Review 2013

Conference 2013 - Architecture Matters

Following on from last year’s well-attended Dublin event, the RIAI Annual Conference returned to the RDS with close to 500 delegates. The theme ‘Architecture Matters’ was explored in four sessions over two days, while a fun debate, chaired by Eddie Conroy, at the Meeting House Square reception challenged the very notion of why architecture matters.

The case why architecture matters was made at the conference perhaps most effortlessly by keynote speaker and RIBA Gold Medallist, Edward (Ted) Cullinan. Using his favourite presentation technique, the felt pen and the overhead projector, Ted Cullinan took delegates from the adaptation of historic buildings to building in sensitive landscapes. Sketching and revealing each building layer, Cullinan illustrated his practice’s approach through projects such as the Fountains Abbey Visitor Centre. “Features and style are an anathema to architecture”, said Ted Cullinan and explained instead the principle of “locking a building plan into the geometry of lands cape”. Other insightful sketches included the masterplan for Singapore Management University and the recently completed Maggies’ Centre in Newcastle. An initiative by Charles Jencks named after his late wife, Maggie Keswick Jencks, the centres act as drop-in places for people undergoing cancer treatment. While the objective is to provide a positive environment for care and support, the biggest challenge can be to “bring the blokes in”, said Cullinan, and demonstrated how this has been successfully achieved in Newcastle by integrating exercise equipment on the roof of the building.

Ted Cullinan’s plea for the making of place reverberated through many conference presentations. Adaptation and re-use of buildings – as well as wider conservation issues – featured in talks by architects James Howley, Robin Mandal, Loughlin Kealy as well as Roger Curtis, Technical Research Manager of Historic Scotland and Tom Grey of Trinity House. Citing projects such as Lambay Island and Russborough House, James Howley reminded delegates that the best conservation work “becomes invisible” and called for a “light touch”.

“Place making is an economic strategy”, said Kilkenny County and City Manager, Joe Crocket who reported on urban renewal plans for Kilkenny. Of particular interest to Crocket was the process and he described an innovative initiative, run in partnership with the RIAI, the Urban Design Review (see also AI 269, p. 21). In order to maximise the potential of a renewal project (i.e. the Smithwick Brewery site), the Urban Design Review brought together a diverse team of architects with other professionals. Their role was to propose, challenge and interrogate development options. “Working with architects is of real value and working with the RIAI has been a great experience”, concluded Crocket, adding that An Bord PleanЗla had also commented positively on the process.

Continuing at the urban scale, the multi-disciplinary team for Granby Park on Dublin’s Dominick Street – Sam Bishop from Upstart with architects Peter Carroll (A2 Architects) and Sean Harrington (SHA Architects) – delivered an uplifting presentation on the transformation of a vacant space into a pop-up park. A huge success with both local residents and Dubliners, over 40,000 people attended over 100 events in Granby Park between 21 August and 21 September.

Orla Murphy presented her acclaimed research project ‘Town’ – the outcome of her Kevin Kiernan Award, a partnership between the Arts Council and OPW to encourage architectural excellence and innovation. Murphy identified key strategies to combat vacancy in Irish town centres, which have been adversely affected by ribbon development. With one in three people in Ireland living in a rural town, Murphy made a strong case for providing incentives for infill schemes and the retaining of rituals and events that “weave people together” such as market days and fair days. Murphy’s plea found echoes in a presentation by Martin Colreavy, Principal Advisor on Built Heritage and Architectural Policy with DAHG, who provided an overview on strategies and shared priorities for current National Built Heritage Policy. Heritage Policy developments in 2013 included a comprehensive review of legislation and fiscal incentives regarding Built Heritage including the Living City Initiative; progress implementation of priority actions of the Government Policy on Architecture 2009-2015 which included a DAHG Reuse BPM and Retail management guidelines BPM with DECLG with focus on Historic town centres; the development of a new Historic Towns Initiative (HTI) pilot regeneration scheme; and progress the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage/Advice Series.

Prof. Mary Corcoran, Head of the Department of Sociology at NUI Maynooth reiterated the importance of place, arguing that “culture and place are intertwined in terms of images and symbolic representation”. Corcoran investigates civic culture and how it is expressed in Irish cities. The sociologist argued that “in Ireland ‘urban’ is often constructed in a negative way, due a post-colonial hangover, however, people form a very positive attachment to suburbs and the semi-rural”. Among the most successful new civic spaces are libraries, which have reinvented themselves and encourage civil integration, as well as a new ‘Urban Pastoralism’. People are reclaiming patches of land for ruralisation, said Corcoran.

Cultural change was also a central focus in the presentation of second international keynote speaker, David Saxby, ‘Architecture (but not) as we know it’. Saxby’s described his multi-disciplinary practice 00:/ as born out of the current “unstable conditions”, which are “suited to creativity and innovation”. Saxby argued that a building may be “the last thing you want, what you need is the outcomes a building can engender”. Saxby is co-author of the book A Right to Build, A 21st Century Industrial Revolution in UK Housing. Describing the book as a critique of the UK house building industry – “where we build as cheaply as possible to sell for maximum value” – Saxby argued for more user-commissioned housing, including new models such as the ‘WikiHouse’, an open source construction set. The objective is to make it possible for almost anyone, regardless of their formal skills, to freely download and build structures which are affordable and suited to their needs, said Saxby.

There was a fascinating synergy between Saxby’s open source WikiHouse and Justin Kilcullen’s report on Trocaire’s pioneer work to meet housing needs with community built houses in developing countries such as the anti-seismic houses in Guatemala, built after an earthquake. “Earthquakes don’t kill people, falling buildings do and houses need to be constructed accordingly”, said Kilcullen. He also reported that houses can be more than shelter – “they become enterprises in the developing world and are put to use as shops or for manufacture”.

Compelling statistics on Ireland’s housing needs were presented by Marian Finnegan, Chief Economist Director with Sherry FitzGerald. Analysing Ireland’s population growth (8.2% sine 2006), Finnegan argued that we are not meeting current housing needs, which is estimated at 30,000 units per annum. “In 2012 less than 10,000 units were built, which will lead to supply shortage of housing”, warned the economist. With people delaying buying due to falling prices, there has been a 110% increase in people living in private rented accommodation reported Marian Finnegan. Cash buyers currently represent 57% of purchasers in the market nationwide and 52% of buyers are looking for the traditional semi-d. The shortage of family homes is particularly acute in Dublin, where 0.9% of housing stock is available for sale. “This is only a half-year supply”, warned Finnegan, “prices are rising rapidly because there is a low supply – this is not how the economy should be going”.

Dermot Clohessy, Executive Director of the IDA, also reported on a shortage on the supply site of commercial properties to meet demand from Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). He identified in particular the Dublin Docklands area, as competing with other international cities for FDI and said that in the IDA’s view there should be some flexibility on building height. “A quality built environment is important for these FDI company and architecture does matter”, concluded Clohessy.

‘Profession Updates’ at the conference included presentations by Ercus Stewart, Senior Counsel, on Employment Law; Toal Ó Muiré on the Construction Contracts Act 2013; David O’Brian on new Procurement Guidelines; David Power on the Construction Productions Regulations’ and Brendan McConville on SHW Domestic, RIAI Assistant Director Kathryn Meghen gave an update on a wide range of RIAI initiatives, designed to support and promote Irish architecture both nationally and internationally. Sara Van Rompaey delivered a comprehensive overview on EU research and standards for energy efficiency in historic buildings as well as on the wide range of funding schemes available.

Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn, addressed the RIAI Annual Conference with an important announcement of an ideas competition, currently underway by the RIAI, for a new primary school design. “Ireland will be building more new schools than any other European country and there is a need to innovate in our approach to school design”, said the Minister. He informed delegates that he was looking forward to creative solutions that will feed into the Department’s brief for a new space for 21st century learning. The RIAI also announced at the conference a competition for a 1916 Centenary Chapel at Glasnevin Cemetery.

State Architect, Ciaran O’Connor, appealed to the profession “to refocus ourselves to come out of the bottom of the cycle”. Architects need to demonstrate that they can do more with less in straightened economic circumstances said O’Connor. The State Architect described his role as “fostering a culture of design” and said much emphasis was placed on Green Public Procurement. He cited the Graduate Training Programme, a partnership with the RIAI, as a successful initiative with over 110 architectural graduates having benefitted from practical experience in OPW since 1999. O’Connor also called on delegates to support the Institute and its President with its work on the forthcoming Building Control (Amendment) Regulations 2013.

The Conference presented important updates on the BC(A)R including presentations by Aidan O’Connor, Principal Advisor, Department of Environment Community and Local Government (DECLG); David O’Connor, Fingal County Manager; and Orla Fitz.Gerald, Honorary Treasurer on RIAI Council. These presentations were subsequently circulated by E-zine to RIAI Members.

Aidan O’Connor provided an overview of S.I. No. 80, which he described as “strengthening the systems of control”, and said it would take effect for commencement notices lodged on and after 1 March 2014. He confirmed that the Department has noted “valid concerns regarding insurability and legal consequences of statutory certs have been raised”. David O’Connor said that Fingal County Council was acting as the lead local authority in developing the online administrative system for Building Control. David O’Connor agreed that S.I. 80 would create “a culture of compliance”, and said that the problems that arose with buildings were most often not problems that designers created. The new system would act as an ‘open file’ and inspections would be based on a risk assessment – “the information gathered at commencement stage should allow us to identify risks”. The registration of commencement is expected to be live from March 2014 and O’Connor said he welcomed comments and participation.

Orla Fitz.Gerald delivered a presentation on the RIAI’s work on BC(A)R to-date, saying that 40 volunteers were working in the RIAI are on behalf of members. “The RIAI is neither pro nor anti S.I. 80, we are involved in the process on behalf of the profession”, stated Fitz.Gerald. Setting the context, she explained that the 1990 Building Control Act had made provision for S.I. 80. Orla Fitz.Gerald said that the wording – i.e. the insurability of the Design and Completion Certificates – was a red line issue for the RIAI and that it needed to be changed. “Responsibilities and liabilities of architects both as members of the design team and as assigned certifiers must be reasonable and insurable”, said Fitz.Gerald, adding that Defects Liability Insurance is vital in order to provide consumer redress.

A long debate followed on from these presentations. Issues raised – including by the seven Past-Presidents – were that the proposed BC(A)R was an “ineffective system, to get the built quality up” and that the architect should not be expected to certify for others. Delegates raised questions as to whether the Department had provided confirmation on key issues such as Latent Defects Insurance, the Registration of Builders and, most critically, that the wording will be changed on the certificates. One delegate said that, while he understands that BC(A)R is trying to get better protection for consumer, his fear is that “the architects’ PI insurance will be used to resolve problems on site; this has happened before in my practice”. Others felt that the time-frame left in the lead-up to the coming into effect of S.I. 80 was too tight to resolve the outstanding issues and provide sufficient training and that an extension should be sought. Delegates expressed their support for the President and the RIAI. Brian Hogan suggested that a meeting between the President and the seven Past-Presidents should take place and the conference agreed on this.

Honorary Memberships were bestowed at the conference on Des Mahon, retired Carlow County Manager Carlow; writer and scholar Dr. Peter Harbison; and Professor of Architecture, Declan Kennedy. Michael Grace was made a Fellow of the RIAI for his service to the profession.

Sandra O’Connell