The $475,000 dog house

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The $475,000 dog house is but one sign of what went wrong with our own late, great Guilded Age of architecture

The recent era of egregious consumer and corporate excess, now crashing down around our ears, is leaving behind many architectural reminders of itself. But for sheer egregiousness, few will ever beat a new residence being built near the English town of Cirencester.

It’s a $475,000 dog house.

Designed by British architect Andy Ramos, this residence will shelter a pair of Great Danes belonging to a surgeon, whose own luxurious house is to be constructed nearby.

The kennel details, as reported by the London-based Mail on Sunday newspaper, are fascinating.

The three-room dog house (two bedrooms and a lounge) will be outfitted with temperature-controlled sheepskin beds, a spa, an expensive hi-fi system, and a 52-inch plasma television set.

A retina scan at the entrance will enable the owner to keep out dogs who might try to pay unauthorized visits to the Great Danes. Closed-circuit TV cameras will provide the owner with round-the-clock surveillance of the dogs’ comings and goings between their house and their adventure playground.

A spokesman for the exclusive real estate development where the dog house will stand told The Mail: “People can design their own homes and this is a bit eccentric but it’s really nice that someone appreciates their pets as much as this lady does. She’s designed their quarters with all their needs at the fore.”

It would be easy, of course, to laugh off Mr. Ramos’s dog house as another folly of the extravagant age we live (or lived) in, then forget about the matter. If, that is, the pooch palace were merely an isolated architectural instance of some rich person’s silliness. It’s not.

Since the outset of the financial boom late in the last century, the landscapes of city and country (and the pages of the architecture magazines) have been littered with over-the-top residential extravaganzas that, despite their usually huge, overscaled size, are very often puny in artistic inspiration and ambition. The dog house is one example. There are many others.

But look-at-me, ostentatious bloat is only one part of the problem. There’s the issue of our period style, which has largely been a kind of imitative bombast.

Instead of encouraging innovative solutions to the old problem of housing, nouveau-riche clients in Britain and North America put architects to work designing lifeless, inflated pastiches of country homes in Georgian, French provincial or some other supposedly “aristocratic” manner. Everything got recycled into the new rural products — ponderous columns, architraves and pediments and entablature and the other bric-a-brac of classicism — but the results rarely sang with the elegance and flair of the originals.

Hitting the cities, the impact of this parody of ye-olde styles has been especially unfortunate. Take a drive through Toronto’s Forest Hill or York Mills or any other well-off neighbourhood in the city to see what I’m talking about. Hulking monster homes mar the streetscapes of modest Edwardian buildings (in Forest Hill) or spacious, mid-20th-century bungalows (in York Mills).

Massive, pretentious facades cobbled from remnants in the Tudor or Elizabethan or Georgian scrapyard glower out at pleasant streets that ask to be lined (and were, at least until the monster houses began to intrude) by far more retiring residences.

But if the latter-day crop of millionaires and billionaires have turned out to be aficionados of the overblown, it’s not possible to draw a necessary connection between wealth and bad taste.

The grandees of the old Georgian period (roughly 1714-1830, during the reigns of the British Georges I-IV) patronized the most advanced and intelligent architects of the day, who provided them with magnificent country seats and city mansions.

Frank Lloyd Wright was wildly successful among rich American businessmen, and even the radical Le Corbusier, a few decades later in Europe, found numerous rich private clients for his splendid experiments in residential architecture.

So what went wrong in the Gilded Age of our own century? I think it was a fateful convergence of the enormous growth of personal wealth, a widespread lack of constraint — the same failure of personal discipline and acceptance of limits that has fuelled the current economic crisis — and contempt for the human scale and visual fabric of the city, especially its streetscapes and the rhythms of its ordinary built forms.

This summing-up of the situation is, I know, a minority position, and many will disagree with it. If you think there is nothing wrong with constructing a dog house for half a million dollars, or dropping an ugly Tudor castle-gate on one of Toronto’s quiet Edwardian streets, I certainly could never convince you otherwise. But it may well be that the years of building such things are now over, and I, for one, am not sorry to see them go.

by JOHN BENTLEY MAYS
From Friday’s Globe and Mail
E-mail
December 5, 2008

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RBS issues global stock and credit crash alert

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By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, International Business Editor

The Royal Bank of Scotland has advised clients to brace for a full-fledged crash in global stock and credit markets over the next three months as inflation paralyses the major central banks.

“A very nasty period is soon to be upon us – be prepared,” said Bob Janjuah, the bank’s credit strategist.

A report by the bank’s research team warns that the S&P 500 index of Wall Street equities is likely to fall by more than 300 points to around 1050 by September as “all the chickens come home to roost” from the excesses of the global boom, with contagion spreading across Europe and emerging markets.

Such a slide on world bourses would amount to one of the worst bear markets over the last century.

RBS said the iTraxx index of high-grade corporate bonds could soar to 130/150 while the “Crossover” index of lower grade corporate bonds could reach 650/700 in a renewed bout of panic on the debt markets.

“I do not think I can be much blunter. If you have to be in credit, focus on quality, short durations, non-cyclical defensive names.

“Cash is the key safe haven. This is about not losing your money, and not losing your job,” said Mr Janjuah, who became a City star after his grim warnings last year about the credit crisis proved all too accurate.

RBS expects Wall Street to rally a little further into early July before short-lived momentum from America’s fiscal boost begins to fizzle out, and the delayed effects of the oil spike inflict their damage.

“Globalisation was always going to risk putting G7 bankers into a dangerous corner at some point. We have got to that point,” he said.

US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank both face a Hobson’s choice as workers start to lose their jobs in earnest and lenders cut off credit.

The authorities cannot respond with easy money because oil and food costs continue to push headline inflation to levels that are unsettling the markets. “The ugly spoiler is that we may need to see much lower global growth in order to get lower inflation,” he said.

“The Fed is in panic mode. The massive credibility chasms down which the Fed and maybe even the ECB will plummet when they fail to hike rates in the face of higher inflation will combine to give us a big sell-off in risky assets,” he said.

Kit Jukes, RBS’s head of debt markets, said Europe would not be immune. “Economic weakness is spreading and the latest data on consumer demand and confidence are dire. The ECB is hell-bent on raising rates.

“The political fall-out could be substantial as finance ministers from the weaker economies rail at the ECB. Wider spreads between the German Bunds and peripheral markets seem assured,” he said.

Ultimately, the bank expects the oil price spike to subside as the more powerful force of debt deflation takes hold next year.

Spain’s drought a glimpse of our future?

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The Independent (London), May 24, 2008 Saturday

Barcelona is a dry city. It is dry in a way that two days of showers can do nothing to alleviate. The Catalan capital’s weather can change from one day to the next, but its climate, like that of the whole Mediterranean region, is inexorably warming up and drying out. And in the process this most modern of cities is living through a crisis that offers a disturbing glimpse of metropolitan futures everywhere.

Its fountains and beach showers are dry, its ornamental lakes and private swimming pools drained and hosepipes banned. Children are now being taught how to save water as part of their school day. This iconic, avant-garde city is in the grip of the worst drought since records began and is bringing the climate crisis that has blighted cities in Australia and throughout the Third World to Europe. A resource that most Europeans have grown up taking for granted now dominates conversation. Nearly half of Catalans say water is the region’s main problem, more worrying than terrorism, economic slowdown or even the populists’ favourite – immigration.

The political battles now breaking out here could be a foretaste of the water wars that scientists and policymakers have warned us will be commonplace in the coming decades. The emergency water-saving measures Barcelona adopted after winter rains failed for a second year running have not been enough. The city has had to set up a “water bridge” and is shipping in water for the first time in the history of this great maritime city.

A tanker from Marseilles with 36 million litres of drinking water unloaded its first cargo this week, one of a mini-fleet contracted to bring water from the Rhone every few days for at least the next three months. So humbled was Barcelona when prolonged drought forced it to ship in domestic water from Tarragona, 50 miles south along the Catalan coast, 12 days ago, that city hall almost delayed shipment and considered an upbeat publicity campaign to lift morale and international prestige.

The whole country is suffering from its worst drought in 40 years and the shipments from Tarragona prompted an outcry from regions who insist they need it more. For now the clashes are being soothed by intervention from Madrid, and plans to ship water from desalination plants in parched Almeria in Andalusia are shelved until October. But there is little indication of a strategy to deal not just with an immediate emergency but an ongoing crisis. Buying water on an epic scale from France has given the controversy an international aspect as French environmentalists question whether such a scarce natural resource should be sold as a commodity to another country.

“It would be a mistake to consider this water bridge between Marseilles and Catalonia as simply an operation of solidarity,” said a group of ecologists calling themselves Robin des Bois (Robin Hood). They said the commercial deal struck between private contractors failed to consider the environmental impact on France. The organisation blamed Barcelona’s water shortage on “wasted resources and … lack of foresight by Catalan and Spanish authorities”.

What Barcelona authorities are fast discovering is that chronic water shortages are not a problem that money alone can solve.

Its 5.5 million inhabitants need a lot of the stuff: the 20 million litres/20,000 tonnes/five million gallons of water brought from Tarragona on 13 May were enough for barely 180,000 people and were consumed within minutes of being channelled through the city’s taps. Wednesday’s shipment from Marseilles was bigger, 36 million litres, but similarly short lived.

Barcelona has churned up a whirlpool of controversy over its handling of the water crisis, causing just the spray of negative publicity it hoped to avoid.

Even the arrival of rain has only made things worse. Catalonia’s regional environment minister, Francesc Baltasar, rushed to announce last week that the hosepipe ban and swimming pool restrictions imposed in February would be lifted. Tarragona – whose wells supply shipped-in water – protested furiously. “Barcelona fills its swimming pools with water from Tarragona,” local headlines screamed, and the water authority demanded a halt to pumping Tarragona’s water for the Catalan capital.

Jose Montilla, Catalonia’s regional prime minister, countermanded Mr Baltasar and insisted water-saving measures remain. “Obviously it makes little sense to lift certain measures when, if it stops raining, we’ll have to re-impose them in three weeks’ time,” he said. But Tarragona re-opened the tap only after Mr Montilla visited, and insisted that “this effort of solidarity will supply only our basic needs”.

Barcelona’s daily El Periodico called Mr Baltasar’s proposal to end unpopular water-saving measures “irresponsible and demagogic”, increasing resentments in regions supplying water to Barcelona. The shipments themselves came under fire. Importing water gives the city a “lamentable, depressing image” and spreads “alarmism”, Miguel Angel Fraile, secretary of the Catalan Trade Confederation, said.

With reservoirs now filled to 30 per cent, authorities should scrap the plan and ship in water only as a last resort, he said. But reservoirs remain two-thirds empty, half the national average and far lower than usual for May. These are dangerously low in anticipation of another dry summer, raising the ghastly prospect of water rationing – painful for residents and offputting for summer visitors.

Extreme short-term measures might have been averted had Barcelona mended leaky old pipes and filtered polluted aquifers, critics grumble. But Barcelona is among Europe’s most careful water users, better than Madrid, Milan or Paris, La Vanguardia newspaper argues. Residents adapt their loos to flush less, shower rather than bath and brush their teeth without the tap running, but such individual measures are swamped by industrial usage, and waste in the infrastructure. La Vanguardia urges an immediate public works programme to improve the creaking system.

“People are much more aware of the need to save water,” says Bridget King, a South African who settled in Barcelona 20 years ago to teach English. “We put a bucket under the shower to catch water before it heats up, and have stopped buying petunias that need a lot of watering. It’s a constant topic of conversation and we worry it’s a long-term thing. But as a South African I’m appalled to see people wash dishes under the running tap. I was brought up to be very careful with water. And although we feel relieved it’s started raining, everyone knows it’s only short term and probably not enough.”

Recent rains have sharpened conflicts, offering a foretaste of water wars to come. Aragon straddles the mighty Ebro river but is a parched desert, cultivable only by sophisticated irrigation systems managed by an Association of Irrigators. This ancient brotherhood agreed to sell the surplus from its irrigation quota, which usually flows back into the Ebro, to Barcelona as a short-term emergency measure. If rains lift reservoirs from their emergency levels, Aragon warns it will halt supplies. But Mr Montilla tweaked Catalona’s definition of “emergency” so it didn’t rely solely on reservoir levels. Then Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, ordered Aragon to keep the water flowing “because conditions aren’t sufficient to guarantee Barcelona’s water supplies”.

Water is now Catalans’ principle worry: 43 per cent considered shortage the country’s main problem. Authorities promise the crisis will ease when a huge desalination plant comes on stream next year. But they say little about how to tackle the long-term problem of water shortage afflicting the whole Mediterranean region. Catalan winemakers recognise that the change is permanent; some are planting new vineyards further north as traditional terrain becomes hotter and dryer.

Other entrepreneurs, including swimming pool manufacturers, have less room for manoeuvre. “The authorities are criminalising us,” complained Josep Sadurni, of Catalonia’s association of swimming pool manufacturers, which predicts losses of up to Euro 200m (£160m) this year. “Who’ll buy a pool if they can’t fill it?” Mr Sadurni asked.

A striking image of the seriousness of the drought is provided by the emergence of a church from the waters of a drying reservoir. For 40 years, all you could see of the drowned village of Sant Roma was the belltower of its stone church, which peeped from time to time above the surface of the artificial lake in a valley flooded in the 1960s to supply Catalonia with water. This year falling water levels have revealed the 11th-century church in its entirety for the first time, attracting curious onlookers who walk round it on the reservoir’s dusty bed. Spain’s Socialist government recognises that climate change will intensify water shortages, and favours desalination plants. One such plant, among the biggest in Europe – and 75 per cent EU funded – is being built on the outskirts of Barcelona and will supply 20 per cent of the city’s water. But it will not be ready until next year.

“It was already very important when it was planned, but now with the urgent drought, it has become indispensable,” said Tomas Azurra, the chief engineer at the plant.

Ecologists warn that desalination plants are costly in energy use, and damage the environment with high CO2 emissions. But developed European regions can afford them, and they’re preferable to diverting water from rivers, which critics say is even more damaging.

More than 70 per cent of Spain’s water goes on agriculture, much of it wasted on antiquated irrigation systems and the cultivation of thirsty crops unsuitable for arid lands. But few politicians seek confrontation with farmers already struggling to scratch a living.

High-density tourist resorts sprinkled with swimming pools, patio showers and golf courses along Spain’s desertified southern coast, especially in Murcia where it rarely rains, are also unsustainable, ecologists say.

Spain needs to capture more rainwater, says Stephanie Blencker of the Stockholm International Water Institute, as climate change will produce alternating extremes of drought and heavy rain. “Rain is the biggest resource we have, and we can make it available all year round if we have sensible storage opportunities,” she said.

Since the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona has enjoyed the reputation of being both cutting edge and user friendly. But now, as climate change overwhelms a crumbling infrastructure, proud, autonomous Catalonia has to seek help from outside.

Homes foreclosure more than doubled in 1Q from 2007

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Tuesday April 29, 6:18 am ET, by Alex Veiga, AP Business Writer

Number of US homes facing foreclosure jumps 112 percent in first quarter from 2007 LOS ANGELES (AP) — The number of U.S. homes heading toward foreclosure more than doubled in the first quarter from a year earlier, as weakening property values and tighter lending left many homeowners powerless to prevent homes from being auctioned to the highest bidder, a research firm said Monday.

Among the hardest hit states were Nevada, Florida and, in particular, California, where Stockton led the nation with a foreclosure rate that was 6.6 times the national average, Irvine, Calif.-based RealtyTrac Inc. said.

Nationwide, 649,917 homes received at least one foreclosure-related filing in the first three months of the year, up 112 percent from 306,722 during the same period last year, RealtyTrac said.

The latest tally also represents an increase of 23 percent from the fourth quarter of last year.

RealtyTrac monitors default notices, auction sale notices and bank repossessions.

All told, one in every 194 households received a foreclosure filing during the quarter. Foreclosure filings increased in all but four states.

The most recent quarter marked the seventh consecutive quarter of rising foreclosure activity, RealtyTrac noted.

“What would normally alleviate the foreclosure situation in a normal market is people starting to buy properties again,” said Rick Sharga, RealtyTrac’s vice president of marketing.

However, the unavailability of loans for people without perfect credit and a significant down payment is slowing the process, he said.

“It’s a cycle that’s going to be difficult to break, and we’re certainly not at the breaking point just yet,” Sharga added.

The surge in foreclosure filings also suggests that much-touted campaigns by lawmakers and the mortgage lending industry aimed at helping at-risk homeowners aren’t paying off.

Hope Now, a Bush administration-organized mortgage industry group, said nearly 503,000 homeowners had received mortgage aid in the first quarter. Most of the aid was temporary, however.

Pennsylvania was a notable standout in the latest foreclosure data. The number of homes in the state to receive a foreclosure-related filing plunged 24.4 percent from a year earlier.

Sharga credited the decline to the state’s foreclosure relief measures, noting that cities such as Philadelphia put in place a moratorium on all foreclosure auctions for April and implemented other measures aimed at helping slow foreclosures.

Nearly 157,000 properties were repossessed by lenders nationwide during the quarter, according to RealtyTrac.

The flood of foreclosed properties on the market has contributed to falling or stagnating home values, yet lenders have yet to implement heavy discounts on repossessed homes, Sharga said.

Nevada posted the worst foreclosure rate in the nation, with one in every 54 households receiving a foreclosure-related notice, nearly four times the national rate.

The number of properties with a filing increased 137 percent over the same quarter last year but only rose 3 percent from the fourth quarter.

California had the most properties facing foreclosure at 169,831, an increase of 213 percent from a year earlier. It also posted the second-highest foreclosure rate in the country, with one in every 78 households receiving a foreclosure-related notice.

California metro areas accounted for six of the 10 U.S. metropolitan areas with the highest foreclosure rates in the first quarter, RealtyTrac said.

Many of the areas — including Stockton, Riverside-San Bernardino, Fresno, Sacramento and Bakersfield — are located in inland areas of the state where many first-time buyers overextend themselves financially to buy properties that have plunged in value since the market peak.

“California still hasn’t hit bottom,” Sharga said. “We have a lot of California homes that are in early stages of default that may not be salvageable because either there’s no market or financing available, or both.”

Arizona had the third-highest foreclosure rate, with one in every 95 households reporting a foreclosure filing in the quarter. A total of 27,404 homes reported at least one filing, up nearly 245 percent from a year ago and up 45 percent from the last quarter of 2007.

Florida had 87,893 homes reporting at least one foreclosure filing, a 178 percent jump from the first quarter of last year and a 17 percent hike from the fourth quarter last year. That translates into a foreclosure rate of one in every 97 households.

The other states among the top 10 with the highest foreclosure rates were Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

RealtyTrac Inc.: http://www.realtytrac.com

Dubai is on Steroids

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It’s said that the highest concentration of cranes in the world can be found just in one city – Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Take a look at the photos and videos below and you will see why the construction industry over there seems to be on Steroids.

Who is financing this boom in building? They don’t seem to be experiencing the same down turn in the real estate market in Dubai as in the United States? Abu Dhabi and the other emirates are on the same path.