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Weekend roundup: Neighbourly architect learns that no good deed goes unpunished

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This week’s top stories reviewed by the AJ’s Simon Aldous: Neighbourly architect’s legal battle concludes • Pincher replaces McVey as housing minister • Government approves HS2 • Youthful trio to design Serpentine pavilion

Readers who give out free architectural advice to friends and neighbours beware. Last week saw the conclusion of a legal case where architect Basia Lejonvarn offered advice on a neighbour’s garden landscaping project – only for the neighbours to sue her for £300,000 when things went wrong.

Lejonvarn first became involved in 2013 when her neighbours, Peter and Lynn Burgess, received quotes for a major landscaping project at their home, valuing the work at £175,000. They believed this price was too high and Lejonvarn agreed, offering to help them find other contractors who could deliver the scheme for £130,000.

However, the project ran over budget and became blighted by problems. It was eventually completed by the contractor that had submitted the original £175,000 quote.

At no point had Lejonvarn asked for any fees in connection with the project, yet in 2015 the neighbours began High Court proceedings for breach of contract and negligence, claiming up to £300,000 in damages.

While the High Court ruled that the architect owed the couple a duty of care, the trial concluded that this only applied to the ‘very few’ professional services she had provided – not any alleged omissions of service – and that in this respect she had not been negligent in any way and should not have to pay damages.

At this point, Lejonvarn’s lawyers sought to recover her substantial legal costs – put at £724,265. Last week’s Court of Appeal ruling saw judge Justice Coulson conclude that the Burgesses’ legal action amounted to ‘an irrational desire for punishment unlinked to the merits of the claims themselves’, saying that Lejonvarn should be paid at least £400,000.

The architect will have to wait and see whether all her legal costs are reimbursed. And even if they are, she has had to endure the whole legal process for the best part of five years.

Perhaps the lesson to learn, if you are feeling charitable enough to share your professional expertise, is to carry a few indemnity forms around with you and get your friends to sign them before you utter so much as a sentence.

Inevitably, there’s a new housing minister

Christopher pincher housing minister

Christopher pincher housing minister

While this week’s ministerial reshuffle was not without its surprises, no one will have batted an eyelid at the announcement that there was to be a new housing minister – the 10th since the Tories came to power in 2010.

So farewell then Esther McVey, who will be best remembered for excitedly telling last year’s Tory party conference that there was a new breed of ‘3D architects’ who were ‘doing it with a computer’.

Well, it was a bold experiment, but we can now expect a shamefaced retreat back to two-dimensional buildings with the arrival of one Christopher Pincher in the job.

But, to an extent, the persistent game of musical chairs that has surrounded this job has less significance than previously since his boss, Robert Jenrick, remains housing secretary, with specific cabinet representation for the housing brief. Unlike McVey, Pincher will not be attending cabinet. 

In fact, McVey’s most high-profile influence on policy came when she was put in charge of the fate of the David Adjaye and Ron Arad-designed Holocaust Memorial – a scheme Westminster Council has voted to refuse even though the decision is no longer in its hands. McVey’s department called in the controversial proposal in November, but because it had commissioned the memorial in the first place, it was deemed a conflict of interest if Jenrick ruled on whether it went ahead.

In a strange bit of twisted logic, though, it was deemed just fine for McVey to make the decision even though she would theoretically be going against her boss should she have ruled against it. That decision will now presumably also fall to Pincher.

PM ready to spend spend spend on infrastructure

Curzonstreetrevised

Curzonstreetrevised

One thing the new housing minister may be privately fuming over is High Speed 2, a project he voted against as a backbencher, and which is set to run through his Tamworth constituency. He has expressed scepticism as to the economic benefits it will bring to the wider area.

More recently he has said he is reconciled to the line going ahead, which is just as well since Boris Johnson confirmed as much this week, even though its cost is set to soar to £106 billion from the £56 billion estimated only five years ago.

But then Johnson has famously proved himself unruffled by out-of-control budgets for infrastructure projects – though seeing one of them complete would be a novelty for him.

The government is also “actively working” on the prime minister’s idea for a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland. During the December election, the Democratic Unionist Party argued that this bridge would return better value than HS2. But, now Johnson has rid himself of his parsimonious chancellor, Sajid Javid, it seems there could be money for both.

Meanwhile, the backing for HS2 has come with the caveat that its central London terminal at Euston needs to be rethought.

Grimshaw has been working on a design for this station, but the independent Oakervee review into the line argued that the current plan was inefficient and a single plan should be drawn up to cover both the proposed and existing Euston stations. It said that HS2 Ltd should not be in charge of this project.

It also suggested that Old Oak Common in west London should act as the temporary London terminus so that time could be taken to ’get Euston right’. The architect for Euston has proved a flexible appointment, with Grimshaw at one point replaced by WilkinsonEyre before returning to the scheme.

Whether Grimshaw will remain in place under the new arrangements is anyone’s guess, though its much-praised revamp of London Bridge station will not have done its prospects any harm.

Poll: Do you welcome the go-ahead for the High Speed 2 railway line?
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Last week’s poll asked: Why is President Trump seeking to impose the Classical style on all new federal architecture? A mere 13% of respondents felt it was because of his genuine love of the style, while 23% felt it was because he saw it as a populist vote-winner; 27% said it was because he sees himself as a Roman emperor; and 37% attributed it to Trump’s empathy with fascists.

Youthful trio to create this year’s Serpentine pavilion

Counterspace

Counterspace

After the launch of 2019’s Serpentine Pavilion proved a veritable turd tempest, the organisers seem to be playing it safe this year.

Japanese architect Junya Ishigami’s creation was generally well-received, but this was marred by the revelation that he made use of unpaid interns, who were expected to work six 13-hour days a week and provide their own computers and software.

For 2020, however, the pavilion will be designed by architects so young the memory of being exploited interns themselves could still be fresh – the South African practice Counterspace is run by three female directors all born in 1990.

The Serpentine is also bigging up the pavilion’s sustainable credentials. Its construction materials include cork and K-Briqs, which are made from 90 per cent recycled construction and demolition waste.

Moreover, Counterspace’s concept aims to extend beyond Kensington Gardens. The pavilion will contain small moveable parts, which will appear at local community events before being ‘returned to the structure, completing it over the summer’.

Last year’s launch was delayed after Serpentine chief executive Yana Peel abruptly quit her job on the day the pavilion was set to be unveiled, amid allegations made about her husband’s investment in an Israeli cybersecurity company.

She is set to replaced in March by Bettina Korek, executive director of Frieze Los Angeles. The commissioning of young architects to design the pavilion, as well as its efforts to be more outward reaching, could help her to reinvigorate a programme that some argued had run its course.

Studio Partington: Our redesign of dRMM’s scheme uses less concrete

Last week’s Weekend Roundup featured a report on how Studio Partington had taken over a mixed-use 11-storey scheme originally designed by dRMM and was replacing its timber structure with concrete.

Studio Partington had told the AJ that not making the change would lead to ‘unnecessary complexity’ – a justification that I suggested sat poorly with the practice’s backing for the Architects Declare pledge that they would ensure projects mitigated climate breakdown.

But, having reflected on the subsequent coverage, it appears Studio Partington feels it has not done itself full justice. In particular, it says its revised scheme uses less concrete than dRMM’s – 1,750m³ less, according to its measurements.

Adding a comment to the AJ’s original report, practice founder Richard Partington wrote: ‘CLT is a good material for certain applications but in this case it’s not the most suitable for material efficiency, operational energy, embodied carbon or Part B compliance (as described in the current regulations).’

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