Participation in ‘People’s Climate March’ last week-end was reported from across many cities and continents, with Birmingham contributing its own contingent of citizens’ voices to demand action by UK politicians and other Governments on global climate change. Increasingly, we are confronted with the likely scenario of irreversibility of change – and that is change for the worse rather than better, as rapid environmental change and extreme weather events manifest themselves faster than technological utopian remedies. Sluggish energy-related targets and policies across sectors that hang onto economic growth fairytales are beginning to frustrate an increasing number of not so happily ever after citizens. Yet, the September demonstrations showed their own ugly dilemmas of modern consumerism and mobility: how to reduce negative impacts in travelling to climate change events and reduce adding high-energy trash of convenience foods and drinks – the hypocrisy being captured by some media photos of rubbish left behind.
New students, new impressions, new happenings. It’s Freshers’ Week and two coach loads of students and staff make their way to the West Midlands Safari Park which serves as the setting for a day’s work by budding students in building surveying, construction management, architectural technology, quantity surveying, real estate, and planning. The focus for the group studying Planning, Environment and Development is Bunkers Hill, a grass-covered flat-topped hill, punctuated by molehills and laced by wonderful mature trees (many of them chestnuts, which looked much better this year, recovered from the leave miner attacks in previous years).
We start by looking at a topographical and a basic park map to set the context before walking to Bunkers Hill past some of its (less fierce) animals, African inspired huts, remodelled stables block, the fairground and the renovated and extended ‘manor’ house, Spring Grove House, which now is largely used as a wedding venue. We then walk the rest of the way to the currently largely undeveloped part of the park ascending Bunkers Hill and taking in the views and grassy smell, spot the communication masts with their owl and bat boxes and walk around to get a better feel for the site.
Now to the challenge: How would one best fit a 250-bed hotel on this site? Where should it be located based on the character and slope of the land, the surrounding area, and to complement what has already been developed within the park? We did not show the students the actual outline plans, but wanted to get their ideas and impressions of what would suit the site and why. We emphasised that considering the economic development potential and viability of the project were crucial in current planning thinking.
Building Information Modelling (BIM) attracts much interest in the construction industry. Among many events, articles and forums about BIM, there is hardly a discussion that does not include “information”. The centrality of “information” in the BIM discourse deserves a critical look at the ways we understand and use the word “information”. I am not going to discuss the different philosophical stances that view “information” differently and their extended implications (although I think it is very useful for everyone to have a sound knowledge about these different stances) but question what “information” may mean in construction projects.
Anyone who has spent some time in practice will acknowledge that construction project environments are not free from politics. Moreover, social and political positions occupied by different individuals and groups in a construction project are subject to change during its course for a myriad of different reasons such as the project stage, contract types, design changes etc. These changes are a natural result of the largely technical dynamics of a project and the social dynamics of the project team. Continue reading What does the “I” in BIM mean?→
Immigration is likely to be a key issue at the next General Election and, unsurprisingly, the number of news stories over the last few months linked to the subject has been even higher than normal – the lifting of restrictions of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants; calls from across the political spectrum to stop migrants moving to the UK simply to claim benefits; and divisions between the two coalition parties on immigration policy. This is not the place, nor am I sufficiently expert on immigration policy, to conduct a forensic examination of the immigration policy scene; though I agree some reform is needed. I would, however, like to briefly discuss one group affected by immigration policy – namely international Higher Education (HE) students.
Well over half of the full-time postgraduate research students in the Faculty of Technology, Engineering and the Environment (TEE) at Birmingham City University (BCU) are international students, coming from countries ranging from Germany to Nigeria and Mexico to Palestine and I am very proud of this diversity! I have joked that it is my ambition to have one research student from each of 195 United Nations member states! BCU states proudly on its website that it has “international alliances” and “an expanding student community from more than 80 countries.” (BCU 2013)
However, despite the Government’s protestations to the contrary, the impression that is being given to many prospective international students (and their governments) is that the UK is no longer ‘open’ to international students. In a recent article on the Guardian’s website, a London-based student described his University’s obsessive monitoring of his attendance and similar initiatives as “racist and degrading”. He also stated “If I knew that was the situation, I wouldn’t have come in the first place, and would tell others back home to think twice” (Tapia 2013).
The recent floods are just one example of the problems we are likely to face in the coming 50-100 years as a result of environmental and social change. Traditional urban forms are vulnerable, and current ways of planning are weak and slow to respond.
I spent a day recently at an ‘expert symposium’ onthe future of urban form and infrastructure, part of the Government Office for Science’s “Foresight Future of Cities” project. It was a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion with a good range of experienced academics and professionals. But it actually said very little about form or infrastructure in any detail. We largely accepted that much existing research had already identified good and bad form, and in fact the key to better urbanism in the future was better management, at all scales.
I am writing from a small but international and interdisciplinary meeting at the Swedish School of Planning, part of the Blekinge Tekniska Hogskola, in Karlskrona. Sustainable urban form is, of course, a contemporary professional and political ideal: but what is it and how do we achieve it, especially in existing settlements? This event draws together eminent keynote speakers, PhD students and new researchers, and the School’s Advisory Board.
The first keynote was from Simin Davoudi (University of Newcastle, UK): on ‘cities and energy consumption: rational or habitual?’ An important point because without sustainable cities there will be no sustainable world; but cities are such a plural, variable, phenomenon. Urban form determines sustainability to a great extent, for example levels of transport-related greenhouse emissions, and building energy efficiency is also significant. So how do we change users’ behaviour; indeed what constitutes ‘behaviour’? Compare Atlanta and Barcelona, two cities of the same population but covering 4280 km2 and 162 km2 respectively, with per capita CO2 emissions 10x greater in the former in part because of the need to travel owing to the low-density urban form. A US model of ‘sprawl’ is still being followed, especially in Asia. China’s building rate is frightening in terms of sustainability: it builds the equivalent of Rome every 2 weeks. Simin explores how decisions are ACTUALLY made with respect to urban form and use. Remember that the rational economic model hardly matches the messy and irrational decision-making of real life. So for more sustainable cities, technical and structural change is important but insufficient. She argues that behaviour change, perhaps radical, is also needed, at the level of individuals and institutions.
Society is facing potentially disastrous climate change impacts. The UK is at the brink of a looming energy gap as old power stations close with little to replace them, and much of this is because we simply consume too much energy. This is a problem because we currently heavily rely on energy that is produced by fossil fuels; only 11.3% of UK energy comes from renewable resources (DECC 2013). The UK Government has long been trying to tackle this by calling on people to reduce their personal energy use through various behavioural change campaigns. A host of research and academic literature supports this, and various government departments have commissioned studies attempting to get to the bottom of why we behave the way we do with energy. The government hopes to use information derived from these studies to design policies that will bring about a measurable difference; to design interventions that will change individual energy behaviour. The belief is that pulling the right ‘lever’ will bring about the desired behaviour. But is this right?
How far do you walk each week? If there is one thing that most health professionals agree upon it is that our state of health is greatly enhanced if we each have a brisk walk each day. It seems logical to surmise that if this simple direction was followed, NHS costs might be significantly reduced.
Perhaps surprisingly, built environment professionals can have a significant effect on peoples’ physical activity and this is well recognised in the USA where there is a trend towards “active design” agreed between health authorities and architects. This might mean, for instance, locating stair cases near the main entrance instead of hiding them at the rear of the lifts. This principle can be applied beyond buildings to the external environment. The trend towards pedestrianisation over the last few decades has undoubtedly helped, although increasing walking is a positive spin-off rather than a planned benefit. However, in the Country as a whole the National Travel Survey 2012 states that walking trips fell by 27% since 1997. Conversely, the number of households with two or more cars has risen to 31% from only 17% in 1986 – this in the midst of a recession.
The majority of modern public or private buildings could be described as set of columns, beams and slabs structurally calculated, architecturally designed and tangibly engineered and systemically (e.g. Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing – MEP – or any other associated systems) integrated. This statement sounds complicated enough, but doesn’t reflect the actual process of constructing buildings, and raises the question of who else other than engineers and designers (including architects) are involved in the construction of buildings. If, for the sake of argument, we claim that people involved in the construction process are doing their job according the standards set, why do we still have problems? One possible answer is stated by the Royal Academy of Engineering which claims that the ratio construction cost : maintenance and building operating costs : business operating costs is about 1:5:200. This demonstrates that the most significant cost of buildings starts after construction (Evans et al., 1998). The stated ratio is not necessarily wholly accurate, and numbers may have been used for illustrative purposes (Hughes et al., 2004), but it must have resulted from problems faced with buildings during operation which had not been taken in account in their design and construction. The interesting question here is why such a ratio has been highlighted in the first place? It suggests that there are some aspects that should be considered by those involved during the design stage which currently are not, or not in the right way. I would like to know whether these building intangibles (e.g. aspects within the building which result in higher costs, non-satisfaction and poor management) are a reality or mystery, and if they are real, can some of them be revealed during the design stage? The purpose of my blog is to generalise about the importance of early considerations (and the involvement of users in the design stage) which can avoid unpredictable intangibles in all buildings, notwithstanding the function of any specific building (Private houses will be excluded from the blog as their problems are considerably less that general private and public buildings).
Hey! This is one question to which I think I know the answer. That’s unless they’ve been doing a lot of expensive repaving work since I was there a couple of weekends ago to see the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park. The reason I’m so confident that nothing will have changed is that the government is too busy saving up so that it can build HS2. This (of course) is the high speed rail link that seems designed to get us all to the capital as quickly as possible. Despite controversy over the economic case, the environmental consequences and the (lack of) social benefits (not to mention a sudden £10bn price-hike a couple of weeks ago), the government seems determined to drive this one through. It’s only track ‘n’ rolling stock but they like it.
A few things occur to me. For a start, why are we all so desperate to get to the Big Smoke? Sure, it’s a great place and I like going there; but Birmingham’s pretty good too and I’ve also heard nice things about Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield (feel free to amend this list to suit your own preferences). I spent a few years living in Germany and one of the things that struck me over there was the way in which the major cities all had their own identities and sense of importance. Perhaps this was a consequence of the (then) capital being the relatively small town of Bonn (which might give a clue as to how long ago I was there) but it always seemed very healthy to me. One of the ‘pro’ arguments I’ve heard for HS2 is that it will allow people flying to Birmingham to get to London quicker. Is ‘Birmingham International Airport’ destined to become ‘London North’? Surely, it would be better if the people actually wanted to stay in Birmingham. But don’t start me up on that one.