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A Christmas Carol

December 2018 Issue

It’s that time of year again, time to reflect on the 12 months just past, celebrate the present with family and friends, and look ahead to what the next year holds.

So, in the spirit of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future where do we find


In a magazine stuffed with prize-winners – that’s where.

Which is the unsurprising by-product of another bumper year for the Whathouse Awards and its annual prizegiving dinner, hosted last month in London and celebrating the very best of new housebuilding in the UK. These ‘Oscars’ of the housebuilding industry remain so valued that in the ‘awards venue of awards venues’, The Grosvenor House Hotel, the What House awards is one of its largest single annual events.

So, Christmas Past.

Looking back, I recall of a piece I wrote for this magazine earlier in the year. Not quite last Christmas, but last February at least - encouraging you all to enter this year’s awards. Happily, many of you did which has made for an invigorating and challenging autumn travelling around trying to separate the wheat from the chaff.

As the old joke goes – looking around the room last month, statistically, most of the people in there were losers!... But dig a little deeper and I’m not sure that’s true – and the odds are improving. With 22 categories in which to compete there were close to 70 awards and commendations up for grabs. Even including those lucky few who were able to snatch more than one award you’re looking at orders of magnitudes more ‘winners’ than are visible on stage, when the winners’ halo include all of the people who have actually contributed to a project. And who doesn’t want to step into the winning Limelight? If you’ve helped make it happen you deserve credit for it.

Just don’t take it too far… I’m reminded of the situation with ‘The Gherkin’ tower in the City of London, namely that if all the people that I’ve met who claim to have designed it actually did design it you’re probably looking at more people in total than there are architects on the UK’s ARB register. The old ‘relics of Jesus’ scenario – all lined up end to end and reaching from earth to moon.

And what about Christmas Present?

OK – so perhaps this whole column has been written so that I get to enjoy that pun… but the present remains a bit weird doesn’t it? – uncertainty just seems to be stubbornly remaining the new certainty. It probably always has been – it’s just that now we can see it. So I propose that just for the next week or two we close our eyes again and enjoy emptying our heads of everything. I think there’s a lot to be said for saying goodbye to last year with a traditional approach to Christmas Present. Drink through it and try to avoid the more racist of your relatives.

Which brings me to Christmas Future.

Well this is where things get exciting – because that’s the bit we can still change, it’s the bit we don’t know already know about. It’s where you can start to believe that uncertainty can be a good thing. It’s where opportunity happens, it’s where difference happens. Not difference that is divisive, but difference that can be celebrated …which gets me thinking about those awards again.

What will next year’s award winners look like?

Like all the winners this year would be my guess …and none of them at all. Which is to say that points of difference, of innovation, are rarely visual.

One of the pleasures of judging the awards is seeing below the skin of a submission. I’m one of the very few architects that actually liked the first ‘Tudor style’ house I saw made from Cross Laminated Timber. I didn’t see a pastiche or fakery, I saw innovation and technology, all be it in a weird dress. The shock of the new? …or a pig in knickers.

Think of the first cars that appeared at the end of the 19th Century? They were a technology so radical that they saved London from being buried under (the famously predicted 9 feet of) horse manure – and utterly transformed every dwelling in the world. But when they first appeared, they were known as ‘horseless carriages’ and were made by ‘coachbuilders’. These phrases are not the vocabulary of a new technology, they’re the vocabulary of a world grappling with a new technology until it finds acceptance. Until it finds its own vocabulary of ‘Turbocharged V8’, ‘Indicator Stalk’, ‘Satnav’ and ‘Macpherson Strut’.

Oh - and ‘Greased Nipple’ of course.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The same is happening all the time in our industry and it’s fascinating to watch. For me the trick is to really try to see what’s going on and get involved with it rather than looking away or pretending that nothing’s happening. The homes of the future will be low carbon, low energy, high density and shared ownership. They’ll be internet connected mini power stations with an autonomous car (not) parked (but possibly flying) outside and enabled with a cloud based Artificial Intelligence monitoring the health and well-being of the dwelling, its occupants and the wider community.

But the inhabitants will still have flying ducks on the wall, something that looks like a fireplace (even if that’s a big TV), some net curtains (or the Liquid Crystal equivalent – Blade Runner style) and they’ll be full of the same people talking about who they love and loathe with the same enthusiasm as always. Bob Cratchitt and Scrooge, Fred and Tiny Tim.

While we maybe horribly aware of the divisions of ‘difference’ at the moment it’s worth

remembering that, with understanding and time ‘difference’ can become something to be celebrated.

Now’s a good time of year to do that.

Merry Christmas all of you.

‘God bless us, Every one!’

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