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Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ Category

For three decades now I have been know as part of a design team that has been known as questioning, independent, and over the past decade or so, champions of social and sustainable thinking.

Over the last few years we have begun to work with large corporate organisations, not to feed turnover, but because it has become increasingly clear that because of the scale and investment available, bold initiatives can be undertaken.

The likes of Greenpeace and WWF (and the legions of small activists) have done wonderful jobs in hounding and naming and shaming corporations who have failed to take the environment, sustainability and ethical trading seriously. Their tireless campaigning has made a significant section of the public aware and helped to build a business environment where it makes business sense to “care”.

Whatever the tipping point has been, my overwhelming experience is of corporate who now hold sustainability, the environment and ethical thinking at their core. They have set up corporate responsibility departments and whole segments of the business who are dedicated to this thinking. They have employed directors who are zealous and “dedicated to the cause”, directors who have significant budgets at their disposal. They now have the economies of scale to really start to make a difference.

The work we are doing with McDonalds (in collaboration with up cycling and re use  specialists Worn Again)  in terms of working out a system that allows the uniforms of their 88,000 UK staff to eventually be able to be made into new material to make new uniforms ad infinitum is bold, industry leading and takes considerable investment.

The project we have with Coca Cola promoting their move towards plastic bottles that have significant PET content  (in simple terms plastic derived from sugar cane and molasses) is forward thinking , helps to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and ultimately, makes financial sense.

We learnt a decade ago, when we started working with (Taylor) Wimpey Homes that sustainable  projects of scale that resonate far and wide are much easier to deliver by collaborating with those that have most to gain (and to lose).

So it’s time for people to stop raising their eyebrows and look surprised that designers like us are choosing to work with the kind of corporations that the campaigning bodies that we support once hounded. Big Corporations are not The Devil incarnate they have an ability to lever their tremendous resources and some are now leading the way.

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The Dutch and the Danish have “got it” for a long time. Urban areas that are pedestrian and cyclist friendly are happier, healthier, safer, cleaner places to live. But Britain with its powerful pro car lobby and with its sad addiction to bloomin Top Gear has been lagging behind. But we may be reaching the tipping point. Car use in Britain is on the decline and I have a hunch that it’s not just that cash is tight and folk are being careful. (more…)

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I keep reading that there are a million empty homes at the moment in the UK  (and a further 300,000 empty commercial buildings). And we all know how there is a major, growing housing shortage.

I am not suggesting that it is easy to convert all these empty properties into homes but as a nation I don’t think we are doing our best.

Many commentators say that the majority of the empty homes are in the wrong location either in towns where there are no job opportunities or in the “wrong part of town”. But we have a growing creative industries sector (second largest employment sector in the UK), a sector that by its very nature and its early adoption of mobile technologies has made it  more footloose and fancy free than most sectors. Many “creatives” can run their businesses from home using Skype, Microsoft Mobile Office and the like.

What is more, for many of us “creatives” the idea of upcycling an old building is at the forefront of our planning for a home ahead of a new build house.

Could government be taxing empty properties (rather than the present 50% reduction on council tax that is offered to owners of empty properties?)

Could they be encouraging us to bring unloved streets and industrial buildings back to life by reducing (or abolishing) VAT on renovations? In Switzerland VAT on renovations was reduced to 5% and there was a net gain in income as activity rocketed. And doesn’t VAT on renovations bolster a “black economy”.

I have already written about my experience here.

The historic system for salvaging these properties was via the council, but because town halls no longer have money, we need to look at alternatives. We need mortgage companies to really support housing renovation and for the government to back their efforts.

My wife, Gerardine, and I wouldn’t be where we are now without the help we received and the work we put into our first house in Wembley, North London.

We stretched ourselves and got on to the housing ladder. That was back in 1982. That house was also a Victorian terrace and it was practically uninhabitable: it had had no Tender Loving Care since the turn of the century. It didn’t have any lights, the roof was a disaster, it had no heating, the chimneys were all blocked off, there were no proper bathrooms, the plumbing was a nightmare and the electrics were completely unsafe.

But when we bought it, Brent council was giving 90 per cent grants to do that work to kick start these streets back to life. We brought that house back to life. I go past it regularly and it is a thriving, lovely little street. So it worked.

It took us 18 months. We were just normal young couple and there are tens of thousands of normal young couples now like we were then who are willing to put in the effort. They would do exactly what we did if given the chance. But the problem is funding. We’re not talking about vast sums though. The irony is that banks would lend a young couple £100,000 for a new flat, but not £50,000 for an old house and a further £35,000 for renovation. I understand why: there’s a risk the couple would just pocket the £35,000.

So what we need is draw-down mortgages where banks release funds for each stage of repair. Yes, it would be hard work for the banks, but it would be worth it. The same applies to people in the same situation as Gerardine and I almost 30 years ago.

Putting that effort into your own home is part of learning to grow up and settle down in life. Most couples would jump at the chance of giving up a couple of nights out a week to work hard on getting a good home.

Our first house in Wembley

The mess it was in…

Twas great fun doing it up

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I SHOULD know: fashion can be a double-edged sword. Quite often, it is human nature not to appreciate something until it’s  almost too late or it’s gone. My mum wishes she’d said more nice stuff to my Nan before she died and there are  things you’d have loved to have done in life, but you didn’t. You do it with human beings and you also do it with possessions and with buildings.  Frequently, there’s a rush for newness, a thinking that a new way is  better.

So in the Sixties we had slum clearances that paved the way for concrete tower blocks that didn’t work. At the time, people thought it was  a brave new world, but actually it was about greed: knock down one house and  build three or four properties in its place. Although the experiment  failed, it was repeated in the Eighties and Nineties when policy makers and architects again thought any kind of high density housing was the only solution to an urban renaissance. The policy was exploited by  developers and abetted by banks and their ridiculous 125 per cent mortgages. The effect was an unsustainable housing bubble and that caused the mess we find ourselves in now. So in Liverpool and elsewhere, thanks to short-sighted and often stupid planning authorities, we  have perfectly lovely streets that are earmarked for demolition.

We’re in  danger of repeating past mistakes. Just about  everything, including the Welsh Streets where Ringo Starr was  born, and those noble streets around Anfield is  sustainably salvageable—particularly in this  economic climate when building new rarely makes money. It’s been absolutely proved that most people – young and old  – would prefer to live in a house than a flat. So in Liverpool, we have  houses on a street with an outside space: the basics of  liveability are in place. The historic system for salvaging these  properties was via the council, but because town halls no longer have money,  we need to look at alternatives.  We need mortgage companies to really  support housing renovation and for the government to back their efforts. My wife, Gerardine, and I wouldn’t be where we are now without the help we  received and the work we put into our first house in Wembley, north  London. We stretched ourselves and got on to the housing ladder. That was  back in 1982. That house was also a Victorian terrace and it was practically uninhabitable: it had had no Tender Loving Care since the turn of the  century. It didn’t have any lights, the roof was a disaster, it had no heating, the chimneys were all blocked off, there were no proper bathrooms,  the plumbing was a nightmare and the electrics were completely unsafe. But  when we bought it, Brent council was giving 90 per cent grants to do that work  to kick start these streets back to life. We  brought that house back to life. I go past it regularly and it is a thriving,  lovely little street. So it worked. It took us 18 months. We were just  normal young couple and there are tens of thousands of normal young couples now like we were then who are willing to put in the effort. They would do  exactly what we did if given the chance. But the problem is funding. We’re  not talking about vast sums though. Liverpool City Council says the houses in  the Welsh Streets are worth at most £50,000 and that it would cost another  £75,000 to renovate each one. I just don’t believe that. That might be what  someone is quoting the council, but doing it yourself with the right builder would cost a maximum of £35,000 in my view.

The irony is that banks would  lend a young couple £100,000 for a new flat, but not £50,000 for an old house and a further £35,000 for renovation. I understand why: there’s a risk the  couple would just pocket the £35,000. So what we need is draw-down  mortgages where banks release funds for each stage of repair. Yes, it would  be hard work for the banks, but it would be worth it. The same applies to  the young couple. Putting that effort into your own home is part of  learning to grow up and settle down in life. Most couples would jump at the  chance of giving up a couple of nights out a week  to work hard on getting a good home. Not only would it bring streets back  to life, it would also create communities. Investing sweat into your home is a  shared experience; you make friends and you help each other out. When you  put that much into something, its human nature to love it  and cherish it. What’s more, it creates bonds and longevity in a  relationship. I know it cemented mine. It all sounds Utopian, but it’s not  impossible.

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We get some uplifting letters and this was one is worth sharing. Many of us like the idea of building homes, many of us like the idea of building low energy homes, not enough of us are brave enough to have a go, this guy was very brave.

(more…)

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In January 2011 we entered the next stage of community consultation with the Hillington Square project.

Hillington Square was built in the late 60s and was formerly owned by King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Council. The design of the square was seen as revolutionary when it was built with its ideals of communal living spaces. There are a lot of places like this around the UK where supposedly somebody came up with good ideas in the 60s and the 70s and got it wrong. At the time I think residents were quite happy because old so called  “slum streets” were knocked down – streets of houses that had outdoor loos, no kitchens and probably some of them didn’t have running water – and so it was seen as an advancement.

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I hadn’t been to the Anfield area of Liverpool for a while and this week had a look round and left in a state of shock, anger but also with a mid racing of what can be. Anfield is, or in some cases now, was an area of proud looking solid mid 19th century houses build for merchants and traders.

Like a number of areas of old housing that had low values in that daft and damaging time of pre downturn housing boom, Anfield,was declared a Pathfinder area   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Housing_Market_Renewal_Initiative

What a bloody travesty this happened.

(more…)

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