Title: Point of view
Pages: 20 - 21
Text: Point of view
An industry in the melting not
It is no exaggeration to say that the future of Britain's building industry is in the melting pot, and that the decisions taken during the next two years or so are going to have an effect which will last at least to the end of the century. The decisions concern three basic elements in building - dimensions, joints and tolerances; the development from building systems to interchangeable components; and finally, the design of the components, and the uses to which they are put.
The opportunity - and the danger that it may be missed or bungled -to put the industry on a completely new footing stems from two things: national agreement on dimensional co-ordination, now reached at last after years of wrangling, and the decision to switch to metric. Not only will this bring the building industry into line with continental practice; it also presents a chance to improve the whole pattern of British Standards for building. The responsibility for co - ordinating the changeover has been given to the British Standards Institution, which last month circulated a questionnaire explaining the implications for the change to metric, and seeking industry's reaction. This month, the BSI is holding a conference for the recipients of the questionnaire, and a draft programme for the changeover should be ready by the end of the year.
The publication of BS 4011 * establishes 30 cm and 10 cm as the basic units of building components, and other proposals should now be put into cold storage. But measurements are not the whole story. Standards must also deal with joints and jointing methods, and with tolerances, otherwise building components will never be interchangeable. In the case of these elements, however, confusion still remains. Some work on joints, which is the most critical element in the drive towards interchangeability, is being carried out by Government departments, the Building Research Station and the National Building Agency, and is being co - ordinated by the Ministry of Public Building and Works' interdepartmental working party. Research is also being carried out on tolerances. But what is needed is a much greater effort in both these fields and a clear set of priorities as to which building components matter most and which components are to be tackled in which order. The lead must come from the Government and the BSI, working in conjunction with the NBA and the industry.
While components for general use are being rationalised, the best possible use must be made of building systems. At the moment, the architect is faced with a variety of systems but surprisingly little choice. Furthermore, lack of standardisation can lead to the kind of situation whereby Laing spent £4 million on factories producing 8 ft 4 inches floor to floor units and was then asked by a local authority to quote for an 8 ft floor to ceiling house. The number of systems available represents an unnecessary duplication of effort, and the NBA's appraisals are a welcome development.
Action may be needed to amalgamate the industry into bigger units producing fewer but better building systems, and in any development of this kind ministries and local government consortia clearly have an important part to play.
Finally, the quality of the design of systems and components, and the way in which they are used, is all important. As far as the manufacturing industry is concerned, the changeover to metric will enable Britain to export components, but it will also lay us open to foreign competition: thus, the industry must set up its own high standards of design and finish.
The architect, however, has a different challenge to meet. The whole business of industrialised building is regarded by many people as implying box-like constructions which are notable only for their uniformity and dullness; but if this is so, it is largely the fault of the architect. As David Medd (speaking at the RlBA's meeting Will it Fit ? last January) said, hundreds of systems for house construction have died since the war "because they standardised the ends instead of the means", whereas school building components have survived because they have been used in different and exciting ways. The best of the systems, if imaginatively used, can give the architect a wide variety of layout and character, although the long term future must lie with interchangeable factory - made building components. In the meantime, to design within the framework of a system should be regarded by the architect as just as challenging and rewarding - as to design using conventional methods.
*Recommendations for the Co-ordination of Dimensions in Building: Basic Sizes for Building Components and Assemblies
New patterns of informed demand
In spite of gloomy comments from backward looking manufacturers about public disinterest in design, there is plenty of evidence to show that the ordinary consumer is eager to become better informed and more discriminating in his choice of products for the home. One obvious example is the success of Which?, whose monthly circulation has steadily grown to its present 420,000 copies. Another is the continuing interest by the public in The Design Centre, which has attracted an average attendance of some 800,000 visitors a year during the past 10 years.
But perhaps the most encouraging example in recent weeks has been the remarkable demand for two new Design Centre publications which have been produced as a co - operative venture by Macdonald & Co Ltd and the ColD. Fifteen thousand copies each of these pocket sized A5 books - one on Kitchens by John Prizeman and the other on Lighting by Derek Phillips - were printed and published at the end of January and launched at a reception in The Design Centre. Ten days later they had all been sold, and Macdonald had to reprint immediately.
The authors of both books, which are available from the Centre and from booksellers at 7s 6d each, are qualified architects, and they have set out to provide real, practical guidance on home planning and on selecting the best equipment to suit individual needs. The books are the forerunners of a series on many aspects of design in the home. Two are already in the pipeline and will be published later this year Bathrooms by Gontran Goulden, the director of the Building Centre, and Heating by Nigel Chapman, a member of the ColD's industrial staff - and another two have been commissioned - Bedrooms by Dorothy Meade (whose article on office desks and chairs begins on page 38 of this issue) and a book on children's equipment by Claire Rayner. As the collection builds up, it should provide a valuable source of information for thousands of householders; and if the initial response is repeated in later editions the pattern of consumer demand will make itself felt on even the most recalcitrant members of industry and the retail trade.
A bleak outlook for environmental design
The Civic Trust's awards for county council areas, announced earlier this year, were encouraging for the number of entries received - there were more than 1,000, an increase of nearly 300 on the number received for a similar series of awards in 1962 - and for the fact that 84 counties out of a possible 99 took part, eight more than on the previous occasion. One of the counties that did not take part was Oxfordshire, and in view of Lionel Brett's description of Oxfordshire's architectural plight in Landscape in Distress, perhaps that was not surprising.
In contrast, Lancashire submitted 80 entries and gained one award and nine commendations which, as the Civic Trust report says, "is the kind of purposefulness which needs to be sustained in the North West if its environment is to be transformed and if the prevailing image of widespread dereliction is to be dispelled".
The Civic Trust awards, besides giving recognition for good work where it is due, are a useful guide to what is happening in architecture and environmental design. Many of the comments made by Ian Nairn in his recent attack on architects in The Observer are made in the trust's report. Shopping centres are singled out for adopting a uniform pattern which lacks a sense of identity or place. Development in towns is criticised for its widespread destruction of the character and scale of our architectural and urban heritage. Landscape design is found to be uninspiring because of the general belief "that, providing existing trees on a site are left intact, the scene is thereby landscaped". And many entries failed because they used a multiplicity of materials or superficial gimmicks of one kind or another.
Similarly, where progress was made, it seems slow. Since the trust's awards were initiated, no farm building had ever received an award, but a granary at Fincham, Norfolk, has at last been commended (see below).
This is at least an improvement on the situation in Oxfordshire, where Lionel Brett reports that "we did not find a single modern farmstead. Crudely detailed and often inefficient prefabricated buildings mixed unhappily with old barns and elements of god - wottery in farmhouse gardens". The ColD's farm buildings panel has provided useful advice on farm buildings, but it seems as if much more effort is needed to get enlightened opinion among farmers and their architects before any real progress can be made in this field.
In February's leader (DESIGN 206/25), it was suggested that the countryside is in need of an overall plan: the Civic Trust's report suggests that the same is true of towns. Richard Crossman, Minister of Housing and Local Government, has promised schemes aimed at high standards of preservation and renewal for four towns, but that is hardly enough.
Unless all those concerned with the design of the spaces in which we live- including architects, planners, industrial designers and, of course, those who control the purse strings - are prepared to think in terms of the effect their work has on the total environment, the Civic Trust will be condemned to giving its awards in the main to isolated examples of good design. Their surroundings, as one can see today, will be memorable only for their mediocrity.
P.S. In case anyone thinks that Britain is the only country bedevilled by haphazard design and muddled thinking, our American correspondent reports that New York City has introduced a tax on good design by a city ordinance aimed at minimising capital investment in company estate.
"Roughly", he writes, "the city noted that a good deal of money was being invested in magnificent architecture - such as the Seagram building on Park Avenue or the Chase Manhattan Bank in the Wall Street area. Naturally, capital investments of this kind reduce taxable profits, and the city decided to take its share of the excess - or what it thought was the excess expenditure in erecting fine architecture." At the same time, the previous Mayor of New York signed a bill which required "that at least one two-hundredth of the construction costs of new city buildings be allocated to the fine arts".
So what one will end up with may be less money spent on the buildings themselves, and more money spent on frills like sculpture, murals, decorative pavings, fountains or landscaped effects.. When it comes to a choice between buildings and their additions, there can be little doubt about which is the more important from a design point of view.
The granary at Fincham Hall Farm, Norfolk, designed by W. A. J. Spear and commended for the way it relates to the other farm buildings.