Gallery: "technology"

The last few years have proved that governments aren’t qualified to predict the future, especially when it comes to technology.  When they take a stake in something, they usually back the wrong horse.
During the 1960’s and ‘70’s, Britain developed Advanced Gas-Cooled (AGR) nuclear reactors while other countries built power plants based on Boiling Water or Pressurised Water reactors. The AGR concept was more sophisticated, but the reactors were fiercely complex and as a result extremely expensive.  In Jonathan Glancey’s introduction to a book about Dungeness power station, he posits that AGR reactors were, at that point, the most complex machines every devised by man – even more so than Concorde or the Apollo spacecraft.
In the early 1980’s, the UK government backed INMOS to develop microchips called “transputers”, which it’s acknowledged were about 30 years ahead of their time, but never quite caught on.  Their factory in Newport, Wales is still going and is currently caught in a controversy about Chinese ownership and proprietary knowledge.
Recently, Ferguson Marine’s dual-fuel ferries have made the news for all the wrong reasons. CMAL apparently insisted on their propulsion system being fed by either gas oil (diesel) or liquified natural gas, but the shipyard has struggled to make this hybrid technology work in practice.  As with nuclear power plants and microchips, their heart was in the right place, but politicians and civil servants think and work in a different way to scientists and industrialists.
The latest eye-opener appears in Section 7.2 of the June 2023 edition of the Technical Standards, which were published recently.  This mandates that every Scottish newbuild, or house with on-site parking which is undergoing major renovation, should be fitted with a 7kW electric car charger.  Every flat with parking inside its curtilage should be provided with something similar.  There are some caveats about costs and enabling infrastructure.
Cars have defined the shape of our cities, from the Radburn Layout to out-of-town retail parks.  Accommodating cars also influences the shape of individual buildings, from inner city basements incorporating Wöhr Parklifts, to carports and double garages in the suburbs.  There are 25 million homes in the UK, of which around 5.5 million are flats or maisonettes.  Give or take, that means there are around 20 million houses, most of which would need to be retrofitted with chargers if electric cars are adopted by the mass market.

Whether or not you think electric cars are a good thing, many industry experts feel that electric power may be a stepping stone en route from petrol and diesel to more truly sustainable fuels. Given the high cost of electric cars, the issues with range and finding chargers that are unoccupied and actually work, plus the fact that some of the ingredients of modern batteries come from unsustainable sources, battery electric using current technology isn’t ideal. 

I first came across electric cars in reasonable numbers when I visited Bergen ten years ago: I was amazed to find that all the taxis were Teslas, which at that point seemed futuristic but also unaffordable.  Today, there are alternatives.  It looks like buses will evolve directly from the current diesel-electric hybrids to hydrogen fuel cell power – there are already a number of hydrogen buses running in Aberdeen.  JCB have begun to build excavators with hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines, and shortly the first few jet aircraft will be converted from burning kerosene to synthetic fuels.
By comparison to those 20 million or so houses, there are around 8000 filling stations in the UK.  It seems logical to convert these petrol/ diesel stations to hydrogen incrementally, as demand increases, and that’s bound to be easier, cheaper and faster than fitting 7kW chargers to every house.  Yet that’s what’s being suggested, with the Scottish Government enacting the fitting of chargers in the Building Regulations, and the UK Government insisting that the sale of new petrol cars will be phased out by 2030.
For architects, the charger mandate means a few things.  It fixes the parking place so that the car becomes an immovable object, rather than something that can be tucked out of sight.  It increases the house’s electrical load, and with fast chargers that probably means you’ll need a three-phase supply.  We already know from a couple of current projects that the power infrastructure isn’t adequate to cope with demand, and chargers won’t be futureproof when future cars are inevitably developed to new and different standards. 
History teaches us that by the time a reasonable number of houses and flats have been built or renovated to include a car charger, the world may have moved on – perhaps to synthetic fuels and hydrogen fuel cells. What we could be doing meantime is NOT buying cars; but for those of us who need them, perhaps we could keep using older cars for a while longer.

By • Galleries: technology

Having tracked down a missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle, I thought it was worth updating and re-posting this post from 2016 about Dorran Construction and W, T & H Dye Builders. By accident, it’s begun to evolve into a snapshot of housebuilding in Tayside during the 1960’s and 70’s.

During the 1950’s, the Hull construction firm of R.G. Tarran, builder of the Tarran Prefab, adapted the former dyeworks of Pullars of Perth to produce the Dorran House, a single-storey bungalow built from precast panels.

Dorran houses are like Structural Insulated Panel Systems or SIPS houses, but pretty much without the “I”. The Dorran system consists of storey-height precast panels which are 16 inches wide, which seems an odd width for a structural module, but we now live in a world which has the luxury of setting out in metric, usually on multiples and fractions of 2.4 or three metres.

Whether Dorran licensed the system from Tarran, or the company was a direct subsidiary, isn’t clear – but during the 1950’s, they sold to the public sector with houses for the Forestry Commission in outlying parts of the Highlands, small developments of social housing in rural counties such as Argyll and Caithness, and even domestic accommodation at RAF Saxa Vord on Shetland.

Dorran Construction later offered a range of bungalows to private buyers; the housetypes had couthy names such as The Glen Shean, The Glen Varloch, The Glen Frugart and The Glen Clova. By the 1960’s they were fabricating around ten houses each week at their precast factory in Perth, and a total of 2500 had been erected by 1962.

According to the Building Research Establishment (BRE) report I consulted, two-storey Dorrans have a characteristic protruding band at first floor level, like a string course, formed by a precast ring beam. Timber floor panels were strapped to the ring beam with joist straps, and the precast panels were tied together using steel bolts. Some Dorran bungalows appear to have a concrete ring beam at ground level, too.

For vapour control, the concrete panels were lined with 2-ply bituminous felt as a damp-proof membrane. When the wall was erected, the joints were filled with gunned bitumen, then pointed up in cement mortar. Interestingly, a newspaper article from the 1960’s notes that one of their outstanding features was the level of insulation in the walls and ceilings. A half-inch-thick internal layer of expanded polystyrene sat between the concrete panel and its plasterboard lining … half an inch, which is laughable nowadays, but better than nothing.

By the 1970’s there was disquiet about non-traditional methods of construction, and two of the Dorran houses’ failings were shared by several other systems. The panels’ lack of decent, continuous insulation led to condensation problems, and serious corrosion of the steel ties between the panels was a by-product of that.

The BRE diagnosed the problems during the early 1980’s, which eventually led the designs to be designated under the Housing Defects Act 1984, which effectively condemned them and made them un-mortgageable. However, the 1984 Act was soon consolidated into the 1985 Housing Act, which provided grant assistance for people who had unwittingly bought former council houses constructed using problematic systems.

Perhaps if the Dorran system had been constructed using stainless steel fixings, and with effective insulation, the design might have succeeded. As it is, the remedial works entailed in fixing the problems range from adding a masonry skin outside the precast panels, to propping the roof then demolishing the panels and building a brand new external wall. Instead, many chose to demolish the existing house and start again, often building a timber kit on the site instead.

While it’s true that we probably won’t make exactly the same mistakes again in future, we may make slightly different mistakes in pursuit of the same goals. A few years ago, I worked on a project with some of the first zero energy houses in Scotland, built using a SIP system comprising JJI joists skinned with OSB board, and a cavity filled with injected cellulose fibre.

There have been no insulation or corrosion issues that I’m aware of – but the high degree of airtightness meant that when tenants switched off the whole house ventilation system (because they were concerned about running costs) they suffered from condensation problems in kitchens and bathrooms.

A different kind of prefabrication, a new type of problem, caused partly by a novel approach to design and more so due to poor communication between the landlord and tenant about how the house worked. The other lesson of Dorran Construction Ltd. lies in how we may try to meet today’s unmet demand for housing by using “off-site construction”, which is the new, untainted name for system building, a.k.a. prefabrication.

In the early 1960’s, Dorran looked southwards and after 1964 during which it made a profit of £96,000, the firm opened a precast factory in Consett, and another in London. By 1967 the firm had built 4000 houses across Scotland, but by signing up to fixed price contracts in England during an era of rampant inflation, Dorran committed its fatal mistake.

The company lost money on its English contracts, the factories in Consett and London closed, and the parent firm in Perth struggled to survive. By the time that Dorran Houses began displaying the first symptoms of structural corrosion, the firm was no longer producing them – and the post-war housing boom was over. As demand slackened, the industry pulled back from mass produced housing.

“House factories”, the dream of technocrats and Le Corbusier alike, are much trickier to achieve in practice than you might think. Dorran Houses have been condemned, both literally and metaphorically, as a failed experiment in mass production. After the 1984 Act, mortgage lenders viewed precast panel houses as “Non-Traditional” and as far as most buyers were concerned, that euphemism was the kiss of death for prefabrication.

Another name from Tayside during the 1960’s and 70’s is W, T & H Dye Ltd. which was founded in Dundee around 1959 and fell into liquidation in 1988. In the intervening thirty years, William, Thomas and Harry Dye were less radical than Dorran, and they targeted a different market. If little has been written about Dorran, I’m not aware of anything at all about the Dyes.

Their family-run business generally built their own developments. They concentrated on small sites in the West End of Dundee, Broughty Ferry and Monifieth, and their houses were thought of as better quality than run-of-the-mill bungalows built by other firms of the time such as Interbuild, Pat Dempsey or McCabe. Dyes typically built cavity wall detached and semi-detached houses, with harled walls and panels picked out in Fyfestone. The 1960’s houses between Victoria Street and Grange Road in Monifieth are typical of their output.

The Dyes didn’t attempt to compete directly with Bett Brothers of Downfield, who were Dundee’s largest housebuilder for several decades. Betts built thousands of houses in the western, northern and eastern suburbs of Dundee – plus Perth, Fife and Aberdeen too. Before they were taken over by Gladedale, they were Scotland’s biggest house developer north of the Central Belt.

Betts employed their own architects, including Bert Stevens and the late Ron Valentine who later worked in partnership together. While I was preparing a portfolio for my architecture school interview, Ron Valentine kindly set aside a morning to chat about the course, show me his own drawings from Duncan of Jordanstone, and offer some pointers.

A year or two after I published this piece, the son of one of Dyes’ directors, also Harry Dye, got in touch. He was generous with his time and very helpful in providing more background about the family firm, but he pointed out that some of the developments I highlighted in Barnhill – including a couple of dozen houses on the Dalhousie Feus in Ardmore Avenue, half a dozen in Holly Road, and a couple in Navarre Street – weren’t actually built by Dyes at all.

As I’d relied on anecdotal information, I held my hands up and promised to track down whoever did build those houses in Barnhill. Their facings in Leoch stone, harling and natural slate roofs combined to create what one ambitious estate agent described as “Voysey-style” bungalows. Not quite, but some of their larger houses were vaguely Arts & Crafts in a watered down fashion. While a Bett bungalow in the area we’re talking about now sells for upwards of £200k-£250k, the houses in question are now worth at least £300-£350k.

People notice the difference in quality, and there’s a reason why many homebuyers are conservative. Most have little say in what their house looks like or how it’s built, yet they tie up most of their wealth in it and sink much of their sense of self into it, too. “Traditional” housing has always been popular: partly because it’s time-proven, and also because it doesn’t lose its value in disastrous ways, like Dorrans’ houses did.

The developer of those houses in Barnhill built in the spaces left behind by other developers – they were evidently happy to achieve a slow and steady rate of sales on gap sites. They built on ransom strips, backlands, landlocked plots and spaces left over after planning. The rising tide of land values means that the quarter- or fifth-acre parcels they used are now only a seventh- or even an eighth-acre in area!

Nowadays, small-scale developments avoid Planning Gain and Section 75 agreements (providing parks, playgrounds, contributions to roads schemes and primary schools), and the complexity of SUDS systems using swales and constructed wetlands. The developer in Barnhill avoided those too, but one giveaway is that some streets have unmade pavements and unadopted roadways: they were “unbonded” developments. In other words, there weren’t financial bonds in place for the roads and sewers when the development was completed, so the local authority wouldn’t touch it.

On reflection, “barriers to entry” for this type of housebuilding seem low. Many joinery firms entertain the idea that if they can build houses, they should also be able to put together developments of houses. But the functions of a developer – land acquisition, finance, project management, marketing – are very different to those of a builder, and for the past thirty years they’ve become ever more complex.

Similarly, with the coming of the timber kit from firms like Interbuild and Stewart Milne, cavity walls with stone facings became an anachronism. Also virtually gone are the “All Trades” building contractors who directly employ their own concrete workers, bricklayers, masons, workshop and site joiners, roofers, painters and decorators. Likewise firms with joinery shops which can manufacture their own doors, windows and stairs: the best you can ask are Howden kitchens, Magnet doors and kit panels rattled together with a Hilti gun.

As a consequence, houses are built to meet the ruling standards of the day, but the construction is less robust with gang-nailed trusses rather than couple roofs, and timber kit walls versus cavity masonry. They’re generally finished to a lower standard, with flush ply versus panel doors, and MDF rather than hardwood facings.

Traditionally-built houses from the 1960’s and 70’s would be tricky to procure in large numbers nowadays, but they’ve proven to be a remarkably good store of value over the past half-century. Perhaps, depressingly for those with a “social” model of housing in mind, that’s the real message.

Meantime … the final piece of the jigsaw? A few days ago, I discovered that the houses in Ardmore Avenue, Holly Road and Navarre Street were developed and built in the early 1960’s, by Hills Brothers of Brechin. That firm wasn’t even on my radar, so there’s another rabbit hole to disappear down. Perhaps they were designed by a local practice, in the same way that the now-forgotten architect James A. Fraser of Blairgowrie designed houses for A&J Stephen of Perth during the 1960’s…?

By • Galleries: technology, dundee

Sometimes it feels like trying to resolve competing demands, like thermal performance against the limited depth available in a wall or deck build-up, is like trying to post an octopus through a Venetian blind.

The push to improve U-values has run all through my career. We scoffed at the buff-covered copies of the Building Regs which the greybeards had, prescribing walls which didn’t even achieve 0.45 W/m2K. The old-timers each had their own dog-eared copy, but when the new Technical Standards came in later in the 1990’s, the office only bought one copy and it came in a ring binder: all the better to swap pages out each time the thermal performance of walls and roofs became more stringent.

As values rose from 0.45 to 0.3 then 0.2 W/m2K, how best to achieve them became a concern, because material performance didn’t improve so insulation thicknesses just kept increasing. I vaguely remember 100mm kit walls, which soon became 140mm studwork, then 200 or 250mm JJI joists were used as studs to accommodate increasing depths of glasswool, cellulose or rock fibre.

As a result, we've always been up against it with wall linings and timber kit build-ups and rather like computers during the 1990's, as soon as processor speed and RAM increased according to the so-called Moore’s Law, the gain was more than absorbed by a more sophisticated programme carrying out ever more intensive tasks.

Similarly, despite pressure to move from glasswool and stonewool to polystyrene (EPS or XPS) polyurethane (PUR), then poly-isocyanurate (PIR) foams, which offer progressively better R-values: as soon as thinner insulation was developed, the minimum U-value improved too, so you needed more of it. The net gain in footprint won back was nil, because materials technology and the Technical Standards had fought themselves to a standstill.

However, what feels like one of the few genuine pieces of materials tech progress in recent decades has become a commercial proposition: Vacuum insulation, or more accurately evacuated insulation. As you may remember from the teacher’s explanation of the Dewar Flask in Higher Physics, a vacuum, or the absence of air, has no thermal conductivity and that makes it the perfect insulant. Nothing can pass through a vacuum apart from radiation, so no heat is lost to either conduction or convection.

Vacuum insulated panels (VIP’s) have been in use for a few decades in refrigeration plants, cold stores, cryogenic freezers and the like, manufactured by companies like Morgan Advanced Materials (the UK company which was previously known as Morgan Crucible). They’ve only made their way into the building industry in the past decade or so as firms like Kingspan and the German firm Va-Q-tec began production. Around 2005, VIP’s were introduced into the construction industry in Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia, to begin with as deck insulation on balconies and other locations where deep build-ups cause detailing headaches.

VIP’s are made from fumed silica sand, which forms a porous matrix from which more than 99.999% of the air is evacuated. The silica is encapsulated in a vacuum-tight envelope made from aluminium foil, and the key thing is to make sure that isn’t penetrated by a nail or screw. In 2022 terms, silica is inert so it won’t harm the environment, and it’s not flammable so it won’t go up in flames, like foam insulation frequently seems to do.

In thermal performance terms, vacuum panels have a lambda value four or five times better than the best foam insulations, and one analysis demonstrated that a VIP board 20mm thick achieves the same thermal performance as mineral wool or PUR insulation board with a thickness of 185mm.

At the same time as VIP boards emerged, a new type of double glazing was developed.
Similarly to the ever-thickening walls conundrum, upgrading traditional sash and case windows to double glazing often means using bulky glazing units which ruin the fine lines of the transoms and astragals.

Vacuum glazing is similar to a double glazed unit in construction, except that it doesn’t have a gas in the cavity, it has a vacuum. That vacuum is far more effective than filling a 20mm cavity with a noble gas like Argon or Krypton, and therefore only requires a 0.2mm cavity - hence the unit’s thickness is greatly reduced. Some of the first vacuum glazed units to come to market are the AGC Fineo and the Pilkington Spacia; for example, a Super Spacia unit achieves 0.65 W/m2K, against standard 4+20+4mm double glazing which achieves around 1.2 W/m2K.

Thanks to vacuum technology, finally we have the potential to return to the slim glazing profiles and slender walls of the 1960's… and even more importantly, to use far less raw material in order to save much more energy, and in doing so to reduce the gross floor area of the building. That’s a triple win, and as a result you may not need to post your octopus through a Venetian blind after all.

Happy Christmas when it arrives. :-)

By • Galleries: technology, specification

We react to industrial buildings in different ways. Some people are indifferent, some overlook them, but industry creates its own aesthetic and the mechanistic forms of factories, power plants and steelworks have their own, particular appeal. One powerful response to the machine age was excitement; there is a long tradition of celebrating machines and their capabilities.


Marinetti, for instance, describes a power station in 1914 as follows ~

“Nothing is more beautiful than a great humming power-station, holding back the hydraulic pressures of a whole mountain range, and the electric power for a whole landscape, synthesised in control-panels bristling with levers and gleaming commutators.”


Hopefully during the last thirteen months of Covid lockdown, stress and fear, some of us have found a release valve in picking up a sketchbook again and taking the chance to draw. Doodling and scribbling can help you to develop a personal language – and long afterwards, flicking through the pages often demonstrates how we return to our signature shapes and forms, time and time again.


In my case, the results are mechanistic, including aerofoils, cranked arrows, hoods and wings.  Many of them stem from creating imaginary industrial landscapes, which I guess are born of years spent trudging around post-industrial cities and rusting wastelands with a camera, peering over walls to see what the furnace or factory looks like up close.


Sometimes the drawings spring from intuitive sketching, at other times inspired by the “readymades” you come across in everyday life.  Above is a sketch by Hugh Chevins who visited de Havilland's factory at Hatfield in the early 1960's to record all the shapes and forms produced by ICI Metals (panels, skins, castings, forgings) which went into the Comet 4 airliner.  Collecting those pre-made forms and applying them to new purposes isn’t a new idea, but Jasper Morrison summed it up well a few years ago in his book “Everything but the Walls” (Lars Müller Publishers, 2006):

“Following the “ready-mades” and the adaptation of basic, recognisable object types to make new objects, I had come to believe that it was not the designer’s job to invent form, just to apply it in the right places at the right time and for good enough reasons.

“I had a catalogue from a company in the East End of London called W. H. Clark Ltd. who supplied equipment for trade vehicles, motorised, horse or human powered, and looking through it one day I found the direction for the door handle in the form of what was described as a coach handle. I followed up this discovery by using the form of a light bulb for the door knob, and a wing nut for the door lock.

“This process of not trying to invent anything while being open to outside influence was similar to the idea of adapting objects for new purposes, but more sophisticated, and somehow the economy of recycling a form seemed more rigorous than trying to invent one.”


Of course, a few years later Morrison also said, “People don’t trust design – they think it’s shit”, during an interview with Icon Magazine in 2009. But that’s a whole different story.


Meantime, have some super-heavy engineering…


By • Galleries: technology, covid-19

We live in a world that’s habitually overflowing with “stuff” and simultaneously suffers from shortages. Usually there’s an abundance of the things we don’t like, such as taxation and Brussels sprouts, and not enough of the things that we do.

I ordered a couple of jars of jam a wee while ago and was advised that there was a national shortage in boysenberries “so we will not have any for a month”. Happily the jam arrived the other day, so the jam makers must have tracked some down on the black (berry) market.

I’ve written before about the Great British Brick Shortage, and also the potential impact of Brexit on contracts. There have been three cost increases for structural steel in the past few months, and that has an impact on what’s reaching the sites. Elsewhere, furniture made in the EU is slower to reach Scotland due to lorries backing up at the ports and extra customs checks.

Plus of course what’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind, pharma companies are ramping up production of Covid-19 vaccine, but so far there isn’t enough to inoculate everyone everywhere, although progress is encouraging. However, I made another unwelcome discovery when a lightbulb blew and I realised I needed to buy some more. Not only can you no longer buy old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, but halogen bulbs are being phased out, and compact fluorescent bulbs are pretty much unobtainable as well … so it's LED bulbs or nothing. 

The original idea was to ban old fashioned lightbulbs since they use more power to produce less light, as they’re around 1% efficient in terms of converting electrical energy into light. They also have a limited life, because a tungsten element heated to red heat lasts almost indefinitely (as in a thermionic valve), but raise it to white heat so that it emits life, and its life shortens considerably as the filament burns off tungsten which slowly coats the inside of the glass in a dull grey film.

However, compact fluorescents have a mercury coating which is toxic, so they aren't really any more environmentally friendly because they’re more tricky and expensive to recycle so folk sometimes don’t bother and fling them into the bin instead.

With an architect’s eye, the quality of light produced by the cheaper LED bulbs isn't great, and they don't last as long as they're supposed to. I don't believe that typical LED bulbs will last for “50,000 hours”.  In that case, you'd buy a bulb and never have to replace it in your lifetime.  The best now state “15,000 hours” in the small print, presumably after having been chased by the EU over misrepresentation, and it’s likely they'll be engineered to fail after a shorter period than that, so the manufacturer can sell more bulbs. 

I guess the driver circuits overheat, just as cheap ballasts in compact fluorescents go "phut" after a while. And don’t forget Jevon’s paradox: because LED bulbs use less electricity, people perversely buy more lights and put them in places that serve little purpose, using them in less efficient ways because it doesn’t cost them any more than what they were paying before.

Unlike certain political parties, I don't normally fall for conspiracy theories, but in this case the engineered-in obsolescence is probably true, because it happened before. Just have a search for “The Phoebus Cartel”, which sounds like a Frederick Forsyth thriller or an indie rock band from Michigan, but was actually an international carve-up designed to ensure that incandescent bulbs ran slightly brighter than necessary, and that caused them to have considerably shorter lives.

Even in those days, firms knew how to make lamps which would effectively last forever – neon discharge lamps, for example. If you can afford to buy an expensive light source that lasts for a long time (avoiding ten minute wonders like the xenophot capsule lamp), in the long run it will work out cheaper in terms of capital and running costs than a cheapo LED from the Pound Shop. Plus it will be better for the environment on three scores – made from more sustainable materials, will use less power over its lifetime, and won’t have to be thrown away so frequently. In the words of Homer Simpson, “Win Win Win”.

Apart from apprehending the truth of how we’ve all been royally hoodwinked by consumerism, there’s another way to look at this.  Rather than arguing about which type of artificial lighting to use, why not try maximising natural light using more and larger windows, rooflights and sunpipes, so you rarely need artificial light during the daytime.  Likewise, rather than arguing about replacing oil and coal and gas fired boilers with biomass or hydrogen fired boilers, why not super-insulate the building fabric and perhaps you won’t need a traditional boiler at all?

Rather than arguing about which energy to use, use as little as possible. Perhaps that's the ultimate light bulb moment…

By • Galleries: technology

Although it sounds like a mix by DJ Tiesto, it's actually a description of the reflex hinge (sometimes called a "friction stay") fitted to most of today's top-hung and reversible windows.  Low stack refers to the depth of the hinge arms, Sinidex is a trade name and the Eurogroove is a standardised 18mm wide rebate in the jamb of the window frame. If the terminology means nothing to you, perhaps window specification is a more complex business than you realised...

At architecture school, I developed a hit-and-miss knowledge of windows from reading journals and occasionally picking up brochures and adverts from the trade press. In my first project at my first job after graduation, composite timber/ aluminium double-glazed windows were specified, and that was the starting point for a journey which gradually taught me about window technology.

Having previously specified NorDan, Velfac and Rationel windows on projects, a few years ago I spent a while collecting information then tried to compare the performance of all the composite window systems that were available in Scotland.  Recently I revisited the exercise for a new project, and some changes are obvious.  We've moved on from double glazing with low-E glass, and are on the brink of triple glazing becoming the standard.

Trying to find the perfect window? Sadly, it's like punching smoke. But unlike the DIY’ers, self-builders and internet wiseacres – architects have the advantage that we specify again and again, so we have some idea of how to measure success and failure. Plus we have access to proper technical resources such as BRE digests and TRADA research.  That's important, because the modern window is a high tech enterprise and in order to specify well, you need to know a bit about building science.

For example, the window frame sections consist of many-times-machined timber and complex extrusions, with drips, anti-capillary grooves and fixings for gaskets machined in. The angles of components, the gaps between them, and the geometry of the labyrinth which prevents rain being driven towards the interior, are carefully calculated.

During the 1950’s, the English Joinery Manufacturers Association developed the EJMA “Stormproof” window, where the casement is outward-opening and sits proud of and overlaps the frame. This standardised design with its “weather check” replaced the various styles of flush casement windows common until that point, and for the next 30 years or so house builders had a simple choice: timber frames of standard quality, eg, Magnet & Southerns “M4”, or timber frames of slightly better quality, eg, John Carr/ Boulton & Paul.

The stormproof window was adopted in Scotland, but Scotland is and always has been different to the south.  The lower temperatures and much higher exposure to wind-driven rain make our climate much more like Norway than Surrey.  We've fitted windows into rebated jambs and set them back further in the opening for hundreds of years, whereas the English Reg's still allow you to fit windows flush against the ingo of the outer leaf or brick skin.

When double glazing started to come in, partly driven by the Technical Standards and partly by replacement window firms such as Everest, the EJMA Stormproof window frame sections had to be beefed up in order to compete. The first Scandinavian windows I came across were in the timber clad, timber kit Moelven houses that Aberdeenshire Council built across the field from my grandfather's farmhouse in Kemnay.

A single-glazed window (as originally fitted to buildings in 1960’s) gave you an overall U-value (Uw) ~ 4.8 W/m2K, but a typical PVC-U double-glazed window from the 1980’s (4*12*4 with air space between glass) gave you Uw ~ 2.8 W/m2K. Almost twice as good. In a country where it feels like the last big innovation was the duplex sash and case window, that was big news. Of course, with traditional sash windows, effective sealing is always in conflict with the operation of the window. This means a traditional sash window is either airtight and hard to slide open, or easy to open but draughty.

Scotland and Scandinavia can be very windy, so their casement windows have traditionally opened outwards and they developed effective drainage profiles and sealants because wind and weather proofing is important. As I discovered during my research, Scandinavian expertise lies in top-hung reversible windows (using "H"-type or Spilka) gear, with double-glazing and noble-gas filled cavity to give Uw ~ 1.3-1.4 W/m²K, improving to 1.1-1.2 W/m²K with low-E glazing.

By contrast, windows from Austria and Germany are often inward-opening, but they do get extremely cold winters, so good U-values are judged more important and they pioneered thermally-broken frames and “warm edge” spacers to improve them. Austrian practice is to use tilt & turn rather than reversible gear, with an insulated laminated timber frame and insulated glazing bead, plus triple-glazing and noble-gas filled or vacuum cavity; even in the late 2000’s, they could achieve Uw ~ 0.65-0.7 W/m²K.

What’s state of the art now? 92 mm window frames, now with 48mm triple glazing (4*18*4*18*4), which provides Uw ~ 0.8 W/m²K. That’s the level set for new build Passivhaus buildings, along with EnerPHit renovations in the cold climate zone, ie. northern Scotland. To achieve that, windows and doors are fitted into reveals with all edges taped using flexible foil tape, and the reveals sealed with Compriband externally and silicone internally

If you think glazing units are like razor blades, where manufacturers keep adding more and more blades to the cutting head … you’re right. While researching this, I discovered that the Scottish company Enviro make Uw = 0.35 W/m²K quadruple glazing. As far as I’m aware they’re the first in the UK, no doubt others will follow. Meantime I’ll end with a series of cutaway images showing some of the different frame profiles available on the market today.

In some respects it’s surprising that they’re so varied, and that makes specification more difficult since you’re not able to compare Coxes with Mac Reds, but the main two types are Alu-clad timber windows where the aluminium acts only as an external finish (almost like a rain screen cladding) and Composite timber windows where both the timber and aluminium parts are structural.

Alu-clad timber windows:

Rationel Auraplus, Uw = 0.79 W/m²K and lifespan of 80+ years with 4*20*4*20*4 (made in Denmark)


NorDan NTech One, Uw = 0.8 W/m²K and lifespan of 60+ years with 4*12*4*12*4


Optiwin Resista Modern, Uw = 0.64 W/m²K


Allan Brothers Horizont/ Alu Clad, Uw = approx. 0.9 W/m²K


Broxwood Alu-clad Timber Tilt & Turn, Uw = 0.7 W/m²K (made by Arbo in Latvia)


Katzbeck Combina Passiv, Uw = 0.71 W/m²K (made in Austria)


Norrsken P41A


HON Quadrat Studio FB, Uw = 0.85 W/m²K (made in Czech Republic)


Viking SW14 Uw = up to 0.60 W/m²K (made in Estonia)


Composite timber/ aluminium windows:

Velfac 200 Energy, Uw = 0.82 W/m²K and lifespan of 60 years (with 48mm glazing) 4*18*4*18*3, Uw = 1.06


IdealCombi Futura+, Uw = 0.74 W/m²K (made in Denmark); 4*13*3*14*4, Uw = 1.04


Gaulhofer Fusionline 108, Uw = 0.65 W/m²K


Internorm HF310, Uw = 0.62 W/m²K


Silber Fenster Passive, Uw = 0.71 W/m²K

Neuffer Eco Idealu, Uw = 0.78 W/m²K


Green Building Store “Ecocontract Ultra” (made in UK); 4*18*4*18*4, Uw = up to 0.68 W/m²K

Footnote - As with my piece a couple of years ago about electrical accessories, this is written from my own personal experience, and neither I nor Urban Realm have links to any of the manufacturers. Copyright in all images rests with the respective manufacturers.

By • Galleries: technology, specification

I began writing a blog for The Lighthouse in 2006, and after a brief break when the lights went out on Mitchell Street, I picked up again on Urban Realm in 2010. Since then I've contributed this blog to accompany the pieces I write in the print edition of the magazine.  Much has changed in cyberspace over the past 14 years.


Wordpress and Blogspot are still going, but they're old news.  Tecnorati has gone.  Lots of fellow travellers who began their blogs in the mid-2000’s have gone too.  Social media has taken over the world, and it’s a full time job. Creating “content” and sending it out into the world on a blog, Facebook, Twitter, and on Instagram, Tumblr, Flickr, and on Pinterest, Medium and Lyst…  Phew.  We’re secretly glad that Google+ has fallen by the wayside. 

Yet those sites are only the gatekeepers. Two more fundamental issues are how much of our lives we put on the internet, and how that content is paid for.

During the last couple of months, we were able to travel around the country a bit more, in between lockdowns. I took a trip to the Devil’s Pulpit in Finnich Glen a few weeks ago, to see what all the fuss was about. I kept seeing shots of the moss-curtained sandstone gorge and peaty water, and dozens of comments asking “where is this?” and “how do I get here?” On a typical weekend, the country roads around Croftamie were choked with cars, abandoned on verges and anywhere else their owners could find.

Bell Ingram recently designed a visitor centre which is intended to cash in on the interest generated by the TV series Outlander. Over the past few weeks Finnich Glen has attracted huge crowds; arguably they were spurred on by the power of television and social media. Finnich Glen is interesting, but currently it’s no tourist attraction. The paths through the woods are muddy, the broken flight of stone steps was slippery after the rain, and I had to use a climbing rope that someone had tied to a tree stump to pull myself back up the flight of steps.

The Devil’s Pulpit has become a victim of its own success, in this case aided by the access details which Facebook provides for scenic locations. You can find them on the countless oxymoronic pages with names like “Secret Scotland”, “Unseen Scotland”, “Hidden Scotland” and “Undiscovered Scotland”. Their authors don’t care that the places are no longer any of these things once they’ve been broadcast over the net.

There’s a reason why fishermen keep good pools to themselves, hillwalkers keep quiet about secret bothies, and aficionados of dereliction don’t broadcast the locations of photogenic ruins. As any graffiti writer knows, "blowing up the spot" is a cardinal sin. The ironclad rule is not to attract unwanted attention to it, otherwise you’ll lose the place where you return repeatedly to paint.  Finnich Glen is a classic example of “over-sharing”, and as I drove away from the lay-by, a crew of Council line painters was busy lining double yellows on all its approach roads, as if to underline that fact.

A few weeks later, I drove to the area where my Dad grew up. In springtime, century-old rhododendrons in the American Gardens make a vivid show, and in October trees carpet the grass with birch, plane and chestnut leaves. The picnic benches are covered in moss and many of the paths are rarely-used nowadays. There was no-one else around; perhaps because the American Gardens aren’t mentioned by name on the net. They may not be “secret”, but I hope no-one “discovers” them and blurts their location all over Facebook.


The second aspect of Web 2.0 is financial. In the past, some bloggers and website owners used banners, affiliate links to Amazon or Google ads to pay for the cost of web hosting and registering a URL. Making money from a blog that way is more difficult now.  So much so in fact, that you'll either have to treat it as a self-financed labour of love, or use it to supplement the living that you make elsewhere. Sooner or later you’ll realise that you're working for and simultaneously against the most powerful corporations the world has ever seen – Apple, Alphabet (Google) and Amazon.  

So it is that some design websites have edged into the territory of lifestyle blogs, run by so-called influencers who have close links to commerce.  They work hand-in-hand with PR's and marketing folk, running sponsored posts which are the equivalent of advertorials in a print magazine.  Some of the content consists of rehashed press releases, and other features are simply a way to make money from a design-led readership, from which you receive a small commission each time someone clicks through to buy a watch, scarf or pot of marmalade.


Lifestyle blogs appear to be a sweet way to earn cash.  With weekends away in boutique hotels, cook schools with TV chefs and supercar driving days indulged in under the auspices of reviews, they've essentially become a marketing channel. Yet with that, the bloggers have lost their neutrality and any sense of critical voice or distance from the subject matter.  Measured criticism is the keystone of integrity, but when you see “Sponsored Post” on the header of a blog entry, do you read it regardless or move on swiftly?

It's true that a freedom from commercial constraint allows you to be candid, so you can tell the whole truth when something seems utterly dire – and as a corollary you can rave about the excellence of something in a genuine way. It's not so different to the floor coverings and furniture companies which cultivate interior designers by taking them on expenses-paid trips to a design fair or factory on the Continent, including a stay in a nice hotel and slap-up dinner into the bargain.  Building good relationships … or bribes and inducements?  Not everyone in the design industry is bound by the ARB Code; perhaps that should change.


Meanwhile, still trying to make living from your blog?  You'd better become a one-person brand.  With that comes the pressure to sell your spin-off book, cultivate your fan-base, plug your literary cronies, troll for viral hits, and drum up support for your walking tour. Others use Patreon, where followers or “patrons” pay directly for access to your latest blog posts and newsletters.  But you'd better have a regular stream of "content" to post daily, and that's quite a commitment. 

So this is Web 2.0.  Where it sometimes seems that authorial voice matters less than global megacorp making money. It’s just a new aspect of the age-old battle between Art and Commerce, but what’s next?  I suspect it’s going to be Web 3.0, or even what Bruce Sterling has referred to as Post-Internet, but how that will affect writing about architecture and design is anyone’s guess.

By • Galleries: technology

Once upon a time in a universe far, far away it was all about Generation X, named after Douglas Coupland's book, ”Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture”, which was published in 1991. X represented us – people in their teens and twenties during the Tech Boom of the Nineties and early years of the new millennium, people who were tech savvy and keen to embrace progress. This is what progress used to look like:

However, a few years ago Gen X dropped off the radar of the zeitgeist hunters. Look at today's websites and you'll find endless references to the Millennials or Generation Y or better still, “Digital Natives”. For the past decade, marketing folk have given up on X and turned instead to this new cohort. In parallel, a new set of concerns has arisen, including “increasing agency”, “eliminating privilege”, and “co-working”. I’ve deliberately put those in quotation marks, as they’re worthy objectives but described in buzz phrases worthy of David Brent.

The company at the lead of the charge is WeWork. Just as in the days of the late 90’s Tech Boom which Gen X lived through, but the Millennials are too young to remember, it’s an American tech startup which became big and influential very quickly. WeWork's business model involves leasing office buildings, then sub-leasing space to startups and freelancers from the digital native generation. Their modus operandi involves equipping offices with fast wifi and the kind of whimsical interior design which Californians specialise in, focussed on well-being, mindfulness and biophilia.

Yet as the World Wide Web reached its 25th birthday, I heard the term "digital natives" once too often and my toes curled. I went to primary school during the 1980's and from the start we had BBC Micros in the classroom, one of which was equipped with a robotic pen plotter which crawled across a sheet of paper, drawing lines we'd programmed using Basic commands.  At home, many of us had Sinclair ZX series computers, which were built in Dundee and ran computer games such as Manic Miner which loaded painfully slowly from a C90 tape.  I've never known a world without digital computers.

In fact, Dundee has thrived on electronics since the War, when Burndept moved its operations here after its factory at Erith in Kent was bombed. The skill base built up during the 1940’s attracted other companies, some like Ferranti which were already electronics firms, and others like NCR which became so. Long before I was born, folk from my parents’ generation were assembling electronics for radios, televisions, computers and lasers.

Down in Yorkshire, the ballistic missile radar at Fylingdales watched over our childhoods like a weather god, promising a three minute warning and vengeance to follow during tense periods of the Cold War. The radar ran on Elliot 803 mainframes – the sort of computers you see in Dr Strangelove, ranks of cabinets with 1-inch tape drives spinning which now seem hopelessly anachronistic.  Back in the day, BBC, Sinclair and Elliot machines were all built in the UK. All were natively digital.

When I went up to the academy, the computer studies room already had PC's with 286 chips which ran MS-DOS and used Winchester hard disks to store data on.  Technology was evolving rapidly, and by then the future mainly came from America. When I went into O-Grade Art, I became aware of a machine which could create sophisticated graphics and set type like a professional printer would – although we weren’t allowed to use it.  The Apple Macintosh had arrived.

I started using Macs immediately I arrived in architecture school, and the Quadra 700 was unlike anything else I'd come across.  It was a fraction the size of a PC but much, much faster.  The graphics were sharp and vivid, rendered in 16 bit colour.  The Quadra ran software like Photoshop, Quark Xpress, Freehand and StudioPro; much of my university work was created on machines like this, but the Quadra 700 cost around $6000 new, £4000 in Scots pounds, so it was anything but a home computer.

The architecture department at Duncan of Jordanstone also invested in an example of the first Apple digital camera, and these are some of the actual photos I took in 1995 of a sketch model.  After 2000, the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad transformed Apple into a completely different type of firm, and eventually it became the world's largest corporation. It's no longer the niche company of the Eighties and Nineties which created cool computers that made design work so much easier.

I could go on, but you can see where this is heading.  I've been a digital native from the start, and it seems strange to be told that, somehow, I’m not.

Does it matter?  This is where WeWork’s central conceit comes in: it claimed to have reinvented workspace design for millennial workers, as if they were a fresh species of human.  But if we decide to design workspace in a different way, predicated on millennials working differently to everyone else, we need concrete evidence for that, rather than fuzzy buzzwords such as “Digital nomads”.

An article in Nature 547, 380 (27 July 2017) quoted research suggesting that the digital native is a myth: as they put it, “a yeti with a smartphone”.  So we need to interrogate the reasons why so many have seized on the WeWork as the future of workspace design.

Today's tech disruptors aren't just the “FAANG” corporations ie, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google, but also the so-called Fintech and Proptech companies, such as WeWork.  WeWork felt they'd found a formula which would work across North America and Europe, and their disruptive business model quickly drew in billions in venture capital funding … for something which is markedly old school.

To give them credit, they learned from a previous grand speculation, the Tech Boom of the late 1990’s, which predictably ended in a Tech Crash. When the going is good, it’s easy to create a prospectus which claims that you’ll harness a wonderful new creative energy to do something new. You aim to make money from it while the going is good, and it's no surprise that California's tech grifters decided to have a shot.

However, the received wisdom of the tech disruptors quickly collided with an opposing view, the so-called first mover advantage.  Just as Tesla discovered how difficult it is to build electric cars in large volumes, the Jaguar Land Rovers, Daimler-Benzes and Volkswagens of this world waited until Tesla helped to create a demand for electric cars, then came in with a better product which was backed up with decades of experience building cars, and crucially in building the infrastructure required to build those cars.

The same is true of WeWork. It has vast amounts of competitors – many of whom already own the buildings and are better capitalised, hence have no need for debt financing or rights issues to raise money, the things which are a drag on WeWork’s profitability.  That's why tech disruptors speak so much about “growing market share and turnover”, rather than actually earning money to pay back borrowed capital and distribute a dividend to their shareholders. Established property firms, on the other hand, are simply just *profitable*.

Perhaps you think it's easy for a cynical member of “Generation X” to write off WeWork as a giant marketing ruse. Last year, WeWork’s valuation reached $47 billion, before it had to be rescued by SoftBank, and its value has continued to fall, down to around $3bn today. That looks very much like a speculative bubble which has burst, and WeWork’s business could suffer even more, now that Covid-19 has made co-working a risky activity. Now that we’ve grown used to the idea of working at home, many firms will reconsider the need for office space altogether.

Ignoring the pandemic, WeWork almost failed not because it was a bad business – but investors saw through the claims made for its “unique” business model.  Renting office buildings and tailoring office space to a particular age group isn't a world-shattering insight. We’ve been creating open plan offices with workstations, chairs, break out areas and so forth since Frank Lloyd Wright invented the type at the Larkin Building in New York. Strangely, they’re suitable for people of all ages.

And as for digital natives? Don't believe the hype. After all, have you ever seen a Yeti with a smartphone?

By • Galleries: memory palace, technology

A few years ago, I did some consultancy work for an environmental charity. After a few months, I realised that they hadn’t quite grasped what an architect does. Too late, it dawned on them I could think and draw in 3D as well as looking at procurement and public engagement.

We did have some interesting debates, though. Many of them saw road use as a polar issue. Two wheels good, four wheels bad, eighteen wheels worst of all. Cars were a menace but lorries were the work of the devil. They were all for sustainability, but when I pointed out that we could all learn about sustainability from the clever engineering of firms like sports cars manufacturer TVR, they shouted me down.

Peter Wheeler was a chemical engineer before he bought TVR Engineering and transformed it. History rhymes, and following the news in recent months about Project Grenadier, does it seem so strange that Jim Ratcliffe of Ineos is also going into the car business, to build his own 4x4?

As co-founder, with Mimo Berardelli, of ETA Process Plant, Peter Wheeler built a world-class chemical engineering business from scratch. He identified a need to reduce the dissolved oxygen content of water re-injected into oilfields, and thus reduce its corrosiveness. Using Wheeler’s engineering flair and commercial nous, ETA supplied de-aerators to oilfields in the North Sea and far beyond.

Berardelli and Wheeler sold the business in 1982, providing the latter with the funds to buy TVR. The first of his Rover V8-engined TVRs was introduced the following year: brash cars with high performance and garish paint schemes. Yet the real achievement of TVR was the skill it developed in design engineering.

At its peak, the firm employed approaching 1000 people in a factory at Bristol Avenue in Blackpool which once made kitchen equipment. Among them was a small team of designers and engineers who thrived on ingenuity. Two examples are the golfball door release in the TVR Chimaera, which is housed in the pillar rather than in the door, and the car’s brilliantly simple hard top mechanism.

Another was TVR’s second engine to be designed from a clean sheet of paper, the Tuscan Speed Six engine or AJP-6. TVR Engineering selected an Austempered Ductile Iron (ADI) crankshaft for its combination of low cost, low weight and high torsional strength. As far as I’m aware it’s still the only production application of an ADI crankshaft.

Peter Wheeler’s belief that cars didn’t need ABS or airbags went against conventional thinking. Yet thanks to its roll cage, a TVR could withstand a high speed accident and protect driver and passenger better than almost anything else on the road. “The advantage of basing the chassis on that of TVR's one-make race series car is that there is probably no chassis anywhere in the world that has been so often and so comprehensively crash-tested.”

The car’s structure was a double-deck ladder frame made from large diameter tubes, with outriggers onto which a lightweight composite body was mounted. TVR’s expertise with glassfibre and carbon fibre mats and resins, combined with the triangulated space frame, provided the cars with high torsional stiffness, and huge energy absorption in the event of a crash.

Design was one thing, translating it into production was quite another. As TVR said in one of its press releases, “The very latest high technology has been used, not in the styling but in the design engineering, to enable one of the largest British-owned car manufacturers to produce simple and elegant solutions to the problems of how to hand-build such sophisticated cars in such small volumes.”

Around then TVR developed a system of “low part count” manufacturing – which sounds simple in principle, but wasn’t something I’d heard of before. However, as is often the way, once you’re aware of it being a “thing”, you recognise it the next time you come across it. The next time was reading about a single-engined trainer aircraft, the SAH-1, which was developed in Cornwall during the 1980’s.

The SAH-1 (named after Sydney Arthur Holloway, in the same way that TVR’s AJP-6 engine was named for Al Melling, John Ravenscroft and Peter Wheeler) was flight tested by Pilot magazine in 1984. “Only one radius is used throughout the fuselage so the same forming tools can be used to make all the frames. There are very few individual parts in the fuselage, but heavy gauge light alloy skins are used and these feel firm to the touch.”

Colin Chapman of Lotus is reputed to have said, “Simplify, then add lightness,” in a similar vein to Dieter Ram’s aphorism, “Less but better”. Low part count manufacturing helps to address both. In material terms, a single-piece moulded, forged or cast component is better than an assembled or fabricated part for lots of reasons: simplifying the design helps to reduce manufacturing complexity, so quality improves, there’s less waste, assembly is faster, labour is reduced, costs are lower. CNC milling from the solid or 3D printing can also assist in simplifying things.

Think about that, as you detail a building. The problems almost always happen at junctions and are usually worst where dissimilar materials meet. The more complexity, the more expensive it is to build. Conversely, a lower part count can mean fewer raw materials and less embodied energy, too. For that reason, the future of intelligent design lies in low part count manufacturing. Simpler to construct, more resource-efficient, with less embodied energy, and as a bonus hopefully a visually elegant solution – and we have a sports car manufacturer to thank for that.

The TVR Griffith’s body design and low-part-count manufacturing system were the work of John Ravenscroft, who was in direct competition with Peter Wheeler and his dog, who were in the process of designing the TVR Chimaera at the same time. The often-repeated urban myth is that Ned the dog bit a chunk out of the Chimaera mock-up’s front air dam, and that became a “design feature”…

Both cars were designed in 3D and sculpted from one foam styling buck which was half-Griffith, half-Chimaera. The designs were so well received that TVR built both, and the Griffith went on to win a Design Council award in 1993: “British Design Award 1993, Presented to TVR Engineering Limited on 27 January 1993 at the Design Council to mark the selection of the Griffith, designed by Peter Wheeler, John Ravenscroft, Neill Anderson, Ian Hopley.”

Later, TVR’s Sagaris used lightweight cross-woven Vinylester bodywork, which saved 60kg over comparable glassfibre bodywork which the firm had used up to then, and the Typhon (literally and metaphorically the ultimate TVR) had a steel chassis which was originally designed for 24 hour racing at Le Mans, its rigidity increased by a tubular rollcage plus a lightweight aluminium honeycomb and carbonfibre floorpan.

In fact for sports cars, lightness is one of the most important design parameters, because it improves handling. It’s why the wheels on my own car (which isn’t a TVR…) are forged rather than cast aluminium, saving several kilograms of unsprung weight per corner. Press-forging minimises waste metal compared to machining, and by re-aligning the metal’s internal crystalline structure along natural lines of stress, results in much stronger parts than casting would produce.

As for TVR today? Wheeler sold the company in 2006 to a Russian oligarch, but just like Bristol Cars without its figurehead Tony Crook, the firm soon lost its way. There is a new car which has supposedly been in development for several years, but it doesn’t have TVR’s brashness nor its proportions, especially the Coke bottle waistline. Sadly, with little progress reported over the past couple of years it seems doomed, like the well-meaning attempt to revive Jensen Cars in the late 1990’s…

Yet that shouldn’t detract from TVR’s greatest achievement, pioneering Low Part Count manufacturing which by now should have found countless outlets across many different industries, including construction.

By • Galleries: technology

I am a Switch

19/01/19 21:05

If you’re searching for a microcosm of Brexit Britain, you could do worse than begin by scrutinising the UK’s widget manufacturers.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve scoured the wholesalers on Dryburgh industrial estate for well-designed electrical widgets, or “wiring accessories” as M&E engineers call them.

As I hunted through trade outlets and online, my path crossed with some Buy British enthusiasts, who are on a mission to support the UK economy at this difficult time; shades of Al Murray’s Pub Landlord and his campaign to Save the Great British Pint… So this is a rumination on whether we make stuff any more, and if so, whether it’s any better than what we import.

Buy British is sometimes overtaken by the imperative to Buy Scottish, but there are a few exceptions.  You’d think that with two of the UK’s Big Six energy suppliers based here – Scottish Power is headquartered in Glasgow and Scottish & Southern Energy in Perth – there would be a thriving electrical components industry in Scotland?  Sadly, no.

Scottish firms concentrate on the heavy end of electrical engineering: Brand Rex at Glenrothes make cables, Belmos in Motherwell make distribution boards, Parsons-Peebles at Rosyth build electric motors, Bonar Long in Dundee used to make power transformers and Mitsubishi Electric at Livingston still makes air conditioning and heat pumps.  However, we appear to have neglected the well-designed, good quality switchplate.

“The door handle,” said Juhani Pallasmaa, “is the handshake of a building.”  Presumably the light switch isn’t far behind.  It’s another point of close contact, yet many switches are made from white moulded plastic, which looks cheap, feels cheap and isn’t made to last.  Neither is there any thought given to its environmental impact – so we should listen to Dieter Rams, the German industrial designer about whom a documentary film was released recently.

Rams was Braun’s chief designer from the late 1950’s to the mid 1990’s, and in that time he designed hundreds of products which we’d now call minimalist.  He wasn’t a stylist, but approached each product ergonomically, so that it would be well made, long lasting and intuitive to use.  

Dieter Rams has been talking about the social, political and environmental impact of design for more than half a century – interestingly, the antithesis of the line taken by late Isi Metzstein, who complained that too much consideration is given to the social and operational aspects of design, as opposed to the architectonic.

Many of the products Rams designed for Braun were made from injection-moulded plastic, which isn’t in the least environmentally-friendly.  However, he and his contemporaries didn’t make disposable goods, they made things to last: lots of people have Braun products such as calculators, radios and kitchen gadgets which still work, 30 or more years after they were made.  30 years or more can’t be said for cheap light switches.  

It’s rarely worth trying to repair white moulded plastic faceplates when they break, and they can’t be recycled either.  Similarly, manufacturing in the Far East then shipping components to Britain is madness, no matter how cheap it is today to stick things in a container.  So, bearing in mind environmental impact as well as aesthetics and practicality, the following thoughts come from my experience as a specifier who insists on seeing and feeling samples, and also from listening to electricians and electrical engineers.

Where to begin?  I’m told that in the 1960’s, Crabtree accessories were robustly made, albeit rather old-fashioned and chunky in appearance.  Then MK Electric produced a slimmer, sleeker style of faceplate which became more popular.  However, sockets and switches from the 1970’s and earlier were made from ivory Bakelite, which is pretty much bulletproof, whereas the moulded urea-formaldehyde plastic used by everyone since then is easy to crack.

Recently, a spark took me aside to ask why architects specify MK Logic Plus so frequently.  He felt it must just be habit, because while MK Logic accessories used to be "Made in UK", MK was bought by Honeywell a few years ago, and some of its products are now "Made in Malaysia".  Their website does say, “MK Electric, unusually for the sector, still manufactures its products for the UK in the UK; with a factory in St Asaph as well as Southend.”  The electrician complained that he often had to return MK accessories to the wholesaler, because the fixing screws were jammed solid against the terminals, and he blamed that on manufacturing in the Far East.  Perhaps that's just prejudice, though.

Which makes would he recommend?  Hager, Contactum, Schneider.  Doing a bit of digging, “In the UK, Hager has a well-established R&D team and global resource to meet the needs of the market. This is backed up by the UK factory.”  Contactum, “is one of a few remaining manufacturers of electrical wiring accessories and circuit protection products in the UK, and manufacturing still continues today at its factory in Cricklewood, London.”  We'll come to Schneider later.

The electrician reckoned that Telco, LAP and Knightsbridge were firms to avoid; according to him they are cheap and appear to be made abroad.  So perhaps there is a correlation between where a thing is made and its quality.  Is that economic nationalism, “common sense” as Al Murray’s Pub Landlord might put it, or pure prejudice?  Many of us are cynical about the quality of imports – in other words, we believe that these things could be made much better than they are.

Personally I used to reach for the MEM catalogue as my default for white accessories – MEM Premera faceplates appeared to be decent quality, looked slim, and a full range of accessories is available.  MEM is now owned by Eaton, an American corporation, which shut down its factory in Oldham in 2005.

But compared to white plastic, metal faceplates win every time.  They’re not manufactured from petrochemicals, they won’t shatter like plastic does, they don’t turn yellow with age, and “live” finishes such as bronze will develop a patina with use, which we find attractive.  Finally, if we’re finished with them the metal can be recycled rather than going to landfill or incineration.

Metal faceplates got a bad rep in the 1980’s when there was an outbreak of Victorian Brass in suburban Britain.  Once that subsided, polished chrome became popular, and now in theory you get a brass, bronze, chrome, stainless steel, nickel or copper finish, as well as powder-coated or clear polycarbonate “invisible” switchplates.  Most of the major accessories firms offer several ranges in metal, and after some research I discovered that quite a few still manufacture them in the UK.

Wandsworth Electrical produce a “premium designer electrical socket which is 100% designed and made in Britain.”  Focus SB sell “Quality Electrical Accessories Made in Britain: we are the only UK company licensed to manufacture electrical accessories for export to China.”  So it isn’t all one-way traffic.  Similarly, Hamilton Litestat have a Union Jack on their website and offer “largely UK-made products”; M. Marcus manufacture all their accessories at a factory in Dudley; and according to G&H Brassware, “All our products are hand assembled at our premises in the West Midlands.”

But the best-designed products I’ve come across were made in Britain by GET Group.  Their sockets and switches were presented in a box with a translucent sleeve which slid back from the carton to reveal a switchplate which followed the same design ethos as the keys on a MacBook’s keyboard.  The plate’s corners were neatly radiused, the rocker edges were rounded off and their action was a well-damped clunk, rather than the nasty click-clack of a £2.50 switch.

GET’s accessories were made from steel and brass and high density polymer, and even came with M3.5 screws in two different lengths, to suit different depths of backbox.  That level of design thinking is rare, especially at the consumer end of the market.  Electricians liked their robustness and the ease with which the terminals could be wired; I guess architects liked their aesthetic, bearing in mind that they were Mac-like, and of course Apple designer Jonathan Ive was heavily influenced by Dieter Rams … so ultimately the widget makers could learn from Rams' design approach and sustainable philosophy.

GET Group plc was swallowed up by Schneider Electric of France a decade ago, and their clever designs have gradually disappeared, which is a great shame.  It’s not clear from Schneider’s website whether they still manufacture in the UK, either.  That adds to the feeling that well-known firms have been taken over by overseas companies, production moved offshore, and the quality may suffer while the brand trades on its past reputation. 

On the other hand, the contract quality fittings which architects specify for higher end projects are quite different to the budget quality you find in B&Q, Homebase et al., and the former are still made in the UK, if not Scotland.  They might incorporate sophisticated electronic dimmers, or bespoke finishes which use metalworking skills developed by locksmiths and ironmongery hardware makers in the Black Country.  

In conclusion, the future seems to lie in making high value products, yet there doesn’t appear to be a design-led electrical accessories firm in this country any more.  Perhaps James Dyson will take up the challenge, having already launched his own ranges of taps and lights …

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