Tuesday, 5 May 2009

A Mole For Newbuild Holes

I had a depressing conversation with a builder recently. He was funding his post-grad by working on one of the many developments currently on a bizarre game of build-as-slow-as-you-can. I mentioned that I had more than a passing interest in newbuilds; sort of a hobby, you might say. I wondered what he thought of my suspicions that they are built to a very poor standard (see; I can be tactful when need dictates.)

He offered his technical appraisal of urban newbuild flats, which I’ll try and convey. I’m not an expert, and he was using jargon and complex terminology. He described them as being (what was it now?) ah, that’s it: “crap.” Or did he say “shite?” Oh dear, I could kick myself. You must think me so unprofessional.

I suggested, and he confirmed, that many flats are constructed under the laws of Blue Peter craft-sheets and the wonderful game of Jenga, using balsa-wood, paper-clips and cling-film, and that developers meet planners and building inspectors with fingers crossed behind their backs while kissing a crucifix (inverted of course.) When applications are successful, shame-faced architects slope off to wail, while developers sacrifice a goat (letting-agents drink the blood.)

Bob The Builder (not his real name…) used insider knowledge when he noticed a widening crack in the walls in his former rented home. He assembled housemates in the filigree lounge/kitchen/study/laundry-room/diner to reason with them, in a calm and understated manner: “Run away!!!” he said, adding: “Save yourselves!!!”

I thought it might be plaster shrinkage. He said: don’t be silly. When I told him about Dovecot Towers, he was blank, until he realised that I was expecting him to be shocked.

Whenever I mention the appalling state of modern domestic architecture, its inherent design inadequacies and common structural defects, people think I am making it up, or joking. I’m not. But if anyone reading this is working, or has worked on a building site, could you just confirm that I’m telling the truth. It’s like being the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes: I can see the Emperor’s hairy arse, and newbuild flats are terrible.

What’s needed is a friendly, informed mole to help us out of this hole. We need a public-spirited builder who has worked on these monstrosities to become a whistle-blower, and reveal the regime of institutionalised cost-cutting and standard skimming that is the true monstrous carbuncle defacing contemporary architecture, and blighting daily life for tenants.

Incidentally, when I heard that one of the worst culprits for building these miserable hutches is in financial trouble, I laughed so hard that tea came out of my nose (apparently, a similar trick is performed in Bangkok.)

If justice is to be served, that particular firm will go bankrupt, its directors forced to rent a flat where the washing-machine is effectively next to the sofa, where you can hear neighbours whisper and piss, where you worry about falling through ceilings if you tread too hard, and where your post is stolen. Nice Heights (my final decision on the official nickname btw) is proof that great buildings are possible, so let it be done more often.

13 comments:

Caoilte said...

Most small building firms try to arrange to go "bankrupt" every six years or so. It's part of their business model, presumably to avoid responsibility for monstrosities as described.

We'd be a lot better off if the UK had an earthquake problem. Building earthquake resistant homes requires meeting much more exacting standards that as a side effect mean you can't poke your fingers through walls.

Of course, earthquake standards didn't help Italy recently.....

RenterGirl said...

I should have made it plain and clear that the firm whose impending financial doom made me laugh so heartily is a developer. Finally, the people who (I know I am in a minority here) did more than anyone to cause this nightmare(except the bankers) are finally seeing some justice. People who build dovecots should live in dovecots for a while. Cramming peopl einto increasingly tiny flats in the name of hip urban living, as a crafty way to disguise their greed.

Neil80 said...

It seems developers are sinking to new lows with student accomodation too, there seems to be a burgeoning market for privately operated halls of residence, check out this place:

http://www.lifehub.co.uk/

It's actually a temporary portakabin style structure, on a mega busy, quite rowdy street with windows overlooking the beer-garden of the bar next door and the car park of the local Aldi which serves as the red light districts pick up spot. Now, who wouldn't want to live there? All for just £125 a week!

Obsidian said...

Don't forget to add John Prescott to the list of people responsible for these monstrosities.

I kept looking around some of the flats in Manchester during 2007 and 2008, and came to the conclusion I'd rather live in a tent. I'll wait 'til I can afford somewhere decent and house-y in Cheshire.

@Neil80, just had a look at the site, and anything that's still using 'artists impressions' two months after it was supposed to be showing actual images, is obviously something the developers aren't overly proud of.

RenterGirl said...

Student housing is always appalling, but that's the worst I've seen. I stayed in temporarily in a student accomodation a while back. I couldn't believe how small it was: with a single bed, as we all know that students are celibate for spiritual reasons. And they have no: books, clothes, or belongings of any kind.

And yes: let's not forget John Prescott's role in the newbuild disaster. But then, while the people who lived in those blighters were screaming: 'they're nasty, nasty places, and no way to live,' people thought we were all spoilt yuppies.

Incidentally, here in Nice Heights, I still haven't heard so much as a peep from my neighbours, who I know to be normal lively people.

flowers said...

Its all the banks faults for allowing people who are not qualified builders or property people to borrow money to build crappy schemes of 24 flats on plots designed for a terrace house. Then selling them to investor clubs off plan before even laying a brick. The investor clubs then sold them on to 'investors' at twice what they paid the developer for it - creamed the profits and demanded that the spec of the flats was to fit in in with their model. They flogged these at road shows across the country - guaranteeing finance to those who signed up to the 'learn to be an invetsor' courses at £3,000 a pop. Each year the expectation got higher and the buildings smaller, more obsecure and crappier spec - but the rents never changed.

Hopefully this credit crunch will make banks tighter and stop dodgy developers building crappy new build boxes!

RenterGirl said...

Yep, those schemes were appalling. The rents did change though: they are now plummetting. Thanks for reading.

Markasaurus said...

You should see what you end up with here in San Francisco with earthquake codes- the same crap, but with extra sheets of plywood in the walls. Oh, and lots of stucco and vinyl windows. I don't think the level of quality necessarily goes up, even with tougher structural regulations in the building codes.

RenterGirl said...

What can we do then? The thing with these details on newbuilds is that people outside imagine they are sturdy, and even luxurious. Until people complain, or advertise the situation, nobody even knows. And the ting here is, where standards are enforced, they are too low - especially with regard to soundproofing and space.

Gabe said...

In Greece, the apartment buildings are extremely solid and practically designed, and the developers often are given apartments as part of the deal, so do end up having family members living in them.

And drying your washing on the roof of a block in Greece takes about half an hour...

RenterGirl said...

Gabe, that's intresting. In the UK, developers and architects build and retain a special 'penthouse' on many developments, which in certain cases, actually has a seperate entrance. I also suspect that these luxury eyries, segregated from the other residents are constructed to a much higher spec than the rest of the flats. They even face in a different direction, so don't hear the grief rising from the balconies. If builders/developers were given a free flat in amongst everyone else, I wonder if they might act more responsibly?

Mel said...

I suppose you've seen the news today? Housing Associations have stated that the vacant new builds that the government want them to take on just aren't of a good enough building standard to be let under their guidelines.

On top of the whole expenses controversy, we should perhaps now be naming and shaming all the people involved with the authorising and building of such crap while them asking some very tricky questions.

RenterGirl said...

This news sneaked in through a thick fog of corruption. In my view, hundreds of thousands of people, being shoved into what have been called euroboxes, or as I call them dovecots. As readers of this blog and inhabitants of said euroboxes know too well, they are, nasty. Does anybody care? Nope. Will they be demolished? Nope. Will anyone be punished for building them? Nope. They will endure, standing as crumbling monuments to this era.