November 15, 2010

A tale of two sheds

Two very large sheds are currently nearing completion in our neighbourhood. One is the fantastically glamorous, expensive and late Firstsite shed by Raphael Vinoly. The other is the fantastically cheap, quick and bland shed that will house the largest Sainsbury's in the UK. One may hope the former will be a huge success, and the latter a spectacular failure - but the latter is bound to be grossly profitable, and the former, for all we wish it well, is likely to have, at the least, teething problems in these straitened times.

Firstsite is 3,200m2 compared to Sainsbury's at approx 14,000m2 (150,000 sqft). Firstsite's costs have risen from £16m to £28m (project costs, i.e. including fees, etc). The costs for the Sainsburys store aren't online, but per m2 they will be small fraction of the staggering £8750/m2 (project cost) of Firstsite.

Sainsbury's started on site in April this year - a delay from the original start date of January, but they are still opening as planned on 1st December. Firstsite started on site in mid 2007, and although originally intended to open late 2008, it is now anticipated to be opening some time next year. Sainsbury's has 4 times the floor area of Firstsite, and an 8 month construction programme compared to 4 years, for what is probably a not dissimilar cost.

This is not a post about what is 'good' or more appropriate on any level - architecturally, economically, culturally. But simply: there is something very wrong with a construction industry where two steel framed sheds can take two such radically different trajectories. One, for better or worse, is the paradigm of efficiency. And it is not unsophisticated, either - the planning of its logistics, servicing and so forth is highly considered, and the building itself is not pure function over form - it is decorated with tall glazed pagoda-like towers over internal atria, along with masses of pointless glass canopy protruding from every elevation. The other has caused nothing but headaches throughout its construction, despite a superficially simple form and monolithic appearance (all one type of cladding, with one face of curtain wall glazing, unlike the rag-bag of Sainsbury's brick, render, metal panel and glass).

We should be able to build schools, cultural projects and housing with at least some of the efficiency of Sainsbury's. Allowing that arts projects may be more complex and certainly have less experienced clients, even half the efficiency would be a welcome change. When will one side of the industry start learning from the other?

Firstsite under construction.

Sainsbury's under construction - as of this morning.



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