Sunday, February 24, 2019

Sunday Essay - the importance of local adaptation in buildings

I have mentioned before my liking for the UK TV program Grand Designs. Finally, after so many episodes, I fear that I have largely, not totally, lost interest. There is a certain sameness that has become wearing, sameness in many ways: in design, in building materials, in the huge use of glass, in the hermetic sealing. I had no idea that house airtightness had become a measurable building requirement. at least in the UK..

This comment on sameness may seem strange when there are variations in building materials and apparent differences in design, but there is a certain sameness nevertheless.

I was thinking about this while listening to a radio program on the unsuitability of modern Australian houses to hot weather in the absence of air conditioning. One comment was that younger Australians have lost the folk  memory of managing a house in hot and cold. I suspect that's right.

I have only lived in two houses with air conditioning and then only for brief periods. We rarely used it, in part because of expense. I suppose I have a bit of a phobia about air conditioning. All cars now have it, people insist on using it, but it gives me a headache. I need the windows open, something that can be a cause of dispute.

I first came across the concept of breezeways in looking at colonial Australian architecture where many homesteads were consciously designed to maximise shade and air flows. I immediately recognised It and have been thinking about it since.

The old semi I live in now starts cool but the warms up as the bricks absorb heat. So it starts cool and then can become and stay hot, even when the outside is cooling. This can be a real problem if I am working elsewhere and come home to a sealed and very hot house. Nothing worse than going to bed in heat when it's cool outside.  

But the house does have eaves. That's important. It may be hot in the sun, but the temperature does drop when you move into shade. There is also some shade on the western side. So I have found by judicious use of blinds and open doors and windows I can stabilise the temperature at lower levels even when it is over 30c outside. Just as well, since I find it hard to work in a hot house.

I think that Australians have to relearn how to live in hot and indeed cold temperatures. 

Consider street trees. There was a period when councils replaced the large street trees with smaller trees. This was done partly because the bigger trees interfered with power lines, partly because the trees dropped leaves and small branches (my present local council comes round with blowers to get leaves out of gutters so that their council sweeper trucks can then gather them up), partly because they were seen as more decorative. The result exposed the footpaths to direct sun, making them unpleasant in hot weather.

I grew up in cold country, well cold by Australian standards. Those wanting gardens learned of the need to create micro-climates, areas protected from the cold winds with their wind chills and from frost. Australians now have ceased to be gardeners and that knowledge is progressively being lost.

This idea of microclimates is slowly coming back and not before time. Those urban councils who took out trees are suddenly recognising the value of deep shade, the way that greenery can lower temperatures across entire areas. Councils, whose belief in development created concrete spaces that turned into heat sinks that finally chased people away, are experimenting with ways to drop temperatures and bring people back.

Those living in the country have, I think, always been more conscious of just what can be done to ameliorate the effects of climatic extremes. They have had to be, although even here some of this knowledge was lost for a time. we can, I think, see this in homestead architecture where the older houses with their verandahs were replaced by modern homes influenced by urban architecture. Now verandahs are back. We can also see it in the re-greening of the country.

Townsville has recently suffered major floods, the largest in the city's history. In those floods, the ground level modern homes suffered more than the classic Queenslander raised above the ground to provide air flows - and greater freedom from flooding.

Today we believe in uniformity, in the application of standard rules and standards. You see this in every aspect of public policy - and indeed politics. The problem with this approach lies in the way that it ignores local variation.

An example is the 1950s push in NSW to remove shop verandahs, replacing them with awnings. There were  practical reasons for this including safety and the desire to make street parking easier, but there was also the acceptance of a certain idea of modernity, a desire to show civic progress. The end result was a sometimes cloying uniformity.

Beardy Street Armidale early 1960s before removal of the last shop verandahs. The few remaining nineteenth century buildings with their iron lacework are now highly valued.

Our new city subdivisions are much worse, in part because of their size. You can drive for miles through outer Sydney or Melbourne or the lower Hunter Valley and see no variation.

In the new apartment areas that you find in in, say, Sydney's Green Square development, the use of cladding can create individually attractive buildings, but the total affect is one of sameness.

It has always been true that changing fashions in architecture combined with the development of new building technology does impose a certain uniformity based upon time of construction. This allows us to classify architectural styles, to create categories such as Federation or California Bungalow.

55 Mann Street Armidale, an example of the Federation style. This was also my grandparents' home in the 1930s.

This type of patterning adds to adds to the visual value of the built landscape, a value reflected in changing patterns of use. That row of humble workers' terraces suitably modified become the valued residences of young urban professionals attracted by closeness and an inner city vibe. However, I do wonder about the overwhelming impact of present building approaches associated with rapid urbanisation.

My grandfather once said that God invented the country, man invented the city, but the devil created the suburbs and built flats. I have some sympathy with that view, although now the flats increasingly dominate the inner city landscape. There is something biblical about the idea of developer Meriton as an agent of the devil!

I may seem to have drifted a little from my starting point. I think that my key point is that in reinventing both the built and to a degree rural landscape, we need to focus less on universal standards or styles, more on creating a landscape that recognises basic variation at a microlevel, A building, urban and rural design, should accommodate, be related too, the local environment, not engineered to be independent of it.


Australian Broadcasting Corporation on heat effects in Western Sydney: Sophie Coombes loved her Penrith life, this is why she's left it behind. 


Monday, February 18, 2019

Australian elections - why the loss of Mr Green's election calculator is a good thing!

I am, in case you hadn't worked this out already, I'm a political junkie .And events have given me lots of stuff to feed that addiction.

In Australia, the Australian Government has reeled from crisis to crisis flowing from its minority position in Parliament. It's difficult to explain to an international reader without  going into excessive detail. I think only a few things need to be noted.

The first is that everybody is really just waiting to get through the next few weeks until the formal election campaign begins in advance of a May election. Nobody is listening anymore. The Government is trying to dust of old nostrums such as border protection that may have some impact, but there is no way that it can cut through.

The Poll Bludger bludger track presently suggest an election result of 91 ALP, 54 Coalition, six minor party or independents in the lower house. I suspect that's about right, although the vote might tighten during the campaign. In this context, the latest poll results do suggest an improvement in the Government's position.

Starting from the premise that the ALP will win, the things I am watching for are:
  • The Green note. I expect this to be down. 
  • The size of the small party vote and especially One Nation.. I expect this to be lower than expected, although regional variations will be important. I say this partly because smaller party votes tend to be lower in polarised elections. Still, we will see.
  • The size of the independent vote. 
The last is worth looking at in more detail.

A lot of emphasis has been placed on the rise of the independents on the centre, those who are centre left on social issues, centre right on economics. This group is mainly city based, targeting the hard men of the Liberal Party like former PM Tony Abbott. I really have no idea here, but suspect that it's just too hard in the atmosphere of a general election for them to get any traction given the structure of city electorates. I say that for practical reasons.

Country campaigning is far more exhausting than city campaigning because of travel time. However, it is also easier. In the city, local candidates struggle to get any media coverage outside the local free throw away newspapers. In the city, candidates going to functions or just mounting a stand at the shopping centre face an audience that may include very few who actually live in the electorate.

Within the electorate itself, local social cohesion is lower. Fewer people are involved. It becomes harder to identify and target those who might shift votes. For all these reasons I'm not really expecting independents to have much of an impact. They will attract votes, but not enough for them to get to the critical second or even third position on the ballot paper that will then draw preferences from excluded candidates,

 The position in regional areas is a little different. There an independent or minor party candidate finds it easier to get media coverage, to become known, to identify people who might support in general or on particular issues. Issues tend to be more focused.

This doesn't make it easy. You have to travel and campaign and that takes time and costs. But you have a chance. You also have a better chance to influence other candidates and campaigns, to influence the agenda.

While attention is presently focused on the national campaign, NSW will hold its next election on Saturday 23 March. Here the fluidity in the vote and especially in regional areas has forced ABC election commentator Antony Green to abandon his lower house election calculator. To Mr Green's mind, the number of variables now involved makes it very difficult to develop a meaningful computer model to project results.

I am happy with this. In fact, really happy. In recent years, reporting of Australian election results has become really boring. It focuses on a single question of the winner. Once this is established, or more or less established, the talking heads focus on what it all means at a very macro sense. They talk and talk, often trying to find things to say, to defend positions.

Elections are about electorates. The current focus loses sight of this. The nuances in particular seats are lost, the local battles vanish from sight. The only seats talked about are already defined swing seats. When something slightly different happens, it is rarely picked up or picked up late in the coverage. Then, after the night, coverage diminishes. Each election has unexpected results,  but you would be hard pressed to realise this outside the most extreme examples. It has all become very boring - and sometimes quite misleading.

Maybe this year things will be different. I hope so!


Saturday, February 02, 2019

Saturday Morning Musings - Return of Print

On the way home from lunch, I bought a copy of the Australian. I was barely a quarter of the way through before I left the bus.

Each morning I scan the news across across half a dozen outlets. I can do that in half an hour. I have decided to start buying print papers again.

At Christmas, I went book shopping as I do. My main bookshop was totally crowded. In that shopping center another bookshop has opened. At Eastgardens Pagewood a bookshop has opened. It's not very good, but it's the first for several years.

Globally and in Australia, Buzzfeed is retrenching staff.  In Northern NSW,  Fairfax Regional Media has introduced pay walls on main papers allowing you to access just three stories a month. I am not paid for my history columns, but I did have access to the e-edition of the paper. Then the paper began running my stories in the on-line edition, usually appearing well before the Wednesday Express Extra, the print version for my columns and often on the on-line front page. Then as part of the changes, I lost access to the e-edition and could not access my stories on-line

The limit is three on story access is three. I publish four and also want to check what I have published so I am rather stuffed. I complained to my editor, but there appears to be nothing he can do. He cannot even give me personal on-line access even though a subscription was part of the original deal. He also said that out-of -towners who wanted to read the columns would be okay because they could access three columns without charge.

This view suffers from two problems. Out-of-towners like to read more than three stories when they visit and, in any case, they can't read all my stories because there are more than three in a month. So I can't really promote the columns in the paper. That has to wait until they are on-line on my history blog.

Perhaps the most important problem in all this is the Fairfax pay rule has turned much of Northern NSW, my broader New England, into a news' black-hole so far as those living outside New England are concerned. Note that the News' papers brought from APN also have pay walls.We have an entire area of Australia that has largely become a news black-hole not just for those living outside the area but also for those within who live outside or are interested in more than their immediate area. And that's most.

I will return to this issue later. For the moment, I want to come back to my headline.

The question of on-line v print is not an either or, but one of balance and promotion. In this mix, print is coming back. let me give an example. D E Stevenson's books appeal to a niche. When we just had print, they dropped out of publication. Now, most are back in e-editions that can justify small runs. But as e-publishing has grown, so has print publishing for those who like the physical product. The totality of e and print means that almost all of her books are, once again, available to readers.