Old habits die hard

There’s nothing brutal about the spring edition of Concrete Quarterly, which my company Wordmule produces for the Concrete Centre. Concrete is at its cosiest in a south London family home, its most sensitive on a heritage restoration in King’s Cross, and its most finely detailed in a concert hall in the Norwegian Arctic, which has 674 unique facade panels of sparkling white concrete.

Nothing brutal, that is, until you get to Lasting Impression on page 19, when architect Simon Allford of AHMM chooses his all-time favourite concrete structures: Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction and disused World War II pillboxes.

“We can’t yet say that using five curved shapes and two angular ones gives you this level of productivity, but I like to think we’ll be there in five years”

To the uninitiated, “health, wellbeing and productivity” might sound like an alternate title for the “mind, body, spirit” section of Waterstones. Don’t be fooled: it’s an emphatically evidence-based discipline, with a watertight business case that makes low-energy construction look practically New Age in comparison. There’s a growing body of evidence to show that buildings have a far more subtle impact on their occupants than previously thought – hospital patients with views of nature heal more quickly, office workers with a window seat sleep an average of 46 minutes longer per night and doubling the supply of outdoor air to an office reduces short-term sick leave by 35%.

Companies spend far more on salaries than anything else, so it’s easy to see why some of the property sector’s most influential clients seized have thrown their weight behind a landmark report from the World Green Building Council announcing wellbeing as the next big thing in sustainable building.  Wellbeing is a much more attractive message than the abstinence typically preached by the green movement, and unlike climate change, it’s something that individual organisations can actually do something about. In this feature for Building, I investigated how the wellbeing movement could affect the way buildings are designed and valued, and how exactly you can measure such a nebulous concept in the first place.

Spot the difference

The construction industry’s luddite reputation is well deserved, but it’s modernising fast. It’s had no choice since the government set a deadline for every publicly procured project to be delivered using building information modelling from 2016. BIM is CAD on steroids – a detailed computer model backed by a comprehensive database with information on every building component. But does the finished jigsaw ever look like the picture on the box? It turns out that it does. At Telford Homes’ first BIM project, the mechanical and electrical engineers followed the model to the letter, with the result that the finished plant room looks strikingly similar (if a little bit grubbier). I asked them how they managed it in this case study for the BIM+ website.

What the plant room at at Telford Homes' Tweed House development looks like in the BIM model...
What the plant room looks like in the Autodesk Revit model…
... And the same plant room in real life.  Pictures courtesy of Telford Homes
… And the same plant room in real life.
Pictures courtesy of Telford Homes

Time in loo

How many times do school children go to the loo each day? A lot less than everyone thinks they do, it turns out. It may sound like a trivial preoccupation, but it’s crucial when it comes to working out how much water schools can save by installing efficiency measures in toilets, and whether it’s worth their while to do it. The standard assumption is three trips a day, but one survey found that it’s closer to once, if at all – which means that the possible savings are massively overestimated, by a factor of up to six. This is just one of eight “sustainability myths” I discovered in this feature for Construction Manager – accepted practices in green building that don’t necessarily do what they promise. Also revealed: why low-carbon houses can cost more to heat than gas-guzzling ones, why domestic rainwater harvesting systems aren’t worth the hassle, and what to look out for if you’re buying a super-insulated modern flat…

Homes of the rich and famous

Are you a concrete-obsessed billionaire searching for your dream holiday home? You could do a lot worse than check out Concrete Quarterly’s house-themed Winter issue (which I edited). So what’s it going to be? Norman Foster’s luxury apartments in downtown Buenos Aires (pages 4-7)? A modernist retreat apparently carved out of a rocky outcrop in the hills of Maharashtra, with a bath open to the skies (10-11)? Or, for those seeking a third way between luxury holiday and survival weekend, this extremely comfortable cyclone-proof bunker deep in the Queensland jungle (9)? It may look like the home of a Bond villain but the owner’s actually a stamp dealer (the clue’s in the perforated facade). And for the rest of us, there’s the rather more liveable Hill Top House – Japanese-style exposed interiors seamlessly inserted into an Oxford terrace.

Croydon, your time has come

Empty offices + housing shortage = office to resi conversions. It must have sounded like a simple enough sum to government ministers when they announced a temporarily relaxation in planning rules to allow commercial buildings to be changed into homes. As usual, the devil is in the detail. The strength of opposition to the policy certainly took them by surprise, and the version finally brought in from May 2013 is heavily watered down. But despite dystopian warnings from local authorities, it’s not only unlikely to transform the hearts of Britain’s towns and cities – conversions will only take place at all in a very specific set of financial, technical and political circumstances. I investigated the opportunities for the RICS magazine, Modus.

Home economics

Housing is always a key battleground in cities, where planners face a constant struggle to provide enough good quality, affordable homes within the constraints of local economics. Squaring this equation with the complexity and expense of staging the Olympics is one of the greatest challenges host cities face – and it’s what’s most likely to determine whether their residents feel it was money well spent in the long term. There are notorious failures such as Athens, where the accommodation built for the 2004 Games has become a crumbling, semi-deserted sink estate. But even where regeneration is considered to have been successful, in cities such as Barcelona and Sydney, there are often significant compromises on affordability and sustainability. I investigated how London’s Olympic delivery team are trying to keep their promises in this piece for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.