Thursday, 4 November 2021

Giving up? No, broadening.

 Giving up? No, broadening 

There are many issues on which one should never give up, such as fundamental human rights. In these, every voice counts both for society and for the individual. Other matters are not so clear. Should one object to the intensifying of construction activity, especially of high-rise buildings, in the Randstad? Some people do put up a fight against this trend but the results are frankly disheartening: instead of 110, the height of towers is reduced to 75 metres (https://www.omroepwest.nl/nieuws/4477783/woontorens-op-plek-voormalig-ministerie-worden-lager-wil-haagse-gemeenteraad). Even worse, there are many more proponents of high-rise, intensive urbanization, often with arguments that seem rational. Any debate with them leads to an impasse and, as they represent considerable interests by a multitude of stakeholders, it's their views and plans that win the day. 

Should one give up objecting? Emphatically, no! Such developments can ruin the future of cities that have been quite liveable so far, so any objection that can tweak this future is worth making. What one should give up is debating in the narrow frame within which questionable tendencies are justified. The housing boom and high-rise building in the Randstad is justified by the housing demand but this is not the only relation that matters. One should also analyse what causes this demand. This might reveal factors that influence the location and form of desirable housing, for example that apartments in high-rise housing are often a temporary solution for young people. The appeal of low-rise terraced houses with private front and back yards, and easy access to the ground remains strong, especially to families with young children. Moreover, what makes people want to live in the Randstad rather than any other place in a tiny country like the Netherlands? There may be more room for development all over the country, not just in a few urban centres, if other aspects like employment and amenities become more widely spread. 

Further broadening of the frame for the housing debate concerns apparent inconsistencies between policies: stimulating fast building construction may be incompatible with the climate goals of the country, including nitrogen emissions (supposedly solved by lowering the highway speed limit) and the energy transition (do new urban developments comply with its long-term goals?). Will the new high-rise, dense housing lead to more urban heat islands? Will it make the traffic and transportation problems even worse? The thing with the built environment is that it underlies too many facets of daily life and therefore too many of our urgent problems. Letting cities grow willy-nilly inevitably exacerbates these problems. 

So, rather than giving up the debate one should put it in the broad frame it deserves. We've been talking about related problems separately for too long. It's time that we accepted that they are connected in a way that doesn't allow for piecemeal, simple solutions. 


Saturday, 3 July 2021

The heuristics of architectural evaluation

 The heuristics of architectural evaluation 

I was talking to a fellow architect about a recently completed building by a well-known architect in The Hague and her first reaction was: "Oh, I like him!" That was also the end of the discussion. Her statement implied a lot: she liked him, so he was a good architect and his buildings were by definition good. What could I tell her? 

What I should have told her is that what she said was a typical example of the biased, ineffective heuristics that reveal the limitations of our cognition: when faced with a difficult question, we often substitute it with another that's easier to answer without even realizing it. An example of such failures in Kahneman's Thinking, fast and slow concerns an investment decision one made to buy stock of a motorcar manufacturer because he admired their cars, without pausing to examine if the stock was underpriced at the time. 

This may be irresponsible behaviour in finance but in architecture it's normal: evaluating a building or design is hard, so we go by the reputation of the architects, by how much we like them and the tendencies they represent, and take the claims they make about their designs and the principles of the tendencies at face value. It follows that a building by a well-known architect is by default good enough and certainly interesting. 

One could argue that we know what we like intuitively: it's enough to see something to know it, in the same way that we can know that a person is angry from the first word they utter on the telephone or from the first glimpse we catch of their face, even from a photograph. This is called type 1 or system 1 thinking. It's what we do daily in an automatic, apparently effortlessly and generally reliably. It also applies to design products: if we're shopping for chairs, it's enough to see a photograph on a web page or in a catalogue to know that it's good. 

However, no-one should buy a chair without first sitting on it or a car without a test drive. Similarly, even an expert cannot say that a design is good at the first glance of a floor plan. One needs to study the documents, make measurements and comparisons - in other words, engage in type 2 or system 2 thinking: effortful and analytical and so generally transparent and reliable. The problem is that this kind of thinking is expensive, so we try to avoid it, unless type 1 thinking fails to deliver. Even then, we usually do it within the constraints determined by type 1 thinking: we don't normally test-drive cars that don't appeal to us. 

It follows that experiencing architecture in the same way that one experiences chairs and cars could give us a better evaluation than type 1 opinions. Embodied cognition can be classed as type 1 by its immediacy but it returns judgements based on quite a lot of information: when seated on a chair, our body tells us all about its affordances, from ergonomics and stability to tactile and thermal appreciation. Looking at the chair from all sides and in detail also tests our willingness to have it in our personal environment and see it daily next to other things we have and probably like. 

So, the next time you visit a building, don't be an architectural tourist interested only in taking impressive photographs. Try to be more like a user: take your time to really experience the building in a practical sense, try to understand what the claims and principles of architects really mean - get out of your type 1 comfort zone and try to test your assumptions analytically. It can give you a different perspective to architecture that's truly good. 

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Nothing wrong with the building industry

 Nothing wrong with the building industry

Yet another interview today: an earnest young researcher kept asking me what's wrong with the building industry. She seemed convinced of its ills and I don't blame her. We constantly talks about productivity issues, low building performance, housing scarcity, high costs, dangerous environmental impact and many other problems. And, naturally, we want to cure them all: remove the internal problems of the building industry and reduce its negative impact on the world. It appears to make sense but, seen from a different perspective, the building industry may actually work rather well as it is, perhaps not for itself as a discrete, isolated system but arguably for the wider economy and society. 

First of all, let's make clear that by "building industry" I refer to all economic activity concerning the built environment: design, construction, operation, maintenance, demolition, use, transport, networks, utilities and all related services - the lot. It's not synonymous to "construction industry", which covers only some parts of the above spectrum and, by the way, is not very industrialized. 

Secondly, let's examine what kind of improvements we aspire to. We establish goals like sustainability, which is self-evident and too broad or vague. Making it operational involves translation into simple constraints, such as the use of ethically sourced materials. These constraints tend to have a limited effect, especially when they do little to reduce overconsumption. The energy transition in the Netherlands is a good example: reducing the use of fossil fuel consumption and the need for fracking in Groningen are undeniably necessary but over-relying on an electricity grid already overburdened by agricultural, industrial, office and home demand is not wise. With renewable sources firmly in the area of 1-2%, who's going to object to nuclear power stations or energy supply (including fossil fuels) from abroad (including from unwanted bedfellows)? 

Other goals, such as circularity, seem more focused and feasible but suffer from a depressingly catholic interpretation and naïve indifference to the existing situation: everything has to be made circular and to the highest degree (i.e. reuse rather than recycling). That buildings prolong the in-use life of most materials and that old building components do not meet the requirements of today do not deter advocates of circularity, only side-track them from the huge existing building stock to the design and construction of new buildings. Even if we manage to stimulate a higher rate in the replacement of the existing stock, how can we guarantee circular flows for components that will exit the built environment in twenty, thirty or forty years from now? Or are we to promote faster cycles, as with electrical and electronic goods, clothes and furniture? This is already happening with kitchens and bathrooms; what is happening with the waste produced by these refurbishments? 

In addition to wider social and ethical goals, we also have goals pertaining to the current state of the construction industry. These are generally old and derive mostly from comparisons to other industries, as well as to industrialization in general. We can always learn from what the others claim to do well, so prefabrication, robotization, chain supply management, agility and various other solutions are been (re)introduced in the debate. The problems to be solved generally relate to cost and productivity. Admittedly, building construction is largely the same as one hundred years ago: slow, disorganized, inefficient, wasteful and too dependent on cheap labour, high demand, quick turnover and high mark-up for the end product. Production processes haven't changed but why should they, if people are satisfied with the same old results? The longevity and appeal of many old buildings also testifies to low consumer expectations. 

There's a lot to improve in the construction industry but how much does it matter to the whole building industry? From inside the construction industry improvement may be desirable but it can be argued that in fact the building industry works well, stimulating general growth and prosperity, thanks to a poorly performing construction industry. For example, it maters little if building prices go up and up, as it the current trend, or if they are delivered later and at a higher cost than promised. What matters is that they exist and enter use, so that consumption of resources and services can start. This also includes the constant adaptation of buildings to to changing requirements and fashions. In this context, it matters little if buildings have faults or underperform. If a builder makes a mess of a project, other builders will have work in the following decades. The shortcomings of the construction industry actually stimulate more economic activity, often connected to the goals mentioned above, such as energetic or circular retrofit. 

In the end, all's well with the building industry as a whole. Everybody profits from it, regardless of building state and performance. All that matters is that there is a large volume of activity - and if the low performance of the construction industry adds to that, then it's better for the economy. We can actually claim that, despite outdated production processes, the building industry conforms to wider current cultural and economic tendencies, including a superficial approach to quality: what matters in a bathroom refurbishment is that the visible objects, surfaces and interfaces agree with certain lifestyle choices, not how the underlying structures and networks operate. Is this any different to the choice of a smartphone or laptop? Only with respect to the lifespan of the whole building - but that's a fundamental misconception: a building isn't a thing but an assemblage of many, largely independent things, each subject to different conditions. The foundations of a building may not change over its lifetime but the roof may see a number of changes from maintenance and renovation (which may replace all original  components), extensions like loft conversions that change the shape and size of the roof, and the addition of new subsystems, such as solar panels. All those things coincide in the area of the roof and have some relation to each other but the overall picture is quite variable and opportunistic. Once we start seeing it like that, the building industry is not only very complex at both the physical and the economic level, but also doing quite well as a whole. 

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Does being a philosopher mean that you are a better thinker?

Does being a philosopher mean that you are a better thinker? Does being an architect mean that you are a better designer of buildings? 

The position of authority many assume derives primarily from their educational and professional background: in matters historical we listen to historians, in matters of health to medical professionals. This seems only logical but the situation becomes more complicated when the subject under consideration involves a capacity we all should posses, such as reasoning. Does a philosopher perform better in reasoning than others? We should certainly expect that: a philosopher has learned what reasoning entails more explicitly and in more detail than others. A philosopher has studied the corpus of philosophical works, so has access to hundreds of relevant views and approaches that inform and structure their own reasoning. So far so good; we can learn a lot from a philosopher. 

The problems start when philosophy becomes self-referential: when it addresses issues and debates within that corpus, with little regard for what a wider audience might understand. It's one thing to explain that what one is saying draws from other sources for reasons of credit, justification, transparency etc., another to try to impress by endless name-dropping that can feel mind-numbing for an audience and yet another to withdraw to the fundamental issues or technicalities of one's own discipline with little regard for what takes place outside of it. Philosophical debates are fine in philosophical circles but out of place in analyses of non-philosophical subjects that could profit from the rigour of philosophical reasoning. 

Similarly, architects have been trained in how to design buildings and have studied what other architects have done in the history of architecture up to the present day. Therefore, they should be able to design much better than untrained people. This is quite frequently the case: architects have a better understanding of matters spatial, functional and structural, as well as a wide repertory of tried solutions at their disposal, so they tend to avoid common mistakes non-architects make. At the same time, however, many of their solutions merely follow established patterns and architectural vogues. A design often merely copies what other architects, especially prominent ones, have made, resulting into a mass production of the same instances, which are automatically elevated to the status of prototypes. 

Learning from each other is a common and valuable practice in many areas, professional or not. The problem is again that it may reflect a self-referential architectural culture: that the choice of the particular solution is made not to offer good performance to clients and users but to engage in architectural debates, illustrate adherence to a particular school or otherwise favourably impress peers. The results are even worse than with philosophy because the tenets of architectural debates are often promoted as the solution to wider problems, e.g. societal or environmental. Architecture may adopt goals like sustainability, circularity or inclusiveness but superficially so, insisting on belief in the architects' capacity to change the world and confusing belief and intention with evaluation and performance. The world may be overheating, making summers often unbearable, but clever solutions in passive cooling, many known for decades are seldom applied to new construction or to the existing building stock, while sales of air-conditioning devices (actually a source of overheating themselves) are soaring. It seems that architecture has learned little from the failures caused in the second half of the twentieth century by its combination of blindness and arrogance. 

Friday, 2 April 2021

New architecture for Leiden

 New architecture for Leiden 

Today, Good Friday, the main item on the news page of the regional broadcaster is a controversial plan for the redevelopment of an old part of the University in Leiden: Omstreden plan ter inzage: waarom wil Universiteit Leiden uitbreiden in binnenstad? - Omroep West. The controversy apparently concerns the demolition of a number of social housing units, so as to make space for a new humanities campus. The steady decline of social housing in the Netherlands is indeed a sign of our times, although it doesn't receive enough attention next to worries about the housing shortage and dangerous investors in the housing market. However, what caught my attention were the artist's impressions of the new buildings (Beelden - Humanities Campus - Projecten - KCAP). 

The design is by an established architectural firm and the images depict a morphology one should expect from them: flat façades dominated by glass and a paper-thin roof on top. For over a decade, the same architecture has been facing me from across the street at my office: the student housing complex at the corner of Michiel de Ruyterweg and Julianalaan, Delft (2 Michiel de Ruyterweg - Google Maps). With less glass on the façade but no sun shading, just like the Leiden design, this complex is also oriented to the south and the west. Whenever the sun shines, the student studios are notorious for becoming unbearably hot. 

Is there any reason to assume that the Leiden University complex will fare better? It is possible that it will use very advanced materials or that it will have heavy-duty services that could alleviate the thermal gains from the unfortunately oriented glass but such measures significantly raise construction and operation costs. This is obviously not desirable, although we seem to care less and less about such matters. Dutch buildings were already  overly and often unnecessarily reliant on mechanical ventilation; following the heatwaves of early years, air conditioning is presented as an unescapable necessity but there is significantly less interest in passive measures such as sun shading, clever orientation or natural ventilation. Moreover, when it comes to university buildings and student housing, thermal performance appears not to be a priority: in addition to the Delft housing complex mentioned above, there is another abominal case in Leiden (Bloedhete studentenflats in Leiden: 'Het kan wel 40 graden worden' | NOS) and probably many more elsewhere. 

Still, in the environmentally-conscious twenty-first century, with so much talk about sustainable, low-energy buildings, not trying to include passive solutions in a major public building is surely a lost opportunity. We need exemplary designs that demonstrate the possibilities of cleverer architecture. Adding a bit of green to the flat roofs of the new humanities campus in Leiden, as the artist's impressions suggest, is far from enough. 

Thursday, 22 October 2020

Politics and research

 Politics and research

In the past few weeks I spent a couple of days attending meetings (online, of course) with a political agenda. I do not mean this dismissively. On the contrary, I'm happy to see politics meet research, in search of solutions to real problems in society. The problem is a gap between the different levels of thinking. Political thinking is often at a high level of accumulation that connects problems we encounter in daily life but, being focused solutions, these levels may underplay conflicts between the various problems, as well as subjugate them to principles. Abstract reasoning is one thing, the validity of principles another. Even great thinkers often fail to understand that they are talking about how people should behave in their view rather than the actual behaviours and their complex motivation. 

Similarly, from a research perspective political thinking tends to be abstract and geared towards quick fixes. This makes identification of the actual problems to be researched rather difficult and, from a political perspective, irritatingly slow and distracting. I know that there are many researchers who promise direct cures for social issues but more often successful research manages to elucidate what is hidden behind these issues and facilitate improvement only there. Of course, the effects can be far-reaching but it takes more than the research results to reach the political or societal goals. In other words, I feel quite capable of explaining the problems street pavements may cause to pedestrians and what a well designed pavement should do than of guaranteeing efficient and safe pedestrian circulation. The latter depends on many more factors and the pedestrians' choices. 

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Lockdowns and solutions

 Lockdowns and solutions 

Yesterday, on October 13, 2020, seven months after the first lockdown in the Netherlands, the Dutch government announced the second, this time partial lockdown. To my surprise, the news was received generally positively. I guess people under such conditions want clarity, not choice and the responsibility and uncertainty that go with it. This could be a reason why we accept draconian measures with gratitude. Rather than having to interpret the basic rules of social distancing and protection from infections in our daily lives, we appear to prefer general restrictions and the consequent elimination of many situations in daily life. Why worry how having a meal at a restaurant can be made safe is there are no restaurants to go to? Remove the opportunity or temptation and the problem is gone - no need to solve it. 

I do not share the apparently general acceptance and approval of how the corona pandemic is handled in the Netherlands. This does not imply I'm against anti-corona measures, that I find them unnecessary or contrary to my human or civic rights. On the contrary, I support the need for change and accept the principles underlying them, as well as the inevitable effects and the resulting necessity for social cohesion and solidarity. These are part of my human and civic responsibilities. In fact, I see the pandemic as an opportunity to improve our habits and environments, to make our lives healthier and happier. 

What I doubt is the sufficiency of general principles and total restrictions. A lockdown is a very temporary solution. We have experienced how tricky getting out of a lockdown can be, as well as how easily we can then end up in the same problematic situation that seems to call for another lockdown - a vicious circles of binary options. Imposing a second lockdown, even if it's a partial one, indicates a fundamental failure, not only of the people and their behaviours but also of the approach to solving the problems caused by the pandemic. Have we learned so little in these seven months? That seems inconceivable. Unfortunately, too much attention goes to new measures, such as the use of face protection, and too little to how different principles, measures and devices apply to different situations, how they are interpreted, related to each other and other factors, refined and improved thanks to knowledge generated by the applications. 

This is my main objection: general principles and measures are meaningful only in context. By working out what they do in different situations we can evaluate their effectivity and cost, appreciate the complexity of these situations before and after, and generally improve awareness and the ability to find practical solutions in daily life. 

This brings me to what I consider a major failure of the governmental approach: we have been hearing how this theatre or that restaurant have successfully implemented the general principles and so managed to adapt their operation and environment, making them safe and keeping them profitable. Have such best practices been analysed and evaluated? Have we learned from them, have we worked on templates and elements that can be adopted by others, too, have we developed platforms for sharing knowledge and solutions? Rather than indiscriminately closing all restaurants, we should have rewarded and showcased those that have achieved the goals we aspire to and used them to educate the rest and stimulate general improvement. This is something we have to do, an inevitable stage towards safer environments and activities, which is only delayed by the second lockdown. It is moreover something we need to do even if medicine manages to produce the cures for COVID 19, so that we can be same from future pandemics with different causes. 

In summary, we need to work out the necessary changes with more specificity and in more detail, so that they become applicable to any context and meaningful to all, learn from best practices and try to generalize them. 

One could say this is a design approach and I'd take that as a compliment. Design can actually contribute much to the solutions required because by changing the environments within which we operate, it can also change our behaviour. That's what affordances are about: you can demand that people observe social distancing but putting markers on the floor makes it not only easier to understand what one should do but actually part of our interaction with the environment: a constraints that's easy to observe. It's the same magic as with a flimsy piece of tape that cordons off an unsafe pavement or the foam lines football referees use to position the defensive wall at a free kick: physically they may be insignificant but culturally we tend to obey them. 

Of course, its is even better not to annotate but physically change the environment, taking into account the anti-corona principles. This is often seen as a long-term development because it may require wider or multiple entrances to rooms or buildings, wider corridors, better ventilation etc: costly and difficult modifications. This, however, should not stop us from starting already now. There are enough cases where adaptation is directly possible and we need to start producing the best practices from which we can learn. All we need is willingness to invest and to share.