Tuesday, 17 February 2009

A suitable case

Credit crunch, downturn,depression; call it what you will, it seems we're saddled with the bloody thing for the foreseeable future.
Of course, it's an ill wind. The serious shoeing the banks have had over the past year has put paid to some of the more ludicrous and grandiose building schemes that would have seen yet more of the old East End put to the bulldozer, while the horrible Caltongate scheme in Edinburgh has thanfully been shelved, as Nemesis reports elsewhere.
Notwithstanding that, however, in a more parochial sense, the recession is already turning out to be a bit of a bummer for the conservation and 'heritage' sector.
The building trade as a whole is already feeling the pinch, with clients reluctant to spend money in the current climate. New builds are worst hit - most of the sites near me are already on stop, and one local contractor that I know of has laid off five staff since Christmas. But now even the limestone cowboys are exposed. I'm fortunate enough to have work booked up until the end of summer, but thereafter? Who knows?
Certainly it does look as though one source of work for the conservation sector is about to take a kicking. Wearing my other hat, as a conservation project officer, I'm trying to encourage clients to take up large amounts of grant money to have conservation work carried out. The snag is that they have to provide some of their own money.
Understandably, most don't feel in a position to do this at the moment. We may call it match funding, they simply regard it as an unnecessary extravagance.
And 'they' are not just private clients. 'They' are also large public bodies and local authorities. I had a chance to secure £60K a year of grant money for domestic properties in one conservation area on my patch. All that was needed was for the local authority to agree to match this with £60K of its own money.
The issue went to committee and then to cabinet. The answer that came back this morning was a flat 'No'.
Coming on top of the Iceland debacle (in which my authority was one of the losers), and the general pulling in of horns, a grant of £60K would be hard to justify when education and social services were facing cuts.
As a result a total of £120K a year will not now be going into the conservation and restoration sector in my area alone. Arse!

Monday, 16 February 2009

Victorious viewing

To be honest, the box usually leaves me cold, but last night I caught the first of Jeremy Paxman's programmes on the Victorians and was wowed by it.
The Victorian era is not a hugely popular one in the British consciousness, as is witnessed by the uphill struggles of the Victorian Society and SAVE to preserve and protect so many of its buildings. Paxman makes a persuasive case, however, and one can only hope that his splendidly Reithian series goes some way to instilling a new sense of pride and wonder in the achievements of the era and does something to sweep away the misconception of the age as one of ugliness cloaked under cloying sentiment.
He makes his own case rather well in a piece in The Times.
One reason for me to like the programme was the lavish attention paid to Ford Madox Brown's social-realist painting Work, long a favourite of mine. In a sad, spoddy way, its details appeal to the builder in me; the sand-screen in use for grading the aggregate, the shallow wooden barrow, the hod with the leather shoulder-pad and the intense, almost homo-erotic physicality of the workers in the pre-machine age of civil engineering. Wonderful stuff (And Heath Street is still largely recogniseable today, thanks in part to the actions of the effete intellectuals being subtly slighted in the painting...).

Brown wrote in his own 1865 catalogue notes,
'At that time extensive excavations, connected with the supply of water, were going on in the neighbourhood, and, seeing and studying daily as I did the British excavator, or navvy in the full swing of his activity (with his manly and picturesque costume, and with the rich glow of colour which exercise under a hot sun will impart), it appeared to me that he was at least as worthy of the powers of an English painter as the fisherman of the Adriatic, the peasant of the Campagna, or the Neapolitan lazzarone. Gradually this idea developed itself into that of Work as it now exists, with the British excavator for the central group, as the outward and visible type of Work.'

Quite why Carlyle and FD Maurice are standing by so idly is anyone's guess - if one didn't know better one would think Ford was having a dig at them as well.
But back to the prgramme. If nothing else. Paxman's series certainly makes for a bracing antidote to the mawkish travesty of Flora Thompson's wonderful trilogy that precedes it - the execrable Lark Rise.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Two cheers for English Heretics

We've had three years of harrumphing since the last raft of Approved Documents - the "Building Regs" - came into force. Overall, a jolly good thing they were too; a real commitment to meeting our Kyoto targets and cutting energy use in the UK. Apart, that is, from the way they have been implemented.
If an old building was not listed, in a conservation area or a scheduled ancient monument, then one could pretty well guarantee a long and frustrating debate with the Building Control Officer over what historic features could be retained and what had to be smothered or removed to satisfy the perceived demands of Part L of the Regs. Some BCOs would listen to reason and treat a case on a 'whole house' basis, offsetting one element against another, others simply dug their heels in and risked becoming landfill as tempers rose.
Now, however, English Heritage has published the fruits of its discussions with the government on part L.
The full text of the suggested ammendment has been posted by our friendly neighbourhood conservation officer here.
He argues that the whole exercise has been pretty much a waste of time, given that the net result would seem to be 'no change'.
I'm inclined to agree, up to a point. Nevertheless I'm also inclined to give two cheers for the revision for the simple reason that at last there seems to be a recognition that traditional buildings behave in a different way to modern buildings, even when they don't have the magic protection of listing, being in a conservation area or as ancient monuments.
The bit that slightly warms my cockles is:

"There are three further categories of buildings where special consideration is encouraged:

a) buildings which are of architectural and historical interest and which are referred to as a material consideration in a local authority’s development plan; or

b) buildings which are of architectural and historical interest within national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, registered historic parks and gardens, registered battlefields, the curtilages of scheduled ancient monuments, and world heritage sites; or

c) buildings of traditional construction with permeable fabric that both absorbs and readily allows the evaporation of moisture."

The particularly welcome bit is section 'c'.
I've lost count of the number of times I've encountered Building Control Officers who simply cannot see that there is a significant difference in behaviour between a modern house and a traditonally-built, solid walled and breathable building. All too often they simply regard Part L as published as Holy Writ, leaving me grinding my teeth in frustration and the client bewildered.
Specifically, the new wording asks BCOs to seek advice in "making provisions enabling the fabric of historic buildings to ‘breathe’ to control moisture and potential long term decay problems."
I do hope this is adopted, for anything which encourages BCOs to take off the blinkers is welcome.

Friday, 6 February 2009

An appropriate message for the day

A lovely, simple poster, recalled here.
But what's the font?
I've been arguing the toss for a couple of days now with fellow typography nerds, and almost had it nailed as a version of Gill Sans, but on closer inspection it clearly isn't . Neither is it Johnston, nor the great P22 Underground typeface.
All I know is that the original commission for the poster stipulated that it should be in a "special and handsome typeface" to make it difficult for the enemy to counterfeit it. As such, it appears to be a 'one-off'. Some unknown graphic designer missed his or her chance to make a mark on history with 'Blenkinsop Sans' or 'Fothergill Futura'.

Shameless nostalgia

...and shamelessly stolen from someone else's link, but I thought it was too good not to share. What with all the talk of snow and transport chaos, it was lovely to see Geoffrey Jones's fantastic short for British Transport Films; Snow. For those of a certain age there's an element of nostalgia, but it's also a fabulous piece of film-making, and praise be to the BFI for making it available.

And all done on 35mm film, too.
There's more about it here.