My first built project is emerging from the mud of the Queen’s Park allotments. It could well also be my first application to the Macallan Club, but its significance is no less important to me.
There’s an apartment complex in Northern Ireland to which I made some modest design contributions as a part one architect some years ago. It’s going to be completed later this year, and I caught an unexpected glimpse of it from a moving train a couple of months ago. That was probably the first time that I – as a young semi-legal architect – had come face to face with something I had had my hand in, albeit from a distance and not actually showing much of my work.
This is different, however, and building it has been an education. There have been some arguments (with nails, luckily, not my long suffering co-constructor) and there are some notable problems (notably that it is six inches too close to the adjacent path). We’re a couple more days away from finishing it; at the moment only three sides are approaching what you might call a state of functional enclosure. With the exception of the nuts, bolts, screws and nails, all of the material is reclaimed, some from Glasgow Wood Recycling, other bits and pieces from Freecycle and the heavily littered streets of Glasgow. The material cost has, in fact, been minimal; the small budget has mostly been spent on those small pieces of ironmongery and transportation.
My dream car used to be a modest second hand Saab or Capri; something unreliable and extravagant. Now I have a hankering for a Vivaro or Transit panel van. Much more useful.
As Britain continues its apparently unstoppable plunge into a recession, my advice to unemployed graduates like myself has been to keep busy and to keep physically active. In other words, get an allotment. The hours up there just fly by. For unemployed architects (especially young ‘uns like myself with no built credits to there name) consider an allotment without a shed. It’s been an unexpected opportunity to call upon the plentiful resources of free material in this city, and has produced something that I’m already beginning to identify as having direct (if not conscious) influences from buildings and design I’ve seen and absorbed over the last few years.
Advent is a sensual time. I am reminded of the approaching pagan / Christian / capitalist (delete as appropriate) festival through a series of haptic triggers. The scent of freshly chopped Christmas trees assailed me outside a wholefoods shop on the Pollokshaws Road earlier this week, and juicy little clementines and tangerines are now appearin as inexpensive mountains of vitamin C in the shops along Alison Street.
There is some debate in the household about Christmas decorations in the apartment. I might be in the minority when I take the “bah humbug” line and refuse to allow paper chains in the house, but then again it’s my name on the lease.
Glasgow is now delightfully cold. Every day in the last week has been crisp and cold, with only occasional rain, sleet or snow showers interrupting the solidly blue sky that hangs over us from about nine in the morning until almost four in the afternoon. The days are short, but the long evenings are getting cosier and more enjoyable. The first gas bill has been and gone, and now that I’m on a cheaper tariff with a non-profit utility company, I’m no longer afraid to fire up the heating as we need it. I have yet to establish whether the chimney in the small study is still capable of conveying smoke out of the fireplace; until then a couple of candles in the apparently original cast iron grate create the semblance of a warm hearth, if not the actual heat. It was only yesternight that I noticed the delicately painted tiles on either side of the grate were constructed in the wrong sequence on one side. The imbalance of pattern perhaps matches the slightly kinked exterior wall of the apartment.
In a discount frozen food shop on Victoria Road today I chatted briefly with a shivering check-out clerk. The double doors of the unheated shop were open to the pavement, allowing a near constant ebb and flow of mothers, prams, mothers and more prams into the temple of the deep freeze. I joked that it was warmer there in at home.
“You must live in a tenement then.” she replied.
The Glasgow tenement is a magnificent building type. Even here in the scummier and more neglected slum streets of Govanhill, the tall stone apartment buildings retain a grandeur and generosity of space. That said, it is there generous proportions that have recently allowed slum landlords to squeeze multiple migrant families into apartments smaller than mine for deeply exploitative rents.
The British and Scottish Government have both postulated at length about helping homeowners to insulate their homes and to save money and energy on their heating bills. These plans (including grants for home insulation upgrades) are not to be snuffed at, but they aren’t much use for the tenants of rented apartments in Glasgow. Not only can the solid stone and brick walls not be retro-fitted with cavity insulation, only the top floor apartments really benefit from lagging the roofspaces.
The only weak spot of the apartment is the original Victorian single glazing. I am deeply in love with the tall sash windows that flood every room with light (the ceilings are about 3 metres high, and the windows occupy about 2/3 of that height right up to the cornicing). But there are almost drafty when closed as when they are opened. In this winter of tightening means, I’m learning the simple (and free) tricks that help cut energy wastage in this home. The sashes can be sealed with plastic strips, but I prefer to leave them open-able throughout the winter to diffuse condensation from damp clothes that have to be dried indoors. The two leaves of the window have to be screwed as tightly closed as possible when not in use, to minimise the gap between the bottom of the upper leaf and the top of the moveable lower leaf.
Closing internal doors also cuts down on drafts through the apartment. Air only seeps in or out of a drafty window if the air has cause to leave or enter the room somewhere else. The curtains that came with the apartment aren’t too thick, but my calculations for replacing them with thicker ones (or doubled up Ikea readymades) means I have to make do with the ones we’ve got.
Finally, I’m becoming a master of the central heating thermostat. In at least one of my student digs I cohabited with friends who had no concept of sensible heating use. Turning the thermostat up and on to continuous heat costs a fortune (and is quite unnecessary at night when you’re tucked up under your own personal insulation, aka a duvet). So I’m tweaking the clock on the thermostat to provide bursts of heat for one hour at a time in the early morning and evening.
As a friendly father-to-be reminded me the other day, Glasgow’s larger tenements like mine are ultimately pretty sound in terms of insulation. The walls are deep and solid, providing a thick layer of heavy mass around us. The weak spots are the windows. A home-owner would see a definite incentive to replace them with double glazing, but the costs for a three bedroom 100 square metre apartment such as this would be huge. A landlord has no incentive to make this investment when it’s his tenants who have to foot the heating bill.
Most problematically, the cheapest form of replacement windows are UPVC, produced by a horrendously polluting and petro-chemical dependent process. They’re also hideously ugly, requiring much larger window frame widths, and ageing visually as their plastic inevitably discolours. Every apartment in Glasgow and every home in Britain will have to be prepared for the inevitable exhaustion of all natural gas sources. Within my lifetime I expect every gas powered central heating and hot water system to be obsolete. A plastic window frames will be unaffordable, as the petro-chemicals needed to produce them are used up.
My honest expectation is that I will see out my days in a super-insulated home that requires no dedicated heating. I could design one today and move in; that technology for new-build structures is proven and exists. But it’s irrelevant for the vast majority of British people who live, like me, in homes that were built before energy consumption was even a concern.