Archive for the ‘Allan Curran News’ Category

Architects in Schools update

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We’re getting near to the end of our Architects in Schools programme now, and it’s good to see the Irish Architecture Foundation giving us and Loreto Community School in Milford a feature on their blog An exhibition of the student work (from all the Donegal schools taking part) will be launched in the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny on 17th April, so after the Easter break the students will be full steam ahead getting their presentations ready.

The problem we set for the students was to develop the village of Milford in such a way that the fabric of the village would be strengthened and the community as a whole would benefit. This was to be achieved by designing facilities and spaces that would encourage people of all ages to meet and mix, while substantially improving the built environment in the village.

The focus was placed on the northern part of the village, where many buildings are in poor condition and where open space is available, and where there is an opportunity to strengthen links between the village and Loreto Community School.

Students were asked to choose from the following selection of building/environmental works:

  • a place for storytelling
  • a pop- up cinema
  • a play and leisure area, including rock face and allotment park
  • works to improve the public face of a building
  • an outdoor music/concert venue
  • a car workshop showcase
  • a dance studio
  • 2 new classrooms (one outdoor) to Loreto Community School
  • an outdoor pop- up performance space at Loreto Community School
  • any better idea.

Materials were to be everyday, recycled or recyclable, and local.

The results will be really interesting and well worth a look, and I’m delighted that the
students were able to follow a design process very similar to what they would go through as a student of architecture, or indeed as a working architect. Research, site selection, site analysis and the social implications of buildings are all areas that we discussed, before any design work took place. I think the students now have a very good idea of how the process works, and of what it’s like to work as part of a team in a creative enterprise.

The exhibition will run from the 17th to the 20th of April at the Regional Cultural Centre and it ties in with other design events taking place there at the same time, so why not pop in and see what you think?





Life as a student

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Student life…

For a while now, I’ve been working with Transition Year pupils at Loreto Community School, Milford as part of the National Architects in Schools Initiative, a programme admirably promoted by the Irish Architecture Foundation to give second level students a taste of what it’s like to work as an architect.

The programme is drawing to an end soon, with an exhibition of student work planned for the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny on 17th April. The students are going to present their work to assorted guests, teachers and fellow pupils, so it’s a lot like life as a third- level architecture student where there are deadlines, presentations and the dreaded crit seemingly every other week.

A critique, or crit in short, is the focal point of work in the architecture studio, and it’s where students pin their project work up for discussion with tutors and fellow students. ‘Discussion’ is a loose term, as it’s more a mixture of parental advice and firing squad, in my memory mostly firing squad with the parental advice coming afterwards, if at all.

But back to the point. Several of the Loreto students have shown an interest in going on to study architecture at third level, and I’ve been asked quite a few times which Leaving Cert subjects would help most. In my day the best subjects to pick were Art and Physics and I’m sure that hasn’t changed much. In my wisdom I hadn’t studied either of them for the Leaving Cert, hence the firing squads but it’s not impossible to get through without those subjects.

For anybody thinking about studying architecture, it’s a long haul (5 years plus a year out in the middle, with another couple of years of work experience and exams afterwards before qualification as an architect) so it does require a pretty fierce commitment. Every architectural student knows about ‘all nighters’ where a looming project deadline means no sleep for a couple of nights and days. I look back with nostalgia on the hallucinations, dinners being cooked at 6 in the evening and again at 4 in the morning, slicing fingers (my own, mostly) with Stanley knives while making models and the sheer, unrelenting pressure for months on end. Still, I wouldn’t change it for anything because it was really satisfying and, to borrow Bono’s phrase, it changed the shape of my head. Perhaps it’s better if I let Transition Year students discover all that for themselves, though.

This short film by Arbuckle Industries is scarily close to my own experience in college, and I think it’s great viewing for any second- level student wondering what life as an architecture student is really like.

Solar Panels, the why and wherefore.

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The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the OECD, predicts that oil prices will remain stable over the next five years and may even come down by a small amount. There is nobody I know of brave enough or foolish enough to predict the same for electricity prices.

The British government recently signed a deal to pay the producers of electricity at the proposed Hinkley Point C nuclear power station twice the current price for their electricity when it starts producing in 2023.Twice the price at source does not necessarily mean twice the unit cost on your bill, currently about 17pence per kW/h in the north and 21cents in the south,  but with the amount of investment that will also be needed to update the existing supply network over the next 7 or 8 years, it might not be too far of the mark.

All of the above may well influence a choice of heating system in the short term but looking at energy matters in the longer term it’s not hard to conclude that oil and coal will, eventually, run out while it is an increase in renewables, (wind, wave and solar), combined with some nuclear that will keep the lights on. Solar panels may not immediately spring to mind as a possible source of energy in this country, given our climate, but there is enough sunshine, believe it or not, to make it worth considering in the medium term.

There are two different types of solar panels which, despite their grouping under the same nomenclature, perform in very different ways. Until recently the more common type to be found on a south facing roof was a water based system. These water based systems are, themselves, broken into two types, flat plate collectors and evacuated tubes. Water runs through the panels, is heated by the sun’s rays and is taken to your hot water cylinder where the heat is transferred to your hot water system for domestic use. Naturally the amount of heat you gain depends on the amount of sunshine hitting the panels and although there is some solar gain on a dull day, it is not significant. The systems require very little maintenance, I have had one on my roof for 23 years with only one service.

There was grant assistance for the cost of installing a water based system in southern Ireland up until 2011 through the Greener Homes scheme, unfortunately this scheme is now closed. Across the border in Northern Ireland there is no assistance at present, the industry is waiting for an announcement, due on 1st April 2015, under the Renewable Heat Incentive, which will determine the tariff owners of a system will receive as an annual payment. The cost of a system suitable for a three bed house, being 20 evacuated tubes, is approximately £2000.

The second and more topical system is a panel made up of photovoltaic cells. These cells generate electrical power by converting sunlight into direct current electricity using semiconducting materials. Although they have been around for about 50 years increases in manufacturing scale and sophistication have only recently brought them to a point where the return on the investment makes consideration worthwhile. A series on panels can be fitted either on the ground or on a roof facing generally south, but anywhere between east and west will do. The electricity generated can be used, once it has been changed from direct current to alternating current using an “inverter”, in a home or business or it can be “exported” back to the national grid.

In Great Britain and Northern Ireland there is a “feed-in tariff” for any electricity you generate from a renewable or low carbon source. This government assistance comes in the form of a ROC ( Renewable Obligation Certificate) payment of  16.32 pence per kW/h for every unit generated, regardless of what use you put the electricity to. These payments are restricted to 4kW systems for domestic installations and 12kW for commercial premises, (or 50kW if you have a 3 phase supply). If you generate more than you use in your home or business you can sell, or export, the excess back to the grid, although you will only receive around 5.1 pence per unit in return. A good quality system designed to generate 4kW will cost around £6,500 stg. If you take into consideration the annual ROC payment, usually around £550 depending on how close to direct south your roof faces and what shading there may be from trees or buildings, and add the saving you make to your electricity bills of between £300 and £500, depending on your use, you can achieve a payback of  around 6 years. It’s worth noting that your Roc payment will run for 20 years and, if the price of electricity were to double, the saving on your bill could increase to between £600 and £1000.

Sadly there are no ROC payments in Southern Ireland. Until recently you could sell excess electricity back to the grid and at a more generous rate of 9 cents per unit, but only from domestic systems.  In a recent announcement Electric Ireland stated that they will no longer buy electricity from residential properties generating electricity from renwable source such as wind and solar. In addition VAT on systems in the north is charged at 5% while those in the south are charged at 13.5%. As Ireland faces fines of “ hundreds of millions of euro per year if we don’t ensure that 40% of our electricity demand comes from renewable sources by 2020”, it’s hard to see why the Irish government is failing to encourage more domestic investment in this technology. Despite this, many Council buildings in the south are currently being fitted with PV systems designed to provide just enough electricity to meet their own needs. Considering a payback in the south of between 10 and 15 years, perhaps it’s only Councils that can find and justify the capital outlay. “The UK currently has about 3,400 megawatts of solar power installed, Germany plans to have 66,000 megawatts by 2020, Ireland has less than 1.”

“Lies, damned lies and statistics”, in that order, to quote Oscar Wilde.  It’s easy to put figures to possible future performances to prove a point and from the outside investing in a 4kW photovoltaic system in Northern Ireland under the current government deal does seem like a bit of a “no brainer” and that’s at the current price of electricity. Whether or not to invest £6,500 with a return of around £20,000 over 20 years with the bonus of a reduction in your vulnerability to the vagaries of energy prices might not need a lot of pondering and on that basis we now have “pv” panels on our roof. We will monitor the system’s performance, compare it with the predictions and report back but in the meantime, a note of caution on the timing.

A consultation paper was launched by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment into possible changes to Northern Ireland Renewable Obligations (NIRO) and we understand that the paper recommends reducing the value of the ROCs payments by about 60%. DETI has received around 300 negative responses to such a proposal and we are led to believe that from April 1st 2015 a less dramatic cut of 40% may be announced. This would extend the payback time from approximately 6 years to 8 or 9 years. Anyone who registers their system before the announcement will get the current rate for the full 20 year period.Burns - Enniskillen PVI

National Architects in Schools Initiative

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We’re delighted to say that since Christmas, we’ve been working with students at Loreto Community School in Milford as part of the National Architects in Schools Initiative.

The Initiative is run by the Irish Architecture Foundation (IAF), and the idea is to give students hands- on design experience under the guidance of local architects.

The IAF is working in partnership with the national network of Teachers’ Education Centres to train and resource both architects and teachers. Five Education Centres, in Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Galway and Wexford, are acting as regional hubs for the initiative which takes place in 25 schools.

The programme allows us to steer the students as they analyse their built surroundings and identify areas that they would like to improve, and then to help them come up with imaginative suggestions and solutions.

It’s great to be involved, because I live locally, my wife is from Milford (and teaches in the school) and because our son is a first year student there. I’ve spoken to students in the school a few times in the past about a career in architecture, so I’m familiar enough with the place.

We’re working in the school with Transition Year students and their teacher Mr. Patrick Curley, and we began by asking the students to look at the village of Milford, and in particular how their school is located in relation to the village centre. Now we’re looking at ways of strengthening the links between the school and the centre, in the process developing ideas about how to regenerate disused buildings and spaces in and around Milford. I’m sure we can pull together a lot of good design ideas, and we’ll use the best of the school’s technology and art departments to demonstrate them.

Our role will be to provide the support that will allow the students to draw conclusions from their analysis, and to go on and design the kind of buildings and places they’d like to see in Milford. We hope that they let their imaginations run loose, and push the boundaries as much as they want. We won’t be telling them that their buildings won’t stand up or that they’d cost too much, because what we really want is to develop their vision and encourage their creativity. If they come up with ideas to generate a buzzing, vibrant, colourful Milford, then we’ll all have achieved something. Milford skatepark_edited-2


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It is great to be involved with GDC (Irl) Ltd right from the start of the Rann Mor housing development,


EPC versus BER – how does the house we designed in Co. Fermanagh rate ?

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Because we’re a bit geeky about things like this, we thought it’d be interesting to compare the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) for the house we designed for a site outside Enniskillen, with a sample Building Energy Rating Certificate (BER) of the kind used in the Republic of Ireland. The Energy Performance Certificate that’s used in the north to illustrate the energy performance of a building is basically the same as the Building Energy Rating Certificate used in the south, although in a slightly different format. The Energy Performance Certificate shows the energy performance on an easily readable scale from A to G, with A being the best performance and G the worst. The Building Energy Rating Certificate is slightly more detailed in that it subdivides the A- G scale into A1, A2, A3, B1, B2, B3 etc. but the information on both certificates is in the same format so it’s easy to compare them. By way of explanation, an Energy Performance Certificate or Building Energy Rating Certificate is compulsory for all homes offered for sale or rent. An Energy Performance Certificate or Building Energy Rating Certificate is also required before a new home is occupied for the first time.

Heywards EPC versus Southern BER

The reason we were curious is because the house we designed outside Enniskillen got an A rating on the Energy Performance Certificate, and we were wondering whether it would have got an A1, A2 or A3 BER had it been built in the south. It turns out that with the values listed on the Energy Performance Certificate, it would very comfortably have achieved an A1 rating in the south. Which was fine until we checked the Building Energy Rating Certificate Register and discovered that of the 458,505 houses on the Register, only six are A1 rated! We’re not sure why only six have been built, but we’re guessing that it’s because the standard of design and construction that would be required to achieve A1 is so high; happily we were able to achieve that with the help of a motivated builder and an understanding client. The exciting thing is that because of the hands- on role we had during the construction, we can now see areas where we can reach an even higher standard in the future, so it’s now a case of pushing on to the next level. The next step is to design a carbon- neutral house…. now that really would be a fantastic achievement.

Just to show that it’s not all about performance, here are a few photos of the house….._MG_9231 internal to balcony

Planning Permission – do I need it ???

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Planning Permission- do I need it?

Now that the long- awaited green shoots have finally started to appear, people are taking an interest in building again. We’ve been run off our feet in the office since before Christmas, and questions about planning permission are coming up time and time again. Here are a couple of links that give a really good overview of the process in both the north and the south. Don’t forget that we’ve been making successful planning applications for years and can do all of the work for you…

So who owns football anyway?

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The other day my son asked me ‘Dad, what do you call the people who own football?’ He meant FIFA of course, and it’s interesting that that’s the way it’s seen nowadays. I put it to him that he owned it, and I owned it, and so did everybody else. At least that’s how it was when I was his age. All football fans know that this is a World Cup year, or a FIFA World Cup ™ year as FIFA would have it. FIFA are in the spotlight because of street protests in Brazil against the cost of hosting the World Cup there this summer, and because of the number of deaths among poorly- paid foreign labourers working on the construction of the 2022 stadia in Qatar.

Back when I started watching football in the mid- seventies, I was fascinated by Wembley Stadium, scene of the FA Cup final every year and incredibly glamorous in my mind. I soon discovered the then- futuristic Olympic Stadium in Munich, which totally blew me away with its’ spiders web roof hung from poles. (Later, in architecture college, I made a model of the roof from a pair of tights).At the same time, The Big Match and Match of the Day provided weekly doses of English football grounds steeped in history and atmosphere.

That’s not to say it was idyllic, with football hooliganism rampant. The first game I went to was at the old Wembley Stadium in 1983, and my outstanding memory is of the heave in the crowd ten minutes before kickoff as the latecomers piled in. I ended up a fair bit away from where I started, squeezed far apart from the people I had gone to the game with. It wasn’t good, and of course the Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough disasters were to come.


 The Olympic Stadium in Munich.


The Taylor report that followed Hillsborough recommended that football stadia become all- seater, and with Sky tv money soon pumping into English football, the experience of watching a game live was dramatically changed. On the positive side it became family friendly, but on the negative side it became corporate and sanitized, often out- of town and very expensive. In November 2012 I paid €180 for a ticket to watch a Champions League game in Madrid, at another of the old stadia from my childhood.

The seat was perfect, right on the halfway line, and the game was good, but I was really puzzled by the atmosphere. For a vital game, it was flat. The Borussia Dortmund fans in their bee- coloured jerseys made most noise in the away end, partly because their team was playing so well against Real Madrid, but also (I’m convinced of it) because they were standing up. They seemed to be having a party. German stadia allow standing up, and now there is a move on to allow it in English stadia as well. I’m all for it, even though the last standing game I was at, in Arsenal’s  old art deco Highbury ground, I spent the ninety minutes standing on one leg on my tiptoes leaning all over the man in front of me, like thousands of others around me. Now Arsenal play at the Emirates Stadium, with a famously dull atmosphere. Meanwhile, on quiet nights, you can hear the ghosts of Herbert Chapman and Cliff Bastin in the back gardens of the Highbury Square apartment development….


The art deco style Highbury ground, former home of Arsenal FC.


For me, the new football stadia are architecturally interesting, but are becoming the same the world over as FIFA strive for corporate uniformity. The old grounds, tightly bounded on all sides by the redbrick communities they sprang from, are becoming a thing of the past. The twin towers of Wembley, with all their history, are long gone and the most interesting things about the new stadium are Bobby Moore’s statue and Geoff Hurst’s crossbar from the 1966 World Cup final in the museum there. The new stadium lacks the atmosphere of the old stadium on match days, and has little individuality to differentiate it from the identikit stadia springing up the world over. God be with old- style regional variation such as the moat around the pitch that sticks in my mind from Argentina 78, or even the now disused- for- football Olympic Stadium in Munich. People are different the world over and our football stadia, our secular cathedrals of communal experience, should reflect that.


Broken Electric Shower – Make do and Mend

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Bad luck and bad timing (a few days before Christmas) with our electric shower, gave me an opportunity lately to put my ‘make do and mend’ impulses to work. Anybody who knows me will know I am wont to spending Friday evening fixing the brakes or straightening a wheel on my bike. We are often too quick to replace rather than repair domestic appliances and something in my nature resists that, if there might be a chance to open up and fix instead.

Cold water continued to flow through the shower at a great rate after I switched it off, so it was obvious that a valve of some kind had given up. Luckily I had a cut- off valve on the supply pipe to the shower, so a quick trip to the attic stopped the flow. Still, after taking the cover of the shower and staring at it blankly for a while, I knew it was a job for an expert as any attempted repair by me would likely lead to flooding or electrocution (or both) so I decided it would be best to call The Shower Man.

Tim , had a good look and said that there weren’t any of the usual signs of wear and tear on it, and that there was no need to replace it yet. Good, that was about €200 saved. Tim explained that it was teenagers who kept him in work- electric showers are designed to run for 15 minutes and cool for 45 minutes, but it’s the other way around when it comes to our young ones leading to a shortened lifespan for the shower unit.

Tim showed me that the filter on the solenoid had started to break up, and it was likely that a small piece of that had jammed the valve open. After replacing the part and opening the valve on the supply pipe, the shower was ready for (hopefully) another few years of action, teenagers notwithstanding. The charge for the callout and replacement part was very reasonable considering the amount I could have spent on a new shower, and the whole operation only took around half an hour.

A few helpful hints then based on my own experience:

  •  If you are in the process of building a house or a bathroom extension, have the plumber fit a cut- off valve on the water supply pipe to the shower. To avoid pressure problems, electric showers are usually fed off the mains supply to the house, rather than from your water storage tank. Without a cut- off valve on the supply pipe, you may have to cut off the water mains supply to the house in the event of a problem with the shower unit. That would be a huge nuisance at the best of times but definitely not something you want to face a few days before Christmas.
  •  Don’t assume that an older shower unit is finished if it starts to give trouble- a specialist in shower repairs could save you a fair amount of money by replacing a part rather than the whole unit (legitimate funds for bike parts).
  • Go easy on the shower- nobody needs to be that clean!
Broken Shower ?

Broken Shower ?


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