28 Aug 2008

Selfbuild Day at Wolseley's Sustainable Building Centre

Further to my entry dated August 13, Becky from Wolseley has contacted me to say that they are going to have a Selfbuild Day there at the Sustainable Building Center in Leamington Spa on Saturday October 25th, 2008. The free event, which will run from 10am – 4pm, will enable self-builders to gain a great understanding of the latest sustainable products and technologies - from their system design and relevant applications, to efficiencies and payback. Wolseley’s self build account managers will be on hand alongside the SBC team and key suppliers to offer expert advice on the benefits of choosing an eco-friendly self-build project.

To register for the event or to book an appointment with one of the experts to discuss your project in greater detail on the day, contact a member of the SBC team on 01926 705403 or email sbc@wolseley.co.uk.

19 Aug 2008

Whither the Windowman?

Yesterday I drove down to Cranleigh in Surrey to the home of Charles Brooking, the man who is famous for collecting historic windows. Our meeting had come about through a casual enquiry I had made to him about the origin of French windows and, more specifically, whether it’s correct to say French windows or French doors. According to Charles, it’s very definitely French windows: French doors is utterly non-U. The habit of fitting them arrived in Britain in the early 19th century and it does appear to have originated in France, where timber joinery practices were some way in advance of ours.

Anyway, one thing led to another and yesterday morning I found myself entering the strange world of Charles Brooking and his enormous collection of joinery dating from the 1500s through to the 1960s. We immediately found out that we had much in common. Both of us were born in 1953, both of were sent to minor public schools and neither of us had done much that resembled a normal day’s work since. Whilst standing in one of the many sheds in his garden, leaning against some timber sash window he had salvaged from God knows where, he seemed very keen to talk me through some of the byways of his life and carreer, and how it has always come back to his fascination with architectural details. Charles claimed that this started for him as early as his 3rd birthday.

It placed him really as a man out of his time. He seems to sit uneasily in a world of congestion charging, security cameras and internet banking. He talked wistfully of the fun and freedom of the 60s and 70s and said he didn’t regret not having any children because he thought they faced a grim future. Oh dear, maybe this recession business really is getting to people.

The point about Charles Brooking is that he isn’t just some eccentric collector with a case of OCD: he ferrets out stuff with a purpose and is assembling a body of work, which is quite unique in the world. His work has come to the attention of many over the years, including such luminaries as Prince Charles, and he has for many years been employed by the University of Greenwich as a lecturer. His opinions are regularly sought out and a visit to his collection is a must for any aspiring conservation officer.

But he has a problem. Collecting remains his passion, cataloguing his curse. The Brooking Collection in its entirety now includes over 300,000 pieces — he has over 30,000 sash pulley mechanisms alone. His phone is hot with new contacts ringing him up about country houses about to be demolished, and he feels that it’s important that someone (i.e. Charles himself) is around to sort the wheat from the chaff. But without some back-up and the hope that at least some of his collection can move to a permanent home where it could be curated and displayed, it may all end up lost in a series of sheds dotted around the countryside of Surrey and Kent.

You see, to a large extent, the Brooking Collection
is currently going backwards in terms of visibility, if not in size. The University Of Greenwich offered to display some of his collection in 1986, but then sold the site used for this in 2002, since when its gone back to being warehoused. There are moves afoot by the University of Greenwich to set up a new permanent home for the collection, but it’s painstakingly slow and Charles fears that the whole process is losing momentum.

To my mind, it seems ironic that, with all the interest displayed in this country towards conservation projects and with huge organisations around like the National Trust and English Heritage, there isn’t more help for Charles Brooking. We spend inordinate amounts of money on maintaining historic properties, but we actually have very limited resources for teaching people the history of our buildings and how and why they came to be built. Pulling these threads together systematically is a huge task and here is someone who has completed a large tranche of this work off his own batt. For which service, the conservation bodies largely ignore him.

13 Aug 2008

Wolseley's Sustainable Building Centre

Tim Pollard is Wolseley’s Mr Sustainability. Here he is pictured yesterday outside his pride and joy, the £3m Sustainable Building Center, which opened in April this year at Wolseley’s UK HQ in Leamington Spa. He used to be head of marketing at Wolseley, owners of Plumb Center, Builder Center, Encon Insulation and Bathstore.com. But somewhere along the line, he got the green bug and saw a need to start promoting sustainability as a concept from within the Wolseley empire. Or, put another way, rather than just stocking what plumbers were asking for, offering them a choice of products they may not even have known existed, in the hope that they will one day (soon) cotton onto them.

Due in large part to Pollard’s campaigning from within, Wolseley have invested heavily in sustainable building materials and show no sign of back tracking from this, despite the rotten trading conditions which have forced them to lay off thousands of staff. The deal with the board seems to be this: Pollard has identified 7,000 product lines (out of a total of 500,000), which can classed as sustainable. The relative sales of these product lines will be the yardstick by which the success of the SBC will be judged. The early indications are that the sustainable product lines are increasing their market share month on month.

Just by adding Wolseley’s market presence, many otherwise marginal products become mainstream. Take wood pellets as a good example. Many people have shrunk away from installing expensive wood pellet boilers because of fears about continuity of supply. However, Wolseley have partnered with Jeld Wen to come up with a solution. Jeld Wen have lots of wood waste: Wolseley have the delivery capacity, so Jeld Wen have set up a wood pellet plant in Lowestoft and Wolseley now offer to deliver the output nationwide.

The Sustainable Building Centre is all about education. It’s not a trade counter and it’s not even open to the public as an exhibition hall — it’s appointment only. Yet they have already taken 270 bookings for visits by various groups so it’s working at virtually full capacity. Inside you will see displays of everything from renewable and low carbon technologies, SUDS, green roofs, natural paints and floorcovers, LED lighting and low-flow shower heads. In fact, just about anything you could think of with the notable exception of micro-wind turbines, a particular bete noir of Tim Pollard.

They plan to hold a number of selfbuild weekends and if you want to visit it might be an idea to check the website for more details, or make an enquiry at your local Wolseley Center.

12 Aug 2008

Upton Update

It’s a year since I last went to Upton, the much written about urban extension to Northampton. I called by again today to see how it’s developed. It was like a ghost town. Work on the new sections of the development has almost come to a standstill, and much of the finished housing lies empty. It must be very sad for the people working there, and not great for those who’ve already made their homes there in the hope that it would be nearly finished by now. The credit crunch has more or less left it high and dry.

There is some very strange housing there and a lot of it is very ugly. None more so than an extraordinary development at the south western corner of the estate by David Wilson Homes, now part of Barratt. Just take a gawp at this showhouse: it really is an eyeful, and not in a good way. The reason I took this picture was to highlight the fact that the cedar shingles they have used for the cladding already look completely different on the west face than on the south face. But the camera I am using isn't quite up to the job of picking out the discolouration. However, it’s done an excellent job at highlighting just how bizarre it looks. Like almost everything else in Upton, it's been stretched upwards to get a third storey. Whilst this may make good use of the footprint, it just looks all out of proportion for a detached family house, which is what this is meant to be. And the windowless south face makes it look like a warehouse. Covered in shingles. My prediction is that the cedar shingles will have to be replaced within five years because they will look awful by then. There are places where they can look great, but this is not one of them.

Around the corner, Dunster’s Zed homes are now nearly finished and were taking a last lick of paint. Despite it being fairly windy, the roof mounted wind turbines were barely spinning at all and the Dalek-like wind cowls seemed to be revolving in a near random fashion, though my photos shows the seven of them broadly aligned towards the breeze. All this roof-top wizardry gives the terrace a faintly toy-town feel which at least brings on a smile, and the proportions actually look very good, at least compared to many of the other developments.

It really is a very weird place, Upton. If you want to see what an eco-town might look like, then take a visit. In fact take a visit even if you don’t want to see what an eco-town might look like. There’s something more than a little disturbing about the whole place and I can’t quite put my finger on it.