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October 11 2011

Bank of England builder goes into administration

Holloway White Allom, the construction firm that rebuilt Threadneedle Street in the 1920s, calls in administrators

The builder that remodelled the Bank of England before the second world war has gone into administration.

Holloway White Allom, which only recently completed a refurbishment of the Victoria & Albert Museum, was put in the hands of KPMG last week, it emerged on Tuesday.

Shortly prior to the administrators' appointment, 175 staff were made redundant.

As well as its rebuilding of the Bank of England – described by architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as the 20th century's "greatest architectural crime" in the City, due to its reconstruction of Sir John Soane's original structure – the firm worked on numerous London landmarks.

In a previous incarnation as Holloway Brothers, it built the Admiralty Buildings on Horse Guards Parade, the Old Bailey in the early 1900s and the fountains in Trafalgar Square. It was also active in civil engineering and constructed several bridges across the Thames, including Hampton Court bridge, Wandsworth bridge and Chelsea bridge, and helped construct the "Mulberry harbours", the floating docks used in the D-day Normandy landings in 1944.

In 1960, Holloway Brothers acquired White Allom, a firm with an equally distinguished history in interior design. As well as doing work on the interior of the Waldorf Astoria, White Allom restored St Donat's castle in Wales for the American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, did extensive work on Buckingham Palace, and worked on the interior of the QE2 ocean liner.

Holloway White Allom was part of the John Laing construction group from the 1960s until 2002, when its managers took it private.

KPMG has confirmed only that it has been appointed administrators.

It is unclear what pushed the firm over the brink, but the economic downturn has seen huge numbers of construction companies in difficulty.

Data from the construction intelligence firm Glenigan showed Holloway White Allom was working on a £4m upgrade of a Chelsea mansion owned by Viscount Macmillan, the great-grandson of former prime minister Harold Macmillan.


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September 09 2011

RIBA Manser Medal contenders up in the air

Shortlist for prize honouring best new private home in the UK has revealed a common quirk among cutting-edge architects

Those suffering from vertigo should look away now. The shortlist for the prize honouring the best new private home in the UK has revealed an increasingly common quirk among cutting-edge architects to go alongside the perennial fondness for floor-to-ceiling glass: rooms suspended in mid-air.

Two of the six contenders for the 2011 Manser Medal, organised annually by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), display this trick, known in the trade as cantilevering. One, Ty Hedfan in Brecon – the name means "hovering house" in Welsh – cunningly circumvents planning restrictions against building along the river bank which adjoins the plot by sending out a glass-walled spur to hang above the water's edge.

More dramatic still is the self-explanatory Balancing Barn in Suffolk, pictures of which resemble on first glance an optical illusion. At least half of the long, slim structure hangs precipitously over the edge of a steep, grass incline. It looks as if an escaped railway carriage has run out of track or, thanks to the shiny silver cladding, like a floating barrage balloon.

The barn, which is available for public rent, is "completely bonkers and very playful", said Tony Chapman, head of awards at RIBA and one of the five-strong judging panel. Most alarming, he said, is the glass floor inside the far-hanging edge: "It's so potentially unnerving for some people that they provide bits of carpet you can put over it, if you want."

The appeal for the judges of Ty Hedfan's cantilever was as much practical as aesthetic, Chapman said: "They weren't allowed to build on the river bank but there's nothing in the small print which says you can't build over the river bank. We like things like that, which get one over slightly on the planners."

The other four contenders are a varied bunch, albeit within a prevailing taste for generous glazing which blurs the boundaries between home and garden, and materials which seek to blend the building with the wider landscape.

There is one urban dwelling, not strictly speaking a new residence: a mid-century, brutalist home in Highgate, north London, remodelled to open the rooms out onto a secluded garden.

Another triumph against the planners is Watson House, an elegant glass-and-timber structure in the heart of the New Forest, which was only permitted on condition it was invisible from public sections of the woodland. The most modest home – a relative term within a selection with budgets starting at £500,000 – is New Mission Hall in Sussex, a pair of conjoined structures on the site of a Baptist chapel which offers a blank, brick facade from the road before opening out into a glassed rectangle at the rear.

The final contender, in the Surrey stockbroker belt of Epsom, most closely resembles the stereotypical notion of a modernist house, from its over 700 sq metres of living space and curtains of walled glass grand enough to satisfy the most demanding exhibitionist to its occupants who seemingly own little more than a few discreetly tasteful items of furniture and art, their toothbrushes presumably locked well out of view.

Inside, however, the design was clever enough to avoid severity, Chapman said, featuring touches like a cosy family TV room deep inside the interior. "You go in there and your first thought is, 'yes, this is an expensive, grand house'. But as you go round it you find lots of lovely little things that make it very intimate."

Overall, he said, the shortlist was perhaps the most diverse in the prize's 10-year history. The inclusion of the pair of cantilevered structures had not been planned. "Maybe subliminally we paired them off," he said. "But I don't think we did it deliberately."

While it would be "slightly arrogant" for RIBA to assume the prize had a direct influence on the wider design of housing, Chapman said, the hope was it might provide food for thought.

"The whole point of the medal, I think, is to try and improve the standard of all housing. We would like to think that there were things that fed into social housing in Hackney as well as the next rich person's house in Surrey.

"The standard of housebuilding in this country is not great. In fact it's pretty poor. It would be good if we could even just inspire clients to ask for things they might not have otherwise considered."

The winner will be announced at a ceremony on 10 November.


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July 26 2011

London 2012: Olympic flame will be lit in one year's time, but still much to do

IOC hail progress as Tom Daley dives into Aquatics Centre pool, completed on time and budget

With 366 days to go, 2012 being a leap year, until the Olympic flame is lit in east London, organisers, the government and the International Olympic Committee are queuing up to hail progress to date.

Wednesday's events to mark the milestone, which will see the £269m Zaha Hadid designed Aquatics Centre formally handed over to organisers by the Olympic Delivery Authority and Tom Daley diving into the pool, will have an air of celebration.

"Marking one year to go, by diving in the Aquatics Centre is an incredible honour. Only a few years ago, this was a distant dream," said Daley, who finished fifth at the world championships in Shanghai on Sunday. "I can't wait for next year and the honour of representing Team GB." But although world class athletes are beginning to test the venues, there remains much to do.

Venues

The Aquatics Centre is the sixth and final permanent venue to be handed over to organisers by the ODA, which has spent £7.25bn of public money building them. Chairman John Armitt said the successful completion of the venues had helped boost the image of British contractors around the world.

"It's very satisfying to be handing it over on time and keeping within the budget. It's a great tribute to everybody that has played a part in this," he told the Guardian. "It is something that as a country and an industry we should be proud of and we should try to maximise opportunities in other parts of the world while memories are still fresh about what the industry can do."

Some venues, especially the velodrome that has already been nominated for the Stirling Prize, have garnered more plaudits than others. The clean lines and simplicity of the stadium have also been praised but there has been criticism of the ugly temporary "water wings" that have been attached to the aquatics centre to boost the capacity to 17,500 for the Games. When it was designed, the high cost was justified by the signature design, which will be obscured by the temporary stands. "When you're inside it, it's fabulous," says Armitt, diplomatically.

Despite outward appearances, the London organising committee still has a huge task. Each venue must be "fitted out", a task that includes the laying of the track in the main stadium, and several major temporary venues must be built from scratch. They include a 15,000 capacity hockey stadium, a 23,000 capacity arena for the equestrian events at Greenwich Park and a 15,000 seat bowl on Horseguard's Parade for the beach volleyball.

Tickets

London organising committee chief executive Paul Deighton has confirmed the last batch of 1.2m tickets that will go on sale from December will first be made available exclusively to those who took part in the initial ballot in April and have yet to get a ticket. Around 6m tickets have already been sold, considered unprecedented with a year to go, with only around 1.5m for football matches around the country and those final 1.2m across all sports – to be made available when the final seating configurations are decided – remaining. Next year, Locog also plans to sell "non-event tickets" which will allow entry to the park but not the venues.

Later this year, millions of free tickets for the live sites, with big screens and concerts in Hyde Park, Victoria Park and Potter's Fields will also be made available on a first come, first served basis. The mantra from Locog chairman Lord Coe and other organisers has been that while they understand the "disappointment" created by the huge demand, which saw 22m applications in the initial rush for tickets, they stand by the controversial process.

Transport

Ever since London was awarded the Games in 2005, transport has been considered a potential achilles heel. The ODA passed responsibility for operational matters to Transport for London last year, but retains an overall co-ordination role. The first stirrings of a backlash have already been felt about the so-called "Olympic lanes" that will whisk 18,000 athletes and officials around the capital during the Games.

They make up roughly a third of the 109-mile Olympic Route Network and have already sparked loud protests from London's black cab drivers. Meanwhile, much will rest on the ability of organisers to persuade businesses and individuals to modify their behaviour during the Games.

"The message must be business as unusual," said Armitt. They take some comfort from the variety of routes into Stratford, including the Jubilee Line and the new Javelin train from St Pancras, but will be desperate to avoid a millennium eve style meltdown.

On the nine busiest days of the Games there will be more than 1m Olympics-related journeys, with a report earlier this year warning of "extreme" conditions on a system already "creaking at the seams".

Security

Olympics minister Hugh Robertson said that security plans needed rethinking when the coalition came to power. Before she quit, Lady Neville-Jones led a government review that resulted in the government predicting security at Games time could be delivered for £475m, though the overall £600m envelope will be retained.

Ministers and organisers have sought to play down the significance of the resignation of Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson, but he said in his own statement that a key reason for it was to allow time to get someone new in place for the Olympics. Locog will spend £282m on security within the venues, chiefly through contractor G4S, but there will also need to call on several thousand non-uniformed military personnel.

'Look and feel'

For all the operational challenges Coe's organising committee will face, in many ways the bigger challenge is building public enthusiasm for the Games to reach a crescendo around 27 July next year when the flame is lit. Coe has talked of Britain being a "slow burn" nation. He hopes the torch relay, which will begin at Land's End on 19 May and visit 74 locations in 70 days via 8,000 runners, will be the point at which cynicism is cast aside and enthusiasm ignites.

Part of the task will be to keep those without tickets engaged, through the big screens planned for cities throughout the country and cultural events that will culminate in Festival 2012. London mayor Boris Johnson has a budget to "dress" key areas of the city, including placing Olympic rings on the capital's landmarks. The BBC, which has promised to broadcast every event from every venue live, will also have a big role to play.

Legacy

Given the relatively smooth progress of organisers to date, much of the controversy has centred on the legacy claims that helped secure the Games in the first place. The Olympic Park Legacy Company has taken on responsibility for the park after the Games and must prove it can make a commercial success of it while meeting the needs of local residents.

The fate of the stadium, the object of a furious row between Spurs and West Ham, is mired in high court litigation and it will face searching scrutiny over the affordability of thousands of homes that will be left behind, partly the athletes village.

One of the biggest challenges for the OPLC will be finding a tenant for the cavernous media centre, although there are renewed hopes that a major broadcaster may take an interest.

But even more of a challenge is the "soft legacy", with figures showing that the number of people playing sport is resolutely refusing to budge and ongoing debate about whether the predicted opportunity to get more young people engaged in sport, build links between clubs and schools and raise the profile and quality of coaching, is really being seized. They were famously planting the trees in Athens the day before the opening ceremony, but the landscaping on the Olympic Park is starting to take shape.

More than 4,000 new trees are planned, with 1,500 already planted. Over 300,000 wetland plants have been planted and there are bold claims for the Park that will be left behind. Eventually, there will be up to 11,000 new homes on the site, in the heart of an area that the Olympic Park Legacy Company hopes will be resurgent. Westfield, the giant shopping mall at the entrance to the Park and on which politicians are relying for many of their legacy claims about jobs and regeneration, opens for business in September.


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June 30 2011

China opens world's longest sea bridge

26-mile Jiaozhou Bay crossing connects Qingdao to Huangdao, took four years to build and uses 5,000 pillars

China, which seems to complete mammoth infrastructure projects on a routine basis, has claimed another world-beater with the opening of the longest sea bridge.

The 26-mileJiaozhou Bay crossing connects the bustling port city of Qingdao, south-east of Beijing, to the industrial district of Huangdao.

The eight-lane, 35-metre-wide bridge opened to traffic on Thursday morning, China's Xinhua news agency said. Built over a four-year period the project cost about £1.4bn and uses 5,000 pillars. It shortens the driving route between the two locations by about 20 miles.

Somewhat inevitably, the bridge takes the world record from another Chinese sea crossing, the 22.5-mile Hangzhou Bay bridge, which opened in 2008, connecting the cities of Jiaxing and Ningbo, south of Shanghai. The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisiana, at almost 24 miles, is slightly longer but crosses an inland waterway rather than open sea.

China is constructing an even more ambitious bridge. Work began in December 2009 on a Y-shaped structure linking Guangdong province in southern China to Hong Kong and Macau. Building is expected to be finished in 2015, and the bridge is expected to cover about 31 miles, although only about 22 miles will span the sea.


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June 09 2011

Battle for City's Broadgate site hots up

William Hill giving odds that Jeremy Hunt will not save 'historic' 1980s complex from demolition for new UBS headquarters

Expectations have increased that furious lobbying from the City is likely to prevent the listing of the 1980s-built complex in Broadgate that has become a tug of war between financiers and conservationists.

For the first time bookmaker William Hill has opened a book on a building listing and is giving 4-7 that culture secretary Jeremy Hunt will not save the complex.

English Heritage last week recommended that the entire 1980s development, designed by architect Peter Foggo, be given statutory protection at Grade II* level, dealing a major blow to British Land's plans to tear down 4 and 6 Broadgate to make way for a new "groundscraper" building that would house a £340m headquarters for Swiss bank UBS.

Although the law states that the listing decision should be made on the basis of architectural and historic factors alone, Hunt is under pressure from the City of London corporation to ignore his official adviser and choose not to list it.

The City argues that the new scheme is vital to maintain confidence in it as a banking centre. Hunt's decision on Broadgate is due in about two months' time, after submissions from British Land, the local authority and other interested parties.

A spokesman for William Hill said this was the first time it had offered odds in a listing case. "We believe this decision will be as difficult to call as a photofinish but English Heritage needs to upset the odds to come out on top."

The City of London Corporation had approved British Land's 700,000 sq ft scheme, and building was to start this summer, with UBS planning to move in by 2014. The corporation's policy chairman, Stuart Fraser, is due to meet communities secretary Eric Pickles next week to lobby for the UBS building. He said: "The Broadgate buildings aren't worth preserving or listing. They aren't of great architectural merit. Listing Broadgate will send out the wrong message. UBS would probably give up. Eric Pickles is very keen on bureaucracy not getting in the way of economic development."

Catherine Croft, director of heritage group The Twentieth Century Society, which is campaigning in favour of listing, expressed surprise at the odds. "I think it is fairly extraordinary because it suggests that William Hill thinks factors other than the accepted criteria [for listing] may affect the minister's decision," she told weekly trade paper Building Design.

"City boys do like gambling of course but Hunt needs to make his decision on the basis of architectural and historic interest. It would be very wrong for him to be affected by any other factor."

Croft added that she believed there were many other locations in the City suitable for the proposed UBS building, which has been designed by one of the architects responsible for the Gherkin, Ken Shuttleworth of Make Architects.

The planned building, at 5 Broadgate, would boast four trading floors each capable of holding 750 traders and has been described by Shuttleworth as an "engine of finance" with a design resembling an immense machine-tooled block of aluminium.

A spokesman for Hunt's Department of Culture, Media and Sport, noted that it was responsible for regulating both heritage and gambling. "It is always good to see two areas of DCMS come together but, as we always say when it comes to gambling, don't bet more than you can afford to lose," he said.


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January 07 2011

Scottish architects RMJM sued by US staff

• Holyrood designer accused of withholding $664,000 in bonuses
• Lawsuit follows merger with US firm Hillier

RMJM, the architecture firm responsible for the Scottish parliament, is being sued by employees in the United States over claims that it owes them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Scottish firm – which gave Sir Fred Goodwin his first job since his departure from RBS – is at the centre of a bruising row with its US staff in which it is also accused of siphoning off cash from an American company it merged with in 2007.

According to a lawsuit lodged last month in New Jersey and detailed in Building Design magazine, RMJM director Sir Fraser Morrison and his chief executive son, Peter, have reneged on the $24m (£15.5m) deal that saw the firm merge with US-based Hillier.

RMJM denied yesterday that it had siphoned off cash from Hillier but said it expected to pay staff the $664,000 they were owed "in the near future".

According to the legal papers – filed on behalf of a number of US-based principals by former Hillier owner and shareholder representative Bob Hillier – the company still owes $664,000 of a $1.5m cash bonus pool promised to staff for 2009 under the terms of the merger agreement.

The lawsuit, which seeks to recover the money plus interest and costs, also accuses RMJM of:

• Asset-stripping and "siphoning off corporate funds" worth up to $8m from Hillier, now known as RMJM Inc.

• Planning to cease "most or all" of its operations in Princeton this month following the closure of its Philadelphia operations in June.

• Trying to disguise the fact that Sir Fraser and Peter Morrison are the "alter egos" of RMJM and should thus be held liable for the cash.

"In the last three years … the plaintiff believes that RMJM Inc has transferred to RMJM Group and/or RMJM Ltd cash in the amount of approximately $8m and yet … has refused to meet their obligations," the lawsuit stated. "Upon information and belief, RMJM Group's principals divested RMJM of assets, transferring these assets to themselves and to other entities owned or controlled by these principals, without regard to the obligations."

The papers added that RMJM had cited "cash-flow difficulties" in its correspondence and noted that Fraser Morrison owns about 10m company shares and lives in New York, while Peter owns 400,000 shares and lives in Connecticut.

According to Building Design's 2011 World Architecture 100 survey, RMJM is the eighth-largest architecture firm in the world, dropping down from fifth in 2010.

Referring to the allegations, a spokesman for RMJM said: "We're surprised and disappointed at this move, as it's well-documented that, like virtually every practice, we've had to manage our cash carefully for the past 18 months. However, we fully expect the final $664k payment of the $24m we paid for Hillier to be made in the near future and for the matter to be resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

"Separately, the allegations of asset-stripping are both outrageous and completely and utterly untrue. In fact, the direct opposite has been the case, as millions of dollars have been injected into the US business since the beginning of the recession."

The news of the lawsuit came amid fresh rumours about Goodwin's status at the firm. Scottish media have suggested that the disgraced former banker had not been seen at RMJM for weeks.

A spokesman for RMJM said: "Sir Fred remains an adviser to the business and we call on his services as required. This encompasses periods when increased input is helpful and others when we require to call on his services less."

Sources close to Goodwin insisted the relationship had not changed and that he was still an ad hoc adviser to RMJM.


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November 08 2010

Chelsea in talks to leave Stamford Bridge and move to Earls Court

Exclusive: Chelsea FC considering move to site of Earls Court Exhibition Centre – but move could torpedo plans to build 8,000 home complex

Chelsea Football Club are in talks to quit their 105-year old home at Stamford Bridge and build a ground on the site of the soon- to-be-demolished Earls Court exhibition centre to hold at least 60,000 spectators, the Guardian has learned.

The Premier League champions, owned by the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, are considering a move to the prime west London site just half a mile from their existing home amid growing concern they are losing ground to rivals with bigger and bigger stadiums.

Discussions have been kept secret because the move could torpedo a plan by the leading architect Sir Terry Farrell to transform Earls Court into a new residential enclave with more than 8,000 new homes. The scheme enters the latest phase of public consultation this week and is being undertaken with fellow landowners, Transport for London and the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

"The discussion is now on again," said a source close to the deal. "It is largely because the owners are progressing alternative uses for the site and there's lots more urgency for Chelsea to make a decision. From Chelsea's point of view this is their last opportunity to get a new ground and stay in the same area they have been in for over a century."

Chelsea flirted with acquiring the same site four years ago but talks came to nothing. Now the site is larger and Chelsea's chairman, Bruce Buck, has been warned the club faces a "deficit" as a result of Stamford Bridge's lack of capacity.

"There have been discussions about it and the club is clearly considering its next step," confirmed a source close to Chelsea, who added that negotiations are at an early stage and no deal has been signed.

The club has met the site's owner, Capital and Counties, in recent months and Chelsea and its advisers are holding "a series of key meetings to decide whether to pursue a bid or not", according to a source close to the talks.

A new stadium would not be ready until 2015 because Earls Court is scheduled to host the 2012 Olympic volleyball competition before the exhibition centre is demolished. After 73 years in which it has hosted gigs by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Oasis and Madonna, its economic viability has been compromised by the establishment of major new concert and conference venues elsewhere in London, including the 02 arena at the Millennium Dome.

Tonight Buck said it was "very difficult for us to make the philosophical decision that we are going to move on", but conceded that the lack of capacity at Stamford Bridge left it out of pocket compared with other clubs.

"Certainly we wouldn't leave west London or thereabouts and there are very few sites available," he said. "We have to do things with our other commercial activities to make up the deficit that is created by the fact we don't have a 60,000 seat stadium. We can't say that we will never move or have a new stadium but at the moment, it's not at the front of our agenda."

However, Chelsea insiders said Buck is keen to boost matchday takings because Uefa is introducing rules limiting the ability of super-rich owners to bankroll clubs without squaring spending with revenues. Despite winning the league last season, the club was only fifth in terms of average attendance in football's top flight behind Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool. Stamford Bridge accommodates around 41,000 fans compared with 76,000 at Manchester United's Old Trafford ground and 60,000 at Arsenal's Emirates stadium.

Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United recently made bids to occupy the 80,000 seat Olympic stadium.

The emergence of Chelsea's renewed interest in Earls Court is awkward for Capital and Counties, which has launched a public charm offensive for its housing project employing Edelman, the international public relations company. It is promoting the "four villages and a high street" vision for the area and declined to comment on negotiations with Chelsea.

"Our vision for Earls Court is for a world class residential-led development delivering thousands of new homes and jobs, and creating a remarkable new place in London," a spokesman said. "As part of that we maintain discussions with a wide range of stakeholders and neighbouring landowners including both local authorities, TfL, the GLA and the local community."


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June 23 2010

Battersea Power station: the power of dreams

Battersea Power station is to be demerged from the loss-making Irish property company that now owns it, and floated on the Aim market. There have been many false starts on the redevelopment of the station over the years...



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