Topping Out #2: Catch up on the stories and research driving innovation

Arup’s Cities Alive Report

Arup's Cities Alive report envisions lighting as a key instrument for the vitality of the 21st Century citiy

While Smart Cities and Green Cities have been driving agendas for planners, architects and engineers, Arup's  latest report Cities Alive, addresses the social and economic impact of light on cities in a 24/7 globalized world. 

Subtitled, Rethinking the Shades of Night, Florence Lam, Arup Fellow / Global Lighting Design Leader, explains, “While the urban renaissance of the last 20 years has increased the number of people living in city centres, this has not always successfully translated into the notion of a ‘24 hour’ city. What has been missing is a considered approach to strategic planning and design for the night-time. A holistic approach to urban lighting could help create vibrant, prosperous, safe and inclusive places for those who live, work and play in cities—at all hours.”

The report highlights the key factors which demands an innovative response to lighting in cities. Growing economies mean that by 2030 the demand for artificial light is expected to increase worldwide by 80s% compared to 2006 – “the lighting systems control market alone is estimated to grow by 20% per year between 2012 and 2020, driven by a focus on more energy efficient technologies and the adoption of smart LED systems.” There’s clearly better thinking, design and planning required to ameliorate the environmental consequences of this. As the report points out, 19% of the world’s current electricity consumption is from artificial lighting.

That said, the report notes the fact that one-fifth of the world has no access to electric light, meaning that in many parts of the world children can’t study after dark. It’s why the absence of light is discussed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in the language of “energy poverty” which he says, “condemns billions to darkness, ill health and missed opportunities for education and prosperity”. The evening sociability we take for granted in wealthier nations from which our sense of self is constructed via friends and food at restaurants, or supporting our tribe at football matches, or even reading the bedtime story to our children is not available to those who don’t have access to light. 

Cities Alive highlights examples of how innovative urban or architectural lighting has transformed spaces and behaviours such as BruumRuum, the interactive lighting installation at the Plaza de Glories in Barcelona or the light therapy provided by bus shelters in Malmo for people during the dark winter months. Future reports might also consider how we also design and build the improvised social conviviality of darkness – blackouts, lack of electricity often foster a greater sense of communality and intimacy, highlighted not least by the apocryphal myths around the increasing birth-rates 9 months later. 

A good-looking, richly researched thinkpiece, that has the occasional reminder of the challenges of foresight, definitively highlighted by pop futurist Marshall McLuhan who famously wrote, “When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavour of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

So when estimable technology evangelist Ben Hammersley is quoted from his book 64 things you need to know now for then, that, “Cities of the twenty-first century may well be designed around the mobile phone in the way that cities in the twentieth century were designed around the car”, 
architects and engineers may need to look beyond the light that emanates from the screen of their smartphones. Smartphones in 2030? Maybe. If so come over and I’ll buy you a pint, or more likely, come up to my mile-high zero-gravity apartment where we can suck beer brewed from ants through a bamboo straw while watching Tom Jones on The Voice series 28 – some things just don’t change…. 

Download the report here


Breathable Roofing Membranes vs Bats

New advice from Natural England warns of the dangers of BRMs for Bats

Breathable Roofing Membranes (BRMs) meet the need for energy efficiency in houses that are better insulated and more airtight, keeping rainwater out while allowing water vapor to escape. However the European Protected Species (EPS) Mitigation Licensing Newsletter from Natural England has changed its advice around the use of BRMs because of their impact on Bats, which will have consequences for building construction in areas where bats are known to roost.

In short, while older roofing materials such as bituminous felt has a rough surface that can be gripped by bats, the claws of bats scratch up the filaments on the surface creating a fluff, entangling the bats.

While conservation laws have made a difference to conserving the bat population in Europe they are still not at the level they were before their decline in the latter part of the 20th century due in part to “changes in land use, intentional killing and destruction of roosts. Bat numbers have also been affected by loss of habitat and poisoning from toxic chemicals used to treat timbers in the roofs where they roost.”

Stacy Waring, formerly a research engineer at the University of Reading’s Technologies for Sustainable Built Environments Centre completed a study for her doctorate examining how BRMs impact on the UKs bat population and created this short video.

Natural England point out that there is a common misconception that BRMs are an obligatory feature of building regulations, whereas actually is the ventilation: “Ventilation, regardless of the roofing felt or BRM used, is still required (see British Standard BS 5250:2011). When installing roofing membranes, it is essential that bat access points are maintained and any licence application should ensure that this is clearly indicated in text and figures.”

Download the Bats and Breathable Membranes information poster by Stacy Waring, Dr Emmaneul Essah and Kelly Gunnell

Building Mash-Ups

While the ‘Mash-up’ has become part of social media culture, perhaps its time has now come round for the world of architecture – welcome to the Farm Church

Modern Farmer, the favoured magazine for those who like their stories on agriculture and food served with a side order of sassy attitude, has just reported on an innovative new building blend – the Farm Church.

Pastor Ben Johnston-Krause is leaving his familiar house of God – the First Presbyterian Church in Racine, Wisconsin – to create a hybrid space for God and, what may literally be, a different kind of flock. Like old testament prophets, the idea came to Pastor Johnston-Krause in a dream.  The Racine Journal Times reports that “Central to the Farm Church will be to establish programs like farm to food pantry programs, farm to elementary school cafeteria programs and perhaps providing food to senior living facilities and prisons. The ministers also want to set up shop in an area near food deserts — urban and rural areas lacking adequate access to fresh produce.”

A forward-looking example of social innovation, we wonder what other building types would benefit from merging – the recycling centre-petrol station? The supermarket-library? The car-park/open-air theatre? It’s an important idea that current planning laws should be redesigned to promote.


Brutalist Materialism

The Agender concept, from the Selfridges site

(The Agender concept, from the Selfridges site)

Does a new space in Selfridges highlight a wider trend in materials?

Both The New York Times and Dazed and Confused have reported on Designer Faye Toogood’s space, just opened in Selfridiges, London. Called Agender, as it promotes the idea of gender neutrality, the key material in a series of cagelike fashion-shopping structures is chickenwire.

The material is a rigorously astringent counterpoint to the flatness of gender neutrality – women generally fare worse, just think of those Student Union unisex toilets in the 80s, I can still hear the disbelieving horror – “So this is what men’s toilets look like!”

Are brutalist materials the coming vogue in shopping interiors? In the age of smooth digital internet consumption the one thing bricks-and-mortar shopping can offer is tangible 'experience'. Toogood's creative vision for Selfridges pitches the shopping experience as a challenge, as the pleasure of difficulty.

Toogood tells The New York Times, “When you walk in, you won’t immediately see any of the clothes... Everything is boxed and archived; I don’t want a man to be put off from entering the space by a pink jacket.” Clothes are covered so customers can only read descriptions of them or as The New York Times describes the brutality of it, customers can “peer inside peepholes that have been slashed into the unbranded archival bags.” 

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