1. Colin Davies, The Prefabricated Home, London, Reaktion Books, 2005, p 203
2. James Woudhuysen and Ian Abley, Why is construction so backward?, Chichester, Wiley-Academy, 2004, p 287
3. Alex Lifschutz, 'Rewind and Repeat', Building Design, 4 April 2003, p 9
4. Steven Groak, The Idea of Building: Thought and action in the design and production of buildings, Abingdon, E&FN Spon, transferred to digital printing 2003, first published 1992, p 187
What if full aesthetic and technical approvals are given before any site or client is identified?
'A building technology, whether developed over centuries or invented in a factory, is a precious thing in which much practical ingenuity has been invested. It takes real experts to develop a building technology, preferably with hands-on knowledge of the materials involved and tools used to shape them. New technologies designed in isolation on the drawing board are very unlikely to be successful. Technologies have to be developed, not designed, and you need a factory to develop them in. Anyway, it's usually safer and cheaper to adapt an old technology.' (1)
How can product manufacturers and building designers, when faced with the requirement for higher performance technical specifications, fund the research and development that construction innovation requires? In other sectors R&D is spread across a production run of the same typical design. Specifics may vary, and customisations may be made, but generally the economies of scale afforded by design repetition finance the technological advances required to improve production.
In buildings that would mean better materials and products, detailing, and workmanship - whether in masonry construction, as the most established prefabricated system, or in manufactured architectural products. Housing used to be produced with such technical economies of scale when pattern books of proven and popular house and flat types were relied upon. There is a fine tradition in technological advance through the architectural pattern book. One not lost on regulators.
'Already, throughout England and Wales, the Local Authority National Type Approval Confederation offers fast-track approvals for both public and private sector building systems and building types. It is entirely possible, given the political will, to extend something like LANTAC from building control to planning. After full public debate, different types of architecture - at first bespoke, but soon manufactured - could be given Type Approvals as an executive planning licence to consultants, contractors, developers and whole building manufacturers, so that landowners would be unimpeded by the need to have further planning permission or public consultation.' (2)
That would allow the combined planning and building control approval to attach to the construction technology, to be developed as a repeatable construction design across a range of typical architectural designs. The area of application may be qualified, or the aesthetic possibilities limited through public negotiation. However a democratic exercise in pattern book planning would recognise and reward the investment in R&D required to ease the architectural process of applying advanced technologies to problems of spatial design. All buildings need to be situated in relation to each other, and within the landscape. Architects should be good at spatial design, both without and within the typology.
'In contrast to constructional design, spatial design is cheap. Almost anybody can do it, which is why designs for house types are given away by the hundred in pattern books. Nobody knows or cares who designed them. Architect-designed house plans undoubtedly work better and are nicer to live in, but that won't necessarily make them more valuable. Architects should stop despising pattern books and learn to use them to their advantage.' (1)
Many architects already appreciate this. Alex Lifschutz is in no doubt:
'Better to look at the pattern books of identical terraces that successfully created our cities in the nineteenth century and rethink them for the twenty-first century, than to pursue the architectural utopia where every building looks different but in its high cost and inflexibility turns out to be exactly the same.' (3)
Pattern books do not mean the "typical detail". Rather they offer a typological approach affected by a continual process of advance at the technological level of construction detail, made habitable by building services, and capable of being applied creatively to meet topological opportunities. Contemporary housing pattern books must respond to Steven Groak's anticipation of technological change:
'The notion of the the "typical detail" has rambled through building books for centuries. It depicts a joint or junction in the construction which, in some measure, stands for a complete system of building... often published without historical reference, as if it stands for all time. Today we should ask the question: what is the history of such details? What do they tell us about the evolution of design, craft skill and building method?' (4)
Sharing an architectural interest in the re-establishment of a pattern book approach to planning, to extend this into a combined planning and building control approvals process, Colin Davies and Ian Abley decided to correspond. What follows below is an open correspondence that will hopefully lead to innovations in aesthetic and technical regulation, based on the idea that it is possible to better plan for housing production. This is an experiment that invites you to contribute...
If you are also interested in a pattern book planning approach, based on verifiable technical standards of off-site manufacture and on-site workmanship, then please contact us. Particularly so if you have made more progress yourself, or can prevent us from wasting efforts.
Colin Davies, 3 The Copse, Fortis Green, London, N2 9HL
Telephone: 0208 883 6630
Ian Abley, 8 College Close, Hackney, London, E9 6ER
Mobile: 07947 621 790
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