Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Ephemeral buildings

My research and conversations into the nature of the impact of the built environment on the processes that are carried out in buildings is beginning to worry me. I knew for a long time that most buildings are gutted and refurbished every seven years. So the typical building is a somewhat temporary affair, even though the external shell sits on a piece of land for decades, seemingly semi-permanent. Not only are they refurbished regularly and frequently, but also they change hands. So no matter how appropriate they were for one occupier, the next occupier will inevitably find the facility inadequate or inappropriate in some way. When the Private Finance Initiative was introduced as a means of getting the private sector to fund the development of infrastructure, and then charge the public authority for its use under a 30-year contract, we all thought that finally there was a long-term view of infrastructure. But in the event, the deals were re-structured soon after the project was completed, once the development risk had gone, and the Private sector partner would often sell the facility to someone else for them to operate it. So, the engagement was still temporary. Now, I have discovered something else. There are some very good schools around, and they often have very poor quality buildings. Kendrick School, for example, a girls' grammar in Reading, which is one of the highest performing public sector schools in the UK, is situated in dreadful old, poorly maintained and unfit-for-purpose buildings on a crowded site. Failing schools are often provided with brand new buildings, because they need help, but are their results any better with the new building than with the old? If it is the same teachers and the same kids, dealing with the same syllabus, is anything changed? Finally, I learned that a field surgeon on a battlefield in a tent is more likely to succeed in terms of performance metrics thatn a surgeon in a well-equipped operating theatre. So all this leads me to question the permanence and even the significance of buildings in terms of what happens inside them. They now seem to me to be ephemeral things that have little impact on what happens inside them. Can this be true?


Allan said...

Hi Will, A Couple of points to this. I worked for a facilities management firm, wholey owned by one of Britain's biggest construction companys and they 'alegedly' have designed and built the building to have a 30 year 'useful' life span - meaning that, at the end of the 27 year PFI contract, a new building will have to be ordered! Hmmm. The second point is, surely it's always the people and their approach, expertise and attidude that make any real difference to anything that needs to happen. just a thought.

Will Hughes said...


Yes, it is the people, their approach and attitude that make the difference. I was going further than that, into the realms of social constructivism, claiming that it is only the people and their perception and use of a building that defines the building. The building has no objective reality of its own, and the only functions that it can fulfil are those imputed to it by its users. Therefore, the nature of a building, and the success/failure of a building, the very notion of building performance, are all just constructs of the users, not characteristics of the structure itself.

Grand strategy said...

Let me expand this view to infrastructure such as airports. In the case, users are aircrafts, vessels, automobiles which are normally getting larger and heavier over time. Which change is faster, infrastructure or users? The answer to this question is obviously the latter. The fact is that infrastructure is improved before its durable years owing to the feature. It is a sort of waste of money and can be called as ephemeral infrastructure.

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