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UK economy grows almost twice as fast as forecast

July 30th, 2010 Comments off

Construction Slowdown

Britain’s economy grew almost twice as fast as expected in the second quarter driven by service sector growth and a dramatic rebound in the construction sector.

The Office for National Statistics said GDP rose a quarterly 1.1% in April to June, compared with a forecast for 0.6% growth. It was almost four times the pace of 0.3% in the first quarter, and the highest for four years.

The pound rallied and government bond futures sold off as traders raised their bets of interest rates rising sooner rather than later.

The ONS said output in the construction sector, one of the hardest hit by the recession, jumped 6.6% on the quarter, the biggest rise since 1963 and rebounding after poor weather hit activity at the start of the year. But overall the headline jump was due mainly to increases in business services and finance. Service sector output rose 0.9%, three times the pace in the first quarter. Output in the production industries increased 1.0% as a widely expected rise in manufacturing offset falls in mining and utilities.

On an annual basis, GDP was up 1.6%, the biggest rise for more than two years.

The number, the first estimate of three from the ONS, will support the case of those Bank of England policymakers who are keen to tighten policy sooner rather than later. With inflation well above its government-set target, monetary policy committee member Andrew Sentance has already called for a rate hike from 0.5% to 0.75% at the last two meetings and comments from some of his colleagues suggest they could join him.

“Taking account of the fact that we also had some better numbers coming out earlier this week, taking account of the debate going on in the MPC, I think it is likely to accentuate the divides,” said Michala Marcussen, global chief economist at Société Générale.

The improvement in economic growth was much stronger than even the highest forecasts from economists in a Reuters poll ahead of the release. Still, many economists cautioned that there were significant obstacles to growth picking up further.

“The second quarter’s much stronger than expected rise in UK GDP is a pleasant surprise, but is likely to prove as good as it gets as far as the pace of economic recovery is concerned,” said Jonathan Loynes, chief European economist at Capital Economics.

“Two reasons not to get too over-excited. First, while strong by any ordinary standards, the second quarter’s gain in GDP is less impressive in the light of the sharp falls seen during the recession. There were two quarters when GDP fell by more than 2% and activity is still over 4% below its first-quarter 2008 level. And second, with recent business surveys weakening and the fiscal squeeze looming, the second quarter looks very likely to be the peak in terms of the pace of growth – expect a much weaker second half.”

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Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi Museum of Art in Rome

July 29th, 2010 Comments off

museumThe RIBA has announced the shortlist for this year’s Stirling prize, which is dominated by cultural buildings. Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi Museum of Art in Rome is the bookies’ favourite to win the £20,000 prize.

Rick Mather’s Ashmolean Museum extension in Oxford, and David Chipperfield Architects’ Neues Museum in Berlin have also made the shortlist for the prize which, in its 15th year, remains one of the most prestigious accolades in architecture.

The remaining three places have been given to smaller or lower-profile projects: Bateman’s Row in London by Theis & Khan; DSDHA’s Christ’s College school in Guildford; and Clapham Manor primary school in London by dRMM.

“This is the first year that two schools have been shortlisted for the prize,” said RIBA president and Stirling judge Ruth Reed.

“They represent what all schools should be: light, well-laid-out and well-equipped environments in which all students can flourish. With the programme to improve our extremely poor school estate now much reduced, it could be some time before we see such exemplar school buildings on the Stirling shortlist again.”

Projects that failed to make the list, despite being favourably tipped, include the Warsaw Embassy by Tony Fretton Architects, whose Fuglsang Art Mus-eum in Denmark was beaten to the Stirling last year by Rogers Stirk Harbour’s London Maggie’s Centre.

As well as Reed, this year’s judges comprise Ivan Harbour of Rogers Stirk Harbour, Edward Jones of Dixon Jones, historian Lisa Jardine and broadcaster Mark Lawson.

They will visit all six buildings before selecting the winner, which will be announced at an awards ceremony at London’s Roundhouse on October 2.

The awards will be hosted by Kevin McCloud and be broadcast live by the BBC’s Culture Show in a new slot after moving from its previous home at Channel 4.

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‘Risky’ Miralles replaced in Leeds

July 29th, 2010 Comments off

leeds-shopping-centreChapman Taylor’s revised design for a £350 million Leeds shopping centre has been attacked by the architects the firm replaced.

The firm’s designs have now been revealed for the first time after the recession-hit Trinity Leeds shopping centre was this week finally given the go-ahead by Land Securities – 11 years after it first made the drawing board.

The developer bought the 70,000sq m city centre site from its former partner Caddick three years ago, and dropped the original architects, EMBT and Colchester practice Stanley Bragg, because it wanted something “more deliverable”.

The job was originally won in 1999 by Stanley Bragg which invited EMBT to work on the roof along with facade and landscaping work.

It turned out to be one of the last projects by Enric Miralles, who died in 2000. His widow, Benedetta Tagliabue, told BD his plans had now been replaced by something more “banal”.

She added: “It’s a missed opportunity for Leeds to have a very special building.”

In one of its earliest design reviews, Cabe praised Miralles’s “bold and confident” roof design. Despite this the EMBT/Stanley Bragg team was dropped in 2007.

But Chapman Taylor director Adrian Griffiths said its design addressed the street better than its predecessor which he described as “very challenging and very costly”.

Chapman Taylor will move staff from its Media City scheme, winding up in Manchester, across the Pennines to Leeds.

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Oxford’s ironmonger closes after 480 years

July 28th, 2010 Comments off

2610photo2Gill and Co, the high street ironmonger, is closing after 480 years’ trading in Oxford blaming recession and the rise of DIY stores.

Victor Hunt, owner of Gill said: “The shop has been here for over 50 years and Gill’s is the oldest ironmonger’s in England, so we are coming to the end of an era.

“Sales have declined in recent years and we are moving out before we start to lose money. Our client base is 45 plus, and some of the customers are considerably older than that. Inevitably, as time goes by, we lose a few. The younger customers seem happier these days to drive to B&Q and other out-of-town stores.”

The store has operated from a number of different locations in and around the High Street over the years. Mr Hunt said: “My wife and I run another Gill’s store in Chipping Norton which is doing very well because the people in the town support us. We are now shifting all our stock from the Oxford shop to Chipping Norton.”

Mr Hunt bought the business 10 years ago and opened the Chipping Norton branch six years ago.

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Homeowners given tips on maintaining wooden floors

July 27th, 2010 Comments off

flooring-hardwoodHomeowners with wooden floors can keep them looking good with regular cleaning and maintenance, one writer has suggested.

In an article in DIY Life, Mrs Fixit advises individuals sweep the floors regularly to get rid of dirt and debris, as if left they can have the same effect as sandpaper and will scratch the wood.

She also recommended fitting rugs and mats to areas where excess wear occurs, such as around doorways and stairs.

Another way Britons can protect their floorboards is by using pressure pads on the bottom of furniture, as this will stop dents or scratches when it is moved around.

According to Mrs Fixit, using vinegar and warm water will not only clean the boards, but will also give them a nice shine, whereas using soap can cause a build-up over time and result in a dull floor.

Head of design practice for Carolyn Park Interior Design Carolyn Park noted wood is still proving popular among DIY enthusiasts.

She explained not only is the material fashionable, but it is ecological too

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Poorly insulated homes may be taxed?

July 26th, 2010 Comments off

efficiencyPlans to introduce a tax on homes that are poorly insulated may persuade people to purchase new-build properties, one expert has suggested.

Founder of newhomesforsale.co.uk Vernon Pethard said the proposals may act as a “stick” rather than a “carrot” approach.

“These measures may result in more people choosing new [homes] because in addition to being greener, new homes are more economical to own,” he added.

Mr Pethard also noted increasing stamp duty in poorly insulated abodes could dissuade some Britons from buying old dwellings, as owners will not want to spend money trying to bring them up to the standards seen in today’s houses.

The specialist’s comments follow reports by the Daily Mail the government is thinking about bring in stamp duty for those who have “energy-guzzling” lodgings, with inefficient boilers and draughty windows.

It is hoped if the proposition becomes a reality it will help to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.

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Coffee to go! York council orders Starbucks from city rail station

July 23rd, 2010 Comments off

stardisplayIn what could be the first case of a branch of Starbucks disappearing from our towns and cities, commuters to and from one of northern England’s most historic railway stations will have to get their morning pick-me-up from somewhere else after planners ruled that character was more important than cappuccino.

The Starbucks kiosk at York station has been forced to close after planning inspectors upheld an earlier council decision that it spoiled the “symmetry and carefully considered proportions” of the station’s former ticket hall, which dates from 1877.

The coffee company maintained that the kiosk was a free-standing structure and was not fixed to the building, therefore it did not form an alteration or extension to the Grade II listed building.

Inspector Alan Novitzky ruled the Starbucks hut constituted a “substantial intrusion” into “a transition space between the entrance portico and the railway concourse” and “had a solid, heavy, four-square presence and a darkish appearance.” He appreciated the usefulness of such customer facilities, but believed a less intrusive form would be more appropriate.

The council’s Labour group leader, Coun James Alexander, welcomed the decision, saying York was a very special place that needed its heritage protected.

“It is what makes York special,” he told the Press. “We can’t let large multinational companies jeopardise this, as it means York will no longer be special. Fewer people will visit here and our economy will suffer.”

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Time to rebuild the construction industry

July 22nd, 2010 Comments off

The construction industry is a vital sector of Northern Ireland’s economy. It plays a key role in economic development but in 2008/2009 when the economy hit the buffers and the wheels came off the economic engine of growth, the construction industry bore the brunt of the recession.

For years the industry had been reaping the rewards of the credit boom as demand for housing and infrastructure boosted construction work.

However, when private and public sector finances dried up and the economy slipped into recession, construction became a major casualty.

Just three years ago at its peak, construction accounted for 14% of GVA (Gross Value Added) in Northern Ireland compared to only 9% in the UK.

According to the Construction Employers’ Federation (CEF), which represents 72% of the industry, every £1 invested in construction generates £2.84 in economic activity.

It is also a major employer, providing 90,000 jobs in 2007 while thousands of other people including solicitors, carpet manufacturers and white good retailers, rely on the construction industry.

In contrast today there are more than 14,000 ex-construction workers claiming unemployment benefit, CEF research carried out in the run-up to the recent Westminster election shows.

However, its chief executive John Armstrong claims that is only the tip of the iceberg and the figure is closer to 28,000 when you take account of self-employed people who are out of work and are not included in the government data.

Figures from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) indicate that the axe continues to fall in the construction industry with a 1.3% decline in jobs in the most recent quarter while the industry now employs 13% less people than it did the previous year — the biggest slump of any sector in Northern Ireland.

But there are fears that the construction industry could decline even further as barriers to finance remain in place and the Stormont departmental budgets face cuts of up to 25%.

Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey said: “What is concerning is the accelerated fall in new orders and employment levels in the services and construction sectors. New orders in the services sector and construction industry are falling at their sharpest rates since March 2009 and June 2009 respectively.

“These two sectors are already in an extremely weak state and they are the most exposed to public expenditure. Given the sheer scale of the cuts coming down the line and Northern Ireland’s over-reliance on the public sector, economists may be tempted to throw a blanket over their crystal balls for now. What is clear though is that significant job losses in these sectors are inevitable.”

House building represents approximately 45% of the total construction industry and its demise has been a major blow. In 2007 Northern Ireland was the UK property hotspot with the average house price standing at £200,000 thanks to rising employment, low interest rates, huge public spending and a strong economy.

That created a huge demand for new housing but after the property market crash house-building ground to a halt.

CEF boss John Armstrong concedes: “There’s no doubt house prices had got out of control and were unsustainable. There needed to be an adjustment with house prices dropping by between 35% to 40% across Northern Ireland.

“We believe house prices are now broadly affordable but what I think is holding back a recovery in the housing market is the banks who are not lending, particularly to first time buyers.

“Construction companies are telling us there is plenty of interest in their homes but the banks are putting too many stumbling blocks in borrowers’ way, such as high deposits, prohibitive interest rates, lending restrictions and valuations. If the banks started to lend the construction sector would recover quite quickly.”

General construction and civil engineering, which makes up about 55% of the total construction industry, is also struggling as a result of its dependency on the public sector, which is a key buyer with demand by central government, local authorities and Government agencies keeping the construction industry afloat.

Mr Armstrong explains: “In general construction and civil engineering there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. Private sector contracts dried up on the back of the recession with the bulk of

work coming from the public sector. There is great uncertainty in the industry about what will be spent by each of the Government departments. There is a freeze on spending until we get clarity from London later in the year about how much money Northern Ireland will be given.”

However, the CEF chief admits that there has to be changes in the construction industry to deal with the challenges that lie ahead.

“In the long term we need to change the balance of dependency on the public sector and grow the private sector,” he said.

Although the construction industry is being pro-active it also believes politicians have a role to play in assisting the industry.

Mr Armstrong explained: “It should be a concern for our politicians because there’s significant unemployment in these areas, 28,000 construction workers have already lost their livelihood and that figure could increase dramatically. Until opportunities for work come through many companies have said they will be making more redundancies.

“We have to get the economy in Northern Ireland growing again by investing in infrastructure. We have to create a dynamic economy for Northern Ireland for people to invest here. We require schools, hospitals, transport networks and we would strongly argue for the benefits of investing in construction activity. There is also no point building new infrastructure if we are not maintaining the existing.”

He added: “We hope the politicians will look to efficiency savings in the public sector such as consultancy fees, and we believe there are plenty of efficiency savings to be made without cutting frontline services. There should be sufficient professionalism within the public sector without having to engage consultants all the time.”

While the construction industry is arguing its case for continued investment from the public sector, Mr Armstrong says it is not resting on its laurels.

“We do not want to be seen as going out with a begging bowl. We are looking at opportunities of attracting private finance into Northern Ireland.

“The public sector money is not going to be there — then private finance is a very useful alternative and should be seriously considered to fill the gaps.”

The CEF is exploring avenues including pension funds, the European Investment Bank and other sources. Other initiatives that are also being considered include link-ups with the private sector for skills training for the unemployed and apprenticeships. It is also looking to export opportunities for local firms and is in the process of re-establishing the Construction Export Group under the remit of the CEF.

Regardless, the outlook for the Northern Ireland economy is not good for 2010. The only crumb of comfort is that this year will not be as bad as last.

It is therefore unlikely that the construction industry will feel a positive push from the economy until 2011. Mr Armstrong agrees “it will be next year or early 2012 before we see any signs of recovery”

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Green Light for Liverpool’s New Central Library

July 21st, 2010 Comments off

Green Light for Liverpool’s New Central Library

central-library-entrance-atrium-resized

·Liverpool City Council and Inspire Partnership sign landmark PFI contract for £50m development

·Central Library to close on Friday, July 23 – two-year renovation to begin this Autumn

·Temporary Library service opens on 2nd floor of World Museum Liverpool on August 9

·Free images of new-look Central Library available on request

One of the biggest library developments in the UK has been given the green light.

After four years of planning, the PFI contract for the £50m renovation of Liverpool Central Library was formally signed today and immediately hailed as ’the best news this year’ by Liverpool City Council.

The 150-year-old library, which lies within Liverpool’s UNESCO World Heritage site, will now officially close on Friday, July 23 and be handed over to be rebuilt by Inspire Partnership, which is a joint venture between Amber Infrastructure and Shepherd Construction with architects at Austin-Smith:Lord and Cofely as providers of Facilities Management services.

Work will begin this autumn and will see the full restoration of the Grade II listed parts of the building, which date back to 1860, and the famous Hornby Library and Oak Reading Rooms being fully open to the public for the first time.

The sections behind the façade, which were built in the 1950s and 1970s following World War II bomb damage and now suffer from damp and a leaking roof, will be rebuilt to make the most of the available space including a new purpose-built home for Liverpool Record Office. It will also feature high class visitor facilities with excellent access to the library’s book collections.

The new Central Library is scheduled to reopen at the end of 2012. Until then a temporary library service will operate from Monday, August 9 on the 2nd floor of the nearby World Museum Liverpool making the most popular items and books available to the public.

Services will include access to public computers, audio visual material, business information, newspapers, a collection of directories, family history and local studies sources and a fax and photography service. It will operate Monday – Sunday, 10am – 5pm. More information is available at www.liverpool.gov.uk/libraries

Access to the award-winning archives services provided by Liverpool Records Office will be available from October, arranged by appointment only via a satellite service based in Wellington Employment Park South on Dunes Way, off Sandhills Lane. A telephone business and reference enquiry service will be available sooner.

Council leader Joe Anderson said: “Liverpool Central Library is one of the UK’s most celebrated public libraries but it desperately needs this renovation so the approval of this scheme is one of the best bits of news the city will hear this year. The scale of this project is immense and it will take some time to complete, but I’m sure the wait will be well worth it.’’

Councillor Wendy Simon, Cabinet Member for Culture and Tourism, added: ‘’I’d like to thank everyone who has worked so hard over the past few years to get the funding in place to deliver this new Central Library for the people of Liverpool. I’m delighted the contracts are signed and we look forward to working with our partners to create one of the best public libraries in the UK.’’

Mike Leto, Project Director from Amber Infrastructure, commented: “We are delighted to have reached financial close having worked so hard to reach this point. We can now concentrate on finalising the construction programme and look forward to work starting in November. The development will deliver a fantastic new library and archive in partnership with the city of Liverpool.”

Chris Pritchett, Partner at Austin-Smith:Lord, said: “We are obviously delighted that this crucial mile stone has been achieved, particularly in the current economic climate. After our involvement in the FACT Centre and the Bluecoat it is fantastic to be involved in another key cultural building in Liverpool”.

Staff began emptying Central Library in the new year and have already been undertaking the biggest review of the library’s collections in 40 years.

The revamped Central Library will also include a new home for the Liverpool Record Office which will house 14km of archives and some of the city’s most historic treasures from the last 800 years – such as the original 1207 charter – in purpose built secure, climate controlled storage.

There will also be state-of-the-art IT facilities which will allow young people to download music and games onto MP3 and MP4 players, with wi-fi and access to computers.

Other new elements include:

¨ New repository with capacity for 20 years of additional storage space for books and archives

¨ New entrance to main library, including a ‘literary pavement’ and front and rear access

¨ Five new floors with better access including escalators, lifts, toilets, meeting rooms and café

¨ New conservation studio for repairs to the city’s masterpieces

¨ New rooftop Atrium and terrace overlooking St.John’s Gardens

¨ Re-opening of historic internal entrances to the Picton Reading Room

¨ Re-opening of International Library, to original design, as a new children’s zone

¨ Dedicated room to John James Audubon’s celebrated book – Birds of America

¨ Doubling the number of public computers

¨ New light well’s at front and rear to allow library to be naturally lit

¨ New 24 hour on-street, drop-off book service

After the building’s closure on Friday, July 23 it will take approximately three months to empty completely before construction work commences.

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Timber framed buildings ‘fire risk’ despite safety test

July 21st, 2010 Comments off

nuhomeA controversial safety report, coupled with lobbying by the timber industry, has led to the spread of a construction method not widely seen in the UK since the Great Fire of London.

BBC London has discovered potentially dangerous timber framed buildings are proliferating – but nobody knows how many there are.

The Great Fire of London in 1666 heralded in a new era of building regulations in Britain that lasted until the modern age.

Mindful of how flames had destroyed a third of the largely wooden city, building with timber frames was banned in the years after Sir Christopher Wren’s 1667 Building Act.

“If a secondary fire causes considerable damage you are duty bound to report that”

Until recently, that is, because in 1999 the fire safety testers, BRE, carried out a test on a six-storey timber framed building in the controlled conditions of an aircraft hangar.

Their report said the fire was effectively contained, and the findings were then promoted by the UK Timber Frame Association [UKTFA].

It said at the time: “If you want to know how multi-storey timber frame buildings cope with fire there is one piece of research you must read.”

The 1999 report was used to justify relaxing old regulations on timber frame in housing blocks.

It led to the widespread use of buildings with timber frames for large council housing projects.

But what neither organisation mentioned was that, in the early hours of the morning after the test, the fire re-ignited.

Firefighters rushed back to the hangar, by which time the top four floors were completely burned out.

Brickwork cracked and the heat was so severe the fire officer evacuated his men for fear the building was about to collapse.

‘Real detective’

The second fire was finally reported in 2003 – by which time timber framed buildings, which are cheaper to make, were already sprouting over London for the first time since 1666.

Sam Webb is an architect who has warned about the danger of timber framed buildings.

Asked whether the 1999 report was misleading, he said: “I would have thought so knowing what I know now.

“If you have a fire test in which a secondary fire causes considerable damage you are duty bound to report that.

“You had to be a real detective to work out that the second [2003] report was talking about the same fire as the first one.”

A London Assembly investigation into timber framed buildings was launched in 2009 after several major fires in London.

Last year two nearly-completed timber framed tower blocks in south London burned to the ground.

The first fire, in Peckham, was so severe it destroyed inhabited neighbouring buildings.

Meanwhile in 2007 a timber framed tower block in Croydon, south London, burned to the ground in identical circumstances to those in BRE’s hangar test.

The fire brigade had put out a small fire and departed. Families who moved back in had a narrow escape when it re-ignited and dozens were left homeless.

Describing the dangers, Mr Webb said: “When timber framed buildings catch fire the actual structure burns.

“That’s the last thing you want in a multi-storey building and it often leads to total collapse.”

But BBC London has learned that local authorities have no idea how many timber framed buildings are under construction or already built in the city.

After a Freedom of Information request only three London councils out of 32 – Bromley, Redbridge and Barking and Dagenham – confirmed they keep a record of numbers.

‘Quicker and cheaper’

In light of the BBC’s findings, Brian Coleman, chairman of the London Fire Authority, said: “I have always been a stern critic of high rise timber framed buildings having seen in my own area the results of a blaze.

“Sadly, these days developers looking to build things quicker and cheaper have resorted to timber.

“Supporters of timber frame buildings say once they’re built they’re completely safe. But we know people drill holes in walls which damages the building fabric and allows the timber to become exposed.”

Asked if he knew how many timber framed blocks there were in London, Mr Coleman said: “I’ve no idea, that’s the problem.

“I personally wouldn’t allow any high rise timber buildings – there needs to be a review of regulations.

“What we do about buildings already constructed I’m not sure.”

Geoff Arnold, chairman of the UKTFA, which promoted the 1999 fire test, said: “The BRE test was an assessment of the six-storey building in terms of its ability to withstand the 60 minute compartment fire test – in this regard it was successful.”

Of the second fire, he said: “It was not referred to in the report as it had little relevance to the outcome of the impact of fire in the very specific test.

“Timber frame is used around the world and is generally accepted as the future of construction.”

A BRE spokeswoman said: “BRE has issued all information it was able to issue resulting from these projects.

“Other information that came out was given to project sponsors.

“BRE cannot publish this information independently.”

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