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Effects and intentions

Colin King
27/3/2023

Future Reference

This article considers the late architect and critic Michael Sorkin’s advice for writing about design and buildings – ‘credit effects, not intentions’ – in relation to a recent suite of planning policies that influence architecture in Ireland. In safe-guarding against the failure of design experiments of the past, however well intentioned, do we suppress the potential for successful innovation in the future?

Collage of the cover images of four planning policies: The National Planning Framework, Housing for All, The Climate Action Plan, and Places for People.

In safe-guarding against the failure of design experiments of the past, however well intentioned, do we suppress the potential for successful innovation in the future?

Planning systems tend to be better at preventing what they don’t want than enabling what they do want. The Planning and Development Bill is process-driven: it is to be hoped that its effects on the practice of architecture – on how we move between design stages – will be positive, but we shouldn’t look to it for design intent. Indeed, the component of the Bill that might most effect how we design is notable for its lack of detail. Urban Development Zones (UDZ) have the potential to change how and what we design. They define a mechanism by which the planned use of lands is specifically designated by local authorities with early public engagement to restrict what landowners can do with land within these zones, unless they accord with the designated intention. UDZs potentially move power back to public authorities to say what is developed; they could take Ireland toward much-envied Dutch or German models of development. Housing for All – the source of the UDZ concept and one of three docments that arguably most influence what we design [2] – limits its concerns to only one sector of the built environment: housing. For a broader demonstration of planning intent, we need to look to the National Planning Framework: Ireland 2040 (NPF) and the Climate Action Plan.  

The Climate Action Plan – across its 2019, 2021 and 2023 iterations – is clear in its intent. An urgent response to the climate crisis is required. Across various sectors it describes change needed and pathways to achieving this change. Spanning from the level of the building in its development of performance standards and its promotion of low-carbon construction, to the level of the settlement level in its creation of pathfinder decarbonising zones, the Climate Action Plan’s implications for design are huge – a root and branch reassessment of the energy we use, not just to heat, cool, and light our buildings, but in the production and transport of construction materials, construction processes, maintenance, repair, and disposal of buildings and infrastructure. Notwithstanding this, spatial planning, design, and architecture are only a small part of the Climate Action Plan’s concerns.  

Planning in Ireland is based on the principle of subsidiarity – decisions should be made at the level closest to their effect. To understand the effects and intentions of planning toward design, we need to start at the top of the spatial planning hierarchy with the National Planning Framework ‘Ireland 2040’ and follow its vision down to the local level. The NPF describes intentions at the national level for how and where we design: a compact growth model of higher densities mostly within existing urban footprints; the growth of Dublin to be equalled by the combined growth of other cities; the combined growth of all Irish cities to be equalled by development directed towards key towns across the country. The Ministerial Guidelines that followed the NPF described in more detail what this compact growth model should look like in terms of densities related to transport connectivity, and what this might mean for forms of development. Having filtered down through the Regional Assemblies to work out the numbers, these national intentions find expression at the local level where their effects will be experienced as described by County or City Development Plan.

The final document referenced here, Places for People: The National Policy on Architecture, makes important commitments to fostering a culture of architecture Ireland. It recognises how crucial design’s role will be in achieving the aims of the National Planning Framework and the Climate Action Plan in an equitable way across Irish society. Places for People reaffirms why architecture is important; Ireland 2040 tells us where and how it will be located.

This returns us to Sorkin’s maxim. Architecture sometimes is participatory to varying levels, but it is not required to be. Design has no inherent analogue to planning’s subsidiarity. The statutory processes of planning are the mechanism by which concerns regarding the common good are brought to bear on the potentially individualised practice of architecture. Proposals are approved or rejected based on their compliance with local development plans which, for at least twenty years, have been placing increased emphasis on describing their intended built environment – not just development standards, but urban structure, quality design, healthy place making, and sustainable neighbourhoods. The effects of architecture, in other words, as described by Places for People.  

If together this demonstrates that encoded within the suite of documents the NPF oversees are a set of intentions toward architecture and design, can anything be said of its effects? No, not yet. The NPF has yet to reach its first review; the first generation of development plans that follow it have only recently been agreed. Instead, it may be more beneficial at this stage to push farther into the question of intentions. Since architectural quality largely remains absent from development management functions of the Irish planning system, how can a degree of design control be provided, responsive to the needs of the common good, as exemplified by the principle of subsidiarity?

Contrasting results. Top: North Peckham Estate [3]. Bottom: Cerda's Eixample, Barcelona [4].

The failures of past models of urbanism need hardly be rehearsed here. Suffice to say that should architects, urban designers, and planners ever feel the urge to act as boosters for good intentions (over their failure’s very real social effects), they ought to keep a copy of poet Caleb Femi’s collection Poor to hand. A reflection on a childhood spent on the notorious and now demolished North Peckham Estate – described by Jonathan Glancy as the Athens Charter built ‘too quickly, too cheaply, too brutally and without the necessary skills’ [5] – Femi’s ‘A Designer Talks of Home/A Resident Talks of Home’ [6] should make even the most ardent evangelic formalist pause.

Can we perceive within the foregoing an intention to limit architecture’s ability to experiment at scale? Probably yes, and not unreasonably: credit effects, not intentions. But experiments at scale gave us Barcelona’s Eixample, wherein a new model for urban expansion has provided near limitless variation at the level of the building plot, the urban block, and now the superblock.

What is the effect, if in our intentions toward architecture we are ‘too suspicious of formal experiment and overly sanguine about the dispensability of architecture as an artistic practice?’ [7]. We avoid Femi’s North Peckham estate, sure, but we also miss out on Cerda’s Eixample.

Architecture can be and sometimes is participatory to varying levels; but it is not required to be. Design has no inherent analogue to planning’s subsidiarity. The statutory processes of planning are the mechanism by which concerns in the common good are brought to bear on the potentially individualised practice of architecture.

Future Reference is a time capsule. It features opinion-pieces that cover the current developments, debates, and trends in the built environment. Each article assesses its subject through a particular lens to offer a different perspective. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact cormac.murray@type.ie.

Future Reference is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.

References

  1. M. Sorkin, ‘Advice to Critics’, All Over the Map – Writing on Buildings and Cities, London, Verso, 2011.
  2. At the strategic level, broadly equivalent to the influence of Technical Guidance Documents at the scale of the building.
  3. Christmas Day on Chandler Way, North Peckham by Malc McDonald, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
  4. Eixample aire cropped, Alhzeiia, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
  5. J. Glancy, ‘That Sinking Feeling on ‘Estate from Hell’, The Guardian, 25 September 2005, (accessed 24 March 2023).
  6. C. Femi, ‘A Designer Talks of Home/A Resident Talks of Home’, Poor, London, Penguin Press, 2020.
  7. M. Sorkin, ‘Splitsville USA’, All Over the Map – Writing on Buildings and Cities, London, Verso, 2011.

Contributors

Colin King

Colin King has worked as an architect, planner, and urban designer in public and private sectors in Ireland, the UK, Australia, and Canada.

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Housing, can we do it ourselves?

Jonathan Curran
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Ireland faces a critical housing shortage. Our financial system means a short-term reduction in house prices is unlikely [1], and analysis points to a shortage in supply as a key contributing factor. To build ourselves out of crisis, housing will need to be delivered at large scales. State agencies, housing bodies, and developers are masterplanning significant swathes of land. In the face of a climate crisis, hitting our housing targets is just the first step. A major challenge will be how we can sustain our housing supply for generations to come.

When we consider our building strategies through the lens of repair, a key factor that emerges is scale. Repair has a certain set scale because buildings are not precise. The rolling list of repairs that a building demands does not lend itself to a top-down, large-scale approach, but instead requires careful, human attention. Learning to build is a lesson in measuring twice, cutting once, and allowing for errors. This is not precision engineering; small misreads can become gaps you can put your hand in. Our houses are full of filler; half of Ireland is held together with Tec7. If we more carefully consider this complex and often unkempt side of construction, we can enable the continual transformation of buildings over time.

Large-scale, new-build construction might seem re-assuring for hitting housing delivery targets at first. At the macro level, however, it remains challenging to strategise for ongoing repair work: problem-solving with limited clues, incorporating room for error, and facilitating creative on-site responses. The onus for delegating and procuring repair in private housing typically falls to management teams, resident committees, and individuals. Not surprisingly, meaningful change is impeded by financial realities. We are fast approaching a crisis point; a 2018 report by the Royal Society of Chartered Surveyors of Ireland found three-quarters of apartment complexes do not have enough funds set aside for long-term upkeep [2]. Post-occupancy evaluations are unfortunately neither mandatory nor regularised. There is a glaring absence of data on maintenance and repair in our climate and economy.

'The complex and unkempt side of construction'. Image of a construction site by Jonathan Curran

If we reconsider housing with repair in mind, then we begin to look beyond the hoarding of new-build construction sites. We have a country filled with crumbling brick terraces, mistreated stone townhouses, and swathes of cold, damp bungalows tucked into the corners of fields. While this dimension of construction might not be appealing to large-scale investors, for owner-occupiers, repair and restoration could present an invaluable opportunity to obtain and customise a place of one's own. The state is attempting to encourage these small-scale repairs by offering grants of up to €70,000 to homeowners undertaking renovations of derelict properties. But this money is only released once the project meets a number of strict conditions, and is only available to projects involving a contractor [3].

The potential for this mode of construction is significant. A high proportion of an entire generation are currently locked out of the property market. Their powerlessness to enact change is contrasted with our historical culture of self-building in Ireland. Although a frequent topic of derision, the Bungalow Bliss building phenomenon in Ireland was a remarkable feat of small-scale building, happening en masse. The effect of this goes beyond housing quanta, as writer Adrian Duncan notes: "There's more of a direct relationship with a home you build for yourself when compared to moving to a house built by a stranger". He describes the Bungalow Bliss period as "one of the last few unselfconscious instances in Ireland of the traditional meitheal" [4]. This could equally apply to a house one maintains, repairs, extends or retrofits.

However, current government supports fail to reach self-builders and DIYers. Instead the system relies on the appointment of contractors. David Byrne, a self-builder I spoke to, lamented the lack of support available to him: "The government, while meaning well, is giving money to the middle man, while the person at the bottom isn't getting any benefit" [5]. His current project fits many of the criteria that the government seeks to encourage, but as he is aiming to do the work himself, the need to have a contractor involved removes any chance of receiving support. With the uncertainty of older buildings, the need to pay for work upfront, and inability to carry out the work by oneself, many of the grants are a helping hand that is simply out of reach.

There is also a lack of nuance in these government supports that is stifling the building economy. When it comes to thermal improvement, many grants rely on using an improved BER rating as evidence of a job well done. But the reality of retrofitting is far more complex. In David Byrne's case, he is removing the non-breathable elements from the existing stone walls, to restore their innate thermal and hydraulic functions. Yet he struggles to find support for this approach: "Ninety percent of people I talk to in the building industry tell me to dry-line the stone walls" [6]. How can we expect to harness the energy and desire of self-builders, if we cannot offer them more flexibility in financing and delivering their projects?

Removing non-breathable elements to expose a dry-stone wall. Image by Jonathan Curran

Enabling DIYers will require a surge in specialised education and training, funding and political vision. Currently, a significant barrier to a widespread DIY approach to housing is the availability of clear and accessible information. Some efforts are being made; enterprises like Common Knowledge aim to teach lay people construction skills with in-person courses. Similarly, architects and engineers will have a role to play in encouraging this shift in building culture. Already advocates for self-building – Walter Segal internationally, and Dominic Stevens domestically – have proven the potential for architects to enable self-building. The effort could be worth it, a widespread self-build and DIY revolution has the potential to tackle a number of the problems faced by the current Irish housing landscape: supply, lack of tradespeople, and vacancy.

If we can navigate this successfully, we could create a new self-perpetuating system for housing delivery and maintenance. If we want the job done right, we'll have to do it ourselves.

29/4/2024
Future Reference

Possible solutions to the housing crisis are rarely considered beyond handing over the keys to a new dwelling. Repair work is generally too slow, risky, and expensive to be attractive to investment at a large scale. In looking for answers, should we make space for DIYers?

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Material change: a non-violent approach to our built environment

Rachel Loughrey
Future Reference
Rachel Loughrey
Cormac Murray

Virgin materials are any materials extracted directly from nature that lead to destructive impacts: trees being ripped from the ground, soil contamination, illness, and pollution. It takes an abundance of energy to process these materials and can, in some circumstances, lead to a displacement of communities. In a linear economy, the focus is on single-use and permanent disposal of materials. In the context of the climate and biodiversity crisis, these methods will have devastating future consequences. According to the World Economic Forum, the effects of the climate and biodiversity crisis are seen as the top tier risks for the next ten years and beyond [1].

An example of this is evident in the process of creating aluminium. The mining of bauxite, the ore needed to produce aluminium, has been linked to deforestation, community displacement, and environmental destruction in places such as the Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, China, and West Africa [2]. As bauxite is found near the earth’s surface, bauxite mines strip large areas of land, frequently impacting local ecosystems and communities. Bauxite refining creates an alkaline waste product called ‘red mud’ that contains heavy metals and other elements.  If the waste is not stored correctly and enters local water sources, it can be harmful to humans.

There is a non-violent and earth friendly alternative: using reclaimed materials. A key advantage offered by reclaimed materials is they require minimal to no reprocessing. Shifting to prioritising reclaimed materials would foster a circular economy, a nature-based system which would be regenerative. In a circular economy, materials never become waste – and waste production is considered an avoidable design flaw. Members of the construction industry need to constantly ask where a material is extracted from, and what is its end-of-life strategy. Asking shows a conscious approach, where we care about respecting the earth and leaving a liveable planet for future generations. Asking shows we understand climate justice, and how people who are suffering the most from the climate crisis have done very little to cause it. Asking shows an awareness that we, as members of the construction industry, are part of the problem currently, and shows a desire to become part of the solution for the climate and biodiversity crises.

Cleared forestry by Alan Hughes (via Wikimedia Commons)

Three main challenges exist for this non-violent approach to materials. These are, namely, psychological, practical, and regulatory challenges.

Psychologically, we need to accept that the way we are building now is harmful, and while changing to using reclaimed materials is not going to be comfortable for those in the industry, change is rarely comfortable. However, with a growing consciousness of the devastation caused by the climate crisis, key players within the construction industry are beginning to reflect on where materials come from, and the social and environmental impact of the extraction of these materials.

The practical challenge is tracking, storing, and quantifying the sustainability of our materials. We can start with establishing material passports, that will give materials an identity and help to map out elements that are being removed from buildings for refurbishment projects. We need to remove demolition out of our standard construction vocabulary and replace it with conscious deconstruction. We also need the state to provide storage for reclaimed construction materials, as is happening right now in Germany [5]. This will lead to an ease of use of reclaimed materials.

On a governmental level, we need the regulatory framework to be immediately updated – the regulations currently serve the linear economy, with reclaimed materials not being stated or encouraged in the documentation. There is scope in Section 1.1 ( c ) of the Technical Guidance Document D: Materials and Workmanship that enables materials to be reused under specific conditions, but we need the state to provide funding for anexisting secondary material marketplace (such as the Irish Green Building Council’s Construction Materials Exchange). In cases where demolition is absolutely unavoidable, planning compliance should mandate that a pre-demolition audit is carried out and that high-value materials are given a material passport and to be either directly transported to another live site or stored (temporarily) to be reused in the future.

Photograph of construction materials on site, image by Rachel Loughrey.

Ultimately, we need support from everyone in the industry to do this. Most individuals in construction could start immediately, by following these steps:

1. Observing how we build now.

2. Assessing the damage caused by extracting materials.

3. Examining alternatives such as using reclaimed construction materials.

4. Requesting that manufacturers, design teams, and the government use unharmful ways of building, so we can protect the environment we are part of.

As the forward-thinking activist bell hooks stated in her book The Will to Change: "The way things are is not the way they have to be" [6] We can change how we relate to the earth, and our disconnect to the materials with which we build. We need to advocate for non-violence, lean into the will to change together, and make a concerted effort to build with reclaimed materials.

2/4/2024
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There is a violent nature to the way we build today. Instead of using circularly-sourced, reclaimed elements, our built environment has normalised using virgin materials with associated destructive and damaging practices. Through changing our production and sourcing of materials, how can we transition from a linear economy to a circular one?

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Reading Capel Street

Robin Fuller
Future Reference
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Dublin’s Capel Street is like the airport: a place where languages mingle. At the airport, signs for arrivals and departures carry the names of distant places, and on Capel Street, the signs above shops, restaurants and cafés do the same: Moldova, Marrakech, Ephesus. Space is dislocated by these international arrivals. Hà Nội Hà Nội comes twice; Tokyo is smuggled in with a pun (eaTokyo). The Spanish send only A Taste Of Spain. It’s hard to know where one is when on Capel Street, among consumable simulacra of the world’s cultures; the shop on the corner of Strand Street insists that this is Real Brazil.

On Capel Street, writing systems from different cultures speak with and over each other, translate and misunderstand each other, inviting and excluding readers. On restaurant facades and on the packaging of imported products, graphic utterances in Arabic script, Chinese characters, Korean Hangul, and the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets call to the consumers of Capel Street.

Printed signage to the interior of Super Asia Foods

Often the languages come in pairs. On the fascia of Hilan Chinese & Korean Restaurant, the largest text – 海兰江 – will not be understood by many passersby but will be recognised as an indication of Chinese cuisine. Hilan offers Chinese writing for the illiterate anglophone to consume, while around the corner on Strand Street, the Chinese and English sign for Fly Star Design & Print / 星飞 告印刷 lets Chinese customers know that this establishment speaks their language. Discretely tucked into the corners of shop windows and menus, handwritten and untranslated Chinese, Moldovan, and Portuguese notices reveal linguistic communities in private conversation.

On Capel Street, writing systems start to behave like one another. At Korean restaurant Arisu / 아리수, the red and blue taegeuk symbol from the South Korean flag moves from the dot on ‘i’ to the circle in ‘아’. At Marrakesh, the flowing forms rendering the words ‘Restaurant & Karaoke’ would have us believe they spoke Arabic (there is one true Arabic word on the door: حلال / Halal). The multiscribal grapholect of Capel Street is most perfectly embodied in the name of the beauty salon, U美. Transliterated on the sign as YOUMEI, it means, roughly, ‘you are beautiful’. Like all Chinese characters, 美 stands for a syllable-length sound (‘mei’) and a meaning (beautiful). In U美, ‘U’ works in the same way: it stands for a meaning (the second person) and a syllable-length sound (‘you’).

Dual language signage to the exterior of YOUMEI beauty salon

Capel Street is linguistically diverse, but not equal. Irish might be a minority language, but it’s one of only two languages on official signs issuing orders that you must obey or risk arrest. At the beginning of the last century, when an independent Irish national identity was first forged, it was essential to distinguish Irishness from Englishness. The published proceedings of the first sitting of Dáil Éireann in 1919 used two typefaces: a standard one for English and French, and for Irish, a nineteenth-century Frankenstein of historical sources. We find remnants of this crumbling artefact of Irish national identity whenever the State speaks to us on Capel Street. The large, round uppercase ‘A’  on a sign reading ‘Ach amháin Tramana / Except Trams’ is there to remind us of the Book of Kells. Stranger still: that’s not a seven in the middle of the Irish for ‘Pay & Display — Íoc  Taispeáin,’ but a Tironian et: a symbol from a Roman system of shorthand used by eighth- and ninth-century monks in island monasteries off the British Isles. Capel Street is a strange place in a strange country.

With official expressions of national identity come others, offering competing conceptions. At The Boar’s Head florid faux-historical letterforms are used to pitch a commodified Irishness to pint swillers. There are unofficial political nationalisms speaking on Capel Street too. Affixed to a lamppost at the corner of Mary Street is a corriboard sign reading, ‘Remembering our Republican Heroes. 100th anniversary of the death of IRA Vol. Matthew Tompkins, who was fatally wounded at this location by Free State forces on 30 June 1922’. More than it purports to be, the sign memorialises the ideology of another time, when hardline nationalists were still upset with Michael Collins.

On most streets in Dublin’s city centre, the lampposts and bollards are saturated with the stickers of ‘Ultra’ soccer supporters and fringe activists, but the political neutrality of Capel Street is upheld by cleaners who peel away the proclamations stickered to surfaces the night before. However, if you look closely, you can find traces lingering in half peeled stickers of another, emerging figuration of Irish identity: ‘our past, our freedom, our future, our watch’; a line from Padraig Pearse – ‘Ireland belongs to the Irish’ – originally written to oppose despotic British landlordism, ripped from its nineteenth-century Irish historical context; a paradoxically, generic ethno-nationalism fed on American memes, symptomatic of the global flattening of culture it purports to oppose. Meanwhile, among Capel Street’s confusion of scripts, Babel Academy of English is training international students in a powerful weapon which may ultimately be Capel Street’s undoing: the English language.

Political and commercial expressions of national identity often appeal to ideas of permanence and clear distinction, but when we read and look at the texts of Capel Street, we see Irish and global cultural identities in transition and negotiation.

4/3/2024
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The texts we encounter in the environment – on road signs and shop windows – carry information about our culture, not just through words, but in their form and position in the environment. On Capel Street in Dublin’s city centre, we find the world’s writing systems speaking at once, inviting and excluding readers. Within this cornucopia of grammatologically-embodied cultures, the history and future of Irish national identity is expressed and contested.

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