I hadn’t intended to write about Covid ever again, but just at the moment I received my second vaccination, the World Health Organisation announced that six Scottish health boards were among the top 10 worst-hit regions in Europe. NHS Tayside has the highest rate, with 1,146 cases per 100,000 people.

The BBC reported Jason Leitch (Scotland’s national clinical director) explaining that a lack of "natural immunity" in the population has led to Scotland having the highest Covid rates in Europe. A few months ago, we were doing well… not so now. For the next few days, Dundee will probably be the most infectious place in Europe yet when I go down to the city centre there are blithe people walking around, seemingly tourists, who are strangely oblivious.

I received my blue envelope then had my inoculation a few days later in the Caird Hall.  More so than the enormity of NHS Tayside’s task, the thing that struck me was being in a huge concert hall filled with hundreds of vaccination stations spaced out geometrically across the stalls floor – oddly it reminded me of the Central Services Office in Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil”. A lateral flow kit was thrust into my hand as I left the hall and emerged blinking into the sunshine on Crichton Street.

Bad news, like Dundee’s current infection rate, travels fast – but you rarely hear about the gene technology labs in the city, the cluster of biomedical companies, or the research success of Ninewells Hospital, which was the largest new teaching hospital in Europe when it opened in the 70’s. Or indeed Murray Royal in Perth, which was redeveloped in 2012 as the largest new mental healthcare hospital in the UK, replacing an impressive asylum designed in the 1780’s by William Burn which is the prototype for many that came after.

Because mostly, healthcare and its architecture is a good news story. That prompted me to think about the “capital versus revenue” issue which I’ve heard several times from clients, when the door creaks open a fraction and you get a glimpse into their professional life. Sometimes the frustrations spill out, such as when someone senior at a subsea engineering firm came off the phone after an exasperating negotiation and looked at me: “We’re not selling a commodity product! The things we make aren’t like cans of baked beans!!”

The first time I came across the short term/ long term funding argument was when I worked on a theatre project which won a Lottery-funded capital grant to redevelop on a grand scale. After a long gestation and many battles, they ended up with a much-loved venue – which went bust a decade later. One of the reasons, according to the Press, was a cut in their Scottish Arts Council revenue funding support.

The other side of the capital/ revenue debate was illustrated last month when I went to Perth Royal Infirmary as a visitor. A Canon Medical Imaging lorry trailer was parked in a courtyard, its thick umbilical slinking into the building. This is a mobile CT scanner, brought in to supplement the capacity of hospitals in Dundee, Perth and Brechin.

Having had some experience doing clinical planning, I know that Computerised Tomography suites are complex beasts with large footprints, lots of servicing and if they serve an interventional radiography role, they need air handling units as large as a single decker bus. Short term, it makes sense to use revenue to pay for hiring in scanners to reduce waiting lists, while developing capital projects at Ninewells to permanently increase the scanner “fleet”.

So reading the self-serving Op-Ed pieces in various architecture magazines about how architects can somehow make a difference in healthcare provision, made me consider a fundamental point. What can architecture and design do to improve the natural immunity of Scots – can we build our way out of infection? Or is there only so much buildings can do, and after that it’s down to a lottery of birth with your genetics, background, diet, and so forth dictating your health?

I think the answer may lie with another client I worked for, a few years after the theatre. He was a GP on the verge of retiring from practice, and had spent his final few years developing his idea for a Healthy Living Centre. Conceptually it was somewhere you go in order to stay well – rather than a Medical Centre you attend after you’ve fallen ill. The former Chief Medical Officer, Harry Burns, had similar ideas but sadly the project I worked on didn’t happen. Perhaps the idea will catch on one day.

Hopefully next time I add something to this blog, Covid will be receding in the rear view mirror and we’ll be able reflect on the aesthetics of what you might call “pure” architecture, rather than the everyday necessities of “applied” architecture.

By • Galleries: Uncategorized, covid-19

Reading through the readers’ comments posted below-the-line in response to an article about graduate salaries on the AJ website, I found some thought-provoking issues. Paul Finch attempted to have a sensible debate with an anonymous commenter who continually tried to bait and troll him – it struck me that the real issue wasn’t the level of “compensation”, it was London itself.

Our capital-obsessed government, financiers and developers seemingly can’t look beyond an endless cycle of feeding a city which is resource-hogging and disproportionate in scale to the rest of the country. No other country in Europe has such a disparity in population and status between its capital, and its second and third largest cities: it isn't by chance that so much of the UK's most valuable land and around half the UK's architects are concentrated in and around London.

Given the ever-growing imbalance, it's unlikely that we'll ever see a "provincial" practice take a leading role again, although Ian Simpson's success with high rise blocks in Manchester, and Glenn Howells’ in Birmingham hint at the possibilities, as did RMJM’s prominence during the 1970’s and 80’s. That also goes to underplay other the UK’s other conurbations – the West Midlands, Greater Glasgow, Tyneside, West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester.

As a result, there’s a tradition, which continues today, that some of the best Scottish graduates go down south, drawn to the bright lights and opportunities. Once there were alternatives. During the 80’s there was Hong Kong prior to its handover to China, in the 90’s there was Berlin after reunification but before Brexit – but since then the draw of London has been hard to fight. Some Scots stay forever and become expatriates, others return with a halo of glamour on their CV.
 
Today, the UK is a small country with an imperial-sized capital. It lost its role as the administrative centre for a quarter of the world’s population long ago, yet London is still a magnet for people and money, and in the language of today’s social justice warriors, that makes it over-favoured and especially privileged. The pulsing of currency and capital (both sorts) are palpable in Leadenhall Street and Canary Wharf; their vast glossy surfaces reflect each other and the mid-Atlantic accent which The Square Mile has developed since the Big Bang in 1987. 

If you catch the breakfast service at a Square Mile restaurant such as The Mercer in Threadneedle Street, you might even overhear some tips about where the smart money is going, from the men in sharp pinstripes and Church’s Oxfords shone to a high polish.  Edinburgh, by comparison, is more discreet. Sir Fred Badloss may have broken the Royal Bank, but an incomer would never guess that hundreds of billions of pounds are managed behind the douce facades of Georgian townhouses.

Meantime, under the present government at Westminster, the Edwardian chimera of the Imperial City lives on. At one point twenty years ago, Richard Rogers looked like he would become Baron Haussmann to Tony Blair’s Napoleon III; but for now Boris is in charge and acting out his destiny as the Great Self-Memorialist. Aside from all this other chronic flaws (egotism, dishonesty, and greed) the current prime minister is a man suffering from chronic folie de grandeur who is obsessed by his built legacy.

He has already spawned the bridge that never was, the airport that could never be, the bus nobody wanted and the cable car no-one uses. Perhaps he’ll eventually manage to build a mega-bridge (or tunnel) across Beaufort’s Dyke between Stranraer and Larne – and if he does, he’ll also need to re-construct 50 miles of dismantled railway and create a motorway to link Stranraer to the rest of Scotland via the M74 and WCML, then on to HS2 which will finally connect to … London.

Meantime, to the disaffected troll who took a pop at Paul Finch, the explanations for why graduate salaries don’t cover the cost of living could be either that salaries are too low, or the cost of living is too high.  The reason why graduate salaries are “too low” is easy to debate but far more difficult to solve, because it’s rooted in the changing role of architects.

Some of the theories advanced are: in order to maximise the grants they receive from the Scottish Government, the architecture schools turn out too many graduates, and that suppresses wages; lots of experienced architects have come into the country from the EU and further afield, and that suppresses wages; thanks to the Architects Act and the ARB, architects have a protected title but not a protected function – which means technicians and “plan drawers” can also do their work, and that suppresses wages; Thatcher’s obsession with ending monopolistic practices resulted in statutory fee scales being axed, and that suppresses wages; some graduates are prepared to do unpaid internships with big name practices, and that suppresses wages…

Lots to disagree over.

But the reason the cost of living is “too high” is much simpler to grasp, and for the benefit of the AJ’s anonymous provocateur – it’s London. Everything about the modern mega-city is expensive, including an exorbitant cost of living. Before they arrive in the Great Wen, prospective students might imagine living there is like a stage show turned inside out onto the pavements of Shaftesbury Avenue, where the people are haughty and over-privileged but essentially harmless, like poodles somehow transmogrified into human form.

Instead, they learn that it’s a grimy rat-race where people hustle, elbow and pick your pocket in the shadow of skyscrapers occupied by kleptocrats. During the 1990’s, I remember exploring London by experimentally taking the Tube south of the river. Inspired by the Carter USM song, I got off at New Cross – but quickly fled back onto the train. It felt Gangster even in the days before Grime. Nowadays in the East End you also have the “Shoreditch rough”, consisting of a character with a top knot and hipster pants plus a can of paint and a stencil, who imagines he’s a graff king…

The crux of high living costs is that they make life much tougher. With good qualifications and some experience, we’d hope to earn a decent salary which allows us to live a well-rounded life. With somewhere of our own to stay, whether bought or rented; the freedom to choose a car, motorbike, cycle or train as transport; the chance to take trips abroad occasionally; and the opportunity to save money for a rainy day and into a pension – but if you’re an architecture graduate on a starting salary, London removes those possibilities.

Yet the issues thrown up by London aren’t solely financial. Big cities in general, but London in particular, are also part of the problem with Covid. For someone on a low salary, living in a densely-packed area, London is bad for your health as well as your pocket. When you concentrate several million people together, you create economic growth and lots of jobs – but along with those come long commutes, gridlocked roads, over-packed trains, crowded streets and corridors, queues and lifts packed with people.

Just as capitalism thrives when you bring companies and people into close proximity with each other, you create social opportunities if you concentrate health and education infrastructure in one place, but you also form a high human density environment for a virus such as Covid, which likes people to rub shoulders.

Perhaps Covid will prove to everyone that the big city with its pollution, resource-intensiveness and ruinously expensive property is part of the problem. Another example: a big city like London or Paris for that matter, is a heat island.  On 30C+ days in recent years, you had the choice of either living outside on patios and terraces and broiling like a piece of bacon on a griddle – or staying inside and boiling like a lobster in a pot.  You could easily argue that in a temperate country like this, aircon is expensive, energy hungry and even obscene, yet in inner London it’s become commonplace.

On reflection, when siren voices whisper that Covid is a chance to rethink our lives, reset how we work and embed a set of changes, perhaps we should ask whether mankind's greatest invention, the city, isn't the underlying problem. Maybe we should dismantle London, as the radical planners proposed after the War, and disperse investment, jobs and people across the country. That could begin to shift us away from an entrenched system that many agree is unjust, but which is too dense and dangerously overgrown to change. For one thing, politicians like Boris have too much to lose on a personal level.

Failing that, perhaps graduates should consider so-called “provincial” cities or even practice in smaller towns as options, rather than automatically assuming that London is the only worthwhile destination for their talent. Perhaps their efforts and enthusiasm could even make the increasingly dis-United Kingdom a more equal place to live. As a parting shot, perhaps quality of life is a better reason than pure capitalism as to why Edinburgh is now Europe’s sixth biggest financial centre, and rising fast. Discuss…

By • Galleries: Uncategorized

A small village on the Somerset Levels … a large hill in Armagh … or perhaps an American photographer? In fact, things aren't what they seem.  Mountweazels are apocryphal places which were conceived to be misleading – as opposed to potentially real things that were never built, such as the Edinburgh Opera House, or simply fictitious places such as Brigadoon.

Some are copyright traps set by cartographers so that plagiarists are caught out: these include trap streets which don’t exist, real streets with deliberately mis-spelt names, and even towns that never were. Best known was the town of Argleton, which either Google Maps or Tele Atlas created around 15 years ago – in reality its location is a series of grass fields between Aughton and Ormskirk. Journalists reckoned it was a copyright trap, and in due course it was deleted from Google’s maps.

Another was the aptly-named Lye Close, a small cul-de-sac which appeared in an A-Z street map of Bristol. This cartographic easter egg was designed to catch out the map publisher’s competitors – the kind of people who don’t want to wear out their shoe leather when they can pinch someone else’s research instead.

As well as artifice, cartographers are also guilt of sins of omission. Until recently, the former Royal Ordnance Factory at Bishopton, west of Glasgow, wasn’t shown on maps. Comprising several square miles of buildings which made the explosives for artillery shells and propellants for rocket motors, the factory is no longer active, and remains fenced off. There’s a faint irony in the fact that Ordnance Survey deliberately missed a huge ordnance factory from their survey…

Conversely, biking campaigners are sometimes responsible for creating lengths of phantom cycle path. I used to overlook a pocket park with some handsome trees, a square of dogshit grass, and a through road which had been stopped up decades before. A few years ago, I noticed the 150 metre stretch of dead street had been designated on maps as a cycle path – despite being blocked by kerbs, bollards, and hillocks of rotting leaves.

Other mountweazels are false trails, deliberate confusions, and even grand deceits. During World War II, Jasper Maskelyne built a mockup of the night-lights of Alexandria in a bay three miles away with fake buildings, lighthouse, and anti-aircraft batteries. Effectively he created a fake city, intended to conceal with real Alexandria and the Suez Canal from German bomber raids.

One well known confusion tactic came at the start of the War, when the authorities removed road signs to hinder German paratroops if they landed in rural Scotland and tried to navigate through the countryside. Of course, fake road signs have been a popular prank through time. Around ten years ago there was a fake road sign project in Lyons, France, in which "105 street signs, realised by 47 worldwide artists, and just similar enough to real traffic signs to give one pause, have been attached to street-side poles around the french city of Lyon."

All of these art pranks, honesty tests and metaphorical elephant traps seem to ring that much truer today, in an era of alternative facts and fake news. Perhaps I should also mention their patron saint, Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, the “fountain designer and mailbox photographer” who haunted the pages of the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia, excerpted below…


By • Galleries: ghosts

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

Happy New Year.

This is the sorry tale of a broken tile. It had survived for many decades, laid on the floor of someone’s hallway, walked over, washed and polished many times, then salvaged for future use elsewhere: but it ended up in a bin down south after a young oaf dropped and broke it.

Cement encaustic tiles have roots stretching back to biblical times. Encaustic painting with wax was mentioned by Homer in 800 B.C., when he noted the waxed hulls of the painted warships sailing into Troy. Encaustic tiles became popular in the mid-Victorian era and became known for their durability, but only when laid horizontally on the floor. Rather than a fired clay base with a glazed surface, in the case of encaustic tiles a fine sand and marble powder top layer is impressed into a Portland cement base, then dried to form a monolithic whole.

But they don’t bounce well.

Shame, it was a beautiful tile with an unusual pattern, and it was made in Stoke-on-Trent by Minton Hollins. The rose, blue and grey colour combination is subtly evocative of ancient Egyptian art, rather than the usual Victorian burgundy and beige drab. Minton, Hollins & Co. were one of the most famous and prolific tile makers of the Victorian era, and its tiles were used in the Houses of Parliament, US Capitol building (which as I write is being stormed by Donald Trump’s supporters), the Victoria & Albert Museum and many other high profile buildings.

There were several different Minton companies around Stoke, but Minton Hollins was the best known and it was bought by Johnsons in 1968 who still use the name.

I spotted the solitary tile for sale on Ebay a few months ago, took pity on it, and low-balled a bid which was accepted. Somewhere between making the sale and posting the package, the young oaf dropped it from racking onto the warehouse floor, and that was that. No use crying over split tiles, but it did make me think about the inherent wastage in the construction and distribution process. In the factory, breakages can be recycled, but out in the wild they’re given a summary burial in the nearest landfill.

Another lockdown episode involved the switched spur outlet I ordered from Ebay. It was dispatched via a courier but somewhere between Gloucestershire and Dundee, Hermes either ran over it with a bulldozer or fed it to a troll. It never arrived, and when I enquired I was told that they had destroyed it because it had been “damaged in transit”. On the plus side, I started repainting at home during lockdown, and after experimenting with a few different paints, discovered that Wickes Trade emulsion has more covering power than Little Greene emulsion does, but at one third the cost…

Here’s hoping for a healthier and less destructive 2021.

By • Galleries: Uncategorized

This is a longer post than usual, as the subject is vast…

Perhaps uncharacteristically, this week I feel more optimistic about the future than I have for months. It’s only December, so forget New Year resolutions such as losing three stones by Easter, becoming a millionaire by the time you’re 40, or developing the charisma of Cary Grant … but it looks like we may soon have several vaccines which are effective against Covid-19.

Once we get through the pandemic and meet ourselves again on the other side, things will look brighter. After all, growing up in Thatcher-era Britain we became used to problems which could seemingly never find a solution: Cruise missiles, The Troubles, Apartheid, the Berlin Wall, the Poll Tax, Acid Rain and the Ozone Hole. Yet the Wall came down in 1989, the Poll Tax was abolished in 1991, the Americans left Greenham Common in 1992, South Africa was freed from apartheid in 1993 and the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.

Even more heartening is proof that we can heal our damaged planet, if we make a collective effort. Lost amongst the pandemic headlines in March 2020 was news that the ozone layer is continuing to shrink and has the potential to fully recover, according to a paper published in Nature, which proves that environmental damage can be reversed by orchestrated global action. Similarly, acid rain was tackled and virtually eradicated in Europe and North America, although you don’t often hear about that very much either.

Unfortunately, all the mass media seem to do is repeat bad news stories about the environment, with Barry McGuire's “Eve of Destruction” playing loudly in the background. Yet unless we have proof that we can make a difference, we’re unlikely to make the effort.

 

2021 AD
What will a post-Covid world look like? Making predictions and prophecies about the future is a mug’s game, although it seemed to work out for that clairvoyancy cartel – Old Mother Shipton, Nostradamus and the Brahan Seer. Behind Dominic Cummings’ slogans such as “Build Back Better” and “Green Recovery” is lots of humbug. However, extrapolation of the recent past is a good way to tell what might happen in the near future, and current trends may point the way towards what will happen in 2021.

Towards the end of his new book, Investing for Growth, the fund manager Terry Smith points out, “Looking back, it seems that crises, including pandemics, accelerate some existing economic trends.”  He identifies Covid-19 beneficiaries might include Remote working, Home cooking, Telemedicine, Online schooling and Automation. There are a few more themes to consider…

 

The death of the High Street
Predicting the death of the high street is a popular hobby, and its demise has been announced many times over. The pandemic is just the latest challenge, super·charged by internet shopping. Of course, before the internet, the High Street was under attack in the 2000’s by out-of-town retail, in the 1980’s by shopping malls, in the 1960’s by supermarkets, in the 1940’s by rationing and in the 1920’s by mail order catalogues inspired by Sears Roebuck … it’s always been in flux, under threat and never more so than when their buildings have been sold off and leased back from ground rent REIT's.  They ruin everything they touch, like King Midas in reverse.

The data used to establish the trend of declining activity makes for sober reading. According to the Centre for Retail Research, there were 600,000 stores in the UK in 1950. By 2012, this had fallen to 290,000 and even before Covid it was projected to decline to 220,000 by 2020. At the current rate of growth, the internet will account for 40 per cent of retail sales by 2030, compared to around 17 per cent prior to the pandemic.
 
High-street banks are becoming something of a rarity, and specialised outlets such as toy shops, book shops and tobacconists have succumbed to internet buying or discount supermarket offers. The pandemic has brought forward the debate on what should be on the High Street. There will always be a need for convenience stores, and after a year or more living under Covid restrictions, most of us will return to socialising with a vengeance, mostly likely returning to bars, restaurants, theatres, galleries and everywhere people come together – but perhaps we could find a better home for the Starbucks, charity shops, estate agents, gyms that open 24/7 and 99p stores.  There may be room for niche outlets such as quality butchers too, but along side them are the dreamy ventures of gentrification: fusion fast food outlets, micro·breweries, the yoga studio that also serves dairy-free yogurt, and the barbershop that only shaves beards.

 

Future travel: Electric Aircraft
2020 won’t spell the end for air travel, because people enjoy it and the world will continue getting smaller, as it has done since Leif Erikson discovered America. The world’s airlines have already begun switching from Jet A1 (kerosene) to electric and hydrogen power. Over the years, I’ve done some work with three different aviation firms, including a training organisation, a fan blade manufacturer and a turbine maintenance firm.

From chats with them, I gather that several different electric aircraft are already flying, including an Electric Beaver, the Pipistrelle, a Swedish regional airliner, and a Rolls-Royce-powered racing planeIn addition, ZeroAvia, a California and UK-based startup, is currently working on a 20 seater aircraft using hydrogen fuel cells, which it claims will have a range of up to 500 miles, London to Frankfurt. Hybrid Air Vehicles, a UK company, hope to bring back giant airships to replace air freight (though their modern designs use helium, rather than the Hindenburg’s hydrogen).

 

Hydrogen vehicles
The motoring press think that pure electric vehicles are a stepping stone towards fuel cell vehicles, which are powered by hydrogen.  The latter have the advantage that they have a range similar to a petrol or diesel, 400 or 500 miles, the tank can be filled in a couple of minutes, and we don’t have to worry about “range anxiety”.
 
Pure electric cars have many drawbacks.  Batteries mean heavier cars, typically 300 or 400kg extra, charging times can be anything from half an hour to eight or ten hours.  Battery performance deteriorates over the years, and the quoted 200 or 300 mile range of an EV is fine in California, but in the Scottish winter with lights, heater, fan blower, heated screens and so forth working combined with a low temperature which has decreased the battery’s capacity, the range may only be half that.  Or less.
 
There are over 25 million homes in the UK, and 6 million private sector businesses, so you’d imagine that well over 30 million power supplies and charging sockets would be required for EV’s – bearing in mind you may need a couple of chargers at home and one at work too.  On the other hand, we already have a network of around 8500 filling stations, and provided you can replace the petrol tanks with hydrogen tanks, you have a ready solution which doesn’t involve fundamental re-wiring of the entire country.
 
Most damningly, lithium ion and similar battery technologies require rare earth elements which are typically found in environmentally-sensitive areas.  If we destroy swathes of tundra and the Greenland ice shelf by opencast mining for rare earths, is that any better than chopping down rainforests, or pumping global warming gases into the atmosphere?  There are already hydrogen-powered buses running in Aberdeen, and perhaps fuel cell cars and lorries will overtake electric vehicles in the next few years.

 

Sustainable Power
The difference we’ve already made by using clean power in Scotland goes back for generations. Since the 1940’s, Scotland has constructed dozens of large and small hydropower plants, and recently, approval was granted to SSE (the successor to the North of Scotland Hydro Board) for the Coire Glas pumped storage scheme, their first big hydro scheme since Glendoe, itself the first major hydro scheme built in Scotland for nearly 30 years. At the same time, SSE are developing the world’s biggest wind farm, on the Dogger Bank.  Our power has been "green" for decades, and at some point in the near future, might even be 100% sustainable.

 

Revanchism
A grasp of the subtleties of human nature teaches you that when something is taken away, you try to get it back.  At worst that means propping up a lost cause by “throwing good money after bad” or the so-called sunk cost fallacy.  At the moment it means that while activists/ campaigners/ pressure groups are trying to force through radical change under cover of the Covid pandemic, ordinary folk will simply be happy to emerge from 2020 with their health, plus some hope of retaining their job, their home and some shreds of their way of life.

The Russian Revolution was perhaps the most radical attempt at social engineering during the past 100 years.  It succeeded in ridding Russia of its royal family, and eventually delivered Constructivism, space travel, and the military machine which beat Hitler – but it came at a huge cost.  When anyone speaks about “revolutionary” change, think carefully about what that means.  Revolution is called for by those with nothing to lose; for the rest of us, no-one wants to lose what they feel that they’ve worked for.

 

Anti·bacterial & hypo·allergenic materials
Another side effect of Covid-19 may be a renewed interest in making the environment around us naturally healthy and free from bacteria – without having to resort to face masks, PPE and vaccines. Before we had effective drug treatments for tuberculosis, sanatoria were built in the mountains because the effects of fresh air and ultraviolet light from sunshine were recognised as an effective therapy for some patients. Nowadays healthy buildings might include consideration of innately healthy materials:

Linoleum is naturally anti·bacterial, anti·allergic and anti·static. A few years ago, research carried out by the TNO Nutrition and Food Research Institute in Holland showed that linoleum can destroy or inhibit the growth of two strains of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus areus - also known as MRSA. Forbo-Nairn Marmoleum is already in use at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, the Sick Kids' in Edinburgh, Queen Margaret Hospital in Dunfermline, and Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy.

Copper & bronze alloys are also very effective at killing superbugs, along with influenza and norovirus – bacteria which mutate so rapidly that our vaccines can’t keep up with them. But copper·based alloys such as bronze kill them within a couple of hours of contact, which means that door hardware, taps, switch plates and other frequently-touched surfaces shouldn’t be made from plastic or stainless steel.

Cedarwood is popular for clothes hangers, wardrobes and chests of drawers for good reason: its aromatic scent comes from thujaplicin, a natural anti·bacterial and anti·fungal agent. Some varieties such as true cedar and Spanish cedar have insect-repellant qualities, and cedar wood’s anti·fungal properties make it very resistant to rot, so it has a long life when used as external cladding. Hence cedar boarding, and cedar shingles, neither of which need poisonous timber preservative treatments.

 

A letter to the future from Orwell
The future that George Orwell predicted has arrived, but rather than an all-powerful state acting as Big Brother and carrying out surveillance against our will, we’ve invited Big Brother into our houses, and are paying a monthly subscription for the privilege. The Amazon “Alexa” speaker is a fifth columnist in your living room. Google Latitude software on your smartphone is a stalker in your pocket. GPS in your car’s satnav is the spy in the cab. Your smartwatch is an incubus, monitoring every waking and sleeping hour.

As George Soros predicted a couple of years ago, “The owners of the platform giants consider themselves the masters of the universe, but in fact they are slaves to preserving their dominant position. Davos is a good place to announce that their days are numbered. Regulation and taxation will be their undoing, and EU Competition Commissioner Vestager will be their nemesis.”

So Margarethe Vestager, rather than Winston Smith, may be our salvation. In dealing with the US tech giants from Mountain View in California, she might free us from the overlords who spy on and record every aspect of our lives via smart TV’s, smart phones, smart watches and through the so-called internet of things, perhaps even smart toasters. A warning from history: if you were a fan of Sci-Fi satire Red Dwarf, you may remember what Kryten did to finally silence Talkie Toaster…

 

Sectoral shifts within property development
More prosaically, some of the changes likely to develop in 2021 began incubating long ago. Rather than abandoning projects years in the making, it seems that developers and landlords may convert half-built offices into serviced apartments and flats. Given the rise of renting in big cities, Build to Rent has become a bigger deal for housing developers than Build to Sell. But the one thing developers aren’t likely to countenance is improving space standards by providing more square footage – even though the way viruses like Covid spread, point to living at lower density being safer.

 

Optimism
Optimism is still with us, even after nine months of struggle against the virus. Yet if we start to lose the faith and waiver, it's worth casting our minds back to two of Scotland's greats.  In his rectorial address to Glasgow University in 1972, Jimmy Reid quoted Robert Burns.

In “Why should we idly waste our prime,” Burns writes:,
"The golden age, we’ll then revive, each man shall be a brother,
In harmony we all shall live and till the earth together,
In virtue trained, enlightened youth shall move each fellow creature,

And time shall surely prove the truth that man is good by nature”.

Jimmy ended his speech by saying - “It’s my belief that all the factors to make a practical reality of such a world are maturing now. I would like to think that our generation took mankind some way along the road towards this goal. It’s a goal worth fighting for.”

 

By • Galleries: Uncategorized, covid-19

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

Sometimes publication of a book traps an entire world in amber.  In this case, The Information Book isn't Martin Amis's novel of a similar name, but a glimpse into Scottish architectural practice during the 1930's.

John Burnet trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts during 1870’s.  Afterwards, he joined his father's practice Burnet Son & Campbell, and later established his own in Glasgow with a second office in London set up in 1905, after Burnet won a commission to design the Edward VII galleries at the British Museum.


One of Burnet's key assistants on the project later became a partner: Thomas Tait studied at Glasgow School of Art under the Beaux Arts teacher Eugene Bourdon (after whom the ugly brown brick building on Garnethill is named).  By 1910, Tait was a leading member of Burnet's staff, and played an important part in the design of the Kodak Building in London, considered to be among the first examples of modern architecture in the UK.  

Tait worked for a time in New York and was a highly skilled perspectivist, but is best remembered nowadays for Tait's Tower at Bellahouston Park, part of the 1938 Glasgow Empire Exhibition. Other notable works include St. Andrews House on Calton Hill in Edinburgh and Hawkhead Hospital in Paisley, along with many projects in London. 

The third leg of the partnership was Francis Lorne, who was by all accounts a skilled manager and also became the spokesman for the practice, arguing that Modern architecture required “a change of heart … only by getting back to architecture as a practical building problem for our own country, our own people, our own climate and conditions of life, can we produce an architecture that will mean something.”


The firm became Burnet, Tait & Lorne in 1930, and the expat Scots working from Glasgow and London grew into the leading British architectural practice during the 1930's, in a way that wasn't repeated until RMJM's glory days of the 1960's.  Big cities are full of opportunity if you're in a position to seize it, which Burnet, Tait & Lorne were able to do during the inter-war period.

It was Francis Lorne who wrote the book “Architectural Office Administration” in 1921, then a decade later pulled together The Information Book of Sir John Burnet, Tait and Lorne, which should be better known as it's the prototype for the New Metric Handbook, The Architect's Pocket Book and pretty much every other guide to design practice which followed.

Today The Information Book is the best work of reference for 1930’s and 40’s era buildings in Scotland, and the rest of the UK. It’s coloured by the dual influence of North American practice in steel-framed medium-rise office blocks which was particularly influential in Glasgow, plus the Art Deco and Moderne buildings erected in London between the wars which prefigured full-blown Modernism.


Its genesis is described in Christian Barman in the book’s Foreword (for greatest effect, read out loud in your best imitation of Miles Cholmondley-Warner):

“The need for a great compendium of information first impressed itself on me some five or six years ago, when I had not long taken over the Editorship of Architects’ Journal.  The more the task was studied, however, the more difficult it seemed. … The thing was just about as much as a commercially produced periodical, however well intentioned, could ever dare to consider.
 
“Then, one day, good luck brought a sudden and, I feel, a most happy solution.  Chancing to be at the house where my friends Thomas Tait and Francis Lorne maintain their finely staffed office in partnership with Sir John Burnet, RA, I saw a draughtsman coolly turning the pages of the book of my dreams. … It did not need a close scrutiny of the Information Book to convince me that it was a very superior specimen of the kind of thing I had myself been trying to bring about.”
 
First published in 1933 by the Architectural Press, in the days when that was run by the splendidly-named Hubert de Cronin Hastings, The Information Book begins with a couple of chapters on the Secretarial Department and Draughting Department.  These describe what we’d now call practice management, and are followed by a series of 147 Information Sheets which cover everything from construction details, brick and board sizes, terminology and electrical symbols to extracts from the Building Regulations. 


 
It may have begun as an in-house guide to Burnet Tait & Lorne’s office standards and procedures, but The Information Book became universally useful, and Lorne wasn’t the only one to think that a book like this could be handy.  In 1932, “Architectural Graphic Standards” appeared in the US, and twelve editions later it’s still in print and has developed into a doorstop-sized handbook of typologies, ergonomics and design data.  Similarly, Architects' Data, universally known as “Neufert”, was first published in Germany in 1936, and after many German editions it was translated into English in 1970 and published by Lockwoods.
 
The simultaneous emergence of these three books demonstrates that the 1930’s was an inflection point, where the Modern Movement and its modern methods of construction became properly mainstream.  Structural steel and concrete frames were being widely adopted, so our day-to-day knowledge had to extend beyond traditional building techniques.  As Barman says in his introduction to The Information Book, “It only seems the other day that the main facts about building science could still be got between the covers of a book of average size”.  No longer. 
 
Neither Neufert nor the later New Metric Handbook tries to cover as much ground, from practice management to design data, as The Information Book ­- but during the intervening forty years so much extra information has come into the world that an architectural “book of everything” would be a massive tome.  As it is, Neufert weighs 2kg.


 
Reference works such as The Information Book and its cousins were essential in the pre-internet world.  I entered practice at the changeover, when CD-ROM’s and early webpages had begun to supplant technical books.  But we still hung on to brochures and supplements which included priceless information, like the Corus steel sections booklet or Pilkington’s glass guide.  They provided a safety blanket of reassurance, even if you rarely needed to consult them.
 
Today, Burnet Tait & Lorne’s Information Book is a reminder of two things: firstly that the state of the art eventually becomes a quaint curiosity lurking in an antiquarian’s back room; yet the book also retains some usefulness. It’s one of the few places where you can see how buildings from the 1930’s and 40’s – of which there are hundreds of thousands still standing – were put together, and how we went about achieving that.

ps. Note to book dealers researching their catalogues - please credit me and link to Urban Realm if you find the information in this piece useful. :-)

By • Galleries: books, specification