Tuesday, 27 May 2008

I Can See You...

Opposite Dovecot Towers, the new flats are almost finished. Soon I’ll be overlooked (still no blinds, BTW.) Being able to gaze in a leisured manner into your neighbour’s home may inspire fantasies of Rear Window (or The Simpson’s masterful pastiche) but the reality is closer to Friends and their Ugly Naked Guy.

I used to live opposite a hotel, and could see into the rooms. I firmly believe that people should remain clothed forever, but in this hotel, air-stewards - half crazed with jet lag - stood in plain sight weighing their bollocks or scratching their arses, uninhibited and proudly naked, a sight both horrible and fascinating. (Interestingly, the women drew the curtains as a matter of course.)

One neighbour was on a lower level, both literally and in terms of his personal evolution. He would stand by his expansive shiny window staring at the various reflections opposite. He said he could see into everyone’s home if they didn’t close the blinds. He stood, grinning, on the stairs. He was weird.

Many blocks now have CCTV. People on lower incomes in social and rented housing are more likely to be victims of crime than richer people who live in more exclusive areas. In some ways, we have more to lose; many of us don’t have insurance, so anything that helps to deter burglars and muggers is fine by me. I worry about CCTV cameras tracking our lives, but one building I lived in even had its own channel. Instead of a video entry phone with a small screen, we tuned in and watched people entering the building and wandering around (the TV channel also showed the goings on outside.)

One Friday night (just the one mind) I’d been enjoying a drink, and on making my way up the stairs, I tripped. Next day, several neighbours asked how I was. The caretaker once showed me the night time security footage of the front door at night. It was like Benny Hill fused with The Wire: hookers marched in with shifty looking clients while junkies rushed into the post-room. The re-emergence was careful and slow.

Of course our post was robbed, vandalism was widespread, and we were greeted every morning with used condoms, needles and pools of effluence (I love the smell of vomit in the morning!) At one point someone hurtled down the stairwell and died; did they fall, jump, or were they pushed? As you can imagine, we were most anxious to know, but with so many strategically placed CCTV cameras, we were certain the villain would be caught.

Imagine our delight when we were told that most of the cameras were fake (why?) and as for the genuine ones, well our security guard wiped the tape clean every night. Couldn’t be arsed, you see.

NB: Just before I sat down to write this, Heroic Caretaker told me that our only CCTV camera system (the one in the basement) was stolen last night. I am not making this up.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

I Can Hear You...

Sound-proofing is a craft requiring knowledge, care and skill. Architects consider soundproofing; they plan the soundproofing, the soundproofing scheme is approved. Then they use the plans to steady a wonky chair.

I have, throughout my tenure in Dovecot Towers, suffered a recurring and persistent fear. It’s this: on those atmospheric bright and quiet early mornings, can I really hear the people above me peeing freely in their en-suite bathroom? I’m sure there are minimum standards for new buildings, but in my view (and if that really is the sound of blissful bladder emptying - I think it is - and they are obviously keeping well hydrated) then standards are inadequate.

The days when every boy dreamed of a nuclear stereo with cupboard sized speakers that would blast him across the room like Marty McFly in Back To The Future have passed. Ipod docking systems and tinny music played through laptops or feeble DAB radios may conspire to vex those preachy stereo purists but at least they’ve mostly seen off intrusive bass-boosted, thudding noise (bedroom DJ’s notwithstanding).

These days, the loudest culprit are enormous booming plasma screen tellies. The sound now jolting me awake me in the early hours is CBB’S!!!! Or THE OPEN UNIVERSITY MATERIALS SCIENCE PROGRAMME!!! (Also: I think I hear the presenter’s shirt.)

When the weather warms up, doors and windows are left permanently agape. Tenants play it loud until they realise they can hear their neighbour who in turn can hear them.
Voices are raised. The penny drops. The window shuts.
I recently heard some neighbours fighting aliens loudly through the telly. The more engrossed they became, the more senseless the slaughter and the gore, ergo - the higher the volume. I stood on my balcony with many other residents, all of us shouting for them to be quiet. When they realised we could hear everything, amplified to a stadium gig standard they did turn it down, mumbling sulkily ‘…it wasn’t that loud!’ (It was.)

A common problem in revamped and newly built developments is the curse of laminate flooring, a hard shiny surface which reflects sound so much that even dainty little tippy-toes dancing up a quiet storm sounds like a clumsy giant ‘River Dancing’ in clogs. I regularly hear washing machines from next door. That can’t be right.

Developers are often the villains here; the crafty ones (ie all of them) prefer to forget the double glazing and pay the fine, which is cheaper than the glass. It’s unfortunate that when technology is better at dulling noise, developers stick to the bare minimum (the conspiracy theorist in me wonders if they even bother with that). If you sit in my flat and shut all the doors and windows, then turn down all the sound, it’s disturbing to be able to hear human voices barely raised, babbling in the background.

In a culture of corner-cutting, architects rely on outdated notions of community spirit to keep a lid on ambient noise. Times have changed: why would you care about your neighbour’s beauty sleep, when you’ve never even met them?

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Help Me Wayne Hemmingway; You're My Only Hope

Wayne Hemmingway was recently appointed Newbuild Design Maestro/Czar/Head Honcho. His brief is sorting the problems that frequently arise when architectural blueprints are lost in translation between desk and building site.

I have written much here about those same faults. Newbuilds are: shoddily built, poorly maintained and badly designed. I don’t know what else I can do. Should I retrain as an architect, spend seven to eight years as a student before qualifying then find a job and while persuading a wealthy patron to commission the home of my dreams? Or somehow contrive to obtain the huge sums of money it would require to become a property developer, and subsequently hire a sympathetic architect? No. All I can do is write about the situation, so I will outline my suggestions, and hope Mr Hemmingway sees them.

My first request would be to end the tyranny of open-plan living. It’s fine when you’re luxuriating in a marvel of construction carved into a hillside or a barn like on ‘Grand Designs.’ But it’s only ever satisfactory and comfortable when your expensive dream home sports a large, airy living space with top end appliances so quiet and still you forget where they are (same with the children; wherever did we put them?) or enough room for different ‘zones,’ with a lovely garden view and plentiful storage. Open-plan does not work when you have up to four people crushed into a shoebox, with cheap noisy washing machines, toddlers, extractor fans and phones roaring like scary monsters. Kitchen/diners are logical, but could we have a separate lounge?

Or could utility rooms be decreed compulsory? Explain to me why two bedroom newbuilds feature two bathrooms (one en suite) when residents must share a tiny lounge/diner/everything room, with a cooker, and a swing-bin with mops and brooms standing to attention? We share our space with the roaring washing machine, with nowhere to stash recyclables, or anything.

A few inbuilt cupboards would change my life and rock my world. We’d be able to store things, and do a weeks shop in advance, and have belongings, like normal people, instead of keeping everything boxed up in the hall. I’m dewy eyed and wistful at the mere idea.

Shelving, or alcoves for shelving, would be so helpful, as I am currently looking at all my books packed up in banana boxes, which is such a waste: I can’t nail in sturdy shelves, as walls are so flimsy I might crash though into next door like Jack Nicholson in The Shining: ‘…heeerrres Rentergirl!’

Balconies are fantastic: the view, the fresh air, the space for plants, laundry and even barbecues is one of the few positive things about living here. But could they not be set above each in one vertical line, so as to allow for some semblance of privacy (it’s like sharing a tiny yard).

Improved soundproofing, an end to communal post-rooms and secure main doors would be splendid, as would a little more space.
An extra ten feet on my lounge and bedroom really would make all the difference; I could even fit in some chairs. I’d love some chairs.

I can do no more. I hope Wayne Hemmingway gets to read all this, and maybe even meet and discuss these issues with those poor people doomed to live in a newbuild. But I doubt anything will change.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

RENTS ARE RISING!!! (or are they...)

In this emerging housing crisis, one sector of the property world remains upbeat, even cocky. Surprise, surprise, it’s the letting agents, who claim that – yes, purchase prices are falling, but rents are up, up and away, soaring off into the stratosphere.


Before moving to Dovecot Towers, I noticed how agents would delicately, coyly, mention a price, but on catching quizzically raised eyebrows indicating:
‘HOW MUCH!!?? Oh, do behave; how much is it really?’ they would backtrack.

Estate agents are chancers, seeing how much they can prise out of na├»ve, desperate, daft-as-a-brush tenants. It didn’t work. We’re not that gullible, and it’s a renters market now.

Here’s what’s really going on. In affluent, desirable areas like Edinburgh, Brighton, and Notting Hill, where large, well-constructed, traditional homes are rare and space is at a premium, demand is permanently high and rents are constantly edging upwards. But elsewhere across the country, prices are homogenising. Locally, rents on previously less expensive un-improved flats and slighter downmarket ex-council houses are also rising, albeit slowly. They are converging with newbuild rents, which have lifted, but subsequently capped levels wherever they are built.

But where inner city brownfield sites have been carpeted with those newbuild shoeboxes, bought as buy to let investments, demand is dead. Prices there were initially higher than the rest of the locale, but are now static or falling slightly. There are too many little boxes, and they all look just the same.

Rents are still too high though. Newbuilds raised local levels: interest rates were escalating, and inexperienced owners had unreasonable expectations of profit, but agents persist in setting rents at stupidly high amounts. I’ve been checking, however: visiting agents, asking about bargains, wondering if anyone has a newbuild with a buy to let owner who can’t sell, and might therefore be willing to accept a more reasonable rent. All of them said yes.

Agents have rightly surmised that selling property will not maintain their profits. Publicly, they talk up rental rates, hoping theirs is a self-fulfilling falsehood. They are scrambling to let flats they cannot sell, when major developers have stopped construction, so flooded is the market with poky little hutches. As things stand, developers can’t offload what they’ve already built.

Apart from anything else, owners have realised that letting agents are parasites (so many landlords say this) raking in an undeserved percentage for little action. Many owners now let privately online, so asking agents about prices is misleading as they don’t necessarily have the relevant numbers to hand, and anyway have a vested interest in telling porkies.

One landlord advertised his flat with an ad on the main door of Dovecot Towers. The rent was risibly inflated, and rude words were quickly added to his sign. By noon, the money requested had fallen. By night time, the price had sunk to a reasonable level, and included parking. He’d got real. There was no alternative.

So, if you meet a letting agent crowing about rising rents, take a small step back and sniff the air. What’s that nasty smell? Why, that’ll be the whiff of soiled pants on fire.