Sunday, November 15, 2009

Pisa University new student accommodation

Residenza Studentesca Praticelli Photo June 25, 2009 by lEtnEoWith their Residenza Studentesca Praticelli Salvatore Re Architects have created new student accommodation for Pisa University with an industrial aesthetic. The end walls of the student wings have a dark louvred surface, looking like enormous shipping containers, complete with shipping numbers stencilled on. However, these are in fact conventionally constructed buildings. This contrasts with the Laurus Wing of Ursula Hall at the Australian National University, which is actually built with shipping container modules, but where the container corrugated walls have been hidden.

Also there appear to be a cultural differences between the Italian and Australian buildings. The Pisa University building provides wings containing single bedrooms for students, with larger apartments only in the end building for "Professors". In contrast the ANU is providing self contained bed-sit apartments for single accommodation and apartments with a bedroom for couples.

Height is another differentiator, with he Pisa building limited to three stories high, whereas the Canberra building is six stories (the maximum height shipping containers are designed to be stacked). Both buildings use the approach of a long accommodation wing with a services core at one end joining the wings and stairways at the other.

The Italian design appears to be for a bespoke building, whereas the Australian design is available in modular form Quicksmart Homes for assembly into student and other accommodation.The next due for completion is at Sydney University Camden campus with accommodation for 150 in 2010/2011.

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Friday, November 06, 2009

Shipping container apartment building looks good

3D rendering of a modular apartment at Laurus Wing, Ursula Hall, ANU by Quicksmart HomesOne of the studio units in the Australian National University Laurus Wing of Ursula Hall was open for inspection, so I went along to have a look. I was expecting something which looked like a stack of containers, but this instead is a modern, elegant and very solid apartment building.

The outside finish and balcony panels had not yet been applied to the building, so the framework of containers was apparent. The joins between the container are being covered to make them appear to be solid columns and beams. The ends of the containers are being filled with coloured glass panels. There is an open welded steel fire stair at one end of the building and a concrete service core at the other end. This sounds very utilisation, but looks much better in reality.

The apartment for inspection was on the ground floor. The first impression, like the building is of solidity: the door is double glazed frosted glass and appears very solid. Next to the door is the access panel to the riser for plumbing (a section has been cut out of the top and bottom of each container to provide easy access for the plumbing). Inside the front door is a small vestibule. There is then the bathroom on the left and a hallway. The bathroom is small but makes good use of the space with a reasonably sized shower. There is then a small kitchen on the left. The kitchen has a single small sink and a very small two plate stove-top in the bench. There is limited cupboard space but a a full size refrigerator. A better option might be to install a smaller bar fridge and put a microwave oven in the space freed up above this. The kitchen is more than adequate with good quality but robust finish.

Next to the kitchen is very small hanging space which might fit one coat and one pair of trousers. While students might not be expected to dress up for the office each day, this seems inadequate (there are coat hooks next to the front door as well). coat hanger is a generous student desk. Perhaps the desk could be smaller to make room for more clothes (with some sort of fold up extension on the desk). Students will be increasingly using online study materials, with less need of desktop space for books.

Next to the desk is a built in bed. The bed looks out on the balcony and with the coloured glass panel installed under the balcony railing will provide a view with privacy. There are large drawers built under the bed and open shelves above, providing most of the storage for the apartment. The wall shelves might have looked better with doors on them., but this would have made the space look smaller.

The bed is fixed and takes up a lot of floor space. It would be tempting to have some sort of folding or sofa bed, but in reality these tend to be left open in everyday use and the mechanisms tend to break. However, perhaps there could be a simple fold down panel to extend the student desk over the bed and some bolsters at the back to make the bed more comfortable to sit on.

A flat screen TV is mounted on an arm on the wall opposite the bed. This can be swung out so the TV can be seen from the bed, kitchen or balcony. This intrudes into the limited space between the bed and wall, making an already narrow space look narrower. I would have preferred the flat screen mounted at the desk, so it could be used as a computer screen with a laptop as well as a TV. However, this would then require lying the other way in bed to see the TV (not that watching TV in bed is a good idea anyway). There may be some other creative solutions to this, such as a small TV attached to the wall above the bed, or a LED/LCD projection unit on the ceiling projecting onto the wall or onto the blind over the window.

At the far end of the apartment is a small balcony. No doubt that these will soon become filled with bicycles and other items, as is common with student accommodation, but it looks a comfortable space to relax and will help shade the apartment from the afternoon sun. In other situations, the coloured glass panels on the balcony might be replaced with perforated metal panels. These would be more robust and could be shaped to allow precise control of the sunlight (admitting it in winter and blocking it in summer) and vision (providing a view for the occupants and privacy).

Quicksmart Homes have made the most of the limitations of the ISO standard forty foot shipping container modules. The apartments still look a little narrow, but livable and stylish. This should do much to dispel the idea that modular buildings are low status, temporary and flimsy constructions.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Shipping container apartment open for inspection in Canberra

3D rendering of a modular apartment at Laurus Wing, Ursula Hall, ANU by Quicksmart HomesOne of the studio units in the Australian National University's new shipping container apartment building is open for inspection by staff, students and members of the ANU community on weekdays between 12-1.30pm. It is at the corner of Dickson and Daley Roads, Acton. This will be known as the Laurus Wing of Ursula Hall and is made from ISO standard forty foot shipping container modules fitted out in China and stacked to form a building. The modules are from Quicksmart Homes

Artist Impression of Laurus Wing, Ursula Hall, ANUThe building is in some ways a realisation of the concept of Le Corbusier, with his Unité d'Habitation. This was intended to be a modular steel frame building, with each apartment a slotted in module, but post-war material restrictions resulted in it being constructed on-site from concrete. With the provision of communal facilities in the building, the Laurus Wing also has some of the social aspects of the Unite d'habitation.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Shipping Container Apartment Building in Canberra

Containerised apartment module ready to be lifted into position at ANUThe Australian National University is building Australia's first shipping container apartment building. This ANU Modular Student Accommodation is being constructed at ANU's Canberra campus. This will be known as the Laurus Wing of Ursula Hall and is due to open in 2010. The modules are from Quicksmart Homes.

The building is being made from 75 ISO standard forty foot shipping container modules (in the jargon this is 150 TFUs). These are being stacked five high to make 70 self contained apartments.

The construction is processing at a rapid pace, with modules arriving by truck and being lifted into place by a crane. On the day I took some photos there was only one container on the top level of the building, but by the following day another four apartments had been added.

3D rendering of a modular apartment at Laurus Wing, Ursula Hall, ANU by Quicksmart HomesThe building has a simple design, with a concrete stairwell at one end and a rectangular stack of containers next to this. The modules come in two basic designs, each using a forty foot container. One design is fitted with a kitchen and bathroom. This is used on its own to make a "Single Studio" apartment. To this can be added a second container with two bedrooms.

Each container has a balcony at each end. These appear to have multiple functions. The balconies provide extra space and shade the apartment from the sun. The balconies also appear to be the method of access to the apartments. In addition, by having the windows and doors recessed inside the balcony, this protects them during transport.

Artist Impression of Laurus Wing, Ursula Hall, ANU by Quicksmart HomesAll the containers are painted a light grey, off-white. The sides are standard ribbed steel (these sides will be hidden in the building). The artists impressions of the building shows coloured panels on the balcony railings, but these panels appear to have yet to be fitted (perhaps to protect them form damage in shipping). If built as per the rendering, the building will look much better than the best known shipping container housing, which is the Dutch Keetwonen project.

The apartments appear to be well appointed. One inclusion which I don't think is needed, is a wall mounted flat screen TV. A better option would be to offer the student a desktop unit which could function as a TV and as their computer monitor.

Prefabricated offices being built at ANUThe ANU is also constructing some offices using more conventional prefabrication techniques. Compared to the shipping container apartments, which show flare and daring, the prefabricated buildings look very dull and detract from the image of the campus.

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Monday, May 04, 2009

Online Travel Planning

Since a trip to Europe in 1994 I have been planning my trips using the Internet. This has involved a lot of email messages and manual preparation of schedules as web pages. But recently I noticed "TripIt" pop up as a plug in on LinkedIn. One of my colleagues happened to be coming to Canberra and LinkedIn got their schedule out of TripIt and told me about it (on the assumption that as I am in Canberra, this would be of interest). This has a slightly worrying aspect to it, but I am trying it out for my trip to Melbourne. I had laboriously prepared my own custom schedule web pages, but thought I would try TripIt's automatic one.

The service claims you just need to forward your itinerary by email and their system sorts it out. My first attempt using the booking form for the hotel did not work: TripIt could not understand the format. But the second attempt using the form from the travel agent worked. It was able to work out my flights and advise who was nearby in Melbourne.

Apart from the privacy issues with this, performance seems to be a problem. LinkedIn is now reporting "momentary" problems and the TripIT plug-in is not responding (direct access via the TripIt web site seems to be okay).

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Kinloch Lodge ANU Open

Kinloch Lodge ANUOn my way back by bicycle from the Australian National Portrait Gallery I noticed that Kinloch Lodge has opened at ANU. As well as student accommodation, on the ground floor this has an Hub Asian Supermarket. This is not due to open until 9 February, but had a handwritten sign saying "soft opening". There is also a Mac1 Computer store in the building.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Windowless hotel rooms?

After suffering poor quality hotels in Turkey and Greece and the relative comfort of the overnight train between the two, it makes me wonder why there are not budget hotels, even more basic than the Hotel Formule 1. Comfortable rooms could be provided at a low cost by replacing the windows with flat screen TVs.

In Melbourne, Accor have their excellent Hotel Formule 1 Melbourne CBD. This is in the center of the city at the end of the mall. On a business trip the usual hotels were full and I was put up in the F1 and found it very comfortable. From the street just a small door is visible (locked after hours and opened with the room card). The reception is upstairs and is tiny. The rooms are similarly small, but are clean. The rooms dispense with items the traveler will not need, such as a fridge and telephone.

The rooms are very quiet with double glazed windows which look thick enough to be bullet proof. Unlike fancy hotels where there always seems to be a staff member coming in to check the bar fridge, or put a mint on your pillow, here they you leave you alone. If you pay for the room when you arrive, you need not see, or talk to a staff member again. There is a DIY breakfast room, also equipped with a vending machine with toothpaste and the like.

It is surprising that more hotel chains or individual proprietors have not adopted this style of hotel. It could also be given an environmental angle for marketing. Most of the carpets could be dispensed with in the name of reducing material and cleaning chemical use (also to save the cost of cleaning the carpet). In countries where smoking is still permitted in hotels, it could be banned for the good of the customers (and to save cleaning costs). Similarly bar fridges could be dispensed with.

One additional way to make the hotels more environmental (and save costs) would be to eliminate windows from some, or all, the rooms. In many budget hotels the windows have poor views of dirty light wells, back alleys or into the rooms of the hotel opposite. Where the windows can be opened, they let in dust, smoke and traffic noise. It would make more sense to provide good quality mechanical ventilation and a large wide screen TV, in place of the window. This would allow rooms to be built up against the blank wall of the next building, or for the whole hotel to be built inside another building. This would greatly lower the cost of the hotel land and allow hotels to take up otherwise unusable locations. As a gimmick, when the hotel door was opened, the TV could be switched on to a CCTV picture from the roof, providing a virtual window on the view.

As well as making room placement more flexible, eliminating the window would make en suite rooms easier to design and make for a more efficient room layout. The most common hotel room design has the bathroom next to the door of the room. This is done so the opposite end of the room can have a window with a view. But the result is that a considerable part of the floor space is wasted with a corridor next to the bathroom to provide room access.

Without a window, the door and bathroom could be placed anywhere in the hotel room. A typical layout might be to have the door on one side at the foot of the bed and the bathroom in the end wall. This would eliminate the internal corridor and save several square meters of floor space. The one piece of floor space would be used for access to the room, access to the bathroom and circulation.

Assuming the room has a European Queen size bed (1.6 × 2 m), with 750mm clear space from bed to wall on each side and 900 mm (the width of a door) at the foot of the bed, making a room 3.1 x 2.9 m. The bathroom would be 1100 mm deep along the end of the room, making for a total of 3.1 x 4 m. A single room (900 × 2000 mm bed), with 900 mm access on only one side of the bed and the bathroom opposite, could be 2.9 x 2 m.

The hotel could also provide some very small budget rooms, like a compartment in a sleeper train. These would have only enough room to stand up next to the bed, plus luggage racks. To save more space the underside of the bed and the ceiling over it could be lowered to provide the space for the plumbing and air conditioning of adjacent rooms. Careful design could provide a better experience here than the average larger, but clumsy hotel room. It need not go to the extreme of the Japanese capsule hotel (カプセルホテル), but could have rooms similar to the Hotel, Yotel the Pod Hotel, or citizenM. But rather than have a whole hotel of these, they could be placed to use otherwise unusable corners of the conventional hotel.

In addition temporary hotels could be quickly erected on spare building sites using Flat Packed Housing and modular building technology. When the land was needed for other purposes, the buildings would be shipped back to the factory for refurbishment and then re-erected elsewhere.

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Excellent Thessaloniki to Istanbul Train

Perhaps it is a mark of how cheap some of the hotels I stayed in were, but the third most comfortable accommodation in Turkey or Greece on my recent trip was the Thessaloniki to Istanbul sleeper train (Dostluk/Filia Ekspresi). The train is run by Turkish railways (with the national crest etched in each window). It leaves Thessaloniki (Selanik), Greece, about 8pm, taking 12 hours. The route is Thessalonik, Kiklis, Rodopolis, Serres, Drama, Xanthi, Komotini, Alexandroupolis, Pythion, Uzunköprü, Pehlivanköy, Alpullu , Istanbul and is an excellent tourist trip.

The train has air-conditioned one or two person sleeping compartments. There are no sit up compartments and so the only seats are the ones in the sleepers which convert into bunk beds. In theory the train is non-smoking, but a cabin full of smokers was tolerated by the conductor (the compartments have individual air conditioning controls and opening windows and so this was okay).

There is no dining car on the train and the only food and drink was some sandwiches, soft drinks and canned/bottled drinks sold by the conductor (in what seemed to be an unofficial entrepreneurial activity run from a supermarket shopping trolley).

The two person compartments have two very wide comfortable seats, a wash basin (with mirror and power points), cupboard, bar fridge and luggage rack. The conductor brings sheets and pillows as the train is leaving, with the passengers are left to make their own beds. The fold down top bunk is easy to set up and there is a ladder for climbing up.

The carpet of the compartment looked like it was new and the fittings were a little warn but very clean and everything worked. This contrasted with most of the hotels I stayed in in Greece and Turkey, which were dirty, with broken non-working fittings. While small, the compartments are well designed so that everything fits (unlike hotels with poorly laid out fittings). The decision to fit a bar fridge seems an odd one as it dictates the cupboard it is in must be very deep and so takes up about one third the available floor space in the compartment.

There is a toilet at each end of the compartment and, apparently a shower (I didn't try it). The highlight of the train are the large windows (with an opening section at the top for ventilation. The fist few hours of the trip (and last few) and in daylight, providing excellent views of the Greek and Turkish countryside. Even after sunset it was possible to lie in bed and look out at the light of towns and moonlight on the countryside.

The ride is very comfortable and the carriages must have excellent shock absorbers. The last portion of the trip is on the same line used by the old local Istanbul suburban train which rattles and bumps along, in contrast to the express. Apart from the lack of luxury add-ons, the train is as comfortable as the Indian-Pacific. Being able to lock the door, brush your teeth, set the air conditioning and e down looking at the passing lake in the moonlight was blissful.

The quality of the train is let down by the poor customer relations and management. Turkish State Railways (TCDD/DDY) has a difficult to work web site, which is reported to only work with some browsers. The Thessaloniki station has only one ticket window for international bookings and this seems to be open odd hours and unattended much of the time when it is supposedly open. I looked over the attendant's shoulder as they made my booking and they seemed to be using a very user friendly web based interface, which makes me wonder why that is not available to the customers directly.

The train makes two customs/passport stops at about two AM. The frist stop is for Greek customs and is relatively painless. Your passport is collected and taken away. Some time later the official knocks on the door and hands back the passport after looking you up and down.

The catch is that after the train starts and you have started to get back to sleep, the train stops again at Turkish customs. An official again takes your passport. Citizens of some nations, including Australia, are required to purchase a visa, which requires leaving the train and walking across the tracks to the office and lining up. An acquaintance told of how the fell down from the high train step half asleep, injured themselves and received little help. Fortunately I had already obtained a visa on the way into Turkey and so did not need to alight; there was just a visit from the customs officer to look at our bags in the compartment. If planning to travel on the train it would be worth getting your visa in advance.

Perhaps this customs system is needed for non-express trains, where people can get on and off trains at intermediate stations and an hour's hold-up does not add much to the journey. But it does not seem to make a lot of sense to subject the passengers of the premium express train like this. It should be possible to have some of the formalities done at either end of the journey and for the officials of both countries to broad the train and carry out their checks in transit.

Apart from the stops for customs, there were some other stops of 20 minutes or so waiting from stopping trains to clear the track. Along much of the line on the Greek side, there was track work underway to replace the old steel sleepers with concrete ones and with new tunnels. The new track seems to have the curves banked at an angle for high speed trains, to the point where it was noticeable against the horizon (about the same tilt as I experienced in a Swedish X2000 tilt train). It seems likely that the speed of the train will be able to be increased considerably when this track work is finished. However, the quality of the track dropped considerably in Turkey and there were few signs of upgrades there.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Sultan Hostel Istanbul

The Sultan Hostel, Istanbul, is a classic hostel, from the rooftop garden overlooking the Sea of Marmaris (and the Blue Mosque), to the dubious plumbing. The best part of the hotel were the very helpful staff, with useful tips, such bas taking the metro to the airport, not the slow tourist bus.

The street cafe is a great place to meet other travelers (you will not meet a local unless they are trying to sell you a carpet or a trip to Anzac Cove). The rooftop cafe is blissful in the twilight. The free cybercafe is hectic. The rooms are cramped, but usable. The bathrooms are improved after a recentl renovation, but not without problems: some helpful person had straightened out the flexible drain under the handbasin, which removed the trap and allowed smells to come up the pipe.

According to the Lonely Planet guide, some rooms have excellent views of the sea. I didn;t see one of those. One room had a view of a brick wall, while another had a much more pleasant view of the internal courtyard behind the busy street. More of an issue than the view is the noise from the rooftop cafe and adjacent ones at night. The top floor rooms are just under the cafe and very noisy. The best solution to this is, of course, to join the party. ;-)

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Tria Hotel Istanbul

The Sultan Hostel was full, so the manager put us up around the corner at the Tria Hotel for our return visit to Istanbul. As the Lonely Planet guide says, this is a new, well appointed hotel, with objets d'art. The staff are very good, the new lift works, it is very clean and most importantly smoking is banned.

But the hotel is not without problems. The room was around the back, on the top floor, just under the rooftop cafe of the Sultan Hostel opposite. On the night Turkey was playing soccer, it was very noisy. Also the on-suite toilet was blocked and the elelctronic switch kept turning the lights off every few seconds (wiggle the switch and it worked for half an hour and then turn the lights off).

You might as well have a room for about half the price at the Sultan, with lower quality fittings, but which work (mostly) and share in the fun on the street front and roof top cafes.

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Hotel Lozanni Athens

I promised the very helpful manager at Hotel Lozanni, Athens that I would recommend his establishment to Hosteling International. It would be a very good hotel, if a few changes were made:
  1. Ban smoking: The staff smoke in the lobby and the guests smoke at the free cyber cafe on the first floor. This makes the public areas unbearable for people sensitive to smoke. This comment of course, applies to most hotels in Greece.
  2. Install some power points: Strangely, while the rooms have air conditioning and TVs, they don't have power points (apart from one up high for the TV). As a result the guests have to recharge their mobile phones in the hallway at the only power point.
The Hotel is also in a "colorful" part of Athens, but as long as you don;t go out alone at night, it is okay.

ps: Thanks to the hotel staff for taking me across the road to the hardware store, so they could cut the jammed lock off my suitcase.

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Hotel Rex Thessaloníki

The Hotel Rex, Thessaloníki, Greece might be a good place to stay after the current renovations are finished. But as of a week ago it was like staying in a building site. A new lift is being installed, but in the interim you have to walk up four flights of stairs to your room. New soundproof double glazed windows are being installed, but while that is happening you have to step over builders tools, and listen to hammer drills.

Rooms have air conditioning, but I found the filter in mine was blocked with several millimeters of dust and carpet fluff. There seemed to be more pile in the filter than on the grimy unclean carpet on the floor. I would guess the management have decided not to clean the carpets until the building work is finished, even if the cleaner could be made to carry their equipment up the stairs.

The hotel did have some good points: most notably, very helpful staff. It is very close to the railway station (perhaps a bit too close). It had a very good free cyber cafe, apart from the air conditioner set to 29 degrees and the flat batteries in the cordless keyboard and mouse. Who in their right mind installs a cordless keyboard and mouse in a cyber cafe?

The hotel will be even better placed when Thessaloníki finishes the Thessaloníki Metro, running past the door. But that could be decades away.

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