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WHERE HAS ALL THE THINKING GONE ?

Back in the 1980's I remember a series on BBC television; 'de Bono's Thinking Course'. Edward de Bono, creator of techniques such as 'Lateral Thinking', CoRT (Cognitive Research Trust) and 'Six Thinking Hats' brought the principles of his ideas on problem-solving, decision-making and negotiation into our living rooms. I can't say I watched all of the programmes, followed his methods (I really liked 'Handbook for the Positive Revolution') or that another family member didn't come into the room and change channel to watch 'Brookside' or something (the UK's fourth tv channel had not long been launched). A few years later I did buy the accompanying book, read most of it and I have referred to it a few times since.

In the 1990's I worked for a manufacturing group. The demands for quality, consistency, cost-effectiveness and innovation were high and like our competitors we had to keep improving in order to stay in business. As a result, many of us took part in one or more of the 'initiatives' that were going around at the time: Six Sigma, Kaizen and several 'branded' Quality Systems are ones I remember. I particularly liked the ideas of Eli Goldratt and struggled with trying to change one particular production line to something along the lines of 'Drum, Rope, Buffer'. (Goldratt's book 'The Goal' is actually very readable, being written as I think his books tend to be, as a novel).

Those of us in Operations might, at the time, have lingered around the airport bookstores waiting for a flight to somewhere wet and cold and picked up a Tom Peters book – 'In Search of Excellence' was his big one I think. For the Sales team it might have been the methods of Tony Robbins or Zig Ziegler.

So, why mention this ? Well, I'm no longer in a large-ish organisation with a training budget so for all I know these sorts of business self-improvement models may still be popular. Organisations sure have had to slim down, tone up and eat organically to stay alive today. But, as an 'ordinary' bloke, wandering around and looking at a few streams of popular media, I don't see much discussion of 'ideas'. I could be very wrong about this, but, with the crippling economic problems of the second decade I'd have thought ideas, lateral thinking, paradigm shifts or whatever would be central to our plans of recovery, Maybe we'll never recover, in which case we will have to come to terms with our situation and find other ways to make life more tolerable. We surely need to use every known technique in order to try to save ourselves from becoming a flat, gloom-ridden society, repeatedly blaming politicians and bankers for our lot, seemingly unable to to anything about our situation.

Of course there's been filips – 2012 was significantly brightened by a Royal Jubilee, the Olympics and Paralympics, but, since the 'credit crunch' (and to a degree even before) I've not been so aware of new ideas, motivation or otherwise to 'do' something better. I don't hear or read people talking much about optimistic goals and strategies to make things better, less still about actual processes that are putting things into place that might (realistically) achieve such things. That's not to disrespect those who have been THINKING and ARE now doing something (and of course, many are), but I'd have thought that, by now, some of de Bono’s words would have been more than an occasional part of our vocabulary. That we’d be using Drum, Rope and Buffer when we keep our pantry shelves stocked. We'd at least be using some of these thinking methods, perhaps crossing them over intra-disciplinarily, to try to invoke change. Because, regardless of where the economy goes, we’re going to be knee deep in change – aren’t we ?

It could be that, of course, I'm not looking in the right places. I sure hope that's it anyway, because I liked thinking.......and then doing....., and then thinking some more. And I think, very probably, we all do.

six hats

 

 

 

NEW HOMES AND THE SPACE THEY PROVIDE

I think Oliver Wainwright posted an interesting article in his Architecture and Design Blog (Guardian Blogs 26 Oct 2012) about the space standards provided by new homes. The feeling often is that it's all the housebuilders' or the designers' fault. I don't think it is. Here's a comment I posted:

The cost of building a house is, generally, directly proportional to it's internal floor area. A three bedroom home may well have the same floor area as a comparable from 20 years ago, but since then inflation (and therefore raw materials) has beaten incomes (and therefore affordability) resulting in the basic shell becoming less affordable, relatively. That's (partly) why we had 4, 5, 6x income mortgages a few years ago – now were back at 2.5 to 3x and then only 80 to 90% borrowing....(and the lethargic market acknowledges this).

So, into this barely affordable box one now has to fit a bathroom, an en-suite shower room, possibly a utility room and a downstairs loo. We tend to prefer built-in wardrobes (rather than furniture) and our kitchens have perhaps washing machine, dishwasher, fridge freezer etc. Now, go back further and compare this to the (unadulterated) 19th Century terrace (which other commenters felt provided better space standards) – outside loo, no bathroom and a 'scullery' or wet kitchen (i.e sink and maybe a cupboard or two) with possibly cooking on a range of some sort in the back 'living room'. Clearly a different layout has evolved from our changing priorities, although the three bedroom housing provisions might all have been born from a similar footprint.

Not all of the tick boxes (en-suites, utility rooms, garages, built-in appliances) on a modern home are regulatory necessities, but the market tends to make them so – if Wimpey provide them then Persimmon, Redrow and Barratt will etc – just like with cars or smart phones.
I agree that the overall quality of new homes is poor in so many ways, but, decisions made at all levels in the last 50 years have changed lifestyles and our housing simply reflects this. Perhaps we're due a major change in the way we think about many things......but inertia is the easiest path while we have little energy (or funds to energise) big changes.

A new home will however use dramatically less energy per sq.ft than one from even 20 years ago, for the same comfort level. Energy saving is just another of those changed priorities.

You can't "mek owt from nowt" folks – what we are offered in contemporary housing is, on balance, as good as it'll get, perhaps for the foreseeable, because, perhaps, we can no longer afford the space AND facilities we've now come to expect.

Material House

 

 

       

WHEN IS A DOOR NOT JUST A DOOR ?

Doors ARE interesting aren’t they ? Oh yes they are !

Ever noticed how, in older houses especially, they're hung 'hinge to the room' and in newer places they're hung 'hinge to the wall' (for want of better descriptions) ?  I'm guessing the change took place, gradually perhaps, in the 1960's.  I grew up in an old house that was significantly renovated in the 60's and we had 'hinge to the wall' as far as I can remember, except perhaps for a couple of lesser changed rooms where the opposite remained.  I've noticed it in buildings from time to time ever since and I wonder (but have no evidence) if the change is to do with fashion, privacy, making an entrance, draughts, door handle changes or even cultural approaches to secrecy and open-ness.

I was reminded of this when I recently happened on Single Aspect's Blog - a whole lot of observations about residential design from the user's point of view – interesting reading.  The door part is here http://www.singleaspect.org.uk/?page_id=884#doors

Ian Bentley (and others) mention door positions in 'Responsive Environments' (1985).  The Responsive Environments approach is to off-set the door by at least 600mm so that furniture can be placed into the corner. I like their thinking (I like most of their thinking actually) but, each time I've tried to do this it hasn't worked out quite so easily.

Perhaps a compromise might be to try (and modern residential space planning is tighter than tightness itself) and off-set by maybe 250mm.  This gives the possibility of putting some shelves into the corner. The cornered wall at least acts as a big bookend…. but maybe this just appeals to me because I like books.  The hinge thing is preference really.  Perhaps it comes down to handles bashing into things and doorstops:  In the old days the door handle bashed into furniture if it were opened too far.  So someone might have fitted a doorstop onto the floor to resist this.  Then the doorstop becomes a toe-stubber and trip hazard when the door is closed.  So then we switch the door hinge side and the handle bashes into the plaster of the adjacent wall when open.  So finally we fit a doorstop on the floor, next to the skirting, and finally, perhaps, handle induced damage is restrained, tripping minimised, peace prevails.  Maybe. Until the carpet is ripped up and replaced with engineered wood flooring perhaps. Maybe a new door is fitted and the whole thing starts all over again. Maybe.

Is this architectural evolution at work ?

doors

 

 

       

COLD ROLLED STEEL SECTIONS

Why don't we use lightweight (cold rolled) steel sections more often ? On many of the small building projects I've been involved with the structural thinking has been hot rolled primaries with, perhaps, timber secondary sections. Cold rolled sections are worth considering, however, at least as an alternative.

C-section 'rails', often used for commercial mezzanine floors, could easily be used be used for office floor spans of around 8 metres. With careful installation of steel angle fixing cleats into loadbearing masonry it seems unlikely that specialist skills are required, or that the resulting structure would be any more time consuming than installing a heavier hot rolled section and two spans of timber joists. But, this approach, sadly, seems to be unusual.

Whilst the conventional portal frame provides a clear, free, enclosed space in a structurally efficient way, the internal fit-out often then includes walls, usually non-loadbearing, frequently constructed from masonry for economy and/or to meet other criteria. Why not use these walls as loadbearing members (providing suitable loadbearing base exists) ?

Likewise, lattice trusses seem, to me anyway, an excellent way to support a roof, either as primaries or even as secondary 'purlin' sections (spanning the 'wrong' way perhaps). Light weight (like for like, at a 10m span the section self weight is about half that of an equivalent hot rolled section) and clearly designed for service integration, the lattice truss at least deserves more consideration than it seems to get. Look upwards in most single storey commercial buildings in the United States and that's what you see – a lattice truss roof structure. In the United Kingdom, more often than not, there's a portal frame instead.

I'm not in a position to 'do the maths' right now, but the embodied energy and resource arguments alone must make the cold rolled options an increasingly popular alternative.

 

 

       

EMBRACE YOUR INNER URBAN DESIGNER

The economic slowdown has made it all the more difficult to create buildings, yet the need for future sustainability is becoming ever more pressing. Our new buildings sometimes seem to look as though they could be anywhere and are often designed to look as though they date from a previous time. We construct from basic materials that have been around for hundreds of years, with occasional, fashionable, injections of newer, tried and tested 'accessories', frequently neatly wrapped in a (necessary ?) warranty that often disappoints when trying to remedy irritating defects.

Property prices - either for purchase or rental - continue to reflect a healthy demand, yet our local media often highlights a public dislike for the 'development' that we seem to need. We seem to be confused about meeting our housing needs, as long as the need is satisfied 'somewhere else'. It's time we learned to like 'good' development, that creates a 'place' and acknowledges its surroundings, even if in a new and challenging way. We might only be able to get to this point when we're offered something better than the bland 'anywhere' that the larger housebuilders seem to deliver.

Perhaps it's time also to question some of the cynical, market lead, 'green' products that fail to deliver a truly long-term sustainable enhancement to our homes and workplaces. Very low energy homes are worth striving for, but then so too is improving the existing property stock. There's no magic about it – it's increasing insulation, controlling heat better and maintaining buildings so they continue to provide appropriate spaces for people's needs.

Sometimes the emperor really isn't wearing any clothes. If we are to really care about those that use our buildings after us we should make sure that we leave them with property that is adaptable, useful and lovable, like a great many of the buildings that have been left to us, that we still love to use, many years after their creation.



 

 

       
GOTTA LOVE THAT PENGUIN

I gradually became a convert to Linux as 2010 entered it's second half. For a long time I ran a dual boot - scared to lose my legitimate copy of Windows, locked into the universality of Office, Adobe and Autodesk. They're good products, but each new version brings features I hardly need to get to know about; familiar menus disappeared into supposedly 'intuitive' interfaces ('the ribbon' ?!) and the cost of keeping up to date chomps it's way through a reduced turnover. But, as we communicate by email and send files across the 'net, and the file formats change, eventually, we're more or less 'forced' to upgrade.

So, it was time, as we tottered along the recessional precipice, to consider the alternative. The 'Free' alternative. The relatively virus-resistant alternative. To evolve from Linux 'dabbler' to Linux 'user'. The discovery of BricsCAD tipped the balance - CAD software, comparable in many respects to and file format compatible with AutoCAD, but running on Linux (there's Windows versions too) and far, far more cost effective (it's not free, but it's reasonably priced) than AutoCAD. I started out with 'Open Office' and then 'Libre Office' as the respective versions appeared and improved (both free and I think have Win versions too), putting up with a few niggles in exchange for a 'proper' menu bar and the ablity to open .docx and .xlsx files.

For my 'base' distro I started with Ubuntu (Karmic Koala), stuck with it until Unity came along with the Narwhal release, (too unstable to rely on), switched to Fedora Laughlin for 9 months (all good until an important spreadsheet file corrupted for no reason) and then returned to Ubuntu for the Pangolin LTS. With this I used Gnome 3 desktop until it annoyed me enough to revert to Unity, which I've now learned to love. I'd like to give the KDE desktop with OpenSUSE a serious try but a couple of attempts to install it haven't been as straightforward as I'd have liked, so put it on hold. Other distros I've 'tinkered' with have been CrashBang (I found it quite stable, for the time I used it), Fuduntu (seemed very pleasant), CentOS (should have stuck with it for it's stability, but found it hard work to get started with) and PC-BSD (seemed surprisingly slow), all on Virtualbox. I still run a couple of WinXP apps through Virtualbox and have loved Dosbox (those old DOS apps still work, quickly, keeping it simpler, keeping it stable) ever since I discovered it back in my early Karmic Koala initiation.

So, why tell the world about my Linux discovery and (almost entire) conversion ? Well, we can't escape the necessity of the pc as an important tool, but I had felt, for some time, that the 'ratcheting' race to keep upgrading software and hardware, in order just to 'keep up', is an unfair commitment to expect a small business to keep making. You'd like a new pc, the old one's slow and cluttered, maybe gets a little hot, so you buy and it comes with the current Windows pre-installed. You're then, likely as not, going to upgrade your copy of Office and maybe a few other products that you depend on and have become a little behind the times. The cost of doing this, legally, soon becomes prohibitive, when cutting costs have become a fact of life. Pragmatically, Linux offered another way. Having made the switch I found it fascinating and the positives have outweighed a few negatives. If nothing else, Linux has shown the world there's 'another way' and it's a way that's highly pertinent to our straitened times.