Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Higher Baby

Right now, I’m settled in a well-constructed, peaceful block which is managed humanely and efficiently rather than for profit alone. I love it here, I really do - this flat has been a refuge. Despite my affection for Nice Heights, it must be said that even here, there is one aspect of its design that is found wanting.

Nice Heights exemplifies the nature of property’s most exclusive luxury: space. Contemporary flats are tiny. It’s hard to obtain accurate figures, but urban newbuilds can be as small as 45 sq metres (I suspect the worst examples are even smaller.) Nice Heights seems fine until a few visitors arrive, and highlight the deficiency. There is no internal corridor. The bathroom door opens out onto the eating area (dining room? Don’t be daft.) When I start flat-hunting again, top of my wish list is separate rooms, and more space.

The obsession with cramming people into low-rise blocks seems to be the result of ill-founded assumptions, fatally combined with a crushing lack of ambition. Low rise? It’s just how things are. There is a solution to this problem: we must build higher.

Unfortunately, the terrible fires in South London recently have stalled a growing campaign for taller buildings. There did seem to be safety problems in those particular blocks, but even a building that touches the clouds - if properly designed - will be as safe as well… houses. Safety is often a management concern though: as I’ve said before, Dovecot Towers had no fire assembly point, and we never had a fire-drill.

Apart from that, why are we so reluctant to build higher? Surely it would eradicate the argument for the little boxes foisted upon buy-to-let tenants? There’d be fire escapes and lifts at either end, and also in the middle of the building. It’s good business to use a low rise footprint for a taller building, allowing greater space for renters, who stay longer, meaning less voids for landlords, who would also benefit.

Increased height would accommodate everything I dream of, like storage space and generously proportioned rooms - even open-plan living is fine with enough space. We’d have bedrooms large enough to double as studies, with a desk and shelves (built into in a niche?) Or perhaps a separate study, and a terrace that’s a proper outdoor room, with space to dry washing, and enjoy the view. Gardens would allow for children’s playgrounds. We’d have rented homes for life in an urban suburb in the sky, with plants creeping up the outside in a vertical garden.

The circle has turned, and vertiginous living is now entirely the domain of rich owner occupiers. The over-lords of the sky-kingdom enjoy vast eyries, peering out between the branches of imported olive groves, glancing down at the poor creatures condemned to remain in orange, low-rise hell-holes. It used to be the other way around: landless, tenant proles housed in stacks of dilapidated council blocks, the very same blocks that in some cases were refurbished to make luxury apartments. How did we get from there to here?

(NB: Regular readers might like to know, I will now be posting on different days, and slightly more often.)




Friday, 24 July 2009


Recently, it has been suggested that a register of landlords might control their worst excesses. Naturally, owners are against the proposal on the basis of ‘human rights,’ even though they ask a lot - bank statements, credit references - from their tenants. A register of landlords might at least prevent rogue repeat offenders scaring tenants away, and then starting anew with a fresh batch of victims.

But we shouldn’t need a register. We need a house. You have a house. You need our rent. We pay the rent. I have an inkling that this bargain goes wrong partly because landlords have unrealistic expectations of tenants, like their behaviour, the impact they will have and the time consumed by managing property. They have genuinely forgotten that there are warm-blooded, sentient humans living in their investment. Owners want tenants who have taken a vow of perfection.

Landlords want sanctified, holy, winged tenants with halos, who will pay over the odds, two years in advance. These dream tenants pester the landlord pleading with them: “Please sir, can I pay you some more?”
Tenants must never ask for repairs. They accept the squalor, conceding: “It’s exactly what we deserve; it is our destiny - so it was written.”
In fact, they replace all appliances with top-end luxury substitutes on moving, out of devotion to, senseless love of their master.

Either that, or owners will settle for virtual tenants, holograms, or spectral beings that waft around the property without landing (I expect they’d still find a way to make deductions for wear and tear.)

Landlords want a signed personal guarantee from god/your chosen imaginary deity, who will rumble assurances from on high that rent will be paid. In credit checks, tenants must also be divine and superhuman, undertaking a solemn vow: “I swear on my firstborn’s life I have never, ever, ever, paid bills on a red final demand.”

Landlords hate being scared. The following is scary: tenants. They would actually quite like it if we paid rent without living in the property, to save all the nasty, disruptive business of having us contaminating the flat with our presence (even though we pay to live in it.)

Landlords also want the power to dismiss us instantly by snapping their fingers and intoning: “I evict you, I evict you, I evict you,” because it’s Wednesday, or because they stood in a crack in the pavement, or because their astrologer advised against Scorpios, and men (or women) with moustaches.

Robot tenants are the future. Perhaps the National Landlords Association has constructed a clone of us all which they keep in a pod at the Masonic Lodge. Stepford renters leave no messy residue, and are highly obedient. Landlords want armies of cloned mechanical tenants, marching in step like the workers in Metropolis: “Master, we obey and will sign the S.21 notice, just as you order us to.”

Meanwhile, we remain defiantly and flamboyantly human. Landlords must deal with us as we are now, but still operate as if tenants are drones and good for one thing only, and that’s money.



Tuesday, 21 July 2009

What A Mover

Life for tenants is a madcap relay of constant moving, all speeded up like a Benny Hill sketch to the sound of funny banjo music. We relocate more than homeowners - potentially every six months if we’re unlucky, which judging from your comments and emails, many are.

It’s very bad for the nerves. Most newbuilds are specifically aimed at renters who’s life-cycle is: move in/get out/then more of the same all over again, it’s bizarre that these specialist, modern constructions manage to make moving so difficult. For one thing, newbuilds have nowhere for vans and lorries to park, and we’ve all been faced on a stressful day with tetchy friends and removal companies waving those inevitable and extortionate parking tickets, which we have to pay.

In modern buildings, there is no freight lift. Moving belongings via a small, creaking elevator, hoping that your vast collection of ancient vinyl doesn’t conspire to send everyone plummeting into the basement is a stressful, albeit character-building test.

Conversions present a different challenge. Internal remodelling fits the original, historic shape and layout of the building, so there are often random pillars blocking foyers, compelling irate removal men to perform a sort of country dance, do-si-doing through double-doors and twirling around posts with heavy boxes and fragile plants. Maybe the answer to the question: “How did they get that enormous sofa through that narrow door and into that tiny lounge,” is the same as: “How did they get that ship into that bottle.”

We used to have this under control. Whenever I pass older structures, like converted canal or roadside warehouses, I notice the original rooftop hoists, ingenious and ideal for lifting goods up the outside of the building if too large or heavy to risk the elevator. I want them back. Bring back external hoists. We want rooftop hoists, and we want them now.

The best example of a humane design which acknowledges the trials of life can be found in a council block in Salford. Residents always wondered about the cubby-hole/niche at the bottom of the back wall of their lift. What was it for? Enquiries revealed that the space was created to allow coffins to lie flat when the occupant made their last relocation to that sitting tenancy in the sky. It makes me wonder how undertakers arrange that same journey from an urban newbuild.

Why does this matter? Well, soon I’m going to be moving again. This time its career related (please don’t ask why - I have a life outside of this blog.) But I’m off elsewhere, so once again I must pack, find another home, move everything, and then unpack again (using my hoard of banana boxes.) My friends say, put it in the blog - put it in the book, but it’s another unavoidable move and I’m dreading it already, really, absolutely and completely dreading it.

More than anything else, I just wish I could put Nice Heights on wheels and take it with me on a monster truck.



Tuesday, 14 July 2009

I Can Get A Witness

Dovecot Towers is on my mind. I’m making preparations for the book I plan to write, going through old posts etc, and a few weeks ago, I went back there.

To my surprise I found the return visit quite daunting. With the building looming up ahead, I imagined the soundtrack, with stag-parties, Sarah screaming, and the people who gossiped, played and argued on their balconies, never realising I could hear. I wonder how the other residents remember life there - after all, some people enjoyed happy days in Dovecot Towers. Occasionally, even I managed to raise a smile…

I was accompanied by Owen Hatherley, author of Militant Modernism, and responsible for the excellent Nasty Brutalist And Short blog – see links. Owen is a fan of brutalist architecture, which, in a column for Building Design, he defends with eloquence and passion. Personally, I’m not so keen, but Owen’s spirited advocacy could almost change my mind.

Owen is aware of Rentergirl, so I wondered what he’d make of Dovecot Towers. With the trained eye of a practiced architectural critic, Owen appraised the exterior. Here’s what he had to say:

“Dovecot Towers is tucked away in the back end of beyond - seemingly in an alleyway, without much hope of any light ever getting into the rooms. Then there were the grilles on the ground floor, which just made it seem like an industrial structure rather than housing - which, given the popularity of ageing satanic mills as yuppie flats, was probably the intention (also the reason for the cheap red brick, I suspect, although that looked like a bit of shallow dressing on a concrete frame), but combined with the dead flowers left for the suicide it all looked decidedly inhospitable. More than that, though, I remember that bit in the middle. Not really a square or a plaza, not a garden, just this odd bit of greenery that thought it was a feature of some sort. I can only wonder what it all looked like in the drawings...”

I agree with everything Owen says, except for one point. I don’t believe that Dovecot Towers was intended to reflect any style at all. It was - in more ways than one - thrown up. Architects speak of buildings having a dialogue with the surrounding area. In which case, what was Dovecot Towers trying to say? Then I saw the wilted bouquet. No green shots, just some half-dead lilies propped up and dwarfed by a shoddy, bleak and shabby buy-to-let disaster.

I’ve since learned that Davey might not have intended to die that night: he was threatening to jump, possibly to scare Sarah in the heat of the moment, and may have fallen, which for me makes his death all the more tragic. Coroners only record a verdict of suicide if there is conclusive evidence, like a note, so there was an open verdict. I heard from Sarah a while back. She’s determined not to be bitter and miserable (her words.) I also understand she’s doing voluntary work abroad.

As for William, my former landlord - well, I never did find out what happened to him.






Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Down Came The Rain

The other night I saw a storm like no other. Javelins of rain pierced the sky, while an astonishing display of lightening flashed between shower curtains of water.

Newbuilds (and Nice Heights is one) all have flat roofs. From what I’ve seen all flat roofs leak, and this one was no exception. It was as if the world was ending; the lights went out, the water was shut off and the lifts stopped working (presumably war, famine, pestilence and disease headed straight for Dovecot Towers.) The penthouses above me were deluged, as apart from being huge and expensive, they are directly under any leak (more of a Niagara, actually.)

The management company and concierge do their jobs properly, so cleaning and repairs began immediately - carpets were sorted with massive hair-driers. In Dovecot Towers, there was also a leak (the only disaster in that doom-laden block which didn’t affect me) but the management company’s impassioned response, was basically: “…tough.”

A friend lived in another jerry-built newbuild so bad he’s earned time off from purgatory. It had a sieve for a roof, but repairs were botched and piecemeal. There were constant leaks - well, more of a water feature, actually, but an evil one. He came home to find water bubbling through light-fittings, rotting the carpet and drenching his belongings. The people in the flat below had some much loved possessions destroyed.

Tired of spending his days wearing one of those zany umbrella hats, he consulted the letting agency (how sweet; I wonder if he also believes in fairies?) and asked for help. They did nothing. Exasperated and damp, he was forced to evacuate (in one of those inflatable emergency boats, I believe) ending up homeless and - ironically it must be said - sofa-surfing. The agency sternly insisted he was obliged to pay full rent, and unbelievably tried to keep his deposit.

Now, if I was building a structure with an eye its long-term future, I’d make sure the roof had an incline. Architecture follows fashion, and oddly enough, the current vogue is for a wedge-shaped outline, which looks odd (as if a giant has lopped off the top, like a boiled egg) but at least the torrents can flow safely away.

Could any architects reading (and I know you do) explain this affection for flatness? No matter how grand or humble the development, sooner or later, flat roofs leak - that’s just how it is, so why do we have them? Or perhaps we should ask builders about the porous roof thing. (Now there’s a lively can of worms – would you please be so kind as to pass the tin-opener?)

One fine clear night, from a vantage point high above the city, I could see the moon reflected in countless muddy puddles shimmering on a multitude of rooftops. It was beautiful, unexpected and eerie, but does it count as a plus side?

(NB: Another thing I like about Nice Heights. The response to the recent burglaries was to start a Neighbourhood Watch scheme. It just feels so grown-up.)