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November 19 2011

A grand design for British housing

The Channel 4 presenter turned enlightened property developer just wants to make people happy, he says

A former editor of mine was fond of saying, as he watched his eminent colleagues accept toxic invitations to advise on projects such as the Millennium Dome, that "journalists can't do things". We might spend our lives telling others how to save the euro, or select an England team, or design a skyscraper, but when it comes to organising people to achieve a shared aim, we tend to lack patience or the ability to work towards a deadline months rather than days away. Writers tend to be individualists, looking for new discoveries, not methodical team players.

The same could be true, with knobs on, for TV presenters. So it is striking that Kevin McCloud, presenter of Grand Designs, should now be trying his hand as an enlightened property developer. For years, he has cast his eye over the hopes, follies and struggles of people trying to build beautiful homes for themselves. Now he is daring to show how it should, or could, be done. "I would get on a train to go from one location to another," he says, "and pass another 5,000 houses in Ilfracombe or Norwich or Aberdeen and they would all look the same. I thought, 'Is this the best we can do?' "

Five years ago, he set up a company called Hab (Happiness Architecture Beauty) in order to "build houses that make people happy". The recession has slowed its progress, but its first creation, a 42-home development in Swindon called the Triangle, is now complete. Next month, Channel 4 is screening Kevin's Grand Design, a two-part documentary about the project, which was achieved in partnership with the housing association, GreenSquare Group. When it is suggested that the attention these programmes will attract will be a double-edged sword, he says: "It will be a one-edged sword with the blade laid across my throat."

He is addressing the great British housing problem. For decades, it has been plain that new houses are unimaginative, overpriced, undersized and resistant to the kind of technical improvement that is standard in industries such as car making. Changes in planning law, to improve design or make housing more accessible, are forever tried and forever failing. The rather daunting task he has set himself is to deflect the glacial flow of change, to make "a very significant difference from conventional development".

With his trademark energetic enthusiasm, he reels off technical details about attenuation tanks and swales. He wants to create a truly sustainable development. So the Triangle's open spaces are designed to soak up rainwater, so that the risk of flooding is lowered, the pressure on Swindon's drainage is reduced and the planting remains lush in hot weather. It has what Hab's design director, Isabel Allen, calls a "muddy, soggy landscape" which has the added benefit that it is fun for children to play in it.

The external walls of the houses are made out of hempcrete, a material that is not only highly insulating but, being made out of a plant – hemp – takes more carbon out of the atmosphere than it puts in. The houses also have chimney-like objects on their roofs, which are actually ventilators, that help the houses to cool naturally.

"Anyone can build an eco-home," he says, "but it doesn't solve anything. There is nothing to stop them turning up the thermostat. What's more interesting is the way people live and behave." So the Triangle has allotments and polytunnels where people can grow their own food, and a car club and a scooter club that make their use of transport less wasteful. He sees such things as more important than the design features of individual houses.

Most of all, McCloud wants to create a community. The houses of the Triangle are arranged in traditional terraces, enclosing a kind of village green. Here, children can play on slopes and interestingly arranged logs and splash in water. Conventional swings and slides are avoided, however, on the grounds that these would mark the place as only for children and alienate the adults and teenagers who, it is hoped, will also enjoy the green.

Part of the point of the allotments and polytunnels is to bring people together and such things as barbecues and Halloween parties are encouraged. Irrigation is achieved with old-fashioned water pumps – more fun than standpipes – around which residents might gather. Each house is fitted with a "shimmy" – a touch-screen computer that McCloud calls a cross between "an iPad and a parish magazine". This enables residents to exchange information, help and advice and tells them about upcoming events.

Of the 42 homes, 21 are what is called "social rented", which is for people on the local authority's list of people in need of new homes. Eleven are "intermediate rented", which is at 80% of the market rent. Ten are "rent to buy", which means people rent them at below-market rates, with a view to saving for a deposit and ultimately buying their homes. There is therefore a mixture of people: teachers, retirees, single mothers formerly in council hostels, families who were in accommodation for the homeless.

The Triangle is so designed that no distinction is made between the house types. This, says McCloud, is "unlike schemes, including one that won the Stirling prize" – he means the Accordia development in Cambridge – "where the houses for sale are lovely and the social stuff is behind a wall".

It is striking, with all this ingenuity in the design, how very plain-looking the houses are. Any Grand Designs fan expecting another of the exotic creations featured in the programme will be disappointed. They are pitched-roofed, in straight rows, partly inspired by the railway workers' cottages that Brunel built in Swindon. Their elevations are in shades of cream and grey that echo the existing terraces and semi-detacheds of this part of town.

Glenn Howells, the architect of the Triangle, says that "the conversation we had was, 'Do we have the nerve to do something very, very normal?' With Kevin, everyone was expecting it to be more eye-catching, more televisual. People go there and say, 'Blimey, it looks normal.' That's the point." The idea of the terrace, he says, "started a long time ago and it will go on for another 500 or 600 years. It is such a good form". The only problem is that "there is a perception in the housing market that it won't sell, so developers have to make things convoluted, even though those to-die-for streets of Islington, where Boris Johnson lives, are all repetitive".

The aim, says Howells, is to "prove you can do excellent ordinary housing that sells and that people want to live in". It is about little things achieved within the standard budget for housing association developments – apart from a little additional support for some of the more adventurous environmental features. Bedroom doors are placed away from corners, so it is possible to place wardrobes behind them, and windows are larger than in most new housing. Ceilings are higher than standard on the ground floor (which means, to stay within budget, they are lower upstairs). The porches include space for bike racks, so that they don't have to be lugged through houses from the back garden, which makes it more likely they will be used.

On the outside, architectural expression is sought in such things as oversize rainwater pipes, which, together with change of hue from one house to the next, and vertically proportioned windows, help to define individual houses. In front of each house are gabion walls, gabion being the form of construction used in road embankments, where loose stones are placed in wire cages. Here, they screen parking spaces, so that cars do not dominate the appearance of the space.

McCloud says that "the design of spoons and the design of cities is one process" and it is the totality of the Triangle's inventions that matters. He is particularly keen on the importance of landscape design. Usually, says the Triangle's landscape architect, Luke Engleback, his role is to "decorate masterplans by others". Here, Engleback was involved from the outset in shaping the concept and form of the development.

McCloud keeps saying that "it's about the residents – it's their happiness that will determine the success of scheme". It will take years to find out if it really works but, meanwhile, I am introduced to 64-year-old Maggie Lowton, who was forced out of her home of 38 years by negative equity. "Since I started my affair with Kevin," she says, she has bought into his dream. "We love the house and feel privileged and proud. It's lighter, airier and easier to clean. It feels too nice and too new." The architectural aesthetics are of secondary importance. "People say, 'What are those stones for?'" she says of the gabions.

She says you can see a community forming, even if there are some points of friction – "you do hear snippets, like someone parking in someone else's space". As a Christian, she is wrestling with the problem of other people's faiths, including paganism. "Perhaps we can have a multi-faith Christmas tree," she says, "but I don't know how to do that… maybe we can have a pagan log." She wants "it to work for everyone. I want Kevin's dream to come true. What a waste if it didn't".

For McCloud, the dream seems to originate in a love of the organic. "I grew up in the countryside – Bedfordshire. I was interested in birds and bees and flowers and mushrooms." He says there is "a spiritual dimension" to living with nature that he wants to give to the residents of Hab's developments. The village where he lived was also the kind of place where "kids played in the street on their bikes, and if a car came round the corner, it had to slow down".

Realising this dream requires a great deal of technical grind, of dealing with planners, highways authorities, water suppliers. It requires responding patiently to officials such as the one who, Engleback says, objected to fruit trees on the grounds that "someone might slip on a berry". McCloud's celebrity means that "doors are opened a little more quickly", but also that "it is very important for local authorities not to be seen to be granting us the smallest favour. We can't cheat or push or cut corners".

The Triangle has required an exceptional amount of effort by Hab, GreenSquare, their architects, engineers and other consultants, all to achieve a simple array of row houses which – albeit without such high environmental performance – would once knocked have been knocked up almost without thinking by builders. Larger developments are now on the way in Oxford and Stroud, but McCloud is not expecting these to be much easier. The hope is that others will follow the example.

He acknowledges that the Triangle is not as advanced as some of the continental schemes in Tubingen, Stockholm and elsewhere which were his inspirations. They "emerged from a culture of planning and construction that is far more evolved, and far more sophisticated, than in Britain," he says. "But," he adds, "I feel we have hit on the grail. We have made a very significant difference from conventional development… we're 90% there, and to do it in Swindon in a difficult economic climate – I'm happy."

He thinks he is doing better than the Prince of Wales's Poundbury. "One positive thing about Poundbury was the way perceived ownership of the public realm meant the residents adopted it," he says. But "one of the failings is the way the external appearance is at the expense of internal architecture". In order to achieve the look of old cottages, "you get low ceilings and tiny windows".

The Triangle is in a tradition of model villages beloved of aristocrats, princes, of Brad Pitt in New Orleans and the Bordeaux sugar-cube manufacturer who commissioned workers' housing from Le Corbusier. Such places can be over-scripted, too much about fulfilling their makers' picture-book fantasies about contented communities. There is a whiff of this with Hab's gooey talk about "making people happy", although they are conscious of the need not to over-control. "If they decide they don't want to grow food and just want to park cars, we'd be a bit upset," says Isabel Allen, but in the end it will be up to the residents.

Maggie Lowton sounds a note of caution by citing other communities in Swindon that started well but went downhill. No amount of forethought and attention to detail can guarantee the success of the Triangle. But at the very least it is an imaginative and well-designed project, which achieves about as much as can be done with its budget. It focuses on what matters most and gives itself the best chance of success. Which is far more rare than it should be in British house building and a much better application of celebrity philanthropy than most.


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August 25 2011

Watts Towers: LA's weird masterpiece

The Los Angeles suburb of Watts is notorious for the 1965 riots – and for one of the world's great public artworks

In the same week as the UK riots, a small group gathered 5,500 miles away to remember the Watts riot that began on 11 August 1965. That riot also led to a national outcry, an inquiry and pledges of reform …

But little has changed in the decades since then in Watts, a poor black suburb just south of downtown Los Angeles. It is all sun-baked concrete and small bungalows behind iron fences. The district does, however, happen to be the home of one of the world's great public artworks: the Watts Towers.

Built by a semi-literate Italian immigrant named Simon Rodia, who worked alone for 33 years from 1921 to 1954, the Towers are a 15-minute Metro ride from the city centre. I got off at 103rd Street, expecting to see the Towers – the tallest of which is 99.5 feet – but I had to cross the tracks and walk down a dusty road until they appeared around a corner, three minarets sparkling in the morning sun.

For years, the Towers were closed to the public, caught in a political limbo of funding and restoration. Today there are tours but few Angelenos visit. My guide was Dakota, a piano student at the Charles Mingus Center (Mingus was raised in Watts), part of the modern Arts Center built beside the Towers in 1970 and one of the few positive legacies of the riots. The Center has a gallery showing African-American works, stages LA's oldest annual jazz festival and offers classes in painting, sculpture, music, dance and film animation to local youngsters, taught by professional artists.

Rodia's surprisingly small, triangular site contains the footprint of his modest house (since burned down) and 17 tower-like structures including an outdoor oven and the font where Rodia performed baptisms and weddings, though he had no religious status or affiliation. He built the towers with hand tools as his only equipment. An adjacent railway line (also long gone) was his anvil: he placed metal on the tracks for passing trains to flatten it.

Low walls around the site are studded with blue milk of magnesia bottles in wave formations and more than 25,000 seashells. The three tallest towers are like masts waiting to sail back to the home Rodia left age 15 in Nola, where every year they hold a Festa dei Gigli. The Gigli – huge lilies made of papier maché and wood that are paraded around the town for the feast of St Paulinus – look a lot like Rodia's towers.

Rodia was 46 years old when he started to build. Using nothing but found objects, he was the ultimate recycler. His decorations are broken bottles, mostly 7-Up and Canada Dry green; old crockery collected for him by local children (when they weren't vandalising his work) and tiles. Many tiles came from the Malibu tile company where Rodia worked for 10 years.

A taciturn man, the nearest Rodia ever came to explaining his masterpiece was to say, "I had in mind to do something big and I did it." Typically, at 75, after a fall, he gave the house and the towers to a neighbour and moved away without a backward glance to live the last 10 years of his life with his sister in northern California. It was only when the neighbour sold out to a would-be developer that the City of Los Angeles became aware of the towers and promptly ordered their demolition on safety grounds. Campaigners saved them by devising a strength test. A crane tried to pull them over but the crane and its steel hawser buckled, not the Towers.

Like Rodia's personality, his Towers have proved an awkward legacy for LA: who should pay for their upkeep? And do they symbolise the division or reconciliation between rich white west LA and poor black east LA? This year the LA County Museum of Art took over the conservation effort, a move to which Rosie Lee Hooks, the Watts Towers Arts Center's redoubtable director, gave a cautious welcome.

To stand inside one of Rodia's towers and look up through the spider web of steel and concrete made me dizzy, like standing in a dream. As Hooks told me: "Watts is still a challenged community but what Simon teaches us is the power of art to change things."

1727 East 107th Street, +213 847 4646, wattstowers.org, tours Thurs-Sat 10.30am-3pm, Sun 12.30pm-3pm, adults $7, children aged 13-17 $3, under 13s free


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February 03 2011

Sustainable design: bin it?

Sustainability – all matronly browns and little green arrows – has drained the sexiness from design. If designers want to do some genuine good, it's time to re-engineer their thinking

Whenever I think of sustainable design, I think of the opening sentence of Victor Papanek's book Design for the Real World. It goes: "There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them." Papanek, a designer himself, went on to call designers "dangerous", the producers of "garbage". And that was in 1972.

These days, designers have a rather different role as societal problem-solvers, leading the way to a cleaner, better future. But I suspect Papanek is still right. Notwithstanding this new conscientious breed, there is no getting over the fact that the majority of product designers earn their living supplying growth-dependent economies with novelties for our ever-more-insatiable appetites. Increasingly, many of those objects are being presented as sustainable. Perhaps packaged in brown cardboard with little green arrows on it.

"Sustainability". I have never much liked the word. "Sustainable" is not an adjective you would use to describe something you love. To sustain something is to keep it alive, pure and simple – more of a duty than a passion. Once, we aspired to reach the moon; now, we just hope to hold on to what we've got. Sustainability suggests the flatlining of human ambition. So I did a double-take when I saw a new book called Sustainism Is the New Modernism. If sustainability is boring, "sustainism" is just grammatically freaky (adding "ism" to a verb?). As you'll already have worked out, it yields the word "sustainity" (as in, from here to sustainity). Oh, and "sustainist".

This may sound like parody, but it's not. The creators of these terms, Michiel Schwarz and Joost Elffers, have presented what they describe as a manifesto for the 21st century. The book is a collection of aphorisms and slogans. Some of them – the catchier ones – were coined by others, such as Buckminster Fuller's "do more with less". Many of them are the authors' own, such as "not high-tech versus low-tech, but appropriateness and sustainable solutions". The book is lavishly illustrated, with new logos designed to signify organic, local or recyclable goods. It is sustainability rebranded.

The authors' instincts are absolutely right: sustainable design needs a shot in the arm. But I don't believe a book full of platitudes and colourful symbols is the necessary serum. Their elegant trefoil logo for recycling may be better than the existing one, but no one ever failed to recycle something because they didn't like the logo. There is no argument to win here. I don't think there are many people out there who don't want to live sustainably. It's not a matter of persuading them but of offering them the right choices.

I trawled through a few books on sustainable design, such as The Eco-Design Handbook and 1000 New Eco Designs and Where to Find Them. The majority of work in this area is not particularly impressive. Most conforms to a material palette we think of as sustainable – lots of wood, cardboard and paper – or makes a show of using recycled materials. In that respect, there is a kind of sustainable design aesthetic, and it comes in shades of brown. Plastic rarely features, no doubt due to an instinctive feeling that it's inherently bad for the environment, even though plastic is sometimes the most environmentally friendly material for the job. It uses less energy to manufacture than glass or metal, and it's lighter to transport. The trick is to keep it out of landfills.

The problem is that consumers, and often designers, too, are bewildered by what really constitutes a sustainable product. You can't judge it by looking it at; you have to know the object's past and future – whether it's made of renewable or recyclable materials, how much energy went into its production, how it's going to be disposed of. It's not objects that are unsustainable, it's the systems that produce them. And designers have to steer their clients towards sustainable systems – that is, if they have the luxury of a client who isn't just after the cheapest, fastest solution.

The closest we have come to a sustainability orthodoxy is the "cradle to cradle" solution pioneered by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. According to their mantra, products need to be made fully recyclable so that, once they are discarded, each part can be turned back into itself again. The problem with that logic is that it promises infinite consumption with impunity. Businesses must love it. The drawback of putting so much emphasis on recycling, however, is that it makes us feel virtuous about throwing things away. Disposability – along with its henchman, planned obsolescence – is the real enemy.

The answer, it seems to me, is to buy fewer things that we value more: to design products that endure and that we can repair more cheaply than replace. And the real way to win the public over to sustainable design is not with a war of words but by tapping into their desires. We want things with sex appeal, not ones that look as though they are made of Weetabix.

To return to our "sustainist" authors, it's telling that they frequently square up to the futurist manifesto of 1909, setting themselves in opposition. They are right, of course. The futurists' machine-lust and speed greed are absurdly unhelpful in our age – too aggressive, too self-destructive. But Marinetti's screed had a libidinous energy that was never matched in any of the successive manifestos of the 20th century. At one point in his delirious fantasy on mechanisation, he and his futurist chums see some cars. "We went up to the three snorting machines to caress their breasts," he writes. Perhaps the sustainists could use a shot of whatever Marinetti was drinking.


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April 09 2010

Emissions make joke of Orbit tower

Is a tower sponsored by a steel empire with emissions matching that of the Czech Republic appropriate as a lasting monument to the 'world's first sustainable Olympics'?

I'm a fan of oversized structures open to the public with fantastic views across cities, from the Eiffel Tower to the Rockfeller Centre. I'm even a fan of Anish Kapoor's work. (Isn't it time the Queen created a new post of artist laureate specially for Kapoor?)

But the decision to embrace ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steelmaker, as the sponsor for the £19m Kapoor-designed Orbit tower – or Boris's Olympic folly as it is becoming known – is one that really sends me into a spin.

I don't care that the tower resembles a 115m helterskelter tangled in Wembley stadium's arch. But during London's bid for the Olympics, sustainability was the buzzword. The London games would "set an example for how sustainable events and urban planning take place around the world in future."

Is the Orbit the type of landmark the organisers of the 2012 Olympics – who have some impressive green achievements under their belt – really had in mind when it said London would host the world's "first sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games"?

The commission was agreed by the London mayor, Boris Johnson, and the Olympic minister, Tessa Jowell. But the choice of ArcelorMittal appears to have been thanks to a chance encounter between Johnson and the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal "in a Davos cloakroom".

But for Johnson to make his mark on London 2012 and its legacy with thousands of tonnes of steel, one of the world's most carbon-intensive materials, appears at odds with the sustainable values of the Olympic Delivery Authority and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) – and the spirit of the times.

ArcelorMittal's court challenge to Europe's cap-and-trade scheme, recently reported by PointCarbon, is its most recent act of resistance against the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS), the main mechanism for driving down CO2 levels in industry. ArcelorMittal's action brought before the European general court sought damages for being forced to pay for its greenhouse gas emissions because the company claimed the scheme threatened its business unfairly. The court dismissed the challenge last month.

Although ArcelorMittal is cagey about its own figures for allocation of carbon credits, climate campaigners have been hard at work poring over data for the EU ETS. Sandbag which campaigns to restrict the number of credits traded on the ETS, last year published a report with the help of Carbon Market Data claiming that by 2012 the company would have 80m carbon credits that it does not need, and was given for free. If sold, the company stands to make £1bn in windfall profits, says Sandbag. A tidy profit for doing, well not much, made by a company led by Mittal, who also happens to be Europe's richest man.

But this prospect hasn't prevented the company – along with the rest of the industry – from whingeing about its obligations under the EU ETS and demanding special treatment from the European commission by warning of "carbon leakage", that they claim would force factories to relocate to regions which have no cap-and-trade scheme.

In its corporate responsibility report, How will we achieve safe sustainable steel, ArcelorMittal admits its emissions are high. Every year it produces around 220m tonnes of carbon w – equivalent to the whole output of the Czech Republic or just under half of the UK's total emissions in 2009.

ArcelorMittal aims to reduce emissions from steel manufacture by 8% in 10 years' time and is already the world's largest recycler of scrap steel – to the tune of 25m tonnes a year – which it claims saves 35m tonnes of CO2 annually. ArcelorMittal has already won one of the first gold medals of the games with this PR coup to sponsor the Orbit. But it has missed an added opportunity to extra shine to its steel business with a commitment to using at least a large proportion of recycled steel in its construction.

But when I asked ArcelorMittal and the mayor's office to explain what makes the steel giant an appropriate sponsor of the lasting monument to the "world's first sustainable Olympic games", both refused to comment directly.

They referred me to a press release by the London mayor's office in which the only mention of sustainability comes in the notes at the bottom:

ArcelorMittal recognises that it has a significant responsibility to tackle the global climate change challenge; it takes a leading role in the industry's efforts to develop breakthrough steelmaking technologies and is actively researching and developing steel-based technologies and solutions that contribute to combat climate change.

Bryony Worthington from Sandbag says: "Boris really should have done his homework. While on the surface ArcelorMittal like to appear a responsible company they have been very active opponents of climate change regulations in Europe. They have also been amassing a small fortune in spare CO2 emissions permits as a result of lobbying for generous allocations. They now have more control over emissions trading in Europe than some countries."

As a Londoner and a sports fan, I wish he'd bumped into someone else in the cloakroom at Davos. But who, one of the other sponsors such as British Airways or BP? Last year ArcelorMittal had revenues of $65.1bn (£42.4bn). What other company would have £16m spare right now? In these straitened times, would London be better off without such a monolith to a steel empire with CO2 emissions equivalent to that of the Czech Republic?


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