30 Jun 2019

Is the Eden Project a vision of our future?

In early June, I went to visit the Eden Project in Cornwall. It's been open since 2001, so you might wonder just why its taken me so long to get there, as I have been in Cornwall many times over these years. But it seems to me the Eden Project was built as a rainy-day visitor attraction and maybe I had been lucky with the weather up till now. But a wet June day finally saw me cross the threshold, buying tickets for our party of four at an eye watering price, and following the many other rain dodgers down into the gigantic tropical biodome which is its centre piece.

It's bloody hot and humid in there and after about an hour wandering around I was feeling quite exhausted. But also amazed by the sheer scale of the structure. I've been in hot humid glasshouses before — we have several in the Botanical Gardens in Cambridge — but the Eden Project biodome is the size of a large airport terminal. Our party was pleased to get out of it into the relative coolth of the adjacent Mediterranean dome, and even more pleased to get out into the open air half an hour later.

On the way home I started musing about whether the Eden Project has anything to teach us about the impending climate crisis. If we fail to keep the average temperature rise down to manageable levels, we will render much of the Earth's surface uninhabitable. Well much of it already is, let's be frank. But parts which are now readily inhabitable will become too unpleasant to forge a life in. But spaces like the Eden Project, provided they can get good supplies of energy, will continue to function even at very much higher temperatures, because we can create an indoor climate which will be very comfortable for human beings, and indeed, animals and plants.

In a sense these changes are already happening. We are tending to move into cities which are certainly non-natural environments. We already have homes which are already heated and cooled spaces, insulated form the outside environment, and we mostly travel in cars, buses and trains which have controlled environments. Cross what we already are doing with Eden Project type biodomes and you have a viable future landscape. It's a bit like what would happen if we were to colonise another planet where the air wasn't capable of supporingus. There we would have to build an artificial atmosphere around us, as indeed many science fiction writers have postulated. It's as if we were bringing our plans for the colonisation of Mars back down to Earth to tide us through this climate emergency.

The downside to this is that it is unlikely to support the 7 to 10 billion people reckoned to be living on earth by mid-century,  not to mention their feedstock animals and plants. These biomes would probably be constructed in places which would be relatively immune to the tempestuous weather we may experience, and on high ground to avoid rising sea levels. Probably away from earthquake and hurricane zones as well, so as to maximise their chances of long term stability.

The wild, untamed outside areas would probably consist of 99% of the Earth's land cover and we would be free to explore these areas, weather and climate permitting. But live there? Not really possible anymore. There might be vast areas used to collect solar and wind energy needed to keep us humans comfortable in our biodomes, or maybe we would have all gone nuclear by then, because no one will be too worried if there is a radiation spill as there will be no one living within 100 miles.

How many people would this sort of future support? I guess that depends on how many of these biodomes we managed to build. But say each biodome was around 10km2, a 3.5km diameter circle. A luxurious one might support as many as 100,000 people (having 10m2 each). That's just about feasible to comprehend. It would be like putting a roof over an entire town.

Of course you would immediately be cast into a world where there would be upmarket biodomes (maybe 25m2 each) and low rent ones (less than 10m2 each). And then there would be those who couldn't afford to live in a biodome and maybe they'd be left to fend for themselves in the wild parts of the planet. Or maybe not....

It would be very expensive to build biodomes of this scale, but what exactly would be the alternative?  The most obvious answer is to mitigate - to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and keep the whole planet's atmosphere in defined limits so that it is one big functioning biodome. But despite so many people's best wishes, at the moment this seems unlikely, as the political will required to do this is sorely lacking. Another option is to start tinkering with the planet's atmosphere and try and keep it within comfortable bounds. But at the moment, this also seems an unlikely prospect.

Life on Earth will continue, whatever we do to the climate. But just how much life, and under what conditions, is still a very open question.

18 Jun 2019

Housebuilders Bible 13

The text and images are ready to go on the next edition of my Housebuilder's Bible. Final proofing stage has been reached and the book is set to be printed in July for an August launch. This will be the 13th edition. The first edition one came out in December 1994, so the "project" (for that is what it is) is now in its 25th year. The book has sold just over 175,000 copies in that time which works out at a sale every 75 minutes.

I know it's been helpful to many because I've had a lot of feedback over the years, but it's position has changed because selfbuild, as an activity, has become far better known and there is so much more knowledge out there now. Not to mention the coming of the internet, which barely existed in 1994.

Still, the internet can be a lonely place, and there are many questions that it doesn't answer terribly well. Sales patter....it's full of it. Opinions....everywhere. But a simple question, like how best to build a house, really isn't addressed at all. I hope Edition 13 can shed some light on this. Whereas in 1994, my aim was simply to be a conduit for lots of useful information, today it's become a little more nuanced. Now it's more about trying to make sense of an overload of information out there.

8 Jan 2019

Plasterboard buying and waste tips

Up until 2005, there were no restrictions on dealing with plasterboard or gypsum waste from construction sites. In that year, the government (at the behest of an EU directive) began to treat plasterboard differently. Although it's not a hazardous material in its own right, it can react with biodegradable materials to create hydrogen sulphide (think rotten eggs) and it has been deemed to be best if plasterboard isn't just added to landfill where it might encounter just about anything.

But the regulations have never had much teeth and, unlike asbestos, waste companies have tended to turn a blind eye to the disposal of plasterboard and gypsum plasters generally. This is because builders themselves either don't know about the requirements for plasterboard disposal or, more likely, don't care. In fact, plaster products are recyclable and a good waste disposal business will do just that, so that very little plasterboard need ever end up in landfill. But a skip user has no idea what will happen to the skip after it leaves site. Plasterboard off cuts just get placed in the skip, or taken down to the tip.

In fact, my local skip company does offer a plasterboard-only skip collection service. The special skips cost around 15% more than regular skips, and in addition charge of £75 for each extra tonne above the first tonne placed in the skip. On the other hand, they readily accept plasterboard offcuts in ordinary skips as long as the plasterboard makes up no more than 20% of the waste. Who exactly is going to measure that?

Plasterboard buying is notoriously difficult to estimate correctly because it produces so many offcuts. It is usually better to slightly underestimate and then buy the additional requirements in small batches until the work is complete. What you want to avoid is having to dispose of 20 or 30 sheets of the stuff.

2 Jan 2019

Housebuilder's Bible 13

Today I start work on the next edition of the Housebuilder's Bible - No 13. I haven't used blogger since 2015 as my attentions moved on elsewhere and blogging seemed to fall from grace both for me and in general. But I am thinking it a great place to get back in the swing of writing short pieces, if only to hone my rusty writing skills. My aim is to contribute a few blogs about things I uncover in my research over the coming months. All comments and feedback welcome.

28 Sep 2015

Searching for Ronan Point

I spent the weekend working at the Homebuilding & Renovating show at London's Excel centre. By way of relaxation, I often walk the neighbourhoods surrounding these venues both before and after showtimes. Excel is situated next to the Royal Victoria Dock in the heart of London's East End and co-incidenatlly, very close to the site of Ronan Point, the ill-feted tower block which partially collapsed shortly after it was completed in 1968.

The story of Ronan Point has been well documented and there is much on the web about it all. Five people died after a resident attempted to light her gas stove early one morning and instead caused a gas explosion which blew out her kitchen wall and this caused all the kitchens above and below hers to collapse. Whilst the number of deaths was a tragedy for all concerned, this part of London had been well used to explosions having been witness to some of the most intense bombing in the Blitz, not to mention the largest explosion ever to be recorded in London at the Silvertown TNT plant in 1917.

The Ronan Point collapse is remembered now not for its death toll but for the way it marked a turning point in the history of housing in the UK. The 1950s and 60s were a time when Britain went a-housebuilding in a way that has never been seen before or since. Many of the big cities were still bomb damaged after WWII and what remained undamaged was in very poor condition and was widely regarded as little more than slum dwellings. So London's East End was being cleared of existing Victorian housing stock and grandiose schemes of cities in the sky were being enacted. Corbusier's dream of tower block living was coming to fruition here in Canning Town.

However, the dream and the reality turned out to be poles apart. By 1968, tower blocks were being thrown up in record time using pre-fabricated walling systems and, as it later transpired, very low build standards. Only when the boffins came to examine Ronan Point after the explosion did they realise just how poorly these blocks were built, and that it was surprising that more didn't suffer a collapse similar to Ronan Point. Part A of the building regs was in large part re-written because of what was learned from Ronan Point.

The disaster marked a turning point in the story of the slum clearance policies and council house replacements, as well as sounding the death knell for council tower blocks. The dream died with the collapse of Ronan Point. The enthusiasm and vision of a brave new world, built high in the sky, was quietly abandoned with the realisation that this was no way to house people. When the entire Freemasons Estate (9 identical tower blocks of which Ronan Point was one) was eventually demolished in the 1980's, it was pointedly replaced by low rise terraced housing, built by Barratts.

Only now, in the 2010s, has tower block building returned to fashion. The Docklands Light Railway which cuts through this area is now a great vantage point from which to witness the return of high rise flats in this part of London. Let's hope it ends rather better this time than it did in Canning Town in 1968.

I was intrigued to see what evidence of Ronan Point there is today so I went exploring along Butchers Road, E16, to see if there is any indication what happened there one May morning nearly 50 years ago. Alas, there is no plaque, no memorial, not even a storyboard to explain the significance of this place to residents and visitors. It's an important piece of our history and it's being completely ignored. Some might feel that to be interested in Ronan Point is a little ghoulish, but after half a century almost all the immediate actors in the event will have passed on, and it's an important event in the history of 20th century Britain. It still has resonance.

In fact, it took a little detective work on my part to work out just where the Ronan Point tower had once stood. There were lots of aerial photos taken after the explosion, but this doesn't make it easy to place it because many of the surrounding streets have been rebuilt, often with new alignments. But there are one or two key photos on the web which, together with other useful bits of information, place the tower block exactly. None more so than the one which shows the address of Ronan Point as 85 Butchers Road.

There are others in which you can make out the side streets, Ashburton Road and Fords Park Road, to the west of Butchers Road, which still follow the Victorian street pattern. Butchers Road is the street that runs diagonally across the image below, from bottom left to top right.

And there is the recorded fact that the site , after demolition, was developed by Barratts in their inimitable 1990s Noddy-style, complete with GRP porch canopies. It's these Barratt houses, arranged in two terraces stretching between Butchers Road and Freemasons Road, that mark out the surprisingly small footprint of the Freemasons Estate. Ronan Point was the westernmost tower. In fact, there is still a No 85 Butchers Road, which marks the entrance of the only Barratt home to face Butchers Road itself, just to the south of the Butchers Road Newsagents. That, near as damn it, was where the tower once stood.

I you are interested in finding out where it happened and, en route, getting to see a fascinating if still deprived part of the East End, the pin on my Google Map marks the spot. It's a 15 minute walk from the Custom House DLR station and an easy side tour for those visiting Excel.

Here are some mood-capturing images I snapped from my iPhone last Sunday morning.
The newsagent is just to the north of the site. Ronan Point would have once towered over it.
The electricity sub station is on Butchers Road by the entrance to Goldwing Close. It's very close to the site of Ronan Point.  

This Barratt house on Goldwing Close is more or less on the spot where the tower stood. These houses are now 20 years old and they haven't aged well.

17 Sep 2015

Selfbuild under academic scrutiny

Selfbuild can be a slippery concept. It has a definition which seeks to differentiate it from other kinds of build: it's that the project is conceived and executed by people for their own use. But is that in itself exceptional or noteworthy, and does it justify the amount of column inches that get spent lauding selfbuild as if it's the answer to our housing problems? Probably not.

This question is asked in the latest piece of academic research which has been carried out by Michaela Benson, a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths in London. It's not often that academics turn their attention to selfbuild. In fact you can count the number of serious attempts at analysis on the fingers of one hand so it's always interesting to hear what they make of the selfbuild industry. As with others before her, Michaela Benson struggles with the very individualistic nature of selfbuild which makes conclusion-drawing problematic. But she does have one or two insights that are fascinating.

One is that, of the 16 selfbuild stories she puts under the microscope, they all have problems reconciling their budgets with spiralling costs and that they all seem to run into financial stress at some point. She concludes that selfbuild mortgages aren't all they are cracked up to be, as the fronted sums never seem to be enough to meet the bills. And related to all this, there is almost always some sort of falling out with professionals encountered on the journey. Architects can go from hero to zero in the face of unforeseen cost shocks. Contractors fall by the wayside as timetabling slips hopelessly. Specialist suppliers screw up badly, throwing the project timetabling into disarray. New techniques and technologies are embraced by the selfbuilders but often flummox the contractors. People met along the way often promise much but deliver little.

But she also concludes that these problems are not unique to selfbuild. In fact they are pretty much endemic to construction, certainly as widely practiced in the UK. Apart from a small number of community-organised schemes (which receive a disproportionate amount of media interest), selfbuild in England is a very middle class affair, taken on by people with good education, substantial earnings and/or assets and usually with some experience of management. In other words, the privileged few. That they so frequently run into problems probably says more about the chaotic nature of construction that it does about their own inadequacies.

To be fair to the selfbuild media, these conclusions are hardly a surprise. In fact this narrative lies at the heart of most episodes of Grand Designs. Plucky couple take on taxing project at considerable risk to their wealth and health; after facing many hazards along the way, they emerge bruised, battered but triumphant. Benson's research more or less confirms this stereotype.

The one conclusion that she draws from her study that is perhaps unconventional is a call for individual selfbuilders to better manage the social relationship side of their jobs. When the relationships break down, the job suffers and the cash management goes out the window. Which is perhaps an academic way of saying try and keep people sweet.

I am reminded of a couple of selfbuilds I have written about where the selfbuilders puts an enormous amount of effort and quite a bit of cash into keeping subcontractors on board. One arranged to have the fish and chip van arrive on site every Friday so that everyone working there got a slap-up lunch. Amazing how often this resulted in a full crew turning up every Friday. The other tipped his subbies over and above what their gaffer was paying them. He ended up tipping over £1500 in total, but reckons it was money well spent, as standards were excellent and there were very few callbacks. People respond to generosity, and goodwill gestures are often good investments in themselves.

Micahela Benson's report, The Social in Selfbuild, is officially launched on Friday 18th September at the Geffrye Museum and will be made available via her online blog later that day.