A Prouvé of plumbing, a Rogers of rewiring

On the Nest thermostat, and the need for transformation of the service layer, rather than the surface layer, of buildings and cities

Ed. A shorter edit of this piece was first published at Dezeen on 1st May 2014.


I have an image in my head I can’t shake.

It’s of a fictional 3D model.

It’s a model of all the pipes, cables and wires in London, from the Tube and sewers up to every single bit of piping, cabling and wiring in every single building, from homes to offices, stadia to stations. Millions upon millions of metres of the stuff. Some pristinely wrapped in recent plastics, threading fibre-to-the-node; some centuries-old crumbling channels and disintegrated husks of sewage ducts, fused with the sodden mud that it long ago pierced; most somewhere in-between, in varying states of disrepair, held in suspension in the London clay.

With that solid mass of London lifted into the air, with a Minecraft-ian weightlessness, the clay can be hosed away and the cables, pipes and wires would hang there, glistening and shimmering like an early computer graphics wireframe model, a form to be pawed and swiped, rotated and revolved. A marvel of engineering, spotted with damp, grassy clods of pyrite and selenite.

The essence of The Shard can be clearly seen as an ascending rope-trick of service arteries disappearing into the clouds, with a shadow structure below of pipes and implied plant. By contrast, St Paul’s is hardly visible, its services largely of an entirely different form. The real Tube map reveals itself, tunnels sketched solely by arterial electricity cables, exposing the scale of sleight-of-hand Harry Beck deployed. But most of the structure is mile after mile of domestic services, each culminating in the enclosed cul-de-sac of a house.

It’s all physically connected, yet it’s all functionally disconnected. Cables and ducts have their common source in the national grid, in urban sewer systems, in networks of water, of gas, of telecoms, and their various carriers cascade down streets, via step-down transformers and fibre cabinets, and are then tapped off into each individual home, one by one, fingers creeping upwards through walls and floorboards, virtually each of London’s innumerable houses with its own wiring, its own immersion heaters, its own boilers. Limitless complexity.

It feels like this is what a city London really is, the accretion of infrastructure over time, a living physical diagram of flows of resources in and out. In a recent AD, the architect Jack Self wrote “The incremental evolution of the urban realm is necessarily a narrative of its infrastructural progress.” And in that sense, despite the civic foundations, all those individual decisions by homeowners, each one with their own power plants, effectively, also feels like London — a triumph of diversity and individualism, for better or worse.

Advert from 1938. Probably a fair bit of this still around.

It’s not an image I’ve ever seen, and due to its scale and granularity it would be an impossible model to build — impossible to draw, but entirely possible to imagine; now there’s a gauntlet thrown down to the data viz and 3D modelling crowd — but also due to the fact it’s constantly changing.

While the fatter, deeper pipes don’t change much (Stewart Brand’s layers of change apply to infrastructure systems too), on the end of the domestic circuits are armies of home renovators, some of whom are rewiring, re-plumbing, uninstalling and upgrading.

Yet while those individual connections are more open to change than the civic layers, they don’t change enough. Save a few brownouts and exploding sewers, this lack of change has never been more clearly highlighted than right now.

A few of the housed tendrils on this rusting, soggy, mud-encrusted hulk now have a different kind of punctuation point: shiny white plastic rectangles connected to the Internet. Curved of edge and perforated of skin, in the contemporary injection-moulded manner, these are Nest Learning Thermostats, just hitting the UK’s shores after the solidly successful US launch a few years ago that convinced Google to drop $3.2bn on Nest Labs Inc.

Nest “reinvents the product category”, as folks say, by folding the dynamics of contemporary services — the personally responsive, vaguely sentient, lifestyle-integrated, refined user interface people increasingly expect of all systems — into the humble idea of a thermostat, which is, after all, a device for turning your heating on and off.

It’s a great product in many ways, and like a few other recent devices, sketches out a new domestic landscape of connected products that might begin to make clear the promise of the much-discussed but still little-materialised ‘internet of things’.

The other thing it does, though, is highlight the individual nature of decisions about this service layer in countries like the UK.

For while it is indeed a ‘connected product’, with the crystalline code structures of the Internet on one end, the other end is connected to that enormous soggy mass described earlier. Even the first few centimetres of that physical connection might be hitting wiring from the 1970s, addressing a boiler from the 1980s connected to Edwardian pipes sitting within a Victorian wall. While that palimpsest of domestic services might have an organic quality befitting an early Will Self short story, it does not make for what Reyner Banham once called a “well-tempered environment”.

The UK has the oldest building stock in Europe — which I suppose, all things considered (by which I mean not all things considered, for this is only a column and you get what you’re not paying for) means that the UK has the oldest building stock in the world.

The problem is that, within that stock, we only ever replace the Nest end of things. The property market incentivises repainting but not rewiring. We knock out interior walls and install French windows leading out the garden; but we tend not to properly address the heating and cooling, the insulation and seals, the wiring and pipes. Home renovation shows and estate agents are united in their resolve that “spending money in the walls” might be ‘overcapitalising” (which is an odd word to apply to somewhere to live, but still.) It’s still possible to get through TV home renovation shows without anyone mentioning the services — as if the British middle class still don’t like to discuss the servants.

That old building stock takes a lot of effort to knock into shape for contemporary living patterns, and so the energy and capital gets spent on the exterior layers that the property market rewards, rather than that inner space; it merely places a valuation on the bleedin’ obvious, the exterior aesthetics, with little regard for what might be described as performance.

And in terms of performance, Victorian and Edwardian houses are almost entirely inappropriate for contemporary and near-future lifestyles — that’s a point worth unpicking in another column, but let’s just note that around the time these homes were built, the average worker in Western Europe or the United States spent 80–90% of his or her income on food and other necessities. It is hardly any wonder that serious renovations are required to make them habitable in an age of Amazon, Walmart and Zara, and their vast footprints of tat. In terms of environmental performance, insulation is often appalling given the climate, and simply choosing to replace fireplaces with radiators piped to individual boilers further adds to the problem of heating. Each of those boilers contributes horribly to London’s deathly air-quality problems, gushing fumes from boilers shoddily inserted into converted downstairs shower rooms. These combine to generate a rather bad-tempered environment.

I suspect what we really need to do is knock down a good chunk of the housing stock in cities like London and start again.

That would be a serious suggestion, were it not for the fact that it never could be a serious suggestion. We can barely touch them. They are currently locked into that idea of what a British streetscape looks like (and so, how it performs.) The dynamics of the property sector and the politics that shapes it, in symbiosis with the popular perception of what ‘a house’ is, revolves around the notion that they are intrinsically good buildings because they are old, as if their age can simply substitute for any other quality criteria.

An estate agent shot of Muswell Hill, London. Much of Muswell Hill’s housing would not lend itself to such an estate agent’s shot.

Destroying that amount of existing housing would involve significant cost, of course, but I’d argue primarily in terms of embodied energy. Little else.

Before you all complain about my crass suggestion—which again, I can’t really make seriously—in terms of preserving ‘the character of a place’, I’d suggest there’s so much of the stuff that the character of the place would hardly be changed anyway.

More importantly of course, the character of a place is defined by its people, and what they do — not what shapes they live in — and that has changed significantly. As Giancarlo de Carlo said:

A building is not a building. A building, in the sense of walls, floors, empty spaces, rooms, materials, etc., is only the outline of a potential: it is only made relevant by the group of people it is intended for.

Besides, the likes of Hampstead Garden Suburb, Rusholme or Ecclesall are such a monoculture of building, reinforced by an unholy alliance of local planners and estate agents, that each could replace hundreds of houses and still have a strong sense of their current and previous identity. The unspoken preservation order on that general condition is hiding all manner of ills. It’s effectively a form of NIMBYism at the scale of an idea of what the city is. (You can also see this playing out in the arguments over San Francisco’s housing in that deeply conservative city.)

So this is not simply about efficiency and performance, even given the poetics Banham conjured from mechanical services, but about culture. It’s about whether we can derive a palpable sense of change and diversity from the architecture itself. Could we find a way of building change — which in my mind always look like Lebbeus Woods insertions into The Good Life’s cul-de-sacs — into those otherwise homogenous suburbs?

There are many alternate built forms that could inhabit the same volume as those old houses, and similarly achieve, or even enhance, qualities like neighbourliness, interaction at human scale, warmth, adaptability, across a more diverse spectrum of possibilities. And, crucially, they might open up the possibility of a much, much ‘better-tempered’ performance, via rethinking that service layer.

Still, despite the Cedric Price-inspired havoc imagined above, it’s likely that 80 per cent of houses we’ll be living in in 2050 have already been built. So in reality — and to be honest, I like a good Victorian house as much as Dan Cruickshank does — we are talking retrofit not wrecking ball.

We have enough drivers to do this: 57% of the UK’s energy load is heating-related, and a PassivHaus indicates that, domestically at least, that could be almost zero. Nest themselves point out two-thirds of domestic British energy bills are heating-related. Sadly, their approach is to deploy Stanford PhD-level intelligence only at the interface, rather than figuring out new products inside the walls. They apply AI to system performance, yet that hot air is still leaking out of sash windows to be reunited with the effluent from all those boilers’ exhausts.

To warrant getting into the walls means an understanding of change beyond redecoration, moving well beyond covering up the cracks with a kind of nationwide Farrow & Ball sticking plaster, or applying weapons-grade interaction design to the dial controlling an old boiler.

Equally, it means applying insightful thinking to the scale at which we make decisions.

Making individualistic decisions about services means they remain trapped within that old building stock — the shape of the decision-making itself means it’s uneconomic to touch them, en masse. Ironically, given the underpinning individualism, that decision-making leads to a general lack of diversity on the surface too, enforced by a preservationist instinct. These are symbiotically woven together, locking cities like London, much as I love it, into that stultifying clay mass encrusted with century-old house-shapes, now generating a rather bad-tempered environment.

To more constructively approach my destructive comment above, what if we could reconceive the Victorian terrace, or the street of densely packed Edwardian semi-detached houses, as a series of connected dwellings arranged horizontally? In other words, how we see an apartment block, just recumbent rather than priapic. With an apartment block, there is a huge advantage to having shared services across multiple dwellings, to having a common boiler, local generators and transformers, shared service corridors, vacuum waste removal systems, and so on. Such systems, at smaller scale even than the highly effective district heating and cooling plants seen elsewhere, can shuffle power around as required, balancing loads across the domestic networks with other civic infrastructures, such as electric bike and car charging points, or local waste-to-energy systems.

Intriguingly, the interoperable data that would facilitate such a system is currently only becoming available to one player in the market. As Dan Hon has pointed out, the process of acquisitions means that Google have just bought their way into our houses via Nest. They have just taken over a already installed bit of domestic equipment, as if Apple suddenly own your cooker, or Samsung your toilet. I’m not sure there’s any precedent for this — apart from a feudal system, in which a different baron might suddenly own you and your home. However, unless Google have a desire to get into waste-to-energy plants, district CHP and electric vehicle chargers — hmmm — this data is lost to the individualist dynamics of their systems.

The ‘terrace as a tower on its side’ suggests shared service infrastructures, a form of both distributed and decentralised infrastructure, enabling coherent efficiency under the ground, whilst still facilitating a joyously inefficient diversity above.

But we need a form of design that enables that — one that figures out a redesign of the market, and the offers available to it, and in a form of architectural design that values services. Banham suggested that there was a false division between architecture and services almost a half-century ago, but we still don’t get it.

In his The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (1964), Banham wrote:

If there is any division at all that can be tolerated in a humane consideration of architecture, it might be between those parts of structure that combine with certain mechanical services to provide the basic life support that makes a viable or valuable environment, and those parts of structure that combine with certain other mechanical services to facilitate circulation and communication — of persons, information and products.

Nest is really a sketch of a product that unites these aspects, facets of architecture that even the forward-looking Banham saw as disparate — it both concerns “life support” and communication of persons, information and products.

Banham often quoted Marcel Breuer’s 1934 statement that “what the new architecture did was to civilise technology.” We might now find that the new technology is about to civilise architecture, by entwining information, people and services. But will this drive come from architecture, or the likes of Google/Nest?

Though it once seemed unlikely that we would have a Steve Jobs of thermostats and smoke alarms, it turns out that’s the culture Nest emerges from. And perhaps it suggests that we also need an Isozaki of insulation, a Foster of fenestration, a Prouvé of plumbing, a Rogers of rewiring, an Utzon of U-values… and more importantly again, a development or investment model that enables service retrofit within a market shaped to value that.

This might be a better use of government money around housing than simply generating more mortgages, for example. How about similarly high-profile schemes for transforming the insides of Britain’s walls? Help To Fix, rather than Help To Buy? It’s not as if there’s no design invention or financial value in things like Nest — when was the last time a three year-old built environment company was acquired for $3.2 billion?

Sadly, and bewilderingly, you’ll find little or no reference to any of these issues in the recent Farrell Review of architecture.

I like to think a critical optimist like Banham would have been intrigued by innovations such as Nest, yet upon a second glance, perhaps dismayed at our ongoing obsession with surfaces — either with that Learning Thermostat, or with the buildings that they are being installed in, or within architectural practice itself — masking a real task at hand, given climate change; ensuring that the inner space of services can truly sing. Nest pulls focus onto the service layer of housing, but still only digs into the walls a few centimetres. There is still little incentive to care about the vital “life support” systems it’s connected to. My thoughts turn back to that imagined model of a hulking soggy mass embedded in the dank clay of the Thames valleys, marshes and plains that comprises London. How to rewire that?


Ed. A shorter edit of this piece was first published at Dezeen on 1st May 2014.