High profile departures raise questions for Architects Declare, while the Grenfell Inquiry continues to unearth disturbing revelations. More encouragingly, flexible designs from MawsonKerr and Openstudio win Home of 2030, and new rules for the RIBA Awards incorporate operational data
It started so well, back in 2019, all 17 British winners of the Stirling Prize jointly signed the Architects Declare statement, in an impressive show of solidarity, pledging to work towards halting the climate crisis.
Other practices were quick to add their names, with UK signatories now totalling 1,052.
Sorry, make that 1,050. The last seven days have seen both Foster + Partners and Zaha Hadid Architects remove their names, objecting to the way Architects Declare was, as they saw it, prescribing how such a commitment should manifest itself.
Is it enough to be designing buildings that minimise carbon consumption both in construction and use? Or is the actual purpose of those buildings also relevant?
Specifically, is it alright still to design airports when, pre-pandemic, air travel was responsible for around 2% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions and forecast to double by 2037?
Many have argued that it’s not, and when Fosters announced it was designing two new airports in Saudi Arabia and ZHA won the competition to design a new airport in Sydney, many people suggested an incompatibility between this and what they had signed up for.
Many, however, disagree with this argument. Indeed it’s hard to argue that the amount of air travel would decrease in any way if all the signatories refused to work on aviation projects. Several architects have argued that by taking on such work, they can help make the buildings as low carbon as possible. Given that globally, the construction industry is responsible for some 40% of all carbon emissions, perhaps it’s right that this is where the focus should be.
It’s the eternal struggle between absolute morality and a more pragmatic approach, and as businesses, architects are more likely to plump for the latter.
Reacting to Fosters’ airport jobs back in July, Architects Declare’s steering group said it said would not criticise studios based on individual projects.
It did, however, take issue with ZHA principal Patrik Schumacher last month after he praised continued economic growth and opposed ‘too radical’ solutions to the climate crisis.
Indeed, it asked signatory practices ‘who appear determined to continue with business as usual … to have the integrity to withdraw’.
Job done with ZHA, which was evidently proving an embarrassment, but Fosters' departure seems an unintended consequence with the steering group saying it was ‘disappointed’ by the decision.
One has to wonder whether the movement has been strengthened or diminished by the loss of two of the biggest names in architecture.
It may wish to tread carefully if it wants to avoid also losing, for example, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, which was also shortlisted for ZHA’s Sydney airport, or Grimshaw, which was designing Heathrow’s Terminal 5 before the project was ruled unlawful on environmental grounds.
Mistaking Grenfell insulation firm for someone who gives a damn
Architect Studio E was one of the first companies to give evidence at the Grenfell inquiry at the start of the year. Inquiry lawyers built up a picture of a practice with no experience in high-rise residential work, which had only won the commission to refurbish the tower block by gaming EU procurement rules.
At the time, it seemed shocking. But having heard evidence regarding the manufacturers of the materials used to clad the tower, it almost pales into insignificance.
First we heard a former employee of Celotex admit that the firm had manipulated fire-safety tests to give the false impression that its insulation boards were suitable for tall buildings.
Turns out its marketing was so effective, it wasn’t able to meet demand. Unable to obtain enough of its product to clad the entire tower, facade contractor Harley had to use Kingspan’s Kooltherm K15 insulation for around 5% of the tower’s external walls.
It would be nice to report that the areas covered in this product were less severely affected; sadly the inquiry has now heard evidence suggesting Kingspan similarly mispresented its product – and was quite brusque when anyone challenged this.
When a contractor questioned the product’s fire-safety for another high-rise project, Kingspan technical manager Philip Heath wrote an email to colleagues saying ‘I think Bowmer & Kirkland are getting me confused with someone who gives a damn’.
And when a consultant on the same project, Wintech, questioned safety data for the product, Heath emailed a colleague, saying: ‘Wintech can go f*ck themselves and, if they are not careful, we’ll sue the arse off them.’
So considerate of him to use that asterisk there, lest he should cause any offence.
Under cross-examination at the Grenfell Inquiry, Heath said his response was ‘totally unprofessional’, that Kingspan did take issues of safety seriously and that it was not common to threaten to take legal action over those raising concerns.
Meanwhile, Inside Housing reports that government officials were warned in 2014 that combustible Kingspan insulation was being used on high rises even though its safety had not been confirmed.
Writing in last Sunday’s Observer, Rowan Moore looked to see the bigger picture amid all these individual acts of negligence and dishonesty. He sees the problem as growing out of a ‘decades-long process of government outsourcing … under the theory that private companies will do a given job better’.
One consequence, he says, is the ‘unedifying Olympiad of blame-shifting to be seen in the Grenfell inquiry’. And he argues that this ‘mania for outsourcing’ has also played a role in much of the government’s failings in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic this year.
Stirling Prize to include in-use data as RIBA’s cultural chair resigns
Next year’s Stirling Prize will be this year’s Stirling Prize but with the year delay embraced as a positive development.
The RIBA has announced that only buildings that were in the running for the scrapped 2020 prize will be considered – and, handily, that this will help establish a new rule: that eligible buildings must have been in use for at least a year.
This means, it says, that judges will be able to better assess buildings’ performance, client feedback, and how projects function within civic, communal and environmental contexts.
It was the cancellation of this year’s prize that proved ‘the final straw’ for Rob Dickins, who has resigned as chair of the RIBA’s British Architectural Trust Board.
Dickins, whose background is in the music industry, is a former chair of Warner Bros Music as well as being credited with reinventing the BRIT awards. He was appointed to chair the trust, in effect the RIBA’s cultural committee, just over two years ago.
In a lengthy and often scathing letter of resignation, Dickins said he disagreed with cancelling the prize, pointing out that his BRIT Awards experience ‘should have been worth something’.
He felt the reason for cancelling – that site visits weren’t practical under the coronavirus restrictions – was ‘no reason for losing our most public and prestigious award’.
‘Yes, it is nice for a few people to have site visits but to lose the award in its rightful year is unforgiveable. Do you really think site visits would make any difference to the outcome?’
While Dickins’ awards experience is unarguable, his knowledge of architecture possibly falls a little short here. It may be fine to give a prize for best singer without seeing them perform live, but evaluating a building without visiting it seems highly unsatisfactory, and his assertion that it makes no difference to the outcome is surely just plain wrong.
Elsewhere in his resignation letter, he said he had been ‘asked to bring some life and energy’ back into the RIBA’s headquarters building, but felt his efforts had been frustrated.
Yet his views about 66 Portland Place seem to resonate with those expressed by president-elect Simon Allford, who launched his campaign with a call to make the building ‘a fun palace for architects’ and ‘a convivial hub with member facilities and a good restaurant/bar’.
Perhaps he should have stuck around.
Winners named in government’s Home of 2030 competition
Two teams have won the Home of 2030 competition – the government’s competition to develop prototype ‘homes fit for the future’ that showcase ‘the best of British design’.
The successful teams were led by MawsonKerr Architects and Openstudio Architects.
Newcastle practice MawsonKerr describes its +Home concept as a community-led self-build scheme which people can design themselves. The houses use inexpensive frames and components which are designed to be recyclable at the end of their lives. Its proposal envisages a ‘site build barn’ on the plot, where pre-made components would be clipped together.
Openstudio, which is run by Jennifer Beningfield, has proposed a flexible system of terraced housing made from two standard components – a base unit and a loft – which would be joined by different ‘connector’ pieces to allow for multiple configurations. These could be altered over time to respond to changing occupant needs. Each home would have its own private outdoor space as well as backing on to large communal gardens.
The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright describes both schemes as a ‘rebuke to the kind of identikit suburban-minded homes churned out by most volume builders’.
Six shortlisted teams were each paid £40,000 to draw up detailed, site-specific plans for 100 homes in a growth area outside London.
The government says that both the winners and shortlisted entrants will be invited to meet Home England’s development partners to discuss their ideas further.
However, Wainwright reports that all six teams have decided to develop their projects themselves, afraid that Homes England’s chosen developers might end up watering down their ideas.
Following the competition’s launch in March, architect and engineer Maria Smith called for it to be boycotted, saying it would simply generate ‘cheap media content and the appearance of action’ while ducking the need for robust legislation.