. But it has now transpired that this was not the first time glass had fallen from the building. 

Fifty-three-year-old coach driver Mick Ferris died after a window fell some 76m from the penthouse flat of Fosters’ 26-storey Corniche apartment block on Albert Embankment, part of London’s Nine Elms regeneration. 

But a report in The Times revealed that in August last year, during the construction process, another window pane on the top floor had slipped from its mounting and fallen from the block. The building’s developer, St James, confirmed this, stressing that ‘no one was hurt’. 

That, it seems, may have been a matter of fortune rather than a mitigation of how serious the incident was. The Times reported that it had nearly killed two people. 

The developer added that there had been a full investigation at the time, ‘after which the design was amended in accordance with the expert advice received’. 

The block has a distinctive curved form, with Fosters’ website boasting of ‘curved gardens in the sky’ that allow ‘cinemascopic perspectives’. While most of the floors have curved balconies, the penthouse flats are fully enclosed by curved glass. 

The penthouse from which the window pane fell is on the market for £22 million. 

Council house borrowing cap scrapped

Shutterstock council housing

Shutterstock council housing

While this government has fully acknowledged that there is a housing crisis, until this week its efforts to tackle it ranged from the inadequate to the idiotic. Crucially they seemed to fundamentally rely on the private sector to build more houses.  

That this cornerstone of Tory orthodoxy may have been about to crumble was hinted at in June by former cabinet minister Oliver Letwin. Asked to analyse the housing market for the government, he said housebuilders were afraid of building too quickly for fear of depressing prices.  

The AJ’s Paul Finch has long argued that it is a folly to look to the private sector to alleviate the housing crisis. On Tuesday he urged ‘an immediate programme of mass housing construction commissioned by the government and local authorities, designed by real architects, and built by anyone except housebuilders, who should be going about their normal business’.  

Did Theresa May’s speechwriter read his column? Speaking at this week’s Tory conference, the prime minister proclaimed: ‘Solving the housing crisis is the biggest domestic policy challenge of our generation. It doesn’t make sense to stop councils from playing their part in solving it.’  

To this end, she said she would scrap the cap on council borrowing for financing housing. These limits were introduced in 2012 as part of the coalition government’s efforts to cut the deficit. Many argued that such a cap was unnecessary since, over time, rental revenue will more than cover the loan.  

The Treasury has always backed the cap since local authority borrowing counts towards the national debt. But with the cost of borrowing low, and house building still at nowhere near the required level to halt the crisis, removing the cap does seem like a no-brainer and has been widely welcomed by the industry, with RIBA president Ben Derbyshire describing himself as ‘delighted’.  

The only misgiving should be that the move has taken so long.  

Weekend poll: With council borrowing caps scrapped, what should the government do next to improve the UK’s housing stock? 
• Axe planning restrictions 
• Ensure architects are used on all projects 
• Allow building on greenbelt land 
• Ditch Right to Buy 
Vote here 

Last week’s poll asked whether Amin Taha should be forced to demolish his 15 Clerkenwell Close building. Only 11 per cent of respondents thought he should, while 81 per cent disagreed. Of those 69 per cent thought the building was lovely, while 20 per cent considered it an eyesore, but still thought it should remain.

Combustible cladding ban confirmed

Grenfellanthonycoleman

Grenfellanthonycoleman

Also at the Conservative conference, housing secretary James Brokenshire announced that combustible cladding would be banned from new residential housing above 18m high.  

The ban – a response to the Grenfell Tower fire – also affects new schools, hospitals and care homes above 18m. It does not apply to buildings already constructed, despite a recommendation from the housing select committee last July.  

However, the RIBA – as well as the London Fire Brigades Union – was quick to express concern that the ban did not go far enough. In particular, Class A2 materials, such as plasterboard, which have ‘limited combustibility’ will still be permitted.  

RIBA director of professional services Adrian Dobson argues that such materials can produce toxic smoke, which ‘very likely contributed to the disproportionately high loss of life at the Grenfell Tower disaster’.  

Examining how the ban will affect architects, PRP’s Andrew Mellor said that it could restrict the use of cross-laminated timber (CLT). CLT systems have been heralded as the new wonder construction material, often used for offsite construction, notably at Waugh Thistleton’s mixed-use Dalston Lane scheme and Amin Taha’s Stirling-nominated Barrett’s Grove Apartments.  

The new ban will be implemented through changes to Building Regulations to be brought forward in late autumn.

Council ‘mutilates’ Kate Macintosh’s listed building

Macintosh housing 3

Macintosh housing 3

Part of a local authority’s responsibility is to protect listed buildings, ensuring that any alterations are properly authorised. But what redress is there if it’s the council itself that carries out the unauthorised changes?  

Architect Kate Macintosh has said she is devastated after Lambeth Council carried out ‘damaging’ works to a Grade II-listed Modernist building she designed in the 60s.  

The 45-year-old sheltered housing scheme, which was renamed Macintosh Court in the architect’s honour, underwent a £2.5 million refurbishment earlier this year, gaining listed building consent for replacing the windows and doors.  

But the work also included fitting pipework to the building’s exterior – for which the council did not have permission. Macintosh described this intervention as a ‘quasi-industrial installation’ which had ‘mutilated’ the blocks.  

She says she reported the breach to Lambeth’s planning department but no action was taken, though the council has now conceded that the pipework had not been approved.  

‘I’m heartbroken and devastated,’ Macintosh said. ‘Everything external is illegal, but the only agency that can take enforcement action is Lambeth’s own planning department. This is the abuse and mutilation of a listed building. How can they have any credibility in taking care of listed buildings when they treat their own building with such disregard?’  

Macintosh said she had drawn the case’s attention to Historic England, the Twentieth Century Society and deputy mayor for housing James Murray, but so far has not had any response. The building was listed in 2015 following a campaign by its residents. 

Also this week

  • A report on Foster + Partners’ Upper Orwell Crossings in Ipswich says that the project has soared in cost from the predicted £97 million to £139 million. The three-bridge scheme was the subject of an AJ investigation earlier this year, which revealed that Fosters had won the job after a last-minute reduction in its fee bid, even though this was against the competition rules. The project has been on hold since August but Suffolk County Council says it will do ‘everything it can’ to enable it to go ahead. 
  • Public Practice has launched a search for a second intake of architects to work in local government planning departments. The organisation announced its first group of 17 ‘associates’ earlier this year. They are now working in councils across London and the South East. Public Practice estimates that so far its first cohort has helped ‘unlock or improve 24,845 homes; create or improve 226,690m² of public realm; accelerate the delivery of £370 million of public infrastructure; and engage 1,300 stakeholders in planning’. 
  • A group of Jewish peers has called for David Adjaye’s £50 million Holocaust Memorial to be scrapped. The structure, planned for Victoria Tower Gardens in Westminster, has already proved controversial, with opponents objecting to its location in a London park under the ‘right idea, wrong location’ banner. But in a letter to The Times this week, the seven lords and one baroness – several of whom lost family members in the Holocaust – said that the design evoked ‘neither the Holocaust nor Jewish history’ and the money should instead be spent on education and a simpler memorial. 
  • The artist Damien Hirst has purchased a new building by Stiff + Trevillion in London’s Soho. He plans to use the 2,500m2 building, which has five storeys and a basement and is nearing completion, as his main studio. The building on Beak Street has a façade of more than 100 glazed turquoise bricks along with an Art Deco style pediment. Hirst is also owner of the Stirling Prize-winning Newport Street Gallery, designed by Caruso St John.

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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