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.

“If I had a quarter of a million pounds, I wouldn’t live in Headingley”

Over the last ten years, student accommodation has become a global asset class much sought after by everyone from Far Eastern sovereign wealth funds to Dutch healthcare workers’ pension schemes, fuelling development in the UK at a furious pace. But with some markets approaching saturation, development funding and sites increasingly hard to come by, and the – as yet unknown – impact of higher tuition fees, can it sustain this level of growth? And how is this influx of foreign capital affecting local housing markets in the UK’s key student cities? Optimists predict a flood of family-sized homes coming back on to the market,  but in this piece for Modus, the magazine of the RICS, I found that the reality in key student cities like Leeds is rather different. Local experts apply the “trampoline test”: if there’s a garden big enough for a kid’s trampoline, a family might move in. If not, forget it. So far, the prospects for Leeds’ student heartlands don’t look good.

Not so grand designs

Stand by for a new housing buzzword: “custom build” is the government’s latest solution for restarting the UK’s failed housing market, and fulfilling its pledge to turn Britain into “a nation of homebuilders”. It’s like self-build but without the difficult bits – homeowners are more likely to be choosing from a set of pre-approved designs than creating their dream home, and they can leave the whole thing to an “enabling developer” if they’d prefer not to get their hands dirty. I investigated its chances of becoming the new mainstream in this piece for Construction Manager. Even though councils must now assess demand for custom build and set aside sites to cater for it, and there’s no shortage of contractors gearing up to serve a potentially enormous untapped market, the stumbling block remains the cost of the land – no amount of choice will deliver much-needed family homes while the only people who can afford to do it are equity-rich empty-nesters.

80,000 potential buyers; just 8535 sites

In the UK, self-build has always been the preserve of a courageous minority, accounting for around 10% of homes. Now the government wants to make it a genuine option for many more people, following the example of countries such as Germany and Sweden where self-builders are responsible for more than 60% of all new homes. A year on from my article for Construction Manager on the government’s self-build housing strategy, I assessed how it’s doing for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. And given that self-builders’ two biggest concerns are still – and likely to remain – land and money, I found that surveyors are well placed to offer them advice.

Lonely at the top

On a Wednesday afternoon in early August, Julie Fadden was walking around the streets of Speke and Garston with her staff, talking to her tenants and resolving issues on her estates. The chief executive of South Liverpool Housing was doing what she does on the first Wednesday afternoon of every month – even though her father had died early that morning. This is an extreme example of what sets the chief executive in a housing organisation apart from their staff, but it does shed some light on why the chief executives in Inside Housing’s salary survey are paid so much more than their employees. I spoke to them to find out how they earn their six-figure salaries.

A house is not a Home

Leo Miller’s flash of inspiration came when he nearly burnt down his student house. For Isaac Teece, it was the realisation that if he found changing a light bulb difficult at 21, it was going to be considerably harder in 50 years’ time. They’re the winners of a competition which challenged industrial design students at Northumbria University to come up with ‘inclusive designs’ that would enable elderly or disabled people to live independently. It might seem odd that experiences of life in a student house should influence the design of extra care schemes, but that was the point – the competition’s organisers wanted products that anyone would be happy to have in their homes, and that wouldn’t give them “that sinking feeling that you’re entering older people’s housing”. In this article for Inside Housing, I found out what they came up with.