Cruel to be kind

When can you make a sensitive addition to a much-loved streetscape, and a striking brutalist statement at the same time? Why, when you’re expanding one of the UK’s legendary modernist campuses of course. That was the dream commission that Patel Taylor had at the University of Essex, profiled in the latest issue of Concrete Quarterly, which my company Wordmule produces for The Concrete Centre. Also featured: a Tokyo music school that has been named the best new education building in the world, a completely white concrete atrium connecting two neoclassical mansions at an art museum in Avignon, and Antarctic research station architect Hugh Broughton tells us about his favourite buildings.

Cover of CQ issue 255

Small number, big problem

Even if – a very big if – global warming is held to the 1.5°C limit set by nearly 200 world leaders at the UN climate talks in Paris, this will represent a radical change in the global climate. The other big news from the Paris conference was an unprecedented emphasis on adapting to the change that is already happening, and which will continue for centuries to come, no matter what. Humankind faces an uncertain future in which extreme weather events are more frequent and more intense, and there is an escalating threat from storms, hail, flooding, droughts, tropical cyclones and landslides.

The Paris talks stopped short of setting targets or funding mechanisms, but the World Bank estimates that to adapt to a 2°C rise we would have to spend US$70-100bn each year between 2010 and 2050. The cost of not doing anything is pretty high too: over the last decade, annual damages to global real estate and infrastructure from severe weather events have tripled to US$150bn, reaching 8% of GDP in the worst hit regions, not including indirect losses to sectors such as tourism.

In this article for the RICS magazine, Modus, I investigated the far-reaching implications for property, from protecting individual homeowners against heatwaves and flooding, to future-proofing real-estate funds worth billions of dollars.

And for much, much more detail on climate change adaptation, there’s this book I co-wrote for RIBA Publishing.

Flooding article in Modus March 2016

WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff – Skylines magazine

In October, my regular client WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff sponsored a host room at the annual conference of the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats in New York. I went along, listened in on two days of presentations and then turned it into a 72-page magazine, to be distributed to the company’s clients and partners worldwide. The overall theme of Skylines is the renaissance of tall buildings. There’s an unprecedented high-rise boom, but the new generation of towers will be very different from those that preceded them – not only in their giant scale but in the kind of spaces they offer, both in the sky and on the ground. Skylines explores what this looks like, from the perspective of designers, developers and city planners around the world.

WSP PB_Skylines cover

Who’s looking after your pension?

Eight years after the global crash, investors are flocking back to property, the market is more diverse than ever before and there’s talk of overheating. A significant proportion of this renewed investment is the pension savings of ordinary people. So how confident can we be that it won’t happen again? Banks, insurers and pension funds must all meet tougher regulatory requirements imposed since the crash, but property remains less stringently regulated than other asset classes, less transparent, and its risk management procedures are less well developed. As the current market cycle wears on, investors will inevitably be drawn into taking riskier positions to secure improved returns – positions that could leave them dangerously exposed when the next crash comes. In this cover feature for Modus, I interviewed Martin Brühl of German fund manager Union Investment Real Estate, currently president of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, about his plans to set a global standard for risk management. I also spoke to RICS members about the challenges of spotting genuinely uncorrelated assets, identifying the real source of funds in a completely international market, and maintaining constant vigilance over a global portfolio.

Cover of Modus Jan-Feb 2016

“Not enough is spoken about the aesthetics of motorway works”

Concrete Quarterly’s winter edition takes a fascinating look at the world through the eyes of a sculptor – legendary concrete mural artist William Mitchell, now in his 90s, who compares the forms of the UK’s motorway network to sand dunes in the Arabian Desert (p19). Sculptural forms abound elsewhere too – once you start thinking that way, it’s hard to stop. There’s an art gallery in LA where works by Jeff Koons sit within a moulded building that appears to float, a social justice centre-cum-shelving unit in south London, and a kitchen extension made almost entirely of concrete that could have been carved from a single block. I’ve edited CQ for the Concrete Centre since 2010, but you can read the whole archive going back to 1947 here.

CQ Winter 2015_cover

Very private property

Bad news for property snoopers: the UK’s most desirable homes are disappearing from estate agents windows, adverts and online searches. They don’t have For Sale signs, let alone glossy brochures or online walkthroughs, and you certainly won’t find them at auction. Around the world, an increasing proportion of deals are taking place off-market, in private or “whisper” sales. Instead of publicly marketing a property, agents in this most exclusive of sectors use their contacts to discreetly match buyers and sellers. Only a handful of people know that a deal is taking place, and the rest of the market will only hear about it after the deal is closed, if at all. I spoke to agents in London, Dubai and Melbourne to find out the tricks of the trade in this cover feature for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

Nice work if you can get it

The “fluid” themed issue of Modus was too good an opportunity to pass up: I pitched a feature about surveyors working in the world of wine. Happily they went for it, so I went to meet a property-developer-turned-château-negociant in the Bordeaux vineyards, who talked me through the 50 questions every prospective buyer should ask, and why they should forget about making any money. I spoke to an Australian agrarian about the toll that climate change is already taking on the Riverland’s parched vines and the financial woes of its major exporters. And, closer to home, I interviewed a fine-wine auctioneer in Cambridge about snaffling a bargain as the colleges turn out their cellars – and how to avoid a very expensive disappointment.

Article about wine in Modus September 2015

I wish my school looked like that

Weird and wonderful education buildings fill the pages of the autumn issue of Concrete Quarterly magazine, which my company produces for the Concrete Centre. There’s a Zaha Hadid university extension in Oxford that bends round a giant redwood tree to connect two Victorian houses – and whose computer-generated design is impossible to show on plan or section. Thomas Heatherwick was banned from including corridors and corners from the Nanyang learning centre in Singapore, so he created  eight bulging hive-like towers, minutely embellishing every curving surface into the bargain. Then there’s a research facility outside Paris that could be easily mistaken for a public park, hidden under three vast, undulating green roofs. And after all that, Stirling Prize winner Burntwood school by AHMM makes a relatively sedate cover star.

CQ Autumn 2015_cover

Concrete Quarterly special issue no.1

In August, the Concrete Centre asked my company Wordmule to develop another new magazine format – this time, a sort of compendium drawing together content from previous issues of Concrete Quarterly on a particular theme. The first focuses on tall buildings, to tie in with the global high-rise building boom and an event the Concrete Centre was hosting. We created a flexible, repeatable format with a mix of new and old content, and a refreshed look and feel, both distinct from CQ but clearly related. Read it here.

Cover of CQ Tall Buildings 2015