The time is right for long life, loose fit

Friday 29 September 2017

The UK construction industry needs a fundamental rethink over how it funds buildings if it is to reap the benefits that could be gained from a long life, loose fit approach.

That was according to AHMM’s Simon Allford as he addressed a breakfast talk on the subject at NLA this morning.

Allford’s contention is that in the main, developers and housebuilders have a financial model which results in buildings built in the ‘cheapest, dumbest way possible’ and only care about short-term profits at the expense of providing flexible, thoughtful schemes like AHMM’s White Collar Factory. That scheme, said Allford, involved 10 years of research and a three-year build, including a £1m prototype built to test some of its low-energy principles. ‘And yet all anyone wants to talk about is the running track on the roof’, Allford joked.

Architects though, said Allford, are being ‘marginalized as decorators’ and have to engage and rethink their role. They tend to face the challenge of ‘designing our way out of spatial problems, but probably don’t get involved enough in financial problems.’ It was ‘absurd’ to have the waste involved in building offices for, say, £200-300 a foot, only to have another consultant come in, rip out the interior and do a ‘horrible fit out’ in its place. And the prevalence of Brookside-type housing cul-de-sacs are a result of a financial product, not how clever buildings are but how housebuilders can hold back stock and build ‘rubbish’ at an inflated price.

The White Collar Factory has been designed to be ‘infinitely flexible’, and where ‘everything does more than one thing’ with the robustness of a simple frame and openable windows. ‘Don’t give anyone the chance to value engineer your building’ advised Allford. ‘Know, in essence that there is nothing that can be stripped out’.

The conference was opened by Lifschutz Davidson director Alex Lifschutz, who said that ‘long life, loose fit’ dated back to Allex Gordon and Cedric Price’s Fun Palace but was a relevant issue for the housing crisis today. Lifschutz’s experience of working on the Oxo Tower – once a power station and then a meat warehouse – proved they could turn it into something ‘ready for tomorrow’. ‘It’s important to remember when you convert something that it’s not the last step but one on the way’, he said.

But statistics on permissions show that today’s housing crisis is not caused by the planning system – what was needed was a way to build fast, where a ‘step change’ was required. Lifschutz proposes that we use the mayor’s £3.1bn fund to build 90,000 affordable homes, occupying brownfield sites with a ‘new sort of pioneer’ – people who will make them socially active. The schemes can be reverted to the market at a later point if necessary. Lifschutz’s second proposition was to build faster using more modern techniques – building apartments by hand meant 22 weeks, but that could be reduced to one week if kitchens went down the flat pack route. ‘We have a craft arrangement where we need an industry’, he said.

In discussion, Alexi Marmot, founding director of AMA Alexi Marmot Associates, said that the best test of a building in education or any other sector could be to ask how it is going to become housing. That is the most common change of use, she argued. Simon Sturgis, meanwhile, the managing director of Sturgis Carbon Profiling said that it was important to shift our thinking of energy away from light or heating to more about materials and embodied energy. ‘It makes sense to have buildings that are adaptable and durable’, he said. ‘It reduces lifetime energy costs and means that architects need to think slightly differently. We tend to think to practical completion. Actually, we need to think of buildings as a process.’

But regulations – such as those from the BCO – were also causing headaches, said Allford – especially over temperatures; wasn’t it a better idea to simply wear a T-shirt in summer or a jumper when it gets cold?

Perhaps it might even be a good move to adopt an idea put forward by Paul Finch, said Lifschutz, that applicants are awarded planning permission only when they can show in another design, how buildings can be changed to housing. Without due attention to building in more of a ‘long life, loose fit’ way, added Lifschutz, the housing issue will continue to cause ‘immense grief’. ‘We have to be smart about solving it’, said Lifschutz. ‘I really think the time has come.’

David Taylor

Editor, New London Quarterly 

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