24 Apr 2008

Book Reviews: Coping with Transition

I have been reading two books this week in the slightly random, chaotic way that I tend to read books these days. Dipping in and out of them and pitching in at bits that look as though they might be interesting. Sometimes just starting where the page happens to fall open. However you read them, they make an interesting contrast.

One is Rob Hopkins Transition Handbook, the other is Tim Pullen’s Simply Sustainable Homes. In many ways, you’d think that they’d make a pair, but they don’t.

Hopkins is the man responsible for turning Totnes in Devon into a Transition Town and creating the Totnes Pound, a form of LET, for community trading and bartering. He is a dreamer and a thinker and he has lots of jolly good ideas for how Totnes will get by after peak oil, or powerdown as he likes to call it. I am sorry, but I can’t take it or him seriously. It all seems like a bit like back in the 80s when various towns declared themselves Nuclear-Free Zones. There’s lots of Imagineering and a fair bit of philosophical underpinning, but very little that is new or challenging. It’s Schumacher with a peak oil twist. And I don’t mean Michael Schumacher, either. Somehow, I don’t think Michael Schumacher would be impressed.

Basically, Hopkins is saying that in order to survive an oil-less future, we should all become hippies. We should live in co-housing, grow organic vegetables, build using cob and straw bale and screw each other’s wives and husbands. Actually, he didn’t suggest that last bit; I added it in because that is what hippies actually did, IIRC, together with taking large amounts of dope and getting into arguments about whose turn it was to cook tonight. You see, I sort of lived that future back in the 1970s and decided it really didn’t work quite as well as its advocates (and there were many) said it would. Down in Totnes, the 1970s never really went away and maybe, just maybe, they made it work for them. And in Stroud too. And maybe Hebden Bridge. But most of us live in places like Chelmsford or Tamworth, or in London suburbs like Streatham. And there the Good Life never caught on at all, and I don’t think it will when the oil runs out either. I’ve never been convinced by these anti-globalisation, localism arguments, and to my mind Hopkins is just serving up more of the same. On the other hand, global trade is a lot harder without cheap oil, but then so is everything else. Are we really going to go back to horse and carts?

Contrast it with Tim Pullen’s brief guidebook to building using sustainable materials. I don’t agree with every assertion in Pullen’s book either — I don’t think you’d suffocate if the mechanical ventilation system breaks down — but the meat of it is a simple exposition of how to use, and how to cost natural building materials and renewable energy systems. He’s particularly good on renewable energy, based on his experiences as a consultant in Wales where features like hydro power are more commonplace than in the flatlands of East Anglia where I live. There’s also a useful analysis of natural insulation materials: if you have trouble telling your Pavatex from your Homatherm, it’s all in here. Pullen doesn’t pull his punches and describes what he thinks works and, just as importantly, what doesn’t.

The paradoxical thing is that if you really want to prepare for an oil-free future, then Tim Pullen’s Simply Sustainable Homes is a really useful guide to have by your side. Not so Rob Hopkins’ Transition Handbook: it’s a green manifesto for sure, but it won’t get you powered up, fed or housed.

19 Apr 2008

Can you tell your Grohe from your Hansgrohe?

I have been dimly aware for a long time that there is a very good German manufacturer of showers and taps and had seen them referred to as Grohe. Or was in Hansgrohe? Or maybe both. To tell the truth, I hadn’t thought that much about it until today when I noticed that the Grohe website I went to didn’t look much like the Hansgrohe catalogue I had in my hand. Something amiss on the corporate branding department.

Turns out they are two separate companies with a common history. Thanks to Wiki Answers for this slightly confusing explanation.

The brief history seems to be like this:
Hans Grohe founded the company. Later the son sold the brand to an American corporation and set up his own company again. This time round he cannot use Hansgrohe, so he used the brand Grohe instead. As for which is better, I have not had the chance to compare them.
But based on first touch alone, Grohe taps are somewhat smoother when turning them on/off compared to Hansgrohe, but the price is very much different!
Hansgrohe is the original company created by Hans Grohe. His son created Grohe and made Hansgrohe specialise in showers and Grohe in mixers (or faucets). Then Klaus Grohe, current CEO of Hans Grohe took control of the company and Grohe got sold (and has been sold numerous times). Hansgrohe is still owned by the Grohe family, but Klaus's side! The showers and taps by Hansgrohe are the best, no question.

If you read this twice, it strikes me that it’s in fact two different accounts of the same events. The writer of §1 and 2 seems to prefer Grohe whilst the writer of §3 seems to be a Hansgrohe supporter.

17 Apr 2008

How to Write a Design & Access Statement

Thanks to B******s to Architecture for this link, the funniest thing I’ve seen on the building blogosphere this year.

OFT Investigation into Bid Rigging

People may be shocked that 112 firms have been accused of bid rigging, but my guess is that the practice is so widespread, that it’s almost universal. It’s certainly just as common down at the smaller end of the building game as it appears to be up amongst the big boys, and I can remember it going on on a casual basis all over the place when I was involved in the jobbing building market.

Here’s what the current edition of the Housebuilder’s Bible currently has to say on the topic:

One practice which is now becoming prevalent is for busy builders to get together and divide up the work in a way (and for a price) that suits them – it’s called covering. It works like this. A job is put out to tender – typically by an architect – to four or five local builders. Some of them are so busy that they simply don’t want to take on any more work. Architects tend to regard refusals to quote rather badly and the builders feel that, rather than risking losing the possibility of quoting for future work, they would like to put in some price, any price. So the next step is to chat with the competition – it’s not hard, it happens naturally anyway – and soon an informal cartel is in place.

Reg: ‘Have you been asked to quote for the old Rectory Job at Chipping Butty?’
Charlie: ‘Yes. I like the look of it.’
Reg: ‘I really can’t see any way we could do that one – could you do us a favour and cover us.’
Charlie: ‘Sure – I’ve no doubt you’ll be able to return the favour soon.’

So Charlie puts in his price and tells Reg to put in a price maybe £20,000 higher. Reg knows he won’t get the job but he hasn’t spent any time or money quoting for it and he hasn’t upset the architect so he’ll stand a chance next time around when he does want the work.

Occasionally the builders know all the other tenderers on any given job – in matters like this the grapevine works extremely efficiently – so that there are cases where every builder on the tendering list has been in on the scam. They all know who is providing the lowest quote and, consequently, the lowest quote is in reality quite a high one. Such a complete stitch-up is perhaps rare but frequently two or three of the quotes will be for show purposes only.

Partly this problem stems from the way building work is procured in the first place. And in particular the practice of builders quoting for free causes a lot of problems. It sounds too good to be true and of course it is. It takes a good deal of time to generate an accurate quotation and most builders simply send tender documents off to a quantity surveyor who carries out the work for them (for a scaled fee, depending on the size of the job). Now builders often end up quoting for five or six jobs in order to win one so the overheads of quoting for jobs they don’t get becomes a significant business expense in itself. Anything that helps to ease the load of having to quote for jobs is manna from heaven for builders so you can see the attraction of any informal price fixing arrangements they might concoct.

14 Apr 2008

Unmissable inventions

How did we ever live without it? Throw out your old toilet brushes and fit the revolutionary HydroBrush. What is it? Essentially a water-powered toilet brush. A flexible nozzle that showers water into your toilet bowl for cleaning purposes, complete with a cartridge that contains cleaner, disinfectant, limescale remover, colour and perfume.

Even more amazing, the makers claim that HydroBrush actually saves you water. How can this be? Here’s what the makers claim: “every time HydroBrush is used instead of a conventional toilet brush, the potential water saving per use is about 7litres.”

They go on: “With HydroBrush an average household will save 1500 litres of water per year – improving your carbon footprint.”

Sorry guys, I am not convinced!

12 Apr 2008

How to sack an architect

Interesting question today at the Homebuilding & Renovating show on which I was stumbling over the answer, when up turned Julian Owen, leading figure in ASBA. The questioner had used an architect for planning drawings but wasn’t overly impressed by the service and didn’t want to employ him for the follow-on stage, the detailed drawings, and was looking to appoint someone else. However the architect was acting miffed and said he couldn’t have the drawings because they were copyrighted and he had to employ him for the follow-up stage as well. An impasse had ensued.

Julian reckoned that the architect in question was pulling a fast one. Unless the client had specifically signed a contract with the architect saying that he would employ him to undertake a complete design service, then there was no way he could insist that he should be hired for the rest of the work. As for copyright issues, he thought that was a red herring because there now existed a licence for the client to build the plans as drawn on the site in question (though not, interestingly, on a different site). He suggested that the client had a right to have and to use the plans as drawn, provided he had fulfilled his side of the bargain – i.e. he had paid. This had been proved in case law with paper plans, though not, as far as he knew with electronic CAD drawings, but it’s unlikely that they would be treated any differently.

Thinking about it, the architect’s position was basically untenable because if the relationship had broken down, there is no way the client would want to use his services again and digging his heels in like this would gain the architect nothing more than a reputation for being truculent. He suggested that a way of ending the impasse might be to offer the said architect a small fee, like £50, to pass on the CAD drawings to someone else.

11 Apr 2008

Report from Homebuilding & Renovating show

Just completed two days work at this years’s Homebuilding & Renovating National show and, to many people’s surprise, it is really busy, possibly the busiest its been for four years or so. The seminar theatres, where I am mostly based, have been packed out and the Ask the Experts stand has been inundated all day long. If there is a property recession on, it seems that someone has forgotten to tell the nation’s selfbuild army.

There are also new products which I haven’t noticed before. One is Smart Tint or switchable glazing which I’ve seen on telly but never in the flesh before. It’s obscure but it turns clear when a tiny electric current is passed through it. A snip at £400 per m2.

Another is stretch ceilings which involves creating a false ceiling from a warmed up sheet of PVC. OK, it’s not going to win any green awards, but it’s fun, and you can do weird shapes and use it to mask Artex and other blemishes. The business doing this is Creative Ceilings, ballpark costs start at £40/m2.

Finally, an extruded clay block system from Austria called Redbloc. It’s being sold as a prefabricrated crane-in solution, something similar to SIPs, and with potential U value down around 0.2. “We expect it to be between 20% and 30% cheaper than brick and block walls,” said Bally Sigurdsson, their Finance Director. Well, maybe, you hear a lot of hi-falutin’ claims at these shows, but it’s certainly an interesting looking product and I hope to write more about it in the months to come.