Archive for notes and sketches

existenzminimum

ExistenzminimumMike considers the reality of space standard minimums and examples of UK housing:

Recent debate about the value of delivering smaller houses, with or without government subsidy, reignites the professions enduring interest in existenzminimum, the minimum habitable area in support of subsistence life. Internationally much debated within CIAM & Demos throughout the early to mid-twentieth century and often described as the house for the proletariat. The resultant decades of dialogue, research and the construction of numerous prototypical pods, insights from physiology, psychology, sociology, biology, ergonomics and engineering were garnered in support of the search for the answer.

So what is the minimum area necessary to support contemporary living: a bedspace, a bedspace + clothes rail, a bed/clothes + sitting space, bed/sitting space + cooking corner + toilet, all of the above + space saver shower? Not convinced or still undecided then…

Let’s sprinkle each with a modest social life, a (very) compact hobby or two (no pets please) and occasionally languish in a bath and you have got yourself beyond the touring caravan, converted garage, yuppy yurt, glamping trailer tent, bijou box, chic shed or my(i)pad.

The problem with existenzminimum is that most of us don’t really relish subsistence living, let alone being described as a proletarian. We surely don’t aspire to it, certainly not on a market rent or 25 year repayment mortgage. It is by its very nature a transient state which you wish to move beyond, as quickly as the property market and income will allow.

While pondering the question we quite naturally expect to put our feet up, reach into the fridge for a chilled beer/wine and prepare (maybe even cook) and consume a basic meal for one/two. From the confines of our living pod a network of space consuming relationships develop, with the outside world, not surprisingly since we have so little of the inside world to deal with. We use personal transport to work/leisure, we eat drink outdoors, we deal with laundry, we visit long suffering friends (if only for a bath and to use their dryer), we grow stuff, we keep pets, we order takeaways, order stuff (small stuff) from Amazon sometimes to display trophies suggesting we ‘have arrived’ and yet yearn for that combination of personal solitude and psychological centredness summed up in ‘my space- keep out’.

So where does this get us? Certainly beyond that rash of urban hutches which regularly appear on the UK market in a blaze of incentives for first time buyers craving the new urban lifestyle. On reflection anything heading much below 50 sq m is a strait jacket where living goes out the window (if you have one) and existenzminimum arrives. If you are still undecided have a look at the diagram which overlays to scale a number of living enclosures, there may be space for us all here.

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Highlights and Resolutions

We’re greeting the New Year with some personal highlights from 2013 and resolutions for 2014…

Mike meeting Dion Neutra:

Judging modernist architecture by living in it for a short stay is an experience not to be missed, a bit like washing a car to really enjoy its fine lines and detailing. Last time it was a Usonian House in Pennsylvania, this year it was Palm Springs and LA territory, the home of some of the most innovative early/mid century houses in the World.

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Don Wexler’s contribution to the development of the post-war California bungalow and steel houses is not well known but his understated houses are architecturally stunning. Living in one of his many houses on the El Rancho Vista is the ultimate desert climate chill zone complete with the chance to visit the nearby Kaufmann Desert House by Neutra. By way of something completely different, the Fitzpatrick-Leland House in Laurel Canyon is available to rent.

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Luarel (5)

Just off Mulholland Drive and perched on the edge of a cliff, it’s a 1935 low cost house, mainly timber frame and gunnite, with the volumetric and spatial interplay you would expect from Rudolph Schindler. Breakfasting overlooking the canyon through the sheet glazed wall and Eucalyptus trees is a wonderful fusion of modernism and organic architecture. The influence of FLW on Schindler, his college friend Richard Neutra, his apprentices Wexler, Gregory Ain and Harwell Harris is clear.

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Wexler PS 217

So what is my 2013 highlight? it has got to be meeting Dion Neutra and standing on the lawn of the Lovell Health House talking about his Dad and his childhood years spent at Kings Road.

Rob begins making a home4self:

Two new challenges in 2013 were my stand out highlights for the year – finally starting the self-build house project for my own family after many years of planning and returning to Birmingham School of Architecture as a visiting tutor.

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Facing the challenges of project managing and building a house for yourself is an experience I’d recommend every architect attempts. Using it as an opportunity to experiment with new materials and construction techniques has provided the opportunity to develop ideas I hope to offer to future clients. The winter weather is slowing us down slightly, but I’ll be spending this month laying more clay blocks and weatherproofing the timber frame. Updates from site can be found at home4self.tumblr.com

My 2014 resolution is a little predictable: finish the house!

Katie qualifies:

Highlights:

  • After a 10 year slog of studying and training on the job I finally became a fully qualified Architect- which means no more dreaded PEDR sheets!
  • I completed another two half marathons and obtained a new PB despite being full of cold.
  • Running Medal

  • Finally started writing my own blog about the architecture and historical buildings of Birmingham, here’s a cheeky plug – architectureonmydoorstep.wordpress.com
  • Blog Screen Clip

  • Turning a age milestone and having a great party with family and friends, life begins at 30!

Resolutions:

  • To get sketching, my aim is to do a drawing a week… my sketch book is at the ready.
  • To make more time for more reading- no excuses.
  • Keep up the running and take on some more physical challenges such as bike riding and hiking. There is some talk amongst friends of doing the three peaks challenge but a dumbed down version over 3 weekends but don’t hold me to that!

Dan’s Neopolitan street life:

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My highlight for 2013 would have to be my study trip to Naples and the Amalfi coast; ten days of pizza, sunshine and, of course, interesting architecture. The purpose of the trip was to observe a City’s “Street life”; something all too easy to find in Naples, one of the busiest ports in Europe. Some of the particularly noteworthy buildings I saw in the city are photographed below.

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Of course, any trip to Naples and the surrounding area would be incomplete without mention of Vesuvius and the ruins of the Roman towns that lie in it’s shadow. Pompeii and Ercolano (AKA. Herculaneum) were both incredibly interesting; it is amazing that both are so-well preserved, especially in the case of Ercolano’s remaining mosaics, some of which are photographed below.

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For 2014, my resolution is to get back into the habit of keeping a journal, as I have been somewhat lax over the last few months of 2013. Also, I should try to sketch more in said journal, as my last journal was somewhat lacking in sketches.

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Self Build on a Shoestring

As part of our work to develop new cost effective self-build strategies we recently prepared a submission to the NaSBA Self Build on a Shoestring competition. Although we weren’t successful it was great to see that a number of submissions had proposed a similar concept to ours, exploring the possibilities of single storey housing. The construction proposal is based on what we’ve learnt on one of our current live projects; Rob’s own self-build project called home4self.

We’ll be sharing more about that in the coming weeks, in the meantime here’s our idea for a house costing less than £50k…

*update*: Delighted to find that our proposal was displayed at the Grand Designs Live show as part of the top 16 entries.

£50k house

the 50k house isn’t a design problem, it’s a procurement problem – building a house on a tight budget demands easy to organise packages of work, simple construction and a combination of the best of both on-site and off-site techniques to ensure fixed prices and predictable program – we believe the single storey house has an important role to play in the future of UK housing and is ideally suited to self-build skills…

Single storey, modern methods of construction and easy to manage packages of work.

Our proposal is designed to consider carefully the benefits of combining simple on-site construction processes that could be undertaken by an enthusiastic self-builder alongside the price and performance certainty delivered by off-site prefabrication. We have chosen to explore a single storey house typology. Although this decision brings greater challenges with both the energy performance and ground works, we believe that the benefits to living quality, adaptability and ease of construction make the bungalow a worthwhile investment.

One of the greatest challenges for a self-builder is the day to day management of material delivery, storage and plant and equipment required to control health and safety issues of working at height. Using modern methods of construction we aim to provide a large water tight space quickly that allows the self-builder to proceed in a more easily managed process internally. By overlapping ground floor construction and off-site manufacture the initial program of works can be completed quickly with certainty over fixed prices for the bulk of the superstructure. Items of joinery such as stairs and service walls are intended to be designed and manufactured following a pattern that can be repeated cost effectively using CNC routing technology. The prices stated for the pre-fabricated timber frame also assume a standardised panel size that can be called off by self-builders following a common house type plan. The layout of the design has been developed such that it can be mirrored or handed in various ways to suit orientation without changing the fundamental construction dimensions.

Once the superstructure is complete the interior can be fitted out easily thanks to the efficient arrangement of plumbing and heating layouts that will require minimum labour and material to commission and avoid potential for delays and unforeseen costs thanks to colliding orders of trade.

The central service zone contributes not only to the ease of construction but also the ability to extend easily in future at either end of the building or into the entrance porch, without major alterations to mechanical and electrical layouts. The installation of an MVHR unit in the centre of the plan also reduces complex duct runs and maximises efficiency of performance.

Open plan living places the kitchen at the heart of the house. Our courtyard entrance strategy provides daylight to the centre of the plan and creates a useful external storage area. By completing the roof in pre-insulated panels the higher levels of the pitched roof can be left open above living spaces and enclosed over bedroom areas to provide ample storage.

We believe this is a house that future self-build families could be encouraged to undertake and project manage their own construction when offered a design that is easy to imagine and plan the work required, both in scale and order of trades.

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Niemeyer living on

Research and Development is tough. Thankfully we’re fully committed to continual professional development here at Axis Design and even go so far as undertaking long distance travel to learn more about the profession we love. For example, here’s some thoughts from Axis director Mike Menzies following a recent trip to Brazil:

Oscar Niemeyer

“Back in the early fifties when Oscar Niemeyer and his friend and collaborator, Roberto Burle Marx set out the plan for the Ibirapuera Park, roller blading and skateboarding were yet to become part of the urban street culture. However the shade and cool breezes offered by the serpentine concrete covered walkways linking many of Niemeyer’s principle buildings in the Park has been appropriated by a new generation of young Paulistas, keen to demonstrate their skills weaving between the pilotis, café tables and groups of tourists and visitors. As a lifelong communist, Niemeyer would have no doubt raised a wry smile at this counter-cultural invasion of the world of art and culture celebrated within the nearby museum and exhibition spaces.

Oscar Niemeyer

Two of which, the Pavilion of Brazilian Culture and its nearby twin, Museum of Afro Brazilian Art have undergone recent extensive renovation works. The interior spaces framed by their cantilevered floors, raking pillar supports, brise soleil and concrete louvred facades are an uncanny precursor to much later open-plan, loose-fit, flexible exhibition spaces.

The interplay of the structural grid of floor bays and supports with the serpentine, ramped access routes is a powerful and unfolding experience as you walk between the floors. His lifelong affair with curvilinear forms, most recently seen in La Lingua, his newest auditorium building in the Park, came to its conclusion with his death last December. However his urban cool lives on, not least in the uncanny parallels of a sinuously, executed grind and his meandering plan for Ibirapuera Park.”

Oscar Niemeyer

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Thirty Years In Practice

As we celebrate our 30th year in practice, we hope you’ll forgive us for rounding the year off with an element of nostalgia. We’ve raked over the warm embers of our work predominantly in the fields of masterplanning, regeneration and housing to see what we can find.

The project that started it all off, back in 1982, was a series of shopfitting contracts carried out on behalf of Walter Smith butchers. A total refit over a Bank Holiday weekend, 24 hour working and a team spirit which predated Egan procurement and partnering by close to a decade.

Our longest running project has got to be the regeneration of the Pype Hayes Estate which began back in the summer of ‘89 addressing a bunch of disgruntled local residents who were going to lose their defective Boswell Houses, but were worried about what they might be getting in their place… and this year Birmingham City Council have just completed the handover (pictured left) of the last phase of work under the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust umbrella.

The strangest project we’ve worked on has got to be looking for buried WW2 aircraft while pretending to be doing drainage survey work – the only job that did not carry a job number or any correspondence references. Not quite in line with the RIBA project management guidance!

The most expensive project per square metre has got to be Wigan Metropolitan Council Chamber: an interior refit of the former Mining College in the town. Bespoke light poles, silk heraldic banners suspended in specially designed Perspex frames (pictured right) and a three storey hexagonal glass tower made out of Reynolds 531 tube.

The cheapest per square metre must be the Balsall Heath Tree Centre: an A-framed community space sitting within a community tree nursery (left).

The one that got us in the media for the wrong reasons: Wadbury Mill and the threat to our refurbishment of an old mill was thanks to a colony of Long-eared Bats. We made the front page of the Guardian as we recall.

Our most challenging project was probably the reconstruction of the grade 2 listed roof trusses in Crosby Court (right). Between English Heritage, imminent roof collapse and pigeons we still managed to jack the roof up and pull the lantern back into position… mind you, the roof had survived a direct hit during the war but the bomb failed to go off. It was never found and could be under our conference room for all we know. A great way of keeping client meetings short.

The one that got us in the media for all the right reasons: Eco Terraces – a radical refurbishment of terraced houses which predated the government focus on improving existing stock and the current Green Deal.

Our most embarrassing project has to be the cedar clad courtyard of bungalows in Castle Vale. They were great when new but now look miserable, grey, streaked, and shed-like in appearance – not at all what we intended.

The project we miss most: Midlands Art Centre café and its play wall which included a built-in noughts & crosses game (pictured left) – an attempt to create an interactive art space for users of every age with the in-house artists making the cushions, banners and ceramic tiles.

Our most popular project with the wider public is probably Brandwood End (pictured right), which met its core objectives of being ‘tenure blind’ and a 21st century reinvention of Bournville Village Trust housing. Our homage to Harvey and Bedford Tyler is ageing quite gracefully (unlike some of us).

The most satisfying project has got to be the one project that delighted the client, had architectural integrity, enriched the lives of its users, had us showered in accolades and earned us a mandatory scale 10% fee plus expenses… We can’t quite recall which project that would be.

Finally, the strangest coincidence in this our 30th year, is that we find ourselves working on a development in Monument Road, Ladywood, having spent much of the ‘80s and ‘90s working on the regeneration framework for the area. What’s even stranger is that we are looking at the refurbishment of the Schoolhouse, a small school building which the two founding partners looked at in the year preceding the formation of Axis Design… what goes around comes around.

We’d like to add our thanks to all our clients, collaborators, colleagues and fellow consultants for all their input, support and trust over the last 30 years. Most of all we hope that the residents we’ve met along the way have all enjoyed living in the places we’ve helped to create; we’ve certainly enjoyed being a part of their communities during our work together. We’re looking forward to the next 30 years and more projects as challenging as the ones described above.

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Christmas Donations Through Kiva

Many poor families around the world are financially unable to purchase a house that meets their needs. Housing loans give families access to capital to improve their homes and an opportunity to pay loans back at a pace that they can handle. Last Christmas we made a donation to Kiva, and over the subsequent 12 months we helped a total of 4 families.

We’ve added to our Kiva loan fund again this Christmas and our donation will help another two families. We’re helping Primetiva (right) from a small village in the Philippines. She is 62 years old, is married and has seven children. Primetiva has a hog fattening business and she has requested a modest loan to renovate her house. In the future, she hopes to have more savings.

We’re also helping Megi (left) and her family from West Georgia. They are involved in an agricultural business and Megi works hard to do her best for her family. In particular, they run a small dairy farm with a milk cow whose milk is used in cheese products. The cheese is sold at the local open market. In addition, Megi has a pig and sells piglets seasonally. A loan will create better conditions for Megi and her son, and enable them to enjoy living in their house.

As Megi and Primetiva’s loans are repaid, along with the final repayments from the other borrowers we’ve helped, our lending portfolio will grow and we’re looking forward to reinvesting the money with other needy families.

UPDATE: We’ve now received notification that the loans we made last christmas have been repaid in full. This means we’re ready to reinvest and help more families around the world.

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Axis Design’s travel policy goes fully electric

As experts in sustainable design, through all our activities and working practices we look for ways to protect and enhance the environment. This includes getting out and about in the course of our work, so in an attempt to further lessen our carbon emissions we’re pleased to announce that the latest addition to the Axis Design team is a fully electric Citroen C-Zero car.

Most of the team here at Axis are regular users of public transport for getting to and from work, and to site visits, but there are occasions when a car is the most suitable form of transport because it saves time, and because some sites are difficult to access using public transport. Free parking for electric vehicles is available in many towns too, allowing for cost savings to be made.

We’ve been able to take advantage of a grant made available for small businesses allowing us to take the leap into fully electric zero-carbon transport. We’ll also be encouraging our clients to lead the way by installing charge points for electric vehicles on new housing developments, again, taking advantage of grants available to keep costs to a minimum.

The car itself is powered by a 16kW/h battery that generates enough electricity to power the motor, air conditioning and heating system. On a full charge it is expected to reach a total distance of 79 miles and can be charged in 7 hours (or 30 minutes when connected to special terminal delivering a 125a monophase current). It has an automatic gearbox, and reaches top speeds of up to 80mph – not bad for a little electric car, eh?

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Mel Starrs (1973 – 2012)

This week we learned that our friend Mel Starrs passed away suddenly at her home over the weekend. Mel was an Engineer who was passionate about good quality low-carbon construction. She was a keen blogger and tweeter, and was an advocate of technology and the web. Mel was staunchly dedicated to her work – if there was something to know about sustainability or environmental design, Mel would have the answer. She was highly respected: online and in person Mel was brave and outspoken, she challenged people and she sought answers.

Rather than attempting to write something here, we’re pointing you towards Phil Clarke’s tribute to Mel over on Building Design. His writing has neatly summed up how we’re all feeling.

Her untimely death has left us stunned and our deepest condolences go to her partner Mark along with her friends and family. Mark has shared his thoughts on Mel’s blog and provided a suggestion for commemorative donations to her favourite charity. We’ll be making a donation and hope that anyone who knew Mel or has benefited from her tireless work to improve the environment will do the same.

We’ll miss you Mel.

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Kiva Loan update

Remember the loan we made at Christmas? We donated money to help a couple of families in South America…? Well, the money is slowly creeping back into our “Kiva” loan account as repayments are made and we thought it might be nice to reinvest the money with someone else. This time we’ve chosen Mr Yadamdorj in Mongolia:

Mr. Yadamdorj, 33, is an auto repairman and driver. He lives with his wife and his daughter in a ger (a ger is a Mongolian traditional nomadic yurt). He has been building a new house for his family with his brother and needs some money to cover the cost of windows and wall insulation materials for his new house.

This loan is part of Credit Mongol’s green loan program, which helps clients to gain access to electricity through solar panel kits, as well as other products for improving their heating and ventilation systems, reducing pollution and health problems caused by burning fuel.

Full details about Mr Yadamdorj and his family are here: http://www.kiva.org/lend/447855

We rather like the idea that we’re helping someone build an eco-friendly house – it fits nicely with our ethos.

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Singapore Sling

Mike Menzies, Director here at Axis was lucky enough to be offered a trip of a lifetime…

“Are you up for a Singapore Sling in Raffles Hotel?”

Now that’s an offer you don’t hear everyday but it’s how John Cave: Sustainability Manager at E.H.Smith., introduced the idea of a short break in Singapore to visit the REC solar cells manufacturing complex overlooking the Straits of Malacca.

The trip brought together a number of European teams all of us linked via Sunconnex, the Dutch PV project developer and product distributor. A night flight and quick crash nap at Traders Hotel were the prelude to four days of remarkable hospitality. Highlights must include an early Sunday morning walk in the renowned Singapore Botanic Gardens & National Orchid House and a late night visit to the top floor panoramic Ku De Ta Lounge (photo on left, taken by John Cave of EH Smith), Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. If clubbing floats your boat, this is the place to be seen – any doubts, contact John M or Phil for details of just how things liven up at around 3am.

The REC manufacturing plant gave a fascinating insight into how silicon mined in Butte, Montana, ends up in Singapore, cooking in crucibles for 48hrs, sliced into micron thin wafers using 750km of stainless steel wire and then chemically coated to become fully tested high performance PV cells. The whole process is managed by REC in 3 adjacent and integrated state of the art factories where they manufacture silicon wafers, PV cells and their REC Solar branded PV modules.

My thanks goes to John Cave, John Milston of Sunconnex UK, Phil Roberts of GMI Renewables and Pierre Cesbron and his colleagues at REC Solar.

John Cave is a photo buff (see photo above left) so watch out for his Flickr stream including some amazing telephoto shots crossing India and Afghanistan.

L-R: Phil Roberts, John Milston & John Cave

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