Paul Hyett, 19 January 2021
Heat and light on the home front
Our domestic gas boiler stopped working, as it does with grim regularity, just as this winter’s cold spell began, writes Paul Hyett.
Somewhere among the myriad pipes supplying our hot water and heating there is a leak, most likely in the hot water cylinder or under the ground floor. Cylinders, as you may recall, are typically heated by a coiled pipe which carries hot water pumped to and from the gas boiler. So, the first possibility, quickly discounted, was that the water pressure was failing because of a leak to the cylinder coil.
Our attention thus turned to the central heating. As all visible pipework appeared sound, we concluded that the leak must be somewhere within the 155 metres or so of concealed pipework traversing the three floors of our house. We are losing around a radiator of water a day – perhaps 10 litres – but since none of the ceilings are showing signs of damp, we have concluded that the leak must be within the pipework beneath our ground floor: the house is Edwardian (early 20th century), with no basement.
The floors are carpeted on tongued and grooved wood boards so, with the disruption in searching out this leak likely to be considerable, necessitating a closing down of all heating, we have delayed the work until Spring. Hence, since November, the dull routine of visiting the boiler cupboard thrice or more daily as the system shuts down, opening the stopcocks, replenishing the water and re-establishing operational pressure.
(This reminded me of my old boss Cedric Price, who insisted, well ahead of Richard Rogers’ Lloyds Building, that all pipework both inside and out of buildings should be exposed. With characteristic irreverence for conventional appearance, Cedric’s pipes were routinely exposed in all their glory, most notably on the Inter-Action Centre which Will Alsop and I worked on in Kentish Town, north London. It is now demolished but was immortalized as an RIBA Journal front cover back in the 1970s.)
Aerial view of the Inter-Action Centre, London, 1970, demolished in 1981. Source: Cedric Price Fonds, CCA
Thinking about our tiresome ritual, I cast my mind back to childhood: we had no central heating, and every day the coal fire in the lounge of our new terraced council house in Cwmbran in Wales had to be lit by hand and regularly stoked with more coal. I recall that lighting the fire was made ultra-simple – no kindling wood and newspaper needed, for we had a gas ‘poker’; an ingenious contemporary device which could be connected to a conveniently located gas pipe adjoining the hearth. Once switched on the gas hissed out of holes in the hollow poker. These were ignited by match, the poker being then pushed into the coals for ten minutes or so and the fire was alight. My grandmother lit her cigarettes with it!
The ‘fireplace’ had a ‘Baxi’ boiler behind it which heated our hot water. There were no other coal fires in the house although we had a paraffin heater at the base of the stairs which required filling twice daily (the only overnight heat source), and little electric powered oil filled radiators used only when we were in our bedrooms as they were fiercely expensive to run. The gas cooker heated the kitchen. That was it.
Over the intervening 60 odd years, the progress in terms of comfort and convenience has been incredible. But we no longer heat rooms, we heat complete dwellings, so our wintertime expectations are for consistent warmth throughout our homes. And of course, we no longer dress seasonally: people expect to wear summer attire indoors the entire year-round. Jumpers are for outdoors and waistcoats are forgotten.
Beyond comfort it is the convenience of it all that is so astonishing. And this is what my newly imposed routine of tending to my gas-boiler’s regular needs has reminded me. Modern houses, whether new or retrofitted, have extraordinarily sophisticated operating and management systems. Start with the time control and thermostats which kick the heating and hot water systems in and out of action around the clock. Then the automatic management systems that switch light on and off when we enter or leave rooms; which close and open curtains and blinds daily when we are absent to deter burglars; the security alarms which detect intruders in our houses and gardens; and the messaging systems which tell us who called whilst we were out. Video entry phones that save us answering the door in person. The list is endless.
New possibilities continue to unfold; leaving aside the world of sound and video tv systems and all we routinely expect of them, there is then that incredible aid the mobile phone. This now offers so much in terms of remote control and management: switch on the Sunday roast while on your walk; notifications when the security system is activated by others – the numbers of new offerings coming daily on-stream are increasing hugely.
Despite all this, the public (or at least the UK public) still appears grimly wedded to traditional domestic architecture. Indeed, after only a short dalliance with modernism as explored through some of the more enlightened local authority-commissioned work, the British have looked resolutely backwards for their homes of the future. And with a dearth of imagination and ambition that suits big housebuilders just fine. Yes, they want all the gadgetry and all the convenience of a high-tech residence provided it looks like a . . . cottage.
It is like wanting your new Tesla wrapped up in the body of a 1927 Bentley or, perhaps for more of us, a Model T Ford. All this finds its worst expression in house alterations and extensions: the Victorian plastic conservatory and the myriad side and attic extensions that menace our streetscapes.
Here in the UK we are likely to get relaxations of controls on detached houses under government proposals on planning reform. This will encourage ever more ambitious rooftop extensions; a rash that has already spread across the housing in our cities and suburbs looks set to get worse.
But inside, the flicker of our control system LED lights and the quiet hum of machinery will provide, literally and metaphorically, home comforts.