Today we received this certificate from MS Society Scotland giving us our final total from our Arran Challenge with Heb Homes including gift aid. What a fantastic amount of money. It will be directed towards the Cambridge Centre for Myelin Repair. Here’s hoping it can make a difference.
A Dualchas house that cantilevers over the shores of the Sound of Sleat near Armadale on Skye has won the top award in an architectural competition for the Highlands and Islands.
The Black House scooped the award for the best new building at the Inverness Architectural Association Awards, and also took the prize for the best overall project at a lavish awards dinner in Inverness on Friday.
Speaking after the event, project architect Laura Stephen said, “this award is a tribute to the clients who had the confidence in Dualchas to allow us to carry forward a bold design, as well as the skill of the contractor who built to such a high standard on a challenging site.”
The three bedroom house has a modest one-storey entrance which deliberately conceals the true height and scale of the building. Once entered there is a dramatic roof light above a sculptural staircase. As the staircase of the house is descended to the lower floor the full drama of the site is revealed, with a wall of glass to the living space framing an extraordinary view across the Sound to the hills of Knoydart. It was this element of “joy and surprise” which made the building stand out for the judges.
Owners Delia and Julian Thomas expressed delight at the award, saying that they were “proud of the building and all those in the team who made it possible.”
Several other Dualchas projects picked up awards, with the full list below. Congratulations to all clients, design teams and contractors who were involved.
Overall Project Award:
Winner: The Black House
New Building Award:
Winner: The Black House
Best Use of Timber:
Highly Commended: Harlosh
We would like to this opportunity to thank everyone who helped with the projects; the clients, the contractors, engineers and specifiers.
Skye-based design firm Dualchas Architects has been appointed to design a new cinema for Fort William. This will see a two screen cinema with a café/bar built in Cameron Square in the heart of the town.
The project has been developed by Highland entrepreneur Angus MacDonald, who has recently purchased the 1970s former studio cinema, now used by retailer DV8. This will be demolished and replaced with the new building. And according to Mr MacDonald, high quality design is central to the proposal.
“We are delighted to have appointed Dualchas as architects. Their reputation in selecting fantastic local building materials and their contemporary twist on Highland traditional building styles was very appealing to us. They have already produced a beautiful design concept which is being developed prior to it being presented to the local community.”
There have been several attempts in the recent past to get a cinema back in Fort William, which has not had a working cinema for 12 years. The plan is to offer a wide variety of films to the 20,000 locals and 440,000 annual visitors, as well as transform the square in to a beautiful public space.
Dualchas director Neil Stephen said,
“When you look at photographs of Cameron square prior to the town hall being demolished in 1975, you can see what an important focal point and public space the square used to be, and could be again. There are beautiful historic buildings within Fort William – our job will be to create a civic building and space which stitches in to the fabric of the built environment and provides a wonderful facility.”
Fort William is regarded as the “outdoor capital of the UK” due to the variety of outdoor sports that take place in the area, including mountain biking, hillwalking and skiing. However, it has lacked indoor recreational amenities – which are much needed due to the famously wet climate.
There is a proposed opening date for the new facility of the summer of 2020, with an expectation that ten full time equivalent jobs will be created. Initial proposals will be on public display from 11am to 7pm on the 3rd to 5th October at the current building in Cameron Square where Mr MacDonald will be present to discuss all aspects of the project with anyone who is interested.
We are well underway with our training and fundraising. We’ve now had to raise the target twice due to people’s overwhelming generosity. Currently the target sits at £4,000. With over 2 months to go until the event there is still plenty of time to donate.
Our biggest donation so far was raised by Julie Carley on Sunday at a gig by Sharon’s favourite band Dan reed Network. Lots of people in the audience that night contributed a staggering £340.
People are taking the challenge seriously and are taking every opportunity to squeeze in some training – whether that’s at lunchtime, after work or the weekend.
Click here for our fundraising page.
Our Dualchas & Hebhomes teams are putting in their best effort to raise funds for research into MS, a cause recently discovered close to our team.
We set our target to fund one whole working day of research by one of MS Society’s world-leading scientist – we trust that even a small contribution can make a big difference!
We will split into two teams and undertake one of the following challenges:
– 10km run up Goatfell (874m)
– 88km cycle loop / half a loop around Arran (depending on capabilities)
We do extensive work in rural areas and remote Scottish scenery is very close to us all. We will come together – both Glasgow and Skye office, and with the support of families and friends undertake a challenge that in most cases is over and above our current capabilities… We are keen to work extremely hard and we appreciate any donations, big or small.
Lecture given by Alasdair Stephen at inaugral Skye Commonweal meeting on Saturday the 22nd of April at An Crùbh, Duisdale, Sleat, Skye.
This is a photo taken of Ferindonald primary school in 1920. There are over forty children in this picture, my grandmother, her wee sister and her wee brother included.
Of the 40 children only three stayed on the island. They were told, “S’e faotainn air adhart, faotainn air falbh” – getting ahead is getting away.
They were also told this: ‘Dè feum sa Ghàidhlig? Chan fhaigh thu unnsa tombac’ aon uair gu ruig thu Mallaig leis a ‘Ghàidhlig’ – What use is Gaelic? You won’t get an ounce of tobacco as soon as you reach Mallaig with Gaelic.
Three years after this photo was taken one of my gran’s older brother’s, along with other young men in the community, waited down at Isle Ornsay pier to be taken out to the passenger ship the Metagama. Part of an assisted passage programme, the Empire Settlement Act, they were being paid to leave. Poverty and landlessness was what faced the Highlanders at home. The UK Government, suspicious of rebellious Red Scots and keen to bolster the British populations of their colonies, spent fortunes on this scheme. It was not spent on jobs in Scotland. One tenth of the Highland population left within a few years.
The emptying of the glens was political.
I was in my fourth year at Strathclyde University when Jonathan Charley arrived as a tutor. A revolutionary socialist and academic from Bristol, it was he who introduced this simple concept: architecture is politics. I had the chance to travel to Paris with my fellow students and design a museum or suchlike on an urban gap site. After being inspired by Jonathan I had other ideas. Instead, with my friend Michael, we persuaded the school that our time would be better spent on our own project. Mike’s mother’s family was from Gwedore in Donegal, my mother’s family from Skye. We undertook a comparative study of the housing conditions in both areas.
In Ireland, we found houses being built everywhere. The pubs were full and the villages appeared to be thriving. On Skye by contrast there was little sign of progress or prosperity. Old people were still living in houses with no running water or toilets. We met a shepherd who had lost his tied cottage when he retired. Now living in Archie Margaret’s caravan site in Breakish (for the homeless, not tourists) he showed us bin bags full of clothes so to keep them dry and described how his cutlery would freeze to the draining board in the morning.
However, it was after I graduated and I went to work at Cluanie Inn near Kintail that I had the real shock.
My view of the Highlands was my experience with my Skye grandparents. It was Gaelic spoken amongst friends, church on the Sabbath, broth and bonnach, fishing and exploring the moors and the shores, the grandfather clock ticking at grandpa’s cousins’ house; tea in china cups, Battenberg cake as the corncrake rasped outside. It was the Highlands of Crowdie and Cream.
At Cluanie the caravans out the back are not just for hotel workers. Next to my temporary home lived Johnny Stalker the local gamekeeper, his young wife and baby. Next to them a local girl who claimed her child had been taken into care because she was homeless. I was told how a nearby estate, recently bought by middle eastern investors, were knocking down houses.
Saddest though were some of the older local men. Many were in caravans or in appalling housing conditions. Most had been on the council house waiting list for decades with no prospect of success. Alcoholism was endemic. There was also the depressing and tragic stories of unnecessary deaths: drownings, drink driving, house fires, accidents on the hills. There was a real sense of a community dying, both culturally and socially.
That same year some of the Strathclyde students had organised a winter school. This was an international festival of architecture which attracted contributing architects and academics, as well as students, from around the world. I attended a panel discussion on rural architecture where, what I would call a Boswellian Scot, an Orkney-born architect who had made his money and reputation in London and was slightly embarrassed by his country of origin, was asked his views on rural housing in the Highlands.
The Highlanders, he pronounced, built such appalling kit houses because they were cultural philistines and saw no value in design. I stood up and challenged this, telling him of the traditions of Gaelic poetry, song, pìobaireachd, dance, shinty and language. The reason, I explained, that the Highlanders chose to build kit houses, was that architects had not offered anything better. His profession had failed.
Afterwards my brother complimented me on my intervention. He also pointed out that being architecture graduates ourselves we maybe had a responsibility to offer an alternative.
I had left university into a recession and like almost all my contemporaries had plans to move to London or abroad to gain architectural experience. Working in Cluainie was a means to make money so I could join my friends in Hong Kong. At some point I changed my mind and decided to learn Gaelic from my Grandmother on Skye.
I ended up attending the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, unsure as to whether I would return to architecture as a profession. Fate, and alcohol, determined that I would.
Domhnall Angaidh MacLennan from North Uist became a friend through Eilean Iarmain bar, where I worked and he drank. Domhnall was looking to build a small house for himself and had sent away for the usual Roy Home and Scot Frame brochures. I excitedly explained to him one evening that whilst at university I had undertaken a comparative study of housing conditions in Donegal and Skye. Donegal was thriving but the landscape had been spoiled with inappropriate housing. Skye needed many more houses so one of the outcomes of the project was a design for a modern blackhouse which could be used to repopulate the glens without ruining them. I had a model back at the house and would bring it in the next evening.
I knew there was little chance that Domhnall Angaidh would build a house designed by a student. When I presented the plasticine and cardboard model too him from behind the bar I did not expect a commission. However, at this precise moment, a vacationing contractor arrived at the bar to order his tenth whisky. “I’ll build that for £25,000, no problem” he said. The deal was done. Domhnall Angaidh the client, myself and my twin the architects, and Jim Cook the builder.
In Gaelic a hangover is called “ceann goirt ‘s aitherachas”, meaning a sore head and repentfulness. Most people will have experienced this, a feeling of guilt of having done something regretful or embarrassing the night before while drunk. In reality you have probably done nothing: In Jim’s case it would have dawned on him, draining his blood as it did, that he had agreed to build a bespoke house for £25,000.
As it transpired the house cost £35,000. It didn’t cost Domhnall Angaidh any more as this meant his grant increased. The government funded Rural Home Ownership Grant (RHOG), which was available to first time builders with limited funds, was designed on the basis that the applicant had to secure a mortgage of 2 ½ times their salary. The grant would make up the shortfall (within certain limits) of up to one third of the overall costs.
This was the beginning of myself and my brother’s business Dualchas. Over the next few years we were commissioned to design several RHOG houses, never quite sure whether it was our design skills that our clients were attracted to or our ability to maximise grant funding. Most were young and almost all still live in the area and have families.
I also built one for myself. Before Christmas I was out for dinner with Jim Cook and I asked him how much, with modern building regulations, my house would cost today. His response was the basis of a Facebook post and the reason I have been invited to give this talk tonight.
20 years ago, the land for my house was valued at £9,000. The construction cost was £35,000, the government grant £18,000. My contribution, 2 ½ times my salary, was £22,000.
The same house today? Land £80,000, construction cost £220,000, government grant £0, 2 ½ times typical 26 yr. old’s salary – £50,000. Funding shortfall; a quarter of a million pounds.
After my Facebook post went viral I was invited to write a column for the West Highland Free Press where I outlined some ideas for a solution.
My main argument was that vision and leadership was required. Firstly, from Government, but also from the local community.
When I arrived on Skye as a young graduate I knew it was unlikely I would find a job in architecture. To keep my hand in I undertook a project to survey the village of Borearig in Strath, cleared in 1853. Also cleared that day was the village of Suisnish, a couple of mile up the coast. My Grandfather’s people came from there. They ended up destitute, along with other families, camping on the moors above Breakish in appalling conditions. The crofters of Breakish petitioned Lord Macdonald that a portion of their common grazing be given over to these poor wretches, even thought this would have made themselves poorer. Lord MacDonald consented to this request and the 6 small crofts of Ashaig were created. In 1896, the Crofting Act gave security of tenure to crofters, allowing my great grandfather to build his house. This was a Department of Agriculture pattern book house design; a sheet of A4 paper with plans and elevations on one side and a simple specification on the other.
I tell this story as it is an example of crofters giving up common grazing for the greater good of the wider community. It is an example of a landowner – despite his previous crimes – consenting to this selfless request. It is an example of how Government, through acts of parliament and providing support, can create a framework where people can prosper. But it also an example of the perseverance and industry of individuals who survived to build their own homes, families and legacies.
Likewise, this amazing building, An Crùbh, in which we are tonight. This would not have been possible without the crofters agreeing to set aside common grazing for the wider community, the backing of the landowner, nor the Government through funding and other forms of support. But more than anything it is a testament to the vision and hard work of individuals, who became a team, who wanted to create an outstanding building and with it a more diverse and stronger cultural and social life.
Sleat is an incredible community. There is the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the crown jewel of the University of the Highlands; A Michelin star restaurant at Kinloch, a new distillery at Toravaig, a world class visitors centre at Clan Donald, the best pub in Scotland at Eilean Iarmain and many brilliant businesses such as Ragamuffin, Young Films and, dare I say it, Dualchas Architects. From being almost dead in the 1980s with less than 300 people left, the population of Sleat is now over a thousand. It is an example to the rest of rural Scotland.
But the jobs at An Crùbh cannot be filled because accommodation is not available. We have three members of staff at Dualchas who are facing homelessness. I know talented young people who have left Sleat because of a lack of housing and others who have secured jobs but cannot move here. There is no longer anyone from Sleat in the Sleat and Strath football team. Where are the young building their houses now as we did twenty years ago? The school roll is healthy but it could fall off a cliff. Houses that were available for long term rent a couple of years back are now advertised on Airbnb as the tourism sector rockets. And up the road, Archie Margaret’s caravan site is still there, and still full of homeless people.
There is so much more potential for success and wealth in Sleat and the Highlands. But if Sleat does not succeed, then nowhere will.
I am convinced that these housing problems can be overcome. Vision and ambition from Government, both national and local, is vital. There is a huge variety of policies that could help. But there also needs to be a willingness from the community itself to grow and thrive. A vision that is not imposed but one that government, landowners, crofters, businesses and everyone else can support and offers a framework where social housing providers, the private sector, community groups and individuals, can find solutions. What happened in Ashaig, and this building, proves what can be done as does the success of the RHOG scheme.
How to start? Well, ask the children in the local school. Look in their eyes and say, do you want to live, work and prosper in this community? Do you want the opportunity to stay in your own house, have a family, to love and grow old? Do you want the chance to have professional success, or start your own business, employ people, expand and not have to leave?
If they want that and you want that, then this is the beginning of a vision.
But the other person who needs to look into these children’s eyes is the politician. It is Nicola Sturgeon. It is a political decision if your children have the chance to stay, just as it was a political decision that those children one hundred years ago had to leave.
Look again at this picture from Ferindonald school. These kids, dressed in their best clothes for the school photo, but most with no shoes, were told that to get ahead they had to leave. They were told their language and culture had little worth.
Imagine, if they, and their contemporaries, had been told they could stay. That their talent and ingenuity could build a stronger, more prosperous community. That they were told this by their parents but also supported by their government. Imagine what Sleat would be and what sort of country Scotland could have been. Let’s not make the same mistake again.
This article was first printed in the West Highland Free Press on the 25th of November 2016.
On Saturday evening I met the contractor who built my house on Skye 20 years ago. I pressed him for two figures: How much would that house cost to build now to the same specification? £150,000 he replied. How much to meet modern building regulations? £250,000.
The next morning this was the basis of my ‘update’ on Facebook. I contrasted this with the costs of my house 20 years ago. Land valued at £9,000. Construction cost of £35,000. A Rural Home Ownership grant from the government covering a third of my costs. My contribution; £22,000. That was two and a half time my income – the expectation at the time as to what the limit of your mortgage should be.
Today’s figures: £80,000 for a plot in Sleat (although some sell for well over £100,000). £220,000 to build the house (I though £250,000 was a bit high). No Government grants. Two and a half times a typical salary of a 26-year-old? Perhaps £50,000. Money required to build a house as I did? £300,000.
I outlined the consequences of such arithmetic. Young people leaving. Schools losing children. Young people being internally displaced on Lewis to find accommodation in Stornoway. Communities and Gaelic dying.
The reaction to the post was telling. Almost immediately it went viral. By the next day it had been shared 500 times, liked 1,200 with hundreds of comments. It had revealed an anger and a sadness from the younger generation. They wanted to stay in their communities. They wanted to have jobs and families and homes. But that chance was not there for them.
The situation is worse than the bald numbers suggest. Self-build mortgages for young people who – as they often did in the past – construct their own houses with their own labour, help from friends and favours from local tradesmen – have almost disappeared. Even if you have family land from a croft, the figures still make it almost impossible to build. Areas like Lewis are in a worse predicament than Skye. Land may be more expensive on Skye but house values are much higher. Build on Lewis and you are immediately into huge negative equity. What bank will lend on that basis?
The housing situation is therefore grim. But if it is solved the rural economy could be utterly transformed. Why? The simple answer is the IT revolution and tourism.
This summer saw a record numbers of tourists flocking to Skye and across the Highland and islands. There are countless opportunities for small businesses to be set up and offer high end tourism experiences.
The best people to do this are the locals within the crofting communities. A few years ago, I remember the Highlands came second to Norway as the best tourist destination in the world in a Lonely Planet survey. What marked the Highlands down? People wanted to hear Gaelic. They wanted to see crofting. They wanted traditional music in pubs. The wanted to interact with real local life. This cultural tourism could transform the Western Isles especially. There is a huge market waiting to be tapped. But who will exploit it if the young cannot build their own homes let alone build their own businesses?
Likewise, the Highlands and island should be given broadband. Not mediocre broadband but the internet as fast as London, Hong Kong or Singapore. This infrastructure investment is more important than any new road, bridge, ferry or airport. Countless businesses could be established and could thrive providing a mind-boggling range of services. Ok, the petrol is more expensive, as is the local shop. The roads are not very good but you are living in the most beautiful place on earth! But again, to do this there needs to be access to housing, not just for the business owner, but also for staff.
Because I built my house 20 years ago I could start a business with my brother. It now employs 20 people. We are lucky enough to be able to rent an office at the Sabhal Mor Ostaig. In the same building is Young Films. A previously London based company that moved to Skye partly because they have access to super-fast broadband and talented graduates from the university. An example for the rest of the Highlands. But half of our staff are in Glasgow. That is simply because of a lack of suitable housing on the island.
So what is to be done? First of all, vision and leadership is required from Nicola Sturgeon (this is not an issue for a junior Housing Minister). The vision is the thriving, dynamic economy that could be created. The leadership is in making it happen. That is the difficult bit. I have some ideas.
Firstly, the approach now and of the past will not work. There are lots of great people involved in charities, housing associations and cooperatives who have been working for years to provide social housing. It is scratching the surface. This requires massive state intervention.
The government should build the biggest cross laminate timber (CLT) factory in the world. This new construction technique – houses built from a solid wood laminate made from the pine forests of the Highlands – will be an incredibly green form of construction. It will also be a new industry for Scotland, linked to research at our best universities such as Napier, and one that will also transform the economics of forestry. CLT kits should be modular and cutting edge, developed in tandem with changes in building regulations that will allow these to be built cost effectively, providing high quality, well designed housing. The kits should be provided free to young people who qualify. Local tradesmen and contractors can erect and complete.
The fundamental purpose behind crofting should be to keep people on the land and to allow communities to grow. If you are a crofter you should be obliged (or forced even) to provide a small plot of land for any family member who wants to stay. Children at the local school are more important than sheep. Likewise, a portion of common grazing in each township should be set aside for housing for the wider community. Younger brothers, older and younger sisters (as well as other locals) should not be denied the opportunity to build a home just because they did not inherit the croft.
Crofters should be given something very important in return. That is access to loans so they can diversify their crofts into tourism. That could mean money to renovate blackhouses, or to build modern shielings – holiday homes on the crofts that can provide income and employment and an authentic cultural tourism experience for the visitor. This will also take pressure off the existing housing stock, much of which is being used as holiday homes when it could be rented as family homes.
Land reform, Land Value Tax, compulsory land purchases, council housing, changes to planning and building regulations could also help as well as some limited grants to service sites.
This is not a problem that will be addressed by devolving more power to local communities. It is not a problem that will be solved by giving more power to crofters and community councils. Unfortunately, people argue. They fall out and become unreasonable when it comes to housing. This requires Big Government to say: “We are sorry, but a generation has been let down. We will not stand by and watch them betrayed any longer. These amazing young people that the Highlands produce every year should be given the chance to live, love and prosper in their own communities. We will make it happen.”
Lecture given to the Rural Housing Service Conference 2013 in Birnam, Perthshire
A number of years ago I received a phone call from a young academic from Stirling University. She was involved in the Earthship project and saw striking similarities between these environmental American houses and the stone and turf built Hebridean blackhouse. I quickly told her that I was not the person she needed to talk to. It was Duncan ‘Stalker’ Matheson, a master thatcher and clachair from Kintail who was a renowned expert on the Highland building type.
A couple of weeks later I met her off the Skyeways bus at Eilean Donan Castle and drove her down past Loch Long to Camus Luinie to meet Duncan. After she explained the ideas behind the earthship – how it was a made of local recycled material, including tin cans and tyres, Duncan pointed out the window.
‘Do you see those hills? In the past the locals used to pull the heather to thatch the cottages. It was a backbreaking job but the thatch was good. Then the landowner stopped the practice because he wanted the heather for the grouse. Then reeds were cut for the thatching. But when straw was imported into the area that was used. When they could afford slate thatching was discarded altogether’
The point Duncan was making was that people will always embrace technology if it makes their lives easier. Just as we wouldn’t go back to washing our clothes in a twin tub machine or a river, we should not go backwards in house construction. It was a kind way of saying he didn’t see a link between the earthship and the old blackhouse.
That is not to say there wasn’t a lot to learn from the blackhouse. But the lessons to be learnt wasn’t using stone, sod and thatch. Nor was it collecting human and animal waste for fertilizing the crops.
But having a long narrow plan that was hunkered down against the wind is important. The open plan, open to the apex spaces can be inspiring and reserving the openings for the sunny side does make sense. Most importantly, the central fire, never allowed to die, gave constant warmth, captured and stored in the floor and walls. It does not mean putting a composting toilet in your house.
Instead of developing into a modern home the blackhouse changed little in 1000 years of history. That is because people had no security of tenure, did not own their land and therefore did not own their homes. Improvement could also be rewarded with increased rents.
When land tenure did change the houses that were build to replace the blackhouses were pattern book whitehouses. These pretty, classically proportioned buildings are common across the Highlands and are now seen as the typical west Highland house, despite being an imported farmhouse style. Although an ‘improvement’ they were imposed and in terms of technology a step backwards. From having a 90% efficient heating system with a central fire, these houses lost 90% of their heat through the gable walls and up the chimney. My gran told me that it was said there was a death associated with the building of every one of these houses. The labour involved was comparatively onerous with stones having to be lifted 6m rather than the shoulder height for a blackhouse.
The next phase in the development of housing in the Highlands was the introduction of the timber kit house. Although certainly a warmer and more technologically advanced than the whitehouse it had gone backwards in one respect. Its design was alien to the Highland landscape and way of life. Often clumsily sited on platforms with no thought of wind or topography, these houses can jar in the landscape which can ultimately have detrimental consequences. This can be seen in Ireland where a beautiful landscape has been desecrated by ten of thousands of these buildings.
Blackhouse Whitehouse Kithouse
While I was at university my colleague – whose mother was from Gedore in Donegal, and I – whose mother is from Skye – did a comparison between the housing condition between the two areas. My most striking memory was not the rash of ugly houses in Ireland ( which by all accounts is ten times worse now) but speaking to a retired shepherd who lived in a caravan on Skye. He explained how he kept his clothes in bin bags to keep them dry and often he found his cutlery frozen to the draining board in the morning. The simple fact was that people were living in housing conditions far worse than the blackhouse, far worse than locals a thousand years before. For some, housing technology was primative.
When myself and my brother Neil set up Dualchas Building design we were determined to develop the blackhouse as a housing type that could help deal with these social problems. It was to be a truly vernacular building which means it has to be a response to the environment. That is not just the physical environment but also the available technology that is understood by local builders and which is, most importantly, affordable for the prevailing economic conditions. The result was several social houses that qualified for the Rural Home Ownership Grant. They were small, timber frame houses which were directly influenced by the form of the blackhouse.
It is interesting to think that what we are now designing may have been how the blackhouse would have developed had the link had not been broken by history. Our ultimate expression of the blackhouse – which is not built as social housing – is the house at Boreraig Skye. The plan is almost an exact copy of the Hebridean blackhouse of the western isles. In it’s detailing and use of technology – oak faced ply, heating system, lighting, touch panel hidden wall cupboards – it results in a dramatic space within an extremely simple low, land hugging form.
Likewise, the pretty, but cold and internally uninspiring – two up, two down, white house can be brought into 21st century. We were presented with a house in Elgol which had a continuous dormer and the render removed to show off its stone work. These are two not uncommon mistakes. The original dormer windows were part of a carefully proportion classical fenestration. Change the windows and you are scarring a beautiful face. The render was there to protect the stone against the driving rain. The stone was never intended to be exposed and the build quality reflects this.
Fortunately our client found a photo of the house from the 1950s when it was used to advertise Snowcem – a type of external paint. We decided to reinstate the elevation but to utterly transform the somewhat dismal internal rooms with extensions to the rear and side. This allowed light to be brought into a new depth and volume to be combined with huge glazed area in a new living room.
What these two projects demonstrate is that modernity and technology can be combined with tradition and beauty. I would argue that simplicity, modernity and beauty is what should be achieved with all architecture. This is what we should strive for with all housing.
The Highlanders who lived in blackhouses were very poor. The houses they built, given their poverty and the extreme weather conditions, were a wonderful response to extremely challenging conditions. Today, although poverty can in no way be compared to that of previous generations, there are still huge challenges facing the housing sector in rural Scotland. Poor housing conditions and homelessness are still endemic.
There are two great forces at play that make these challenges difficult to overcome. One is the recession, the failure of the banks to lend and the stagnant economy. The other is the ever improving building standards, forcing houses to be environmentally friendly, low carbon and efficient.
This presents a problem for the building industry. The response from Homes for Scotland, the body that represent private house builders in Scotland, is to argue that building regulations should be rolled back. Likewise in England the view of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition appears to be to loosen regulation.
My view is that these forces should be thought of as a gauntlet that has been thrown down to the building industry. A building industry that – when times were good – ruined countless Scottish villages and towns with their developer led ‘Brookside Close’ schemes that gave no respect to town planning, culture or communities. Their sole motivation appeared to be profit and free lending banks duly obliged.
The contractor developers that want to go back to those days are ultimately finished and that is good. Progressive contractors such as CCG see the competing forces as an opportunity that will give them a competitive advantage. That is why they are investing millions in closed panel next generation kit systems.
Next year building regulations will be tightened. By 20115/16 new houses will have to be close to Passive House standard. That change cannot be understated. It means that stick built timber frame will probably fail air tightness tests. Those contractors that have not embraced technology as CCG have done may well go out of business. The risk of having to start taking a house apart because it has failed an air tightness test is a risk that will make much current building techniques obsolete. And this has to be done as incomes are being reduced and government spending is slashed.
Our response to these new challenges has been through HebHomes. The initial idea of HebHomes was to have predesigned kits that were detailed, engineered and modelled that could save clients time and money in architect fees. By being simple but well proportioned narrow houses they could easily slot into most sites and find favour with planners – many of whom were sick of trying to improve the terrible kit designs that landed on their laps every day. We also embraced technology in the form of SIP panels. This sandwich system gives a continuous envelope of insulation, eliminating cold bridging and providing superb air tightness. It also allows extremely quick erection to wind and weathertight. Repetitive components reduce mistakes, waste and save money. As building regulations change we will always look to stay ahead and improve our product and service. That means developing houses that reflect the landscape, culture, embrace technology but are affordable within the prevailing economic circumstances. Houses that are truly vernacular.
There are others that are trying to square the circle in these austere times. In London a company called Rational House has developed a panel system using reconstituted materials. Their success though is simple design. They have developed a house based on the proportion of the Georgian Terrace. They can erect quickly, use advanced technology and can do it cheaply. But most importantly the houses are beautifully proportioned and generous. 3m high ceilings and large windows create elegant internal spaces. The result is affordability but also high value.
This is inspirational and is how our industry should behave. It is also a lesson for the social housing sector. There is nothing more dismal than the prospect of housing associations and councils trying to solve the problem of the two competing forces by squeezing space, building shoe boxes with solar panels on top. Even Boris Johnstone has recognised the folly of this and has increased the space standards for London Homes.
The challenge of our times is therefore not just for the architects, engineers and contractors. It is the same for the client bodies, especially in the social sector. They have to lead by example. Every person who lives in a house built by a local authority, housing association or subsided house should be able to experience the joy of good architecture. It is where we spend a large part of our lives. Delight should not be a preserve of the wealthy or middle classes. And the users of these buildings are not just those who live in them. It is also those who see and experience the houses. We are privileged to live in a beautiful country with outstanding landscapes and glorious towns and cities. Every building has an impact on the environment. A basic rule is that each architectural intervention should improve our environment, not diminish it, not ruin it like the Irish have done. The way to do that is to strive for beauty. It need not cost more money but it will certainly add huge value, especially to people’s lives. Beauty makes people happy. It is also truly sustainable.
I remember being at a conference several years ago when an architect spoke about his environmentally friendly demountable building. He explained that every piece of skirting could be unscrewed and very piece of plasterboard reused. An engineer followed his presentation with images of Castle Sinclair in Sutherland. He explained that each stone had been carried hundreds of feet from the bottom of the cliff to build the castle. The embodied energy in the building was huge. But, he pointed out, ‘It is standing after a thousand years.’
The point he was making is that if you do not achieve beauty in your building, in our built environment, then future generations will not preserve it. It does not matter what the carbon footprint is or if you can unscrew a skirting if the house is razed within 30 years. But if efficiency is combined with good design the you will have truly sustainable buildings and good value.
Alex Salmond recently announced that he would like to see the right to a home embedded in a new constitution of an independent Scotland. A right to a home should be self evident as shelter and warmth are two of the basic human needs. I think we should be more ambitious. I think everyone should have the right to a home with delight. A home that will make them happier. Homes that will be cherished for lifetimes and ultimatley be of great value to wellbeing, health and our country’s assets. It is something that we can deliver through vision and inventive progress.
This ambition will say a lot about the kind of country we want Scotland to be. It is not a country where the disabled are forced out of homes or have benefits cut because they are judged to have a ‘spare room’. Neither is it a country where school architecture has been reduced to a tick-box exercise where common space, light and volume are viewed as wasteful; where great, inspiring architecture is a preserve for the privately educated and the rich.
It is time to choose a different path.
This blog first appeared on the Yes Scotland website. Alasdair Stephen is an ambassador within the architectural sector and hopes to persuade others within the profession of the benefits an independent Scotland will bring.
“This is Scotland”, said Malcolm Fraser, the renowned architect showing a photograph of a snow-covered shepherd’s bothy set within a stunning autumnal Highland landscape. The audience at the event in the 2002 Biennale in Barcelona gasped.
Then followed a series of other images, from a beautiful fishing port of the East Neuk of Fife, the near perfect planned village of Inveraray, to the magnificence of Edinburgh New Town and the battalions of Glasgow’s tenement streets. With each picture you could sense those present – international architects, students, academics and members of the public – becoming more and more mesmerised
Watching, I felt a sense of pride, not just in Scotland, but in my profession. Architects, by their talent and industry, can represent a nation at its best. Scotland’s architecture – the stone, the castles, the townscapes, the cottages, the streets – can be more iconic to the world than the stereotypes of tartan, bagpipes and haggis. Because of our buildings Scotland can be nowhere else. They reinforce our identity. They make our ‘nation space’.
But most of the great work which gives Scotland this character is an old legacy, much of it left by the Victorians. In fact, sometimes the buildings were deliberately designed to be ‘more Scottish’, from the baronial revival of Aberdeen to the Wallace Monument near Stirling. This was a time when Scotland was being rebranded ‘North Britain’. Scotland had no government of its own to protect its national identity, but architects did manage to assert it.
More recent examples of buildings in Scotland perhaps don’t engender that same sense of pride – but they still help define us as a nation. Although part of a great utopian social reforming movement, the tower blocks and council schemes of the 20th century have helped create a counterview of Scotland of poor housing, poverty and dysfunctional communities. Not the egalitarian solution to post war slums and overcrowding – but the ideal locations for Taggart episodes and gritty films.
Nevertheless, those young architects of the 50s, 60s and 70s, that created these environments did so because they wanted to make the world a better place. But what is the excuse for the predominant housing form of the late 20th and early 21st century – the ubiquitous and banal developer-led estate? Although individual houses can be well-loved family homes, there is little attempt to create a mixed, vibrant community; no shops, no schools, no businesses.
Such estates are a direct result of the property bubble and the get rich quick developers. The imperative was to sell into the inflated market. Banks created easy money and demand so the competition was on land, not the quality of the built environment. The developers had no interest in community, masterplanning or locality – and certainly no interest in leaving a legacy to future generations. Such buildings will not be appearing in tourist brochures or Malcolm Fraser lectures in Barcelona. But they do represent modern Scotland and pre-crash Britain.
The housing boom which created these places is now gone. The business model is broken and is not coming back. Construction costs are too high, money too scarce and house prices too low for mass speculative development. This means new ideas such as the Resonance Funding Model are needed. This includes projects where the value of the house in 10, 20, 100 years time is important – not just the day before the keys are handed over.
Under these shared equity and rental schemes houses must be built to last so that they retain and increase their real estate value. That value can be realised in the medium to long term for the investor, but this will only happen if the houses are beautiful, they are built as communities and the people cherish and care for them.
Only with vision and engagement by architects can this happen. This vision is created by asking what sort of country are we going to be? How will we be represented by our architecture to the world? Are we going to be the ‘smoked salmon’ or the ‘deep-fried pizza’ Scotland?
To me that vision becomes clear in an independent Scotland. Independence will not be about reinventing a ‘Scottish architecture’. It is not about copying castles or building with crow step gables. Scotland is no longer a nation unsure of its identity and we do not have to consciously assert it through our buildings as the Victorian architects did.
To me independence is about a vision where as well as a tourist stepping off the train in Edinburgh to photograph the castle, they visit a new development in Leith which has been internationally acclaimed, lauded with prizes, and is seen as an exemplar as one of the best new housing projects in the world. A project which has provided a basic need of shelter, but is also inspiring and wonderful for those who live there. And it has been built to last for 100 years. It does not have to have been designed by a Scottish architect. What is important is that we as a country accept that good architecture is not a privilege but a right for everyone.
Architecture is not about creating pretty buildings but improving people’s lives. No professional is better placed to see the needs of society than the architect – who through their work can advance people’s health, happiness, working conditions, productivity, pride and financial position. A warmer house, a beautiful school, a safer street, better concentration at work, delightful civic spaces and lower carbon emissions is what we do.
The skill of the architect can deliver for business and society as a whole. If we do present the ‘smoked salmon’ vision, the investors will come. People will be happier, our hospitals less busy.
As architects we should try and deliver a vision of what independence can bring. We must be an influential, powerful and respected profession, fully engaging and contributing to the debate as Scotland decides what sort of country it will become.
I am inspired by a German colleague. He marvels at my country – a country where he is now settled and wants to see independent. His simple message is this: There is no reason our buildings; our houses, our schools, our hospitals, our civic spaces, cannot be recognised as amongst the best in Europe and the world.
He expects excellence in everything and thinks it is a lack of confidence and influence – not talent – that is preventing us from achieving that as a profession. Scotland is stepping out of the shadows now. Through our work, our international reputation can be won, and all Scotland’s people’s lives improved