Plain and Provisional

Plain and Provisional:

A largely visual argument occasioned by 2 well known Manchester housing schemes.

1 Lovell East Manchester Exemplar Housing


In Venturi and Brown terms, this scheme is definitely a Duck.

Plans manipulated to provide interesting interiors and exteriors.

Unusual slung mono pitched roof, already showing tendency to lift.

Highly insulated heavy-weight construction displays an array of clip-on modern architectural materials, terracotta rain shield tiles, timber and render.

Inside is unbearably hot on a warm day.

Lightweight construction could give just as good insulation and be more thermally responsive. Would also give reduced carbon footprint.

2. Fat Development in New East Manchester.


definitely a Decorated Shed.

 the daddy of them all.

Note the Dutch gable in the sketch and the similarity of the name (coincidence?)

House Types are relatively straight forward with decoration appropriately facing out towards the street.

Still something of a Post Modern in-joke.

Some House Building Productivity Basics.

The total manhour requirement for the average house is about 1300hrs, the best recorded figure is about 600hrs.

This large differential is explained by poor detailed design rather than lack of prefabrication.

Services installation and decoration both take more time than the erection of the shell.

If you build 50 identical houses one after the other the manhour requirements for each will still be reducing at the 50th house.

That is the management and operatives are still learning.

If you build 30 houses of one type followed by 10 of another type the manhour requirements will fall for the first 30 then rise when the new type is started.

A type returned to will restart at a higher level than it finished at.

The Lovell Development in particular is fighting against economic logic and as an exemplar development is also being heavily subsidised both in terms of finance and design effort.

There is a long history of ambitious housing proposals petering out when widely applied and put under financial pressure:-

Parker Morris minimum space standards became maximum standards under the pressure of the Cost Yardstick leading to the boring, poor quality Local Authority housing of the 70’s.

Early Housing Corporation financed schemes (small and complex) being straightened out under financial pressures so that they are now large, simple and very Public Authority in spirit.

The question to ask is is it possible to have plain economically sensible housing which is also attractive and desirable.

Plain need not necessarily be unattractive.

One of the advantages of plain is that it gives an opportunity for self expression, by the occupiers rather than the designers.

The Lovell scheme and to an even greater extent the FAT scheme are exercises in designer expression.

The Lovell scheme gives purchasers a choice of kitchen fittings, handles, worktops and I think laminate flooring (all internal choices).

The exterior treatment is however severely controlled as it is in the FAT scheme with its exuberant variety really being just an imposed overall pattern.

It is difficult to see either of these schemes as being aesthetically sustainable.

The Lovell design if repeated will become straightened out as future schemes receive less subsidy, dodgy cladding details are simplified, external wall areas are reduced, roofs secured etc.

The FAT scheme is great as a one-off but could only be repeated in a sort of patchwork quilt manner, changing the balcony colour, brick pattern etc. The danger with this sort of very rich appearance is that, even if such changes are made, each patchwork piece will still look the same and in the process removes the unique sense of place which this scheme has.

Change the patterns but the patches still look the same

In Scotland slightly less exuberant versions of this sort of design have come to be called Arran Sweater designs (the brickwork tends to be highly patterned but in just one or two similar pale colours)

A possible way forward is to give emphasis to process rather than image and to let the real variety that customisation can bring flourish.

This implies a loosening of control over the image of the scheme and making much of the design provisional and available for choice, customisation and future change.

Assuming a limited number of simple, well honed terraced house types with parking attached to the curtilage, how can the design be made more provisional?

Can rain screen cladding be, a choice, left to be fitted by the occupier? (he might never get round to doing it) etc.

Can railings, gates etc be, a choice from a limited range, a free choice or omitted.

Can the front garden be paved as somewhere to show off your motor or keep your dog?

Can you choose to have the garden turfed or professionally landscaped before you move in? Think pergolas, trellises, ponds, containerised trees etc.

Can internal finishes be chosen, omitted or reduced in scope?

(1 coat cheap emulsion so purchaser can decorate, omit laminate flooring etc).

Can some components be freely chosen, doors, sanitary ware, even windows?

Can internal walls be omitted, extensions and conservatories easily added?

Above all designers and contractors need continuity of work so that types, detailed design affecting productivity, choices and processes can be refined and improved (a single scheme does not allow this to happen)

So let’s have it plain and provisional.

(an efficient building process and a sustainable, visually interesting environment)

This is the text of a presentation made in Manchester to the Board of Bellway Homes.

About Graham Shawcross

Architect PhD student at Edinburgh University Interested in order, rhythm and pattern in Architectural Design
This entry was posted in Aesthetics, Architecture, Housing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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