Archive for the 'architecture' Category

Made in Birmingham

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

I was recently contacted by some students from Birmingham School of Architecture and asked to take part in an exhibition they’re organising called Made in Birmingham for an upcoming RIBA/BAA event. The request was simply to pick my favourite building in the city and provide a 50 word explanation. Here’s what I’ve just submitted:

Bournville Junior School Carillon

Bournville Junior School

It lifts the soul every time I see it. Bulky swaggering scale, delicate details, bold asymmetry, endearing charm and a machine on the roof worthy of a Dr Who episode. Also, in these dark times we all need reassuring that the free market can occasionally be philanthropic. Different George though.


4 years of twittering efficiency encouraged me to go for exactly 50 words. I hope my fellow architects are equally precise. I’ve never been inside however and this is gut instinct stuff about how I feel when I drive past. To my utter delight it turns out that the machine on the roof, the Carillon itself, sounds perfectly like the synesthetic stimulation of the very swagger, delicacy, asymmetry and charm I’m describing above.

It even has its own facebook page: Bournville Carillon

paper bagged

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

A long time ago I wrote a blog entry on the back of a paper bag. It was a review of a chapter from a Calvino book – the author who, as Kieran Long once twittered, architects always turn to when they want to appear arty and sensitive. At the risk of further proving that theory I can honestly say it remains one of the most satisfying posts I’ve ever written. Lately I’ve been trying to get our office to think about paper (and bags) more.

For most of the latter half of 2009 I was working on the city’s new housing development project, the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust. Like many other local authorities around the country, Birmingham hurried to stake its claim for a share of the funding made available directly to local authorities for the first time in many years. Alongside another local practice we had 5 sites to take from nothing to a detailed planning submission in about 6 weeks. This is an insanely short amount of time. Weekly design team meetings with numerous departments ensued and the process was, to put it mildly, intense. Turning to others for moral support, encouragement and inspiration was an absolute must; as was the occasional bottle of Rioja.

Giles Lane helped by offering me a new notebook. Not the regulation issue Moleskine, almost as cliched as the Calvino reference, but a bespoke notebook just for us which we could make with our own bare hands. Giles and Proboscis have been using their Diffusion notebook format in consultation work and arts projects for some time. Printed (crucially) on single sided A4 the format is carefully designed to cut and fold quickly into a small, robust A6 book that can be either landscape or portrait.

Here’s a video showing how to fold one:

Diffusion eBooks from stml on Vimeo.

Got it?

We made a blank one, experimenting with different templates to assist with writing and drawing and I carried it around in my jeans pocket for most of the 6 weeks, proving that the design is perfectly robust enough despite only being crafted from a few folds. What I’m most interested in though is what happens when it’s finished. I can unfold it, and because I can unfold it I can easily scan it in and share it with others or work over it again with other tools. Chunks of it would quickly get extracted and thrown into presentations to the client and ultimately some of the sketches informed the design and access statement that went with the planning application. That’s interesting; the ease and speed with which you can align the analogue with the digital.

Then there was Owen Hatherley. I asked Owen to help me fill in the back story for the other team members and make sure we knew where we’d been before we decided where we wanted to go. He wrote a short essay on the history of municipal housing, talking us through projects such as Eric Lyon’s Span housing and Sheffield’s Gleadless Valley. Initially I gave it to Birmingham City Council in standard A4 format, but later when self-publishing a booklet became possible with Gile’s I could create my own notebook, this time by uploading a PDF then getting it back immediately in the Diffusion format to fold and issue myself. You can download a copy yourself from the library. That’s interesting too, I self-published a book.

More recently, when the dust had settled and it came time to tell other people what we’ve been doing lately at the West Midlands Built Environment and Design Fair I published a newspaper in about 48 hours with the help of

Axis Design news - page 2

Like, connects a web interface to a production process but this time it gives you the power to command a newspaper printing facility usually reserved for massive print runs. You can upload a PDF of any design as long as it follows the template size or you can use the newpaperclub interface to upload text and images from your machine or source either from other locations on the web such as blog entries or flickr pages.

Axis Design news - page 5

I’ve rarely seen a web service in early beta stage nail the interface design so succesfully first time. It adjusts the 4 column layout and shows a clear snapshot each time you make an adjustment. I pulled in text from here at and lifted images from my practice flickr account and turned out a 12 page newspaper in little more than an afternoon. 2 days and £120 later I had 100 beautiful objects to give away to clients and colleagues. We gave them out along with bookleteers by the staff in paper bags that had been rubber stamped with our logo.

WMdesignfair-axisdesign (2)

WMdesignfair-axisdesign (1)

So it’s a useful PR tool and in the same way Moo mini-cards still do after all these years it’ll help me cause a stir in a generally conservative, predictable industry; but what else? What interests me most about tools like newspaperclub is how I might be able to connect it with the hyperlocal debate and the work a practice like ours does with neighbourhoods like Blurton in cities like Stoke on Trent. If I can plug the outputs from amateur community blogging quickly and cheaply into professional looking trusted formats like a newspaper then the credibility, the reach and the power of the voices being supported become reinforced. Not only that but you can leave it on a bus for someone else to read and you’re not likely to do that with an iPad.

Before you wrap your chips in it however, there’s something else you could do when you retrieve it from the bus. The bookleteer experience teaches the value of being able to easily send the paper format you produced with the digital tools back into pixels to be worked on again. There are more layers to be added, further annotation to be inserted and new ideas to be traced.

When I spoke about the project at Be2camp Birmingham last year I finished by enthusing about the Walking Papers project created to allow people to annotate simple paper copies of their chosen section of Open Street Map. Once complete they can be scanned in again and traced over thanks to the QR code that aligns the analogue with the digital automatically. Self publishing formats like bookleteer and newspaperclub are perfect for this type of process, flipping constantly between screen and paper (and indeed the experiments at SXSW have begun to explore this), but what I’ve come to realise is that I need the process to take place at many scales. What I need is a walking papers process that works on a building scale.

This collaboration between paper and screen knows no limits. It won’t care about file formats and it couldn’t give a damn if you’re a Mac or that Windows 7 was your idea. There’ll be no more excuses for a lack of communication.

And I’ll be able to go back to writing on paper bags.

Of course back in the day, the oldest and wisest of us knew that instinctively.


(picture circa 1997, taken from 2005 blog entry “Death of a Drawing Board“)

Development of spaces

Friday, January 15th, 2010

I may not be the only one seeking support from the Bay Area idiom and the work of Charles Moore I mentioned yesterday. I opened today’s BD magazine to find a review by Ellis Woodman of a fantastic project by James Gorst and was struck immediately by its similarity with a Moore project I’d seen before.

I wasn’t quite correct. It turns out it was another architect’s work praised by Moore in an essay in the book Bay Area Houses; the 1960 Rubin House by George Homsey…

Moore’s description is a lesson in itself.

A splendidly paired down and precise world of space and light (especially of light), this house managed to be a clear diagram of itself, altogether modest, yet at the same time rich in its development of spaces.

A clear diagram of itself. Very interesting.

Facing up

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Facing up, originally uploaded by eversion.

There’s something very satisfying about the way this building keeps facing you as you round the bend. Successfully enfronting the site I think Charles Moore would say.


Yep, enfronting it is:

I should get this out of my system. It must be getting quite dull, all this relentless referencing to Charles Moore. I’ve been wallowing in it for over a year. Let me explain.

I’m building a house. I’m attempting to be both client and architect and it’s not easy living this split personality. So I’ve been turning to seminal texts for support – comfort blankets if you like – wrapping myself in them at night and sharing a bath with them occasionally.

You’ll know the books I speak of – Poetics of Space, In Praise of Shadows, The Place of Houses to name but a few.

If you follow my twitter feed you’ll be heartily fed up with it by now. Elsewhere, more discretely, I’ve been noting stuff down for the last year and a half over at and over the festive season it finally started to fall into place. Gaston started talking to Charles, Junichiro got on better with Peter and the seeds of a home have begun to grow.

Of all the spirits I’ve called on though, it’s the ghost of Charles Moore that has been most supportive. The Place of Houses, written with Gerald Allen and Donlyn Lyndon is the best book on housing architecture I’ve got and the best book you should get. Its influence has been broad and many levelled; for example:

At Ecobuild last year I cited the ‘saddlebag’ technique in my talk about passive solar and it me helped explore the social/spatial benefits of the bolt-on, extra space that sunspaces provide. A buffer zone of many uses that breaks social housing out of its tight regulatory framework and minimum/maximum room sizes.

After the Stirling Prize was announced it explained to me one of the reasons that I, like the judges, had decided who should win.

And with its words on ‘inhabiting’ in the closing chapter it found a new way to make me think about what I’d been trying to convey in past discussions about legibility and ownership.

The fundamental principle is that in places where people live all space should seem to belong to someone or something; space either should seem to be inhabited, as if it belonged to or could be claimed by particular groups of people, or should be understandable as part of a coherent larger order, such as the natural landscape or the traditional fabric of the town or system of altogether new urban spaces.

So if I get that all off my chest here on this blog then perhaps I can stop sounding like a broken record. I’ll be making no such promises over on home4self though, as I’ll no doubt need plenty of help from Moore and his colleagues to take the sketches you see there and work out the order of rooms, the order of machines and the order of dreams.

YouCanPlan – BIM and Social Media

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

I hinted at one the projects I’ve been working on in a recent post and followed it up with a presentation at Ecobuild. The full write up is on the new BSD blog and images available at Slideshare, but I should offer an excerpt and some further notes here. represents my first attempt to get closer to the ideas in Dan Hill’s ‘Personal Well Tempered Environment’ concept and the subsequent notes in my own post, ‘Up On The Roof’. I’ve been collaborating with the guys at Slider Studio to develop the next stage in our investigations into online consultation work; but this time, by developing the platform they created for the self-build market, we’ve moved into the third dimension.

You know what I’m into. I want to start plugging it in to stuff. Getting data from the real world in and out of it. The notes below and the Ecobuild presentation I gave start to describe how we might do that using solutions most of you will know well.

I’ll be spending this weekend at our last public open day for, followed by an event with the residents of to start our version of the Open Street Map / public data mashup. Unfortunately this means I won’t be able to attend the Homecamp event on Saturday and get more connected with the folks developing exactly the ideas I’m pitching here. However I will be able to come along to the next Be2camp and do my bit to draw connections between the social bits, the media bits and the home bits. Come along and criticize/help.

BIM and Social Media

Axis Design and Slider Studio have created a new tool for Birmingham City Council called YouCanPlan Lozells. Slider’s ESP software has been resigned to suit the challenges of the diverse people and places of community consultation work. The software will be distributed via both CD and online to over 2500 households. It can be used both online and offline to ensure it can be used in any venue, but we hope that the benefits of the online mode means that people using it from home can make the most of both the live updates to proposals in the coming months, as well as using survey and chat tools to tell Birmingham City Council what they think about the designs being proposed by the city’s urban design team.


At its first public test during an event in the local park it was well received. In particular by the local teenagers who instantly took to the interface and chat tools. Making contact and building enthusiasm with the younger generations is often one of the biggest challenges with consultation work so in this case we hope that we’ve created something that will help us hear the voices of the future generations and perhaps bring some parents with them, curious to see what their children are using. Whilst the ability to consult with people from the comfort of their own home is huge step towards a more representative mandate from a neighbourhood, we’ve always described this as a tool to supplement the vital face to face debates that need to go on. With that in mind the software can be used in offline environments and the investment in 3D modelling can be used to produce rapid prototyped physical models that match the software .

What of the future and the implications for BIM? How can this tool help us manage data about a building or street? In its current format the model and software is a framework that can take inputs and changes in a top down fashion from stakeholders whose roles are well understood. It will receive new models and designs of steadily improving detail and can display images and links to other sources of info provided by local authorities and RSLs, but what of the community? How do we build a system that allows data rising from the streets – in a bottom up fashion – to manifest itself in the model and record live information about the neighbourhood. Our experience with web 2.0 tools and consultation work tells us that there are tools available to help us and they come under the title ‘social media’. Let’s look at a few examples and then imagine how YouCanPlan could use them to bring BIM, post-occupancy monitoring and community consultation together.

Pachube, developed by architect Usman Haque, is a service that aims to broker data for you. It takes information from physical objects that can record things, tidies it up, then spits out the results in a number of useful formats that you can plug into (or point at) another location. The simplest example is electricity meters. I have a meter at my office recording the number of kW used. It sends the info to Pachube allowing me to access it from anywhere and do anything with it. A number of visualisation methods have already been created by others, allowing me to either simply display the info online or feed it into other tools such as the AMEE carbon emissions calculator, letting me know how many tonnes (gulp!) of carbon I’m churning out.

Another social media tool that takes simple inputs and creates powerful outputs is Twitter. Unless you’ve been living under a particularly analogue rock lately, you’ll have probably heard of this web site. Twitter simply wants you to tell it what you’re doing. No, really, that’s it. Just tell it what you’re doing and do it within 140 characters. I’ve been using it for a couple of years for keeping in touch with like-minded architects and bloggers and more recently using it as a tool for dispatching the lyrics of one of my favourite bands one line at a time. Others, like Andy Stanford-Clark from IBM, have found ways to use it for recording more than just bon mots and satirical one liners. By plugging it into all the activities around the house Andy has found a way to make his home twitter. A live feed of building information as devices switch on, doors open and phones ring.

Mapping is an important part of information modelling; the data is most useful when tied accurately to location. However, mapping can be a prohibitive field as commercial restrictions can often make extensive availaibility and re-use of map information costly. Open Street Map allows us to avoid this problem by providing up to date maps that are completely free to use and adapt. The wikipedia of mapping, Open Street Map is by the people and for the people, created by volunteers with GPS devices all over the world. Its open source nature allows us to look at ways of combining the info with other tools such as phonecam sites like or Marking the position of a photo – an option increasingly done automatically by some phone models – allows us to track the latest events and activities in a neighbourhood visually. This has been succesfully developed, alongside other services such as planning alerts and transport links, by Tom Chance and Thomas Wood and their interactive map of Sutton.

Tools like these will turn platforms like YouCanPlan into a virtual environment augmented by reality. By allowing the model to plug into other information modelling systems the buildings will convey live information about the current state of a house or street or neighbourhood. The data shown in the model will help local authorties record and assess public information, and the residents will be able to keep in touch with the activities of friends and family and show landlords and local authorities what the most pressing issues are right now. The recording and public display of energy information for a household introduces the possibility of encouraged energy saving through competition. Who has saved the most money in the street this week? Who has created the most carbon?

YouCanPlan augmented

The successful reduction of carbon emissions in the built environment to meet the targets of 2050 is entirely dependent on an improvement in performance informed by regular post-occupancy monitoring. BIM can continue to play a vital role in this process beyond the completion of the construction and there are powerful social media tools available to help make it happen. A creative approach to the field and an open mind to the power of open data formats will help the profession to share knowledge and avoid the usual debates about interoperability. We need to improve the communication between the designers and users throughout the life of the building, not just as we hand over the keys.

local news

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

Birmingham City Council launched a major new project today. I spent the afternoon with Director of Housing, Elaine Elkington and Councilor John Lines at the opening of our passive solar experiment in Kings Heath. This marks the beginning of 3 years of post-occupancy monitoring we’ll be doing in collaboration with the guys at Hockerton Housing.

This is one of the projects I presented at Ecobuild – slides available at Slideshare.

Oh, and I hear there was some announcement about a new library.

A little early to judge from such a small amount of information – 3 images released so far – but from the looks of this sketch it would seem that the fate of the existing John Madin designed building has been decided. You can’t normally see the museum’s clock tower on the horizon from here.

The tussle of architectural periods between the three buildings on the square, hinted at by Mecanoo’s Francine Houben in the video, somehow reminds me of the John Cleese and Two Ronnies sketch.

Although being literally grounded through its reach down into the very soil of the city, the sunken amphitheatre proposed does help it avoid feeling like little more than a beauty competition line up. You want me to be open to the people of Birmingham? Here’s my lower intestine. Perhaps the way to a buildings heart is through its stomach.

Ecobuild 2009

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

Should you find yourself at Ecobuild tomorrow afternoon, be sure to stop by the Thames Lounge and say hello. I’ll be there from 1pm, starting with a talk on passive solar for the ‘Making Sustainable Affordable’ session followed by another on BIM and social media for the ‘Information Modelling for Greener Buildings’ seminar.

I’m particularly looking forward to the latter of the two as I’m hoping it will give me the chance to bring some be2camp ideas to a more mainstream (?) crowd.

YouCanPlan software

See you tomorrow.

Updike on houses

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

The dwelling places of Europe have an air of inheritance, or cumulative possession—a hive occupied by generations of bees. In America, the houses seem privately ours, even when we have not built them up, in pine two-by-fours and four-by-eight-foot sheets of plywood, from a poured-concrete foundation. Houses are, as Newland Archer sensed, our fate. The houses we build in our fiction need not conform to a floor plan—indeed, the reader’s capacity for visualizing spatial relations is feeble—but they must conform to a life plan, feeding the characters’ senses whenever these turn outward, confirming social place with their walls and accoutrements, echoing in authentic matter the spiritual pattern the author intends to trace. A house, having been willfully purchased and furnished, tells us more than a body, and its description is a foremost resource of the art of fiction. Every novelist becomes, to a degree, an architect—castles in air!—and a novel itself is, of course, a kind of dwelling, whose spaces open and constrict, foster display or concealment, and resonate from room to room.

John Updike on fictional houses. Found, about 5 links deep through twitter and web, here: Architectural Digest

Moore AD covers

Friday, January 16th, 2009

I found another one… Po-mo blast off!

AD cover April 77

Inside, Charles Moore reviews Jenck’s ‘The Language of Post-Modern Architecture’:

Whatever it’s called, it is probably more useful to to consider how to do it. Here I think Jencks prescription for a ‘radical eclecticism’ is incomplete. His concept of ‘multivalence’ seems to be entirely to do with architecture as communication – simply a matter of horizontal connections. And although the richness and variety of that communication – as proposed by Jencks – is far greater than that we’ve lately been offered, what seems to be missing is the way we feel about buildings – how light animates them and the breezes flow through them, and how they engage our bodies and give us a sense of where we are and cause our spirits to soar, as perhaps the spaces themselves soar.

Moving from the simple horizontal connections to the spaces that make our spirits soar is, I think, where Russell Davies is heading with his new schtick. Read on.

AD covers from the 1970s

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

Provided mostly as a supplement to the latest post by The Sesquipedalist, I’ve dug out some old cover images from AD magazine in the 70s.

AD cover Dec 75

Much better qualified to explain the history of architectural journalism than I, The Sesquipedalist sets the scene:

During the “book business model” of the ’70s, where the magazine almost completely eschewed advertising, the covers became outlandish and featured Cedric Price, Archigram, Foster Associates, Buckminster Fuller, Royston Landau, Alvin Boyarsky, The Smithsons, Aldo van Eyck and some attractive ones too.

Another fascinating entry from a great blog, I encourage you to add it to your feed reader if you haven’t already. I’ll merely add the simple observation that the predominant use of illustration rather than photography serves the magazine well in its exploration of potential futures, ideas rather than things.

There’s much to learn from the 30 year old pages. Of particular interest to me have been the pleas by foresighted ecologists proposing basic environmental science improvements that are to this day dealt with as fringe concepts – such as the benefits of passive solar in the ‘Housing Provision’ issue of August 1976 by Gerald Foley. The landscape issue from the following month (cover by Ron Herron) contains a piece by Sutherland Lyall, whose name might be known to fellow bloggers thanks to his column in the Architectural Review on architecture web sites.  Which gives me another opportunity to thank him for his kind words back in November 2005:


I realise now that I’ve completely ignored his advice about using blogs for company websites.

The December 77 cover showing a beautiful Erskine drawing has been uploaded more extensively before, also you may like to contrast and compare these with somewhat more sombre approach taken by the AR during the same decade.


You can see all the covers I’ve uploaded over the last few years in a flickr collection.