Gallery: "technology"

When I went for a walk over Ark Hill in the Sidlaws a few weeks ago, I realised that wind power is sometimes the stuff of hot air: tabloid headlines, emotive soundbites, kneejerk reactions. One way to set it into context is to explore the considerable back story of renewable energy in Scotland.

Ark Hill from Craigowl

It always takes something to spark a child’s imagination in a subject, and in my case it was the discovery that my grandfather’s cousin, Douglas Neilands, was secretary to the North of Scotland Hydro Board in its glory days, before it became SSE. The Hydro was created in 1943 by an act of Churchill’s wartime coalition government. It was driven by Tom Johnston, whose name is largely forgotten today, but his efforts to modernise Scotland stemmed from strong social convictions.

Johnston was a socialist, a great patriot, and acknowledged to be the greatest Scottish Secretary of the century. Like Winston Churchill, he represented Dundee in Parliament: one of a long line of history makers such as Ned Scrymgeour and Gordon Wilson who also took their seat here on the banks of the Tay. You may not realise it, but Churchill arranged his trysts at an unmarked house in Laurel Bank.

The aim of the Hydro Board was to provide electricity for all in the northern half of Scotland, and its creation anticipated a great reconstruction effort after the war, and began forward planning on the great hydro-electric power schemes at Loch Sloy, Loch Tummel and many others.

As a by-product, the Hydro Board commissioned some truly Scottish architecture, from the austere Edwardian neo-classical of Tarbolton, to the modern baronial of Shearer & Annand, and finally the Scots Modernism of RMJM. The hydro schemes they built are still generating power 60 years on – and more importantly, supporting jobs, providing renewable energy, and preventing floods downstream of their dams.

As with wind farms today, there was political opposition from several sides: the gentry were opposed to Hydro schemes as they impinged on grouse moors, and the far right were ideologically opposed to the socialist notion of public utilities. Ironically, opposition also came from the earliest throes of the environmental movement. Yet hydro power used existing watercourses to feed reservoirs which were often no more than existing lochs whose levels were raised.

It begs the question, is there an “ideal” source of power? Nuclear is hugely expensive and potentially dangerous when things go wrong; however, it doesn’t create CO2. Coal is polluting and carbon-intensive – unless elaborate flue gas scrubbing and carbon capture equipment is fitted. Oil is equally bad, perhaps worse, and the raw material is more expensive than coal. Natural gas is cleaner, and more plentiful for the moment, but isn’t renewable and will eventually run out.

Of the renewables, wind marks the landscape with turbines and isn’t reliable enough to use as base-load. Solar photovoltaics are hugely expensive, and perhaps better suited to countries closer to the equator where the sun is stronger. Wave power was pioneered in Scotland, but remains in the early stages of commercialisation and certainly isn’t invisible. Biomass energy is renewable, and waste incinerators seem like a good way to get rid of rubbish while generating “free” heat and power, yet worries remain over the pollution they can create and of course they still generate CO2.

The cleanest and most renewable power source of all is nuclear fusion: but the physics required to make it work lie beyond our reach, and a fusion-powered generating station would cost tens of billions of pounds to construct. Choose your power source carefully, and bear in mind that government subsidies are fugitive things, and politicians develop great enthusiasms which are quickly dropped. The people who draw up those policies are lonely re-arrangers of things and anxious malcontents.

One of the Michelin turbines in Dundee

A few years ago, an interesting short TV series called The Trap ran on BBC2. The Trap discussed the theories of Freidrich von Hayek, principally that folk act out of self-interest, and that to create social order, you have to rely on their competing selfish impulses being balanced out. That idea was applied during the Cold War (by the Rand Corporation), to create the nuclear "Balance of Terror" through mutually-assured destruction.

The Trap's thesis is that the same principle was then applied to the NHS by the Thatcher government in the 1980's. Thus we have the "internal market", which spawned PFI hospitals ... and where from there? Perhaps Global Warming will be the next application of von Hayek's theory. It's certainly true that in the pursuit of freedom (freedom of choice in where to live, and freedom to drive and fly where we will) we're being constrained or trapped both by Climate Change, and the measures to tackle Climate Change.

Over a decade ago, the Government announced it would force us to cut carbon consumption by 60%, reducing carbon emissions to the same level as in the 1870's and Government policies in the past twenty years such as the fuel duty escalator, carbon taxes, road pricing and carbon-neutral buildings have largely positive benefits.

Most measures to combat Climate Change aren't retrogressive: using public transport, finding alternatives to coal and oil, reducing pollution of various sorts, making buildings and vehicles more energy efficient are worthwhile in themselves – but conspiracy theorists will separately argue that the West is using Climate Change as a means to check the economic power of China and India.

Von Hayek would make the point that someone else always benefits, even as our energy costs increase: for example, the Seven Sisters (oil majors) are using Climate Change as a means to corner government funding for research into alternatives to oil, when they're quite capable of developing alternatives themselves.

Another alternative was the Hydro Board’s own development programme, which ended in the 1970’s: Foyers was the last pumped-storage scheme, and Craigroyston on Loch Lomond was later shelved. However, NoSHEB also pioneered wind turbines, working with the Howden company and eventually building a prototype of today’s monster turbines, at Burgar Hill in Orkney.

While 3 or 4MW turbines are over 100 metres tall, many turbines in the countryside are only 20 or 30m, no more than the height of trees in the shelter belts planted around farm steadings. They’re not particularly powerful nor intrusive, and they follow a century-long tradition of harnessing the wind: “Climax” water pumps, which raised water from boreholes for irrigation, then in the 1930’s, Lucas “Freelite” windmill dynamos, which provided a 12 volt supply before farms had mains electricity.

So, to come back to the Sidlaw Hills, the turbines on Ark Hill aren’t the largest in Angus: they’re smaller than those built at Michelin in Dundee, and little more than half the height of those proposed in Glen Isla, fourteen 135m turbines at Cormaud and eighteen 135m turbines at Macritch Hill, both close to the Backwater Reservoir.

The Michelin wind turbines are actually a positive feature on the skyline telling you that industry is working here, just like chimneys or cranes used to be signifiers. In fact, if you stand on Craigowl you can see both the Michelin and Ark Hill, and it’s worth making that contrast. In the early days of economic forestry, Sitka plantations were set out with hard, geometric edges but now, they follow the natural contours and lie of the land and sit much more happily.

Another of the Michelin turbines

Similarly, we need to site the turbines more intelligently, retaining a sense of wilderness and countryside. It’s a good idea to keep wind turbines away from houses, airfields, nature reserves and wild places. It also makes sense to build them close to where the power is needed, or out at sea in arrays where they can achieve a greater power density – so perhaps the turbines at Michelin are urban pioneers.

By • Galleries: technology

In medieval times, people felt helpless in the face of life’s harshness.  They cowered under a huge sky which was home to spirits and gods, so they needed something to believe in.  They sought solace in the ideals of chivalry – even though they knew deep down that the world was a cynical, nasty place, pace Hobbes’ Leviathan.

During the Renaissance, we began to dream of places beyond the horizon.  Using telescopes, we looked into the heavens and wondered what life would be like on other worlds.  Gradually we began to discern the stars and planets, then two centuries after the Industrial Revolution began, we developed many of the technologies we use today.

We can transmit signals around the world and bounce them back from the moon.  We build radio telescopes to plot nebulae hundreds of millions of light years away.  We design electronic computers which operate at phenomenal speeds, solving in milli-seconds problems which would occupy the lifetimes of thousands of human brains.  The twentieth century might have changed everything.

The year 1900 was predicted to be a turning point for humanity: Jules Verne, HG Wells and many others looked forward to the infinite promise of the 20th century.  However, its first four decades brought war and suffering.  Today 1900 is not only ancient history, but it’s also a prosaic lie which computer systems tell about our age.  117 years ago is 1900, which is the "big bang" for many computers.

In the year 2000, we got worked up about the Millennium Bug and its effect on Windows PC’s, but in the Unix epoch, Time 0 = Jan 1st, 1900, so if someone online appears to be 117 years old, that may just be the default value for "no age entered".  Neither 1900 nor 2000 turned out to be a turning point; in fact they were nothing more than big, round numbers.

Yet perhaps we still believe – like Hari Seldon, the hero of Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation Series” – that given enough information and computing power, we’ll eventually be able to predict the fall of every sparrow.  After all, our industrial future seems to lie in frontier science, bio-photonics, remote sensing, spectroscopy, genetic engineering and so forth.  At the same time, we’ve abandoned most of the old industries – like coal mining, iron making and ship-building.  Somewhere along the line, something crucial was mislaid.

At Cornell University they have a piece of scientific kit known as the Tunnelling Electron Microscope.  This microscope is so powerful that by firing electrons you can actually see images of individual atoms.  We can observe the structure of an elemental particle so infinitesimal that billions are contained in one grain of sand.  Yet if I used that microscope right now, I still wouldn't be able to put my finger on exactly what was lost.

This is where Franco Berardi's idea of the cancellation of the future comes in.  It doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world, nor does it mean an end to trivial developments in science and technology.  What it means is that the promise of an unchecked future, the promise of a better life for all which was so much a part of popular thinking and culture until the 1970’s, has been unofficially abandoned.

Conversely and paradoxically, hope flourished during wartime, when things were at their darkest.  Folk had a determination to continue with their lives, keeping up standards and sticking to their little routines in the face of adversity.  Maybe it’s more difficult to promote hopefulness after 70 years of peace and relatively easy living in the West. 

I’ve always been interested in the side effects of war, at least since I read Martin Pawleys’ many articles about the technology that wartime research spawned, but one thing Pawley didn’t touch on was a barrel of chemicals left outside in the baking sunshine of a small French town.

Most of the grand French perfume houses are in Paris, but the firms which supply their ingredients are located around Grasse, a small town in Provence surrounded by fields of lavender.  The barrel in question was simply known as Fut Cinque or "Barrel 5”, and it contained what’s known as a reaction accord, a base chemical called Prunol which had reacted as it sat broiling in the sunshine in a corner of the DeLaire company’s yard.

DeLaire supplied base chemicals to many perfumers, including Edmond Roudnitska, who was running short of raw materials while France was occupied in the early 1940’s.  “Let me tell you, I created Femme de Rochas in 1943 in Paris during the worst days of the war in a building that had a rubbish dump on one side and paint factory on the other,” he remarked. 

According to the wisdom of the internet, Femme smells of ripe summer plums, thanks to a combination of castoreum, oakmoss, cuminic aldehyde, heliotropin, musk, lactonic aldehydes and methyl ionone.  In particular, its dark, indolic scent comes from methyl ionones, which smell like woody violets – but the secret ingredient was the Prunol Extra, an accidental discovery in a rusty barrel.

Why choose perfume as a symbol for wartime?  If you sell everyday commodity products such as baked beans, toilet roll and mousetraps you end up making a very low margin, because folk buy them grudgingly, and just want them swiftly and as cheaply as possible.

On the other hand, if you deal in luxury goods, you’re selling an idea to folk who have disposable income to spend on something which gives them pleasure.   You sell an abstraction – such as a way of life, or a sense of adventure – rather than merely a physical object.  People see it as a mark of culture and sophistication, of maintaining standards – and that counts for a lot during wartime.

However, that all changed after VE Day.  The post-War notion of luxury is summed up in a passage from Bill Bryson's, The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid:
"By the closing years of the 1950s most people – certainly most middle-class people – had pretty much everything they had ever dreamed of, so increasingly there was nothing much to do with their wealth but buy more and bigger versions of things they didn't truly require: second cars, lawn tractors, double-width fridges, hi-fis with bigger speakers and more knobs to twiddle, extra phones and televisions, room intercoms, gas grills, kitchen gadgets, snowblowers, you name it.”

This is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in practice: once you satisfy the basic necessities of life, in other words survival, then the rest is “living”.  To people in Occupied France during the early ‘40’s, wearing perfume helped them to retain something of their humanity which the soldiers could never take away.  It carried with it the promise of an unchecked future, the promise of a better life after the armistice, which was in turn reflected in everything from food, fashion and literature, to post-War architecture.

All of those hopes were enshrined in Modernism – our belief in relentless progress.  But the Modernist project is incomplete.  It was a false dawn and according to Franco Berardi, the future was cancelled sometime in the 1970’s.  The social democratic, left-of-centre governments which revolutionised our healthcare, education and housing in the first three decades after the War are history, and the White Heat of Technology which promised high tech jobs has cooled down.

Now we’re in the 21st century.  After we partied like it was 1999, thanks to Prince (RIP), the year 2000 turned out to be a damp squib.  The Millennium Bug was a non-event – partly because the computers which really matter either ran Unix and were “born” in 1900 or Apple’s System 7, which was born in 1984, Steve Jobs’s Orwellian joke.  The computers kept churning on, quickly bringing us a world wide web which is mostly geared to providing information as a commodity.

As for the future which Berardi considered, who knows what it will bring?  When Modernism lapsed, architecture parted company with 21st century frontier science, bio-photonics, spectroscopy, genetic engineering and remote sensing … because many of these functions are housed in plain steel-clad sheds which say nothing about what goes on within.

No one builds High Tech architecture anymore; who has built a modern version of Richard Rogers’ INMOS microchip building?  It certainly isn’t Norman Foster, whose Death Star doughnut will become Apple’s new HQ, nor the people who designed the Googleplex with its labyrinth of multi-coloured cooling water pipes – photos of which are doing the rounds on the internet.

Perhaps we need to look into the sky again, to see where our futures lie. 

If you look up tonight, the summer night sky has little of interest compared to the winter night sky, but you may see the constellation of Lyra.  The brightest star in Lyra is Vega, which is the second brightest in the Northern Hemisphere.  Right now, people lost in deserts use Polaris (the North Star) to locate north.  But in a few thousand years’ time the North Star will no longer point northwards, due to the earth’s axial precession.  Around the year 13700 AD, Vega will become the new North Star.

Remember that, just in case you become immortal and get lost in space sometime in the distant future.

By • Galleries: technology

I was down in London a few days ago, wandering around and taking photos during the heatwave.  I arrived at Stansted the day after the tower block at Grenfell Tower caught fire, picking up snippets of news as its awful consequences began to unfold.

I stayed near Hogarth’s House in Chiswick, an antiquarian remnant which sits hard against the A4 dual carriageway.  William Hogarth died 250 years ago: just along from his former house is a huge roundabout named in his honour.  The house is cloistered within a little walled garden; the traffic roars past it day and night.  These are the contrasts you find in every city, but in London they’re magnified.  An 18th century Hawksmoor church sits in the shadow of a 60-storey glass cheesegrater; a Tudor cottage lies under the flightpath for Heathrow.  Social housing in London also throws up marked contrasts.

One day, I visited the post-war schemes at Lillington Gardens, Alexandra Road and the Barbican, each of which dates from the same era as Grenfell Tower.  The Barbican is always impressively well-maintained, while Lillington Gardens is covered in scaffolding at the moment while refurbishment takes place.  Lillington Gardens and Alexandra Road are medium rise, and they pack in a reasonably high density while still feeling generous.  The Barbican consists of every housing typology you could imagine, including three tower blocks.  Architecturally, it’s still the most impressive housing scheme in Britain.

The fire at Grenfell Tower is the flip-side of that.  It seems like an echo of Ronan Point, another London tower block which suffered a catastrophic accident almost 50 years ago.  At Ronan Point, a gas cooker blew up in someone’s kitchen, and the explosion broke out, causing the large precast panels which made up the tower’s structure to cascade like dominoes.  A few years ago, in a different magazine, I wrote about George Fairweather, the Dundee-born architect who predicted in the late 1960’s that something would go disastrously wrong with a system-built tower block.

Fairweather was chosen in 1962 to chair the committee which would draw up a new Fire Code to govern the safety of tower blocks, which had stretched up beyond the reach of the Fire Brigade’s turntable ladders.  Six years after Fairweather wrote the code, a student working for him went to see a block of system-built flats in Greenwich.  As he discussed the construction with her, it became apparent that when the concrete panels didn’t fit, a labourer attacked them with a sledgehammer until they did.

“Mark my words,” said George, “one day one of these bloody things will fall down just like the Tay Bridge.” His words turned out to be prophetic.  Ronan Point, and dozens of other blocks built using the Anglian system, didn’t comply with the Fire Code which Fairweather had drafted.  It seems likely that the fire regulations for high rise buildings will have to be re-thought again, after Grenfell Tower.

The Building Regulations in England differ in detail from the Technical Standards in Scotland, but the principles are similar.  Both sets of fire regulations cover means of escape, building separation, internal compartmentation and also the structure and cladding of buildings.  While the Building Research Establishment is “working around the clock” testing samples of cladding taken from tower blocks across the country, Eddie Mair on Radio 4 struggled to translate what they’re testing - surface spread of flame, core flammability, and so forth - into lay peoples’ terms.

The comprehensibility of cladding fire resistance is a bit like the difficulty the popular press has had with the Edinburgh Schools investigation.  The wall ties which link an outer leaf of blockwork to the structure behind it are just bendy bits of metal.  The job they do is self-explanatory – they tie the wall together – but if you walked onto a building site, they would be the last thing you would spot, bundled on the scaffolding or poking out of the coursing.  A cartoon drawing of a wall, and a reporter holding a piece of metal would simply and quickly explain what’s allegedly missing from dozens of buildings.

Similarly, everyone knows about fire, we have a prehistoric attachment to it … but without an architectural background, it’s not easy to conceive how fire spreads nor how you make buildings fireproof.  Many tower blocks were built using precast concrete systems, similar to Ronan Point.  In Scotland quite a few were built using reinforced concrete frames and masonry cladding, both of which are inherently fire-resistant.  Others, like the Red Road flats in Glasgow, were steel-framed and clad in various types of panel.  Some panels are fireproof, others are sheathed in rockwool insulation or layers of mineral board.  All of the different types were designed to meet the contemporary Building Regulations.

Intuitively, Radio 4 listeners may think that brick and concrete will protect you from fire better than thin composite panels could – yet a few years ago I visited a gas research station with a stair tower clad in 9.5mm thick Cape “Durasteel” panels – which provided 4 hour fire resistance.  Thickness is no guarantee of fire-proof-ness.  Similarly, when is 30 minute fire resistance not 30 minute fire resistance?  If you read the small print of a fire test certificate, you’ll notice the caution that a half-hour fire door may not last for 30 minutes in a particularly large, hot fire – although it may last long enough to protect someone escaping from a flat.

At first, the fierceness of the flames at Grenfell Tower and the speed with which they spread suggested that a rising gas main had caught fire.  Hydrocarbon fires have far more energy than cellulosic fires, and the burning rates of gas, petrol or chemicals are much higher than wood, paper and textiles.  Looking at the European standards for fire testing, the fire curve of a cellulosic fire reaches 500°C within five minutes and rises to 945°C over time.  A hydrocarbon fire is fuelled by oil or gas and reaches a flame temperature to 1000°C almost instantaneously after ignition.  The difference between an instant and five minutes may be the time it takes to escape from the building.

It quickly became clear that something at Grenfell Tower was releasing huge amounts of energy, which in turn caused the fire to spread rapidly across the building, but at first no-one guessed that the cladding was feeding the fire.  After all, the Building Regulations stipulate the flammability of building materials; section 2.6.4 of the Technical Standards is the appropriate place to look if you want to see what’s acceptable in Scotland.  Yet even a major fire in the building fabric is survivable, if you can get people out of the building quickly enough, and ensure they don’t breathe in any toxic smoke.

Just how far the regulations have progressed since tower blocks were built in the 1960’s and 1970’s is underlined by the difference between Grenfell Tower and high rise buildings constructed in the past few years.  London’s older residential towers appear to have only a single means of escape – one central stairwell – and apparently many of the internal doors aren’t fire-rated, either.  New tower blocks usually have two or more means of escape, the front doors of the flats are 60 minute fire-rated to form a smoke lobby between the flat and the escape stair, smoke ventilation is provided in the fire escape route, and the flats themselves are fitted with sprinklers and smoke detectors.

Most of these provisions kick in when a building exceeds a certain height: the cut-offs for enhanced fire measures are 7.5 and 18 metres.  The topmost storey of low rise buildings is less than 7.5m above ground level, medium rise buildings are between 7.5 and 18m, and high rise are 18m or more.  Those heights are based on the maximum height a fire tender’s ladders could reach (7.5m), and the maximum reach of an old-fashioned turntable-ladder appliance (18m).  These are thirty or forty years out of date: the fire service now has hydraulic platforms which can go up twice that height.

Usually, modern high rise buildings also have a fire-fighting lift.  When the alarm goes off, the passenger lifts are programmed to return to the ground floor and park with their doors open, so that residents don’t try to use them to escape.  However, one lift within the bank is a specially reinforced, fireproof lift which the fire brigade can use to head upwards and fight the fire.  Coupled with a dry riser or wet riser which they can plug hoses into, it means they don’t have to pull a charged hose up fifteen flights of stairs.

Although the inquiry into the fire hasn’t even begun, we know the implications of Grenfell Tower will be far-reaching.

Yesterday, the company which makes the “Reynobond PE” panels used to clad the block decided to stop selling them for high-rise applications.  A spokesman for Arconic (which was formerly Alcoa, the Aluminum Company of America) said, “We believe this is the right decision because of the inconsistency of building codes across the world and issues that have arisen in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy regarding code compliance of cladding systems in the context of buildings’ overall designs.”

Arconic’s factory in Merxheim, France, manufactures several types of Reynobond for the European market: Reynobond PE consists of polyethylene sandwiched between two aluminium skins, but other variants include a fire-resistant version known as Reynobond FR.  In the aftermath of Grenfell Tower, it’s likely that all sandwich panels will be scrutinised closely.  In particular, the use of low-flammability cores, as opposed to cores which are completely inert or fire-resistant, will be questioned.  Local authorities have already begun evacuating some tower blocks, and stripping the cladding from others.

The apparent lack of smoke lobbies between the escape stair and the front doors of flats may be another factor which inhibited people trying to escape from the fire, as smoke rose up through the only means of escape.  It may be that tens of thousands of internal doors need to be upgraded, and smoke ventilation installed.  Similarly, old tower blocks lack the automatic fire suppression systems (sprinkers) which new high rise residential buildings are fitted with as standard, and critically, many older buildings don’t have automatic fire detection systems which sound an alarm throughout the building if a fire is detected in one part of it.

One final point is that the Fire Officer can carry out an inspection then demand that fire precautions are improved, but one of the tenets of the Building Regulations is that they can’t be applied retrospectively to existing buildings.  Maybe that will change, in the aftermath of Grenfell Tower.

By • Galleries: technology

Beyond Ben Alder, deep inside the lonely grey mountains which lie to the west of Loch Ericht, there is a singular place.   Persistent rumours tell of a cavern higher than the greatest Gothic cathedral, with a nave double the span and several times as long.  Just like Clunie's Cage on the slopes of Alder, it's well hidden and rarely talked of.  Existence is conferred by more than simply an appearance in magazines or books, but in the case of the Monadhliath 2 powerhouse, it is an absence.  It doesn’t “exist”.  Not officially, at least.  Instead, it seems to have become something mythical, a cavern into which Lewis Carroll might have peered.

It was built during the era of Cold War paranoia, the 1980's, as a power station which would be called upon after Zero Hour, after much of the country’s generating capacity had been destroyed by an exchange of nuclear missiles.  Whereas many power stations are built on the surface, and offer easy targets, hydro generation can be hidden.  In this case, the intakes lie deep underwater in a remote hill loch: the giant penstocks and the powerhouse are carved out of the heart of the Grey Mountains.  

Monadhliath exists rather like the Norse myth about the great wolf Fenrir, who the gods believed would bring about the world's destruction.  They caught the wolf and locked him in a cage, but he broke free of every iron chain they shackled him with.  Eventually, they trapped him, and he was chained to a rock a mile underground where he awaits the end of the world.  When the End arrives, he will break free from this prison, too, and devour the sun.

The Monadhliath hydro scheme was first proposed in the 1960’s, when the Mackenzie Committee reported on future prospects for hydropower in Scotland. The odds of Monadhliath being constructed grew longer as time went on.  After the Cruachan scheme’s completion in 1965,  the North of Scotland Hydro Board’s great Development Plan appeared to grind to a halt.  Opposition to future hydro-power came from landowners who resented the people of Scotland benefitting from our own mountains.  Yet work at Monadhliath carried on, and a myth slowly grew around it.

The powerhouse is a mighty place, on a scale unparalleled by anything else in Scotland.  Yet it was the first man-made thing on these mountains: before the dam, the top reservoir was just a lochan of shallow, peaty water, overshadowed by mountains.  Few humans had been here.  The area around it is a jumbled mass of rocks, studded with moss and lichen, crossed by foaming burns. 

The powerhouse was hewn from solid grey gneiss, lined with concrete and enamelled steel panels, a mystery hidden at the head of a remote stalker's track.  Larger than its predecessor at Ben Cruachan, larger than Dinorwic in Wales, larger than any of the Snowy Mountains power stations in Australia, Monadhliath is a modern wonder.  Ben Cruachan was a pumped storage scheme which utilises cheap night-time power to drive water back into the head reservoir after it has flowed through the turbines at peak time, as opposed to a conventional one which uses the water only once.  Monadhliath develops that principle further.

Monadhliath, according to the Mackenzie Report of 1961, was to be a scheme of two stages, the first of which would total 150MW output but in the event, it's supposed that the output is much higher, since this station would be used over a short timespan, perhaps just a few hours, as a last resort.   At Monadhliath 2, six turbines of perhaps 500MW each run at far higher power, but a far lower load factor, than originally anticipated by the 1960's era Hydro Board.  

The size of Loch Ericht, almost 20 miles long, and the fact that other hydro schemes control both its inflow and outflow means that large fluctuations in level due to the secret power station can be absorbed, un-noticed.  It is likely that the controls are all thermionic valve-powered: rather than being a step backwards from microprocessors, these robust old-fashioned electronics would survive a nuclear explosion when our TV’s and cellphones had all fried in the flashover. 

But is there any evidence for what Monadhliath actually is?  Its existence is alluded to in Duncan Campbell’s "War Plan UK", which predicts the fate of atomic power stations, and coal-fired giants like Drax, during a war.  Peter Payne’s "The Hydro" summarises the Mackenzie Report’s findings, going into some detail with Monadhliath 1 and 2, even locating them on its endpaper maps.  

Yet the clinching proof is an image taken from an obscure Swiss journal on hydropower*, which confirms the scale of the turbine hall, and that the sets were manufactured for the Swiss-Swedish firm ABB, most likely by a Clydeside shipyard, the only fabricators capable of dealing with the scale of the turbines' high-tensile steel blades and casings.

Monadhliath is more than I've suggested, though.  Designed by the Property Services Agency, who were responsible for all government works during that era, there is a clandestine air about Monadhliath which doesn't only arise from its purpose.  After all, Ben Alder is one of the remotest tops this side of Knoydart – far out of the way, and bleaker than any other Munro – so who would care what went on there?

Perhaps Monadhliath is still held in strategic reserve.  Just don't ask Scottish & Southern Energy, or the Scottish Government, or Westminster, to confirm the rumours about this place.  They'll deny its existence, just as they have done for the last 30 or more years.

*Zeitschrift fur Hydro-technik, published by Kirschner Verlag in Berne.

By • Galleries: technology

This online journal has reached its 101st post – or more accurately, its 151st.

I wrote for the print edition of Urban Realm’s predecessor, Prospect, for a few years then began contributing to The Lighthouse’s website ten years ago, in December 2006.  The last piece I uploaded there was dated August 2009, more or less when The Lighthouse was extinguished.  As it happens, that was the 50th article I’d written for them.

I picked up the online journal again, for Urban Realm, in February 2010 and it’s taken six years to reach 101 posts here.  Taking into account what I wrote for The Lighthouse, that’s 151 posts in more or less ten years.  Not that anyone’s counting…

Each piece takes a few hours to write, although those hours can be spread over several months.  The object has always been to share inspirations – buildings, places, images, writing, people, things – and speak critically but positively about them.  After all, there’s already plenty of banal architecture out there, along with crap music, unpalatable food and unflattering clothes – and they don’t need any more coverage than they already get.

Nonetheless someone occasionally takes umbrage, and they ask self-righteously what qualifies you to criticise – or even to form an opinion on the subject.  That happened when Urban Realm visited Nairn five years ago and an anonymous voice wondered why we had the temerity to voice an opinion on a town we didn’t live in.

As the German playwright Gotthold Lessing once said: “You do not have to be an egg-laying hen to know when an egg is foul!”  Except that in this case, we were nothing but positive about Nairn, although the town had been put forward for the Carbuncles by a disgruntled resident with an ulterior motive.  To extend Gotthold Lessing’s analogy, just because you haven’t designed a theatre, it doesn’t mean that you can’t form an opinion about theatres in general.

So much for the separation of criticism and authorship.

Being “critical” isn’t synonymous with being “negative”, but some believe that criticism consists solely of making negative judgments about things we don’t like.   Often they back up their argument with what passes for common knowledge, but starting a sentence with “everyone knows”, “many believe…” or even “some people think…” could be regarded as an ad populum argument – a cheap and lazy way to score points.

If you save the populist soundbites for “short form” journalism, then cultural journalism – the kind that architecture magazines usually print – tends to be “long form”, in order that it can explore the issues in detail.  That’s what this piece tries to do, too.

The real test of anything we build is not aesthetic, practical nor even economic – but what happens in an emergency.  In extremis, after a serious fire or explosion, the structure must hold together long enough to allow people to escape.  However, whether they get out safely is down to human nature as much as building design … vehicle design … or indeed aircraft design.

In order to “type certify” a new airliner, trial evacuations are carried out - the photo above shows a Boeing 747 "Jumbo Jet" as it was about to go into service in 1970.  The testing of the Airbus A380 – the "SuperJumbo" – was the most recent, during which an airframe parked inside a hangar at Hamburg was fully loaded with people.  In this case, 853 passengers plus cabin crew.  When the command to evacuate was given, the aircraft was emptied in an astonishingly fast 78 seconds.  For the purposes of the test, a regular Lufthansa crew was in charge; some smoke and loose objects had been introduced into the cabin; it was dark (although the emergency lights were working); and some exits had been blocked off.

The speed of the passengers’ egress wasn’t down to Teutonic efficiency alone, though – the guinea pigs were well briefed beforehand, and had time to consider the best way to escape.  Tellingly, they co-operated with each other because they knew they weren’t in mortal danger.  Most people treat all alarms as false alarms, until proven otherwise – just watch any building site once it’s near to completion.  Each time Kidde, Minerva or ADT set off the alarms, workmen come sidling out long after the sirens first began to sound.

Yet once people believe they really are in peril, the alarm instills panic into their behaviour.  Sounding the tocsin goes back to prehistory, when the great war horns sounded a warning.  In medieval times, the pealing of the cathedral’s bells warned the city: Fear Fire Foes.  That led to the banshee screaming of the air raid siren during modern wars, then the klaxons alerting RAF crews to scramble in the ‘60’s when the Three Minute Warning sounded.  Very early in our lives, a connection is made between alarms and danger: self-preservation is a deep instinct and ultimately it over-rides everything else. 

The difference between our responses to a practice run, and the real thing, are almost impossible to replicate.  That’s where evacuation tests on aircraft and the fire drills we all experienced at school fall down.  They can’t represent the terror of a real emergency because the mind isn’t adept at self-deception.  It operates in a unified way, so if the higher rationalising part knows this is just a drill, then the primitive, instinctual response will be subdued. 

Words are inadequate to describe what happens when you do have to flee a building.  Instinct kicks in and the brain suspends any functions which aren’t critical to escaping.  Adrenaline takes over.  The advice about walking calmly towards an exit means nothing when danger is close at hand.  You move as fast as you physically can, and afterwards you can’t recall any detail of that 30 seconds, which subjectively felt like a lifetime.  The routines hard-wired into us succeeded – we survived to tell the tale.  Yet sometimes things turn out differently.

After the 1985 accident at Manchester when a British Airtours Boeing 737 suffered an engine fire on take-off and 55 people died in the resulting crash, Cranfield University made a detailed study of aircraft evacuation.  Critically, it took five-and-a-half minutes for the last passenger to emerge from the burning 737 at Manchester Ringway; the aim of the research was to find out why.  The researchers used a retired Hawker Siddeley Trident and some cash-strapped volunteers.  Uniquely, most of the participants were students who were paid £10 to turn up with the promise of another fiver each time they succeeded in being among the first few to escape from the plane. 

The cash was handed over as soon as they reached terra firma, and the professor conducting the experiment judged that the mixture of the students’ natural competitiveness and the promise of hard cash would prove “as compelling an incentive to escape as life itself”.  You can imagine the reaction when the stewards called on the passengers to evacuate – “The desperation to escape quickly was quite alarming as volunteers battled to be the first through the exits,” wrote Max Kingsley-Jones in the magazine Flight International.  People were carried along in a throng, crushed under seats, wedged in the aisles and caught against bulkheads.

While the Airbus trial achieved a rapid evacuation thanks to the passengers co-operating with each other and escaping in an orderly manner, women and children first, the Trident trial was a closer reflection of reality.  Although it was carried out in the late 1980’s and has never been repeated, the trial was closely examined by the Civil Aviation Authority.  The fact that the Germans carried out the A380 trial as they did suggests that they weren’t paying attention: they didn’t come across panic, or the other extreme, abject resignation to your fate.

Sometimes people just give up and huddle in a corner to await their fate.  It’s well known in mountain rescue attempts that climbers suffering from hypothermia gradually cease to fight as their core temperature drops.  Eventually they just give up, psychologically.  Both panic and resignation are illustrated by Dad’s Army, that popular TV re-enactment of World War 2: when trouble came along, Fraser resignedly exclaimed, “We’re aa doo–oomed!”, whereas Jones cried out, “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!”  We are two sides of that same coin.

One way around panic and resignation is methodical training.  Although occasional fire drills don’t prepare us to face disaster, over-familiarity with crisis situations does seem to work for firefighters and airline pilots.  A large proportion of a pilot’s training is devoted to preparing for emergencies, in order to make his responses as automatic as possible.  Several hours are spent on the simulator every month, practicing stall recovery, flame-outs and forced landings: the intention is that the pilot “over-learns” the skills needed, because the shock when it actually happens may diminish his ability.

Over-learned responses and realistic situations give the pilot confidence to stay calm: but however realistic the simulator, that shock factor is still missing.  Psychologists have understood for decades that the brain doesn’t function well when overloaded with stimuli, and the tragic illustration of this is a passenger trapped in the blazing wreckage of an aircraft who continues to struggle with an unyielding emergency exit, yet ignores the gaping hole in the fuselage close by.  The brain fixates on one thing to the exclusion of all else.

More recently, both aeronautical and architectural fire engineers have begun to use software modelling to replicate evacuations.  For a project I ran a few years ago, a computer model representing 12,000 sq.m. of floorplate and 1150 people was created by SAFE Fire Engineering in Glasgow.  The evacuation sequence looks like an L.S. Lowry painting brought to life: but the matchstick people behave differently each time, as computer algorithms try to take account of the randomness of human behaviour – panic, confusion, our reactions to other peoples’ irrationality and the heat, smoke and toxic gases.  The software’s ability to run evacuation scenarios over and over again generates an “envelope” of performance, rather than a single datum, hence a truer representation of reality.

Software has the advantage over full-scale aircraft certification trials that the latter cost £1million a time and volunteers are sometimes accidentally injured, or worse.  However, it does rely on the programme's code being suitably nuanced that it can predict how fickle humans will react, and that’s the real skill.  Fire engineering is a specialist field, and only a small proportion of buildings benefit from it.  For the rest, architects rely on the prescriptions of the Technical Standards to guide them on how the building should assist people to escape from a fire. 

Are we, or the people who write the Standards, any closer to understanding why people react the way they do?  That peculiar mixture of crowd psychology, brain chemistry and self-preservation: how will that turn out, when the VESDA sensors sniff out smoke, then the sounders are activated, zone by zone, and the alarms grow louder and louder?  The corridor smoke doors swing shut, the power goes off and the emergency lights glow on.  It’s not a drill this time.  It’s for real. 

How will you react…?

By • Galleries: technology

For the first time in a few years, I’m looking for a facing brick.  But not just any brick.

Last time I specified one, the choice was between an extruded brick made by Ibstock at their Uddingston plant, or a press-made brick from Caradale.  Uddingston has since closed, and Caradale went out of business a few years ago - link - leaving Raeburn Brick as the last Scottish brickmaker. 

Today I’m looking for a grey multi with character, some patterning and different tones, a little like the variation you used to get on Scotch Commons – but in grey.  On this occasion, neither Hanson Brick (now owned by Wienerberger of Austria), Michelmersh nor Ibstock have quite have the right brick, so I had to look farther afield.

However, as Britain was experiencing its Great Brick Shortage - link - with demand high, but production at low levels while mothballed brick plants were slowly brought back into production – Belgium, Holland and Germany weren’t so busy, so they were in a position to export their spare capacity to the UK. 

A decade or two ago, there were hundreds of brickworks dotted across Europe - each serving its local market.  For one thing, that kept haulage costs down, because bricks are cheap relative to their weight: unlike dressed marble, they don’t justify being sent vast distances across Europe because you can’t charge accordingly.  The fact that their clay was sourced locally, so the colour and tone of the bricks was intrinsically a good match for the local geology was an added bonus.

The latest intel from my “mole” in the brick industry is that Hanson (now known as Forterra) are thinking about slowing production down at a couple of their British brick factories, as they’ve run out of space to stockpile bricks and have even filled up a nearby haulier’s yard while they wait for orders to come in…

There are a few well-known, generic bricks:  the Scotch common, the Accrington Nori engineering brick, the London Stock brick and the Staffs blue brick.  Then you have many what you might call “housebuilder’s bricks”, which are usually colourful and rustic-looking.  In design-led projects we’re more likely to seek out the unusual, such as waterstruck or twice-fired engobed bricks, for their appearance and novelty value. 

Cruising in from across the North Sea comes Petersen’s “D29”, which is made in Denmark by artisan brickmakers in formats which are somewhere between UK bricks and Roman bricks, then given a waterstruck finish before being set in coal-fired kilns.  Petersen have gained cachet in Scotland by being specified on several Reiach & Hall projects, and have come to be perceived as the thinking man’s brick…

The Dutch and Belgians have a larger brick industry than the Danes, and much of the clay comes from the basin of the Rhine and the River Meuse.  The “Castor” by Steenbakkerij Floren (a brickworks is a “stone bakery” in Flemish), which is a small brickmaker based at Brecht in Belgium, is a subtle lilac grey multi with some kiln marks on an engobed finish.  Floren have a broad range of facing bricks, and also produce an unfired clay building block similar to the eco block which Errol Brick were developing, before they disappeared from the scene.

“Cortona”, by Vandersanden Brick, is advertised as a subtle mix of grey and anthracite, with a slightly rusticated surface and quite a variation in tone between bricks.  In reality, it looks very much like chocolate brownies - and a colleague leapt for joy when she mistook a cut brick slip for something edible…  Vandersanden is apparently the largest family-owned brickmaker in Europe with two production sites in Belgium and two in the Netherlands, making a total of around 320 million bricks a year.  The Cortona comes in the conventional 65mm metric brick format, and 50mm Continental brick, too.

There’s always the risk of inadvertently specifying something that costs £1000 per thousand, but I discovered that some of the Dutch and Belgian brickmakers have a competitive advantage: they’re paid by the government to dredge clay from the ship canals, so the raw material for their soft mud bricks comes free.  They still have to load it onto a freighter and send it across to Grangemouth Docks… but at least they know the canal is navigable…

The “Peak Multi Grey” by Edenhall – who used to be known as the concrete block manufacturer Boral Edenhall, and their website notes that they’re now Britain’s largest independent brick manufacturer and Europe’s leading supplier of concrete facing bricks.  This is more evenly textured than the D29, Castor or Cortona, but it’s a true grey rather than an anthracite, gunmetal, slate or the many other euphemisms brickmakers use for colours.

And we have the “Devonshire Grey Multi” by Crest, which is more cocoa brown than grey, reminding me of chocolate marble cake - that melange of cocoa and sponge cake which fancy coffee shops serve.  Once again my colleague got excited…  Not a grey in the real world, but the brickmaker’s grey has a great deal of latitude.  Blue bricks are more grey than blue, black bricks are usually grey, and grey bricks are often a buff colour…

Then finally the “Nevado” brick, which it turns out is the one we’ll probably select.  Along with the exotic “Kiezelgrijs” and “Rainbow Graydust”, which sound like they’re escaped from the Pokemon universe, it’s made by Façade Beek in the Netherlands.  The firm is part-owned by C.R.H., an Irish conglomerate which owned Ibstock Brick until recently and has, “been enthusiastically manufacturing unique bricks since 1912,” in the Dutch town of Beek.  The “Nevado Geel Gesmoord” brick, to give it its Flemish name, is fired twice: it’s fired with oxygen in the kiln atmosphere the first time, then with nitrogen the second time.  It’s the second firing which provides its grey tones.

Think you know the size of a brick?  Beek know better!  A British metric brick is 215 x 102 x 65mm, and Imperial bricks were around 8.5 x 4 x 2.5 inches.  However … the standard Dutch brick formats are Waal (207 x 97 x 49 mm), Waaldik (214 x 98 x 66 mm), and Hilversum (228 x 90 x 41 mm).  In addition there’s the German Bundesnormaal format (236 x 108 x 71 mm) and Dunnformat (234 x 110 x 52 mm).  Plus Danish bricks are apparently 228 x 108 x 55mm… not that we’ll ever give up on 65mm bricks, they're too engrained in the British psyche for that.

What’s interesting is that brick is on a gradual journey from low-value commodity to what economists call a differentiated product – in other words one you recognise and ask for by name, and pay a premium for.  It’s telling that we import so many bricks, despite the recent vote to turn our back on Europe and depart the Single Market.  In fact, the number of Continental bricks on the market proves how closely allied our construction industry is to Europe, and demonstrates our weakness as a manufacturing country.

Rather than keeping millions of bricks in stock, I’m told that many Continental brickmakers fire bricks to order, forcing you to call them off months in advance.  That, along with the cost of artisan-moulded, water-struck, coal-fired “clinkers” mean that we’re bricking it every time we specify a grey multi…

By • Galleries: technology

Howdens is one of the last remaining Victorian heavy engineering works in Glasgow, and towards the end of its life, this redbrick complex was the birthplace of the tunnel boring machines which dug the Channel Tunnel.  The company, now called Howden Group, is still in business but left their home of ninety years in Tradeston in 1988.  The building’s future has been in doubt ever since, and it currently lies empty.

The company began in 1856, when James Howden set up in business on his own as a consulting engineer and registered patents for machine tools.  Before that, he was apprenticed to a firm of steam engine builders.  Howden’s interests gradually moved from machine tools to improving the design of boilers and steam engines, and he began experimenting with higher pressure compound engines.

The firm was incorporated as James Howden & Co. in 1862 and began building main boilers and engines to Howden’s own design.  Howden built a factory at Scotland Street in Tradeston then began experimenting with axial flow fans to force air through marine steam engines.  That was the root of Howdens’ business for the next century: fans, blowers, compressors, turbines and other steam machinery.  Today, they also make wind tunnels, refrigeration plant, circulators for nuclear power stations and mobile breathing systems for aircraft.

The original works further along Scotland Street from the present site were outgrown in 1870, and a new works was built a couple of blocks down the road.  “Howden’s Forced Draught System” was a great success, as it improved efficiency and fuel consumption, and in the 1880’s over 1000 boilers were converted or built to Howden’s patents.  Howden then turned his attention to auxiliary steam machinery, and realised his “new” factory wasn’t suitable, so he built another factory … this one … at 195 Scotland Street.

The works and foundry were designed by Nisbet Sinclair and opened in 1898, and had handling equipment and overhead cranes built-in plus (unusual in those days) a central heating system.  By then, the boilers in many famous ocean liners used the Howden system – the Lusitania and Mauretania – and later the Queen Mary, Normandie and Queen Elizabeth.  The original machine and constructing shop consists of six smaller bays running east-west; the much larger turbine fitting shop runs north-south with its brick gables facing the street: they’re largely hidden by the various offices which front onto Scotland Street. 

Business boomed, and extensions designed by Bryden & Robertson were built in 1904 then again in 1912, and (according to Howdens’ official history) the firm went on to build the largest turbo-generator in the country for Manchester Corporation.  In fact, Howdens were pioneers in the manufacture of steam turbines, and these were used on land as well as onboard ships.  When the Great War broke out, the Admiralty decided that all ships should be fitted with Howden blowers – the idea was to give them enough performance to outrun U-boats, and that saved the lives of thousands of seafarers whose ships would otherwise have been torpedoed. 

The company built a factory in Wellsville, New York in order to export their system to America.  After the war, Howdens gradually used their expertise in forced draught fans and preheaters to win orders for power station machinery, and in 1930, they were the probably first firm to use a fax machine to transmit data – they sent working drawings to America using radio-telegraphy.  In the late ‘30’s, Howdens developed dust collectors to clean up the smoke from power stations, although the further development of these was put on hold during WW2.

From the early part of 1940, the Howden factories (Scotland St as well as Govan and Old Kilpatrick) were used to build Sunderland flying boat hulls; torpedo bomber fuselages; and fins and flaps for Lancasters.  Scotland Street employed 1700 people during the war, and also developed a gadget to eliminate visible smoke from the exhausts of steamships, which was a giveaway to the location of convoys.  During the war, Howdens took over the neighbouring Subway Power Station – it was unique, as it powered the world’s only cable-haulage subway system.  Howdens used the building as a pattern shop. 

Shortly after the war, the works received a large order of steel furniture, making use of the aircraft tooling, then orders came in from the CEGB for new power station equipment, including fans, air preheaters and dust collectors – flue gas cleaning equipment – and similar kit was fitted to a new generation of ocean liners.  Howdens supplied the massive forced draught fans at Inverkip Power Station, each of which are around three storeys high.

A new block of research labs was built around 1950 at Scotland St., and as a result of their R&D, Howdens went on to supply the fans which cooled the atomic piles at Windscale from 1956.  Howdens extended the Scotland St. works westwards with a large new Assembling Shop in 1954, then another in 1964.  These parts lay behind Mackintosh’s Scotland Street School and have since been demolished, but they were constructed as erecting shops for tunnelling machines, the next chapter in Howdens’ adventure in industry. 

Tunnel Boring Machines are a complicated mass of components and machinery.  They grow ever more sophisticated over time, but effectively the components remain the same: a boring head (usually a big rotating wheel with teeth) and the means of preventing the tunnel caving in before the permanent lining is installed (a tail shield and pressure-balancing equipment which allows the boring head to work under pressure to the stop ingress of water).

The TBM also needs a means of propelling the complete unit forward as excavation proceeds (usually hydraulic rams at the back of the shield); an equipment pack with motors, hydraulics, control cabin and so forth; a means to get the spoil away - usually conveyors but there are other solutions; and finally the mechanism for receiving and erecting the permanent lining, be that segmental or sprayed concrete.  It all has to get reach the back of the shield and be put in place before the shield is moved forwards.

The most famous artefacts to come out of Scotland Street were the “tunneliers” or tunnel boring machines (TBM’s) which excavated the Channel Tunnel.  The order was placed by Trans-Manche Link for three Howden open-face tunnelling machines of just under 8 metre diameter and weighing over 500 tons, which made the landward drives of the main running tunnels; plus two Howden-Decon machines of 5.3 metre diameter which excavated the service tunnel which lies between them.  Each of them cost £7.5m.

One of these was later used to dig a storm water sewer in Brighton, but once its sister had finished her task, she had to dig her own grave.  The machines were supplied in kit form and had to be welded together on site: when work was complete, it wasn’t practical to completely dismantle them, so the TBM which dug the seaward part of the service tunnel was steered into a 60 metre radius curve away from the alignment, bored into rock, then entombed in concrete.  It still holds the record for the longest single TBM drive, of 22,000 metres, which was achieved between December 1987 and October 1990.  The one which survived intact was on display for a while, and then auctioned on Ebay a few years ago.

SInce I wrote that in 2008, I’ve spoken to a civil engineer who suggested that TBM's have never been buried – or certainly not the complete machine.  At the end of a tunnel drive, it’s common for the machine to be dismantled and used on another drive on the same project.  By the end of the project, most of the moving parts are likely to be well past their sell-by date and will be extracted then refurbished or recycled.  On occasions its cheaper to leave the tail shield behind (which is little more than a short length of large diameter steel tube) as a tunnel lining, than to dismantle it and put a lining in its place.

Howdens later supplied TBM’s for the Storebaelt tunnel in Denmark in the mid-90’s, and also built tunnelling machines under licence from Wirth of Germany in the late-’90’s, but Scotland Street closed in 1988, so those were presumably built at Howden Group’s newer factory at Craigton … and then began the search for a new use for this massive factory.  Even with the demolition of the post-war assembly shops, the buildings left still cover 1.5 hectares.  I’ve yet to discover whether Howdens built the machines which excavated the nearby Clyde Tunnel, but it would certainly be fitting if they had done.

Scotland Street Works has been bought and sold several times since Howdens moved out, and was owned in 2008 by Tiger Developments, who reportedly bought it for £10m.  It’s passed through the hands of other developers who pondered uses for it, and at one point there were proposals to convert it into a museum of industry and technology.  Can you hear alarm bells ringing?

Anyone with a good Scots education knows that the industrial revolution owes its success to mass production, which relied on several things: the harnessing of steam by James Watt, the invention of the hot blast furnace by James Neilson and the development of the steam hammer by James Nasmyth.  The world’s greatest ironworks which belonged to the Carron Company outside Falkirk, and it benefitted from all three developments and much more besides. 

Aspects of the iron, steel and machine-making industries are preserved at Summerlee in Coatbridge (which was once the Hydrocon crane factory) but there are plenty other things to consider: the global explosives industry grew up in south-western Scotland; the UK’s paper-making machinery centre was Edinburgh, and Dundee was the capital of the world’s jute textile and jute machinery trade.  As far as I know, there are no plans to preserve a recent naval or merchant ship on Clydeside.  The QE2 sailed off to Dubai, but why not repatriate another Clydebuilt vessel? 

Yes, Howdens should be saved; yes, Scotland probably does need a museum devoted to science, industry and technology … but the two issues are independent of each other.  It might make sense to use the buildings as a museum meantime (or artists’ studios, or industrial units, or a nightclub …), but you can bet the developers will try to recover their investment by demolishing it and building flats or supermarkets on the site instead.  Now that the machinery of the economy been thrown into reverse, the owners of 195 Scotland Street will need all the ingenuity of James Howden to make a success of things.

I originally posted this at the tail end of 2008 on The Lighthouse’s now-defunct website … I’m posting it again here because things haven’t improved for Howdens’ building.  Finally, here’s a comment which was posted in response on the Lighthouse website:

I and a fellow plater Tam built the front section of the services tunnel machine.  It was built in quadrants etc.  Our names are on one of the conical plates at the front of the machine.  It was a great achievement and I was proud to be part of it, but are we forgotten me and Tam? Peter Thompson came and got me out of Govan to do the Borie - Orly tunnel machine.  In Renfrew I met a girl who was a PR on Borie project.  She found out I was the fabricator and wondered why we the builders were forgotten.  I'm the Wombat, my nickname means nothing.  Did James Watt build the steam engine?  No, he prepared the engineering drawings etc.  So scottish platers and fabricators are not even remembered for this great feat of building the Channel Tunnel.

Yours Willie McLennan, The Wombat

By • Galleries: ghosts, technology

Long-distance train travel has its compensations – such as when a chance conversation with a stranger delivers a sudden insight.

One Friday in the autumn of 2007, I sat down beside a heavy-set young guy in a plaid shirt with a carry-out in front of him – he had clearly just come off the rigs on a Bristow chopper – and opposite was an old chap with slicked-back wavy hair and a face creased with laughter lines.  Looked like he'd been a Rocker in his day, and when offshore guy went to the toilet, the old chap offered me one of the beers  – "He'll never notice..."

We got talking, and I discovered that before he retired he had been a rep for Morgan Crucible, selling fire protection to the construction and offshore industries.  Before the advent of intumescent paint, Morgan Crucible, just like TAC (Turners Asbestos), was one of the main suppliers of fireproof boards, blankets and fibrous material which was sprayed onto steelwork to insulate it from high temperatures.  Now they concentrate on high-tech fire protection for ships, chemical plants and so forth.

Since retiring, he has delivered cars in order to make a bit of beer money, and today he was returning to Worcester after dropping off a Saab in Forres.  So the conversation moved from buildings to cars, and he got around to the fact that he once worked for "a little company in Coventry called Standard-Triumph".  I replied that the Stag was surely the best car Triumph ever produced, and he confided that after British Leyland took over Triumph, they quickly moved to close the Research & Development department.

Triumph Stag Mk2

After that happened, twelve of the men who designed and developed the Stag left Britain to join "a little company in Munich called the Bavarian Motor Works", and shortly afterwards BMW developed their first modern, unified range of compact sporting saloons and coupes, like the predecessors of the modern 3 and 5 series.  Until then, BMW’s range consisted of the “Neue Klasse” small saloons and coupes of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, most memorable of which was the 2002.  All of them were designed by Michelotti … who also designed the Stag.

Two little lightbulbs came on at that point.  Firstly, that confirms what I've always believed about the styling of 1980's and 1990's BMW's.  They look too much like Triumphs for the resemblance to be coincidental: for example, the lights and grille are contained in a narrow horizontal frame between bonnet and bumper; a pair of circular headlamps bracketed by arrowhead shaped light clusters which form the edge of the wing; a grille with blacked-out ribs, and a central bay which advances.  Then there’s the characteristic "C" pillar applied to each model in the range, and a fascia which curves around the driver. 

The BMW 1602 is a German version of the Triumph Herald; the original 5-Series harks back to the Triumph 2000/ 2500 family which was code-named “Innsbruck”.  Perhaps this affinity helps to explain why the Bavarians bought Rover from British Aerospace in 1994 … and by all accounts when BMW broke up and sold off Rover years later, they kept the Triumph brand with the Spitfire, Stag and Dolomite names.  From time to time there’s speculation about a Triumph revival, but rumour has it that potential claims from former Triumph dealers in the US helped kill that idea off.

BMW 5-series

The second, deeper insight is that when you cut off the head, the organism dies.  BL quickly destroyed Triumph's ability to develop cars, otherwise they would have continued to bring products forward and would have retained their own identity.  It's all about intellectual property, and the Germans understood that: this is also relevant to architects and designers, since so much of what we do falls into the realm of research and development. 

The point my companion made was that Triumph’s fate symbolises what had gone wrong with Britain.  Our purchases unwittingly trace the forces which have changed our lives – the decline of manufacturing, the rise of the service econony, the reduced tax take as a result, the shrinking public sector.  In fact, it could be said that nowadays only the richest and the poorest actually own things made in this country.  The rich because luxury goods are still made here – cashmere scarfs, sports cars, fine china.  The poor because they still own older things made before mass production ended in Britain. 

Assuming you were born a while before 1980, the car on the driveway was a Triumph or Austin.  The radio had a “Bush” badge.  The cooker was a New World.  The fridge was branded Astral, and the television was bought from the Clydesdale shop (remember them?) on the local High Street.  It may have been a 20-inch Ferguson Colourstar, with a veneered chipboard case, six channel buttons on the front, and a coaxial socket on the back but until 1982, when you were at primary school – it only received three channels.

Triumph Herald Vitesse

Back in the day, Ferguson was owned by Jules Thorn rather than Thomson of France, and made TV sets in a giant factory on the Great North Road as you headed out of Edmonton in London’s scruffy suburbs towards the Watford Gap and Scotland.  Now that Ferguson have effectively gone, along with Dynatron, Mullard, Baird and other firms whose names go back to the roots of the TV industry in the 1930’s, only the poorest or the canniest, still have British televisions.

You see this phenomenon at work when rubbish is set down at the kerbside for the scaffies to uplift – the white goods are Kelvinator, Creda, English Electric, but what replaced them is Far Eastern.  The new flat screen TV’s are on an even shorter cycle of obsolescence – and with the gradual closure of the brickmaking, steelmaking and ceramics industries in this country, soon we won’t have buildings made here, either.

That isn’t sustainable, so we need to understand construction fits into a greater economic system: I'll illustrate my point using the specification of building materials.  There are two different ways to look at building materials – the conventional way, to use Isaiah Berlin's well-worn analogy, is to be a fox, knowing lots of different things about a range of materials.  The other way is to concentrate on a Big Idea, perhaps to the exclusion of all else.  This is what the hedgehog does. 

Berlin expands on this notion by dividing thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea, and foxes, who are fascinated by the infinite variety of things and for whom the world cannot be boiled down into one all-encompassing system.

BMW 2002

Once, when we used a limited palette of traditional craft materials – stone, brick, lead, copper, timber – every architect had a good grasp of each one.  He was a fox.  When the systems approach burgeoned after World War Two – curtain walling, single ply roofing, cassette cladding – hundreds of new techniques and materials emerged, and it became difficult to know about every one of them.  We retreated from being foxes, and when the Green movement turned mainstream in the 1990's, it enabled some architects to metamorphose completely into hedgehogs.

Their big idea is to build sustainability, and in order to do so they have to learn a great deal about breathability, material toxicity, building biology, and so on, because there are many different ways to measure sustainability.   It isn't enough to look at the embodied energy of manufacture, or ease of reuse and recycling, or carbon footprint, exclusively.  As transportation costs rise, we need to consider where the product comes from just as much as what it's made from and how it performs in use. 

Perhaps we need to re-appraise our specifications, looking at materials which we can source locally.  We need to become more like foxes, less like hedgehogs.  Of course in order to specify locally-made products we need local factories, and if they're to last, they need to have R&D functions in Scotland.  Alternatively, inward investment from Japan, Korea or America uses Scotland as an assembly facility with profits repatriated, but no high level work or headquarters functions here.  

The British Disease is short-termism.  It's easy to close a factory which is unprofitable in the short term, especially if it lies far away from the heart of the company, whether that’s London or overseas.  A good example is the failure of Silicon Glen – several of the large silicon wafer fabrication plants like Motorola, computer assembly plants like IBM and NCR, and high end R&D firms like Calluna or going even further back, Elliott Automation, have gone.

In building component manufacturing, there’s long been a “branch office” culture and for every McAlpine Plumbing, Barrhead Sanitary and Errol Brick which was owned in Scotland, there’s a Vencil Resin or Yorkshire Imperial Metals which had a Scottish branch that succumbed to “market forces.” 

The Scottish Cure is to build up our own companies, so that we can source Scottish products, and guarantee a regular supply of jobs, too.  With that in mind, in the autumn of 2007 just after I met the effusive chap ex-Morgan Crucible and ex-Standard Triumph, I set out to "build" using only materials and products from Scotland.  Then I extended this to plant and machinery made here.  It's the type of enterprise which the Victorians willingly took on – a demonstration project  – and the results were printed in Urban Realm’s predecessor, Prospect.  I wonder how many of these are still in business?

Briggs Roofing, Dundee – roofing membranes and dampcourse
Lareine Engineering, Bathgate – rooflights
James Jones & Sons, Forres – engineered timber joists and beams
Caberboard, Cowie – OSB, chipboard

Godfreys of Dundee – geotextiles
Visqueen, Greenock – vapour barriers
Superglass Insulation, Stirling – insulation
Don & Low, Forfar – Daltex breather membranes

Blairs of Scotland, Greenock – timber external windows and doors
McTavish Ramsay, Dundee – timber internal doors
Aable, Glasgow – metal roller shutters
Chris Craft, Brechin – window blinds
Glasgow Steel Nail Co., Glasgow – nails and fasteners
McConnell Timber Products, Thornhill – timber cladding boards

Fyfestone, Kemnay – architectural masonry
Errol Brick, Perthshire – fired and unfired clay bricks
Laird Brothers, Forfar – thermal blockwork
Leith's Precast, Montrose – precast concrete stairs
Blue Circle Group, Dunbar – cement

J & D Wilkie, Kirriemuir – flooring underlays and fabrics
Forbo-Nairn, Kirkcaldy – linoleum
BMK Stoddard Templeton, Kilmarnock  – carpets
Bute Fabrics, Rothesay – upholstery fabrics
Andrew Muirhead, Glasgow – upholstery leather
Dovecote Studios, Edinburgh – tapestries

Ferguson & Menzies, Glasgow – sealers and coatings
Craig & Rose, Dunfermline – paints and varnishes
Aquafire Systems, Newhaven – intumescent coatings
Highland Galvanisers, Elgin – hot dip zinc galvanising

Barrhead Sanitaryware, Glasgow – vitreous china sanitaryware
Carron Phoenix, Falkirk – stainless steel sinks
RB Farquhar, Huntly – pre-plumbed toilet modules
Balmoral Group, Aberdeen – water and septic tanks
McAlpine Plumbing, Hillington – plastic plumbing pipework
Ozonia Triogen, Glasgow – water treatment plant
Arthur McLuckie, Dalry – iron castings
Weir Group, Glasgow – pumps

Torren Energy, Glencoe – woodchip-fuelled burners
McDonald Engineering, Glenrothes – hot water cylinders
BIB Cochran, Annan – calorifiers and steam plant
Sangamo, Port Glasgow – timer clocks and energy controls
Clyde Energy Solutions, Glasgow – heat pumps and radiators
Norfrost, Caithness – freezers

Eness Lighting, Kirkcaldy – lighting and controls
Coughtrie Lighting, Glasgow – external luminaires
BICC Brand-Rex, Glenrothes – electrical cabling
Parsons Peebles, Rosyth – electrical switchgear
Linn Products, Eaglesham – audio-visual systems

Interplan Systems, Glasgow – cubicle partitions
JTC 65, Dundee – fitted furniture
Ramsay Ladders, Forfar – extending stairs
Fife Fire, Kirkcaldy – fire extinguishers
James Ritchie & Son, Edinburgh – clockmakers
Charles Laing & Sons, Edinburgh – bronze handrails

McPhee Brothers, Blantyre – truckmixers
Albion Automotive, Scotstoun – HGV drivetrain builder
Koronka, Kinross – fuel tanks
James Cuthbertson, Biggar – HGV fittings

Meantime, next time you pore over product catalogues to select a roof tile or toilet pan, take a moment to consider what happened to the British car industry – Rover, Rootes Group and especially Triumph…

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Several years ago, the motoring writer James Ruppert coined a phrase which neatly encapsulates how to own and run a car cheaply and efficiently.  Bangernomics.  Tradition has it that old cars have high running costs: they burn more fuel and oil than they should; they rot; they break down.  However, new cars suffer from savage depreciation.  Either way, cheap motoring is a fallacy.

By contrast, the theory of Bangernomics attempts to both the capital and running costs of cars: you buy old vehicles which are in reasonable condition, but worth next to nothing.  You run them for a few months, then when they break down or fail their M.o.T., you scrap them then repeat the process. 

An old Rover or Audi might cost £350 from the small ad’s – but even if it only lasts for six months, the previous owner has paid for all its road tax, servicing and depreciation costs, providing you with cheap motoring and a cash rebate when you drive it (push it) into the scrappie’s yard.  In many cases, the car will be perfectly reliable in the meantime, and more than adequate as your “daily driver.” 

More applicable than ever during the recent climate of austerity and crunchy credit, Bangernomics is a transferrable concept – so lets try to apply it to buildings, shall we?

By the time they’re committed up to their oxters in a building contract, clients are resigned to spiralling costs and a lack of ultimate control.  Building things has always been perceived as expensive: but did anyone point out an alternative?  This is the crux, because it exposes a conflict of interest between the client and his hired gun, the architect. 

Architects like to build things, because that earns them fees.  They don’t mind converting old things, because that can earn them more fees than building new things.  Yet what would happen if the feasibility study suggested that the client’s existing building was perfectly suitable – that all he needed to do was re-organise the demountables and the furniture? 

Or buy the building next door and move in straight away (perhaps re-painting the front door on the way in)?  That would earn the architect nothing, except a token sum and the eternal gratitude of the client, who has saved a small fortune.

Your business banking manager never warned you about this eventuality, nor did the lecturers at architecture school.  Yet if you exercised “professionalism” (whatever *that* means in these straitened times), you’d be obliged to offer this option to your client.  You can guess just how many consultants have actually done so – and that illustrates why the Victorian concept of the professional person may be obsolete. 

As with the architect’s quasi-judicial role when considering a claim for extensions of time (if she allows them, the architect often admits her own guilt in delaying the contractor), this concept of an impartial person of integrity, with no ulterior self-interest, is a fallacy.  In reality, the only way to save the client money is to align the professionals’ interests with his own.

Now that fear has taken charge of the financial markets again (24th August 2015 … China Crisis?), as it did on Black Monday in 1987, and during the Wall Street Crash, the grim arithmetic of economic recession has been recalled.  The result is an admonitory tale of capitalism’s downside.  Ten years ago, the property market took off, detached itself from the real economy like Gulliver’s flying island of “Laputa”, and buildings ended up over-valued by 30 or 40%, or sometimes more.  The underlying land doubled or tripled in value. 

Things have turned around now, though, and as a result, clients are forced to question the “givens”, such as the maxim that land values will always continue to increase because land is the only thing they aren’t making any more of; rentals will always move northwards … and U-values will always improve.

Since energy conservation had become an over-riding factor in design, it could be made simple.  The aims of economics and sustainability coincide, just as they do in Bangernomics.  The most sustainable way to develop property for a client is to re-use and adapt the existing, not to build a new building from scratch.  If everything else is equal, refurbishment usually works out cheaper than newbuild.

Extending the amortisation period of a building, just like running a car into the ground, saves money by spreading the cost over a longer period.  It also maximises the use of its embodied energy.  The latter idea may win you sexy eco points; but the client’s accountant will get turned on by the former.  Do as little as you need to: save yourself money and energy.  In fact, taking this to its logical conclusion, we could talk ourselves out of work.

For example, a few years ago we had a client who took a pragmatic view.  The company owns a large 1940’s era range of north-lit workshops.  They were built as a wartime munitions factory for making artillery shells – which afterwards was taken on by Consolidated Pneumatic Tools, who made equipment for the quarrying and mining industries. 

Under a series of sawtooth roofs, held up by delicate fabricated steel trusses, the spaces have ample natural light and are high enough to house pillar and gantry cranes.  When the roof began to leak, the refurbishment costs quoted were epic.  A bulldoze-and-rebuild-from-new option was studied, but the price for that turned out to be even steeper. 

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the building – and a new portal frame shed would be less generous, and far darker, needing artificial light during the daytime.  Accordingly, the plan was to apply a magical coating to seal the failed asphalt joints, then make local repairs to the rooflights.  Five years on, that seems to have worked fine.

Work with what you find.  Re-use it, minimise your outlay.  Bangernomics.

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Hugh Ferriss is best known as the illustrator of New York’s skyscrapers.  He’s also the spiritual father of Lebbeus Woods, who I previously wrote about; both were visionary architect-artists who drew other people’s buildings then went on to create their own imaginary worlds.

Ferriss trained as an architect – but according to Daniel Okrent, author of “Great Fortune”, he built little or nothing of his own.  Instead, he was employed by large commercial practices in New York to create presentation drawings.  Soon, Ferriss became a professional renderer and in parallel he developed as an architectural theorist – also, and probably not coincidentally, Lebbeus Woods’ career path.

The 1929 book, The “Metropolis of Tomorrow”, lays out Hugh Ferriss’s ideas for Art Deco mega-cities of the future.  I also have a copy of “Power in Building” acquired from Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon … when it turned out that William Stout’s in San Francisco only had a modern facsimile rather than the original edition.  The power of the internet …

Ferriss used dramatic, almost violent perspective, which combined dynamic angles with strong light and shadow.  His renderings of the “Zoning Law”-era skyscrapers which were built during the period between the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gilded Age, through the Great Depression, to the start of World War Two made him famous. 

“Metropolis of Tomorrow” grew from Hugh Ferriss’s experience illustrating the Chicago Tribune Tower, Rockefeller Centre, Empire State and Chrysler Buildings.  He also portrayed pre-war proposals for the United Nations headquarters, then the Perisphere and Trylon from the New York 1939 World's Fair.  Further afield he drew Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West in Arizona, as well as the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver.

When war intervened after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Ferriss drew the process of aircraft production at Lockheed’s aircraft factory, bomb shelters, and the construction of the Shasta Dam in California – but I recently came across his wartime drawings for the United States Pipe & Foundry Co. which I hadn’t seen before.

Ferris’s reputation rests on those two books “Metropolis of Tomorrow” and “Power in Building” plus a few exhibitions such as the 1986 show at the Whitney Museum in New York … but the pipe foundry drawings don’t appear to feature in any of them, which is a shame, because they show another complementary facet of his work.

These adverts are industrial propaganda, and their imagery is powerful because Ferriss’s style is ideally suited to his subject.  Compared to the social realism of other wartime adverts – which seem strangely Soviet in their portrayal of the triumph of organised labour – Ferriss captures the scale, drama and theatricality of the pipe mill and iron foundry.  He hints at the Fordist approach of mass production, with huge production halls and endless rows of components awaiting shipment.

I guess this irony was lost on his patrons: while industry in America became more and more mechanistic and increasingly automated, it relied upon charcoal and crayon renderings made by a highly individual hand.  The Adverts for Tomorrow were anything but Fordist in execution.

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