Challenge of Austere Times by Alasdair Stephen

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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.

Building an Independent Scotland by Alasdair Stephen

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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

National Politics, History and the Reinvention of a Scottish architecture by Alasdair Stephen

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This is the transcript of a lecture that practice partner Alasdair Stephen gave to Strathclyde University architecture department in early 2007.  He was given the title for the lecture and asked to give a personal view on its meaning.

Despite the title of this lecture I am not an intellectual. I am an architect who studied at Strathclyde University so I know you are not here under false expectations.   I know that in half an hour many of you will be thinking of drink and wishing I would finish.  I was often bored and frustrated in those very seats so I can relate to you.  I remember my time here well.

In fact, halfway through this lecture some of you may be questioning why you chose architecture.  You may be asking what you are doing with your life.  Or you may be questioning life itself. That’s probably quite a good thing to do rather than continuing in a career which has terrible pay and leaves only 2% of architects happy according to the most recent Happiness Index.  If you want to be happy in your job become a hairdresser.  If that is you, please leave now.

When I came to Strathclyde architecture department I met an eclectic group of people.  Some students were very confident and already dressed as if they were real designers.  All in black with trendy glasses.  These were the students who copied designs from Japanese architecture magazines.  Other students were genuinely interested in architecture and others were very talented.  My main interest was in politics and architecture was, at that time, secondary.

In third year though we were introduced to Jonathan Charlie, a politically active revolutionary intellectual, a cross between Tommy Sheridan, Daniel Libeskin and Phil Mitchell.  He took our ‘unit’ to Drumchapel where our first project was to redesign a children’s home.  I asked my mother, who was a social worker, about current policy at Strathclyde Regional Council and discovered that children’s homes such as this were being closed down.  Instead they were to become family resource centres but there was a critical funding shortage.  I therefore produced a design based on current thinking and policy in childcare and did so with a minimal intervention into the existing building.  For my political approach I almost failed.  Later that semester, at an assembly of the entire school, a fellow student raised a point of order and demanded to know why I had done so badly given that I was the only student in the unit who had followed the brief.  At this the tutors who previously graded me took to the stage to explain to everyone my lack of talent. It’s that sort of  humiliation at university that makes the rest of life so easy.

However, despite that experience architecture then became interesting for me.  Politics was part of the curriculum.  For the next project my friend Michael Hinshelwood and I made up our own brief and decided to examine the housing of Gedore, where Michael’s mother comes from, and Skye, where my mother comes from.

In this project we examined the history, culture and economics of the areas and how they related to housing.  This entailed a lot of socialising in both Skye and Ireland, interviewing people in pubs with our video camera.

On Skye we met homeless and dispossessed people who were living in conditions worse than what had probably been endured for over a hundred years.  An old shepherd who kept his clothes in a plastic bag to stop them getting damp in his dilapidated caravan.  He had been kicked out of his tied cottage when he retired from the estate where he had worked most of his life.  There was a young woman whose child was in care but who would not get her child back until she got decent accommodation.  She too lived in a caravan. In Skye there was a feeling of a community on the slide.  By contrast in Ireland the pubs were packed, the communities thriving.  But even then, back in the early 90s,  the beautiful landscape was being despoiled by inappropriate housing – alien to the landscape. However, at least Donegal had people. It was obvious that poorly designed kit houses was not the issue facing rural Scotland and Ireland as many architects seemed to think. It was the economy, the land, the people, the culture.  Politics.

When I finished fourth year the plan was to make some money in the summer and then head to Hong Kong for work experience.  I went to Cluanie Inn, Kintail where I ended up working through to November, spending 2 days a week at my gran’s on Skye.  In Kintail I found a community where alcoholism was commonplace.  I was stunned to be told of the number of young people who had died on the hills, in cars, at sea and by suicide.  It was shocking to discover the number of homeless and the practices of estate owners who knocked down houses rather than allow locals to live in them.

I remember the mother of one of the girls in the kitchen telling me how the night before the guests at the estate lodge where she worked started a food fight.  This included Tory mps.  After they had thrown all the food they had spent hours preparing they were told to clean it up and prepare more food for them.  Her response to viewing such behaviour from the elite was to get elected as the local councillor and represent her people.

I also met people like Duncan ‘Stalker’ Matheson – a Gael almost from a vanished era.  He was a master thatcher who had his skill passed to him from his father and grandfather.  He worked for the estate but was the best poacher in the district, allegedly.  He had incredible Gaelic and could describe every element of the blackhouse, having more knowledge of traditional Highland building techniques than probably anyone alive.  And yet he had watched his own Gaelic speaking community disappear. And he also saw his son Johnny living in a caravan with his wife and baby daughter because the estate where he worked had no houses for staff.

I decided when I was at Cluanie that I wasn’t going to go to Hong Kong as planned but was moving to Skye to stay with my gran and learn Gaelic from her. I was asked to do some research work by a local architect and started surveying the cleared village of Boreraig.  My gran told me that both her family and my grandfathers family originally came from the cleared villages of Boreraig and neighbouring Suishnish.  About the same time I went down to Glasgow for the architectural winter school.  I remember there was this Boswellian Scot, who had been working in England most of his career.  He announced that the reason that the Highlanders built kit houses was because they were cultural philistines.  I took this as a great insult and told him so.  There is nothing worse than the craven Scotch coming back to lecture us on how pathetic we are.

Well, maybe if he knew a bit about the history of the Highlands and the Clearances he would change his mind.  There is no doubt that there was a deliberate, systematic policy to destroy the militaristic clan system after the Jacobite risings.  This meant the banning of the kilt, the bagpipes, and weaponry.  It meant the continued attempt to destroy Gaelic.  The bible was translated into Gaelic 100 years after the native Indians of America.  But the biggest change was the absolute disconnection of the clans from their chiefs who were bred into aristocracy and deliberately anglised into lairds.

This led to numerous acts of betrayal by landowners who tried to preserve and create wealth by sacrificing people.  This was to be known as the Clearances.

The bare facts are that at the beginning of the 18th century the Highlands had half the population of Scotland.  Scotland had a quarter of the population of England.  Scotland now has a 12th of the population of England and the Highlands is the most sparsely populated area of Western Europe.

Boreraig and Suishnish is a perfect example of what happened.  Lord MacDonald, direct descendant of Somerled, the founder of the Lordship of the Isles, sits on the fence during Culloden and quickly claims title to the clan lands.  He becomes a Eton educated London fop with his English wife, ridiculed by Dr Johnson.

His notion for high living resulted in a greater need for wealth so he racked up the rent of the clans people, forcing many to leave.  As Johnson calls it, this great epidemic of emigration.

At that time the people lived in small clachan, villages around a water source where the land is rotated so everyone has a chance for the best – the ‘run rig’ system.  Weaker people in the community were looked after.  Rent was paid to the tacksman, the educated middle class of society, who in turn paid the clan chief.  To make more money Lord MacDonald got rid of his tacksmen and the run rig system.  At the beginning of the 19th century individual crofts were laid out and the houses separated.  At this time Lord MacDonald also built a ‘must-have’ Gothic castle on his grounds in Armadale.

As with many clan chief Lord MacDonald could not squeeze enough financial blood out of the people to pay for his lifestyle so it was decided to clear Boreraig and Suishnish, along with many more villages, to make way for sheep.  After 2000 years of continual habitation on this land the sheriff officers turned up and threw out the people.  They put out the central fires by pouring the milk over them, a symbolic extinction of life.  The people were then left homeless.  The brothers of my gran’s grandfather both died on their way to Canada.  Their wives survived and both had children on the journey over.  My grandfathers people slept in bivvies on the Breakish Common grazing.  The people of Breakish gave up some of their precious land to make 6 crofts for some of the dispossessed people.  That is why grandfather’s grandfather managed to build this house in Ashaig where I spent all my summer holidays and stayed with my gran when I moved to Skye.

So  when a people have been systematically removed, by war, inducement, clearance and have been told that they are savages it’s little wonder that there is a lack of confidence amongst those that remain.  Or that there are such high rates of alcoholism, depression and suicide in the Highlands.

This was eloquently put in a recent article by Ian MacKinnon, a 29 year old from Sleat:

I – in common with most males in my age-group – am not living on the land of my ancestors. Sleat is booming and I firmly believe that lack of work is not the main reason why so many have gone and not returned.

In my view the distance from our language, and often a sense of alienation from our home, has been the inevitable effect of the treatment of past generations. You could call it identity theft and for its victims the effects are everywhere. The hills, streams, rocks and bays all have their names – but they are no longer our names and their stories are not ours.

Time and again, when native peoples are removed from their homes; have their language and culture destroyed; and are made to feel worthless in their own place, the results are the same: they escape. Either geographical escape through spiraling levels of outward migration to forge some new identity in the cities, or psychological escape through substance abuse, crime and violence (suicide is an act of violence against the self, and the Highlands’ suicide rate is among the highest in the developed world). These results are found all over the world among displaced peoples, whether the bushmen of the Kalahari, the native Americans on their reservations in the American north-west, or the Gaels of the Scottish north-west

But there is a growing confidence among many younger people in the Highlands and I think that’s a lot to do with traditional music.  The number and quality of musicians in the Highlands has probably never been stronger in its history. Many of these young musicians learnt through the Feis movement which has been hugely successful.  This has also encouraged many to take a interest in Gaelic and the college beside me is full of young Gaelic speakers, many of whom being wonderful singers and musicians.

But if music, language and dance can be revived then what about architecture?  Well the blackhouse, the dominant housing form in the Highlands for maybe 2000 years,  is still a symbol of backwardness to many Gaels and there is no point trying to romanticise it.  But it was a vernacular response to the land, the climate and the poverty.  People who hold it up as an example of the perfect eco design miss the point.  The blackhouse represented their poverty, not eco living.  A woman from the Earthship Centre, an organisation that builds houses out of old tyres and mud contacted me once asking for insight into the relationship between the blackhouse and the earthship.  She thought the idea of building out of turf, stone and thatch was wonderful.  I took her to see Duncan Stalker who told her of the Boer war veteran in his village when he was a boy.  When the men were fencing the clippings were collected and the old man spent his days twisting the wires together to make more fencing nails.  But as soon as they could afford to buy fencing nails they did so and the old man had to find other ways to pass his time.  I think she missed the point.  Through the history of humanity people have been striving to make their own burden easier.  Who is going to rethatch their house every few years or start washing their clothes in the burn outside.  New houses for the Highlands which are a development of some of the ideas of the blackhouse for the 21st century have to be as modern as people can afford.

But this isn’t new.  Verner Kissling proposed a blackhouse back in the 1920s but his problem was that it wasn’t  built so noone could see how good or how bad it is.  But other architects in Scotland such as Malcolm Fraser, Anderson Bell and Christie and Rural Design among others are producing designs which are reflecting the designs of the past in plan and form.  As Malcolm Fraser says of  one of his designs:

For this new house we were concerned with making a contemporary Scottish architecture born out of respect for the work of our predecessors allied to an understanding that positive changes in the way we live in the world need to be reflected in our buildings.

We understand tradition to be an evolving thing, with the best elements of the past being altered by advances in building techniques allied to changes in social and cultural patterns. A living tradition would see established patterns of building altered by modern concerns such as: orientation towards landscape and view, blurring between internal and external spaces, more open-plan living, consciousness of energy matters etc.

But is this as Kenneth Frampton would ask, Critical regionalism?  Now I’m all sure you’ve read this book from cover to cover and you understand all the big words.  But he does define Critical Regionalism as this:

The term ‘Critical Regionalism’ is not intended to denote the vernacular as this was once spontaneously produced by the combined interaction of climate, culture, myth and craft, but rather to identify those recent regional ‘schools’ whose primary aim has been to reflect and serve the limited constituencies in which they are grounded.

Among other factors contributing to the emergence of a regionalism of this order is not only a certain prosperity but also some kind of anti centrist consensus – an aspiration at least to some form of cultural, economic and political independence.’

Critical Regionalism is a reaction against ‘ the spreading out of mediocre civilisation’.  Argued Paul Ricoeur in 1961.  If only he could see the globalise world we know live in when not only languages like Gaelic almost dead, but the very accents we speak are being homogenised.  Francis Fukuyama, the neo-con American political scientist says that any type of politics of cultural identity, which critical regionalism undoubtedly is was conceived ‘as a game at the end of history … a kind of ornament…that would provide ethnic food, colourful dress and traces of distinctive historical traditions to societies often seen as numbingly conformist or homogenous’

So is designing modern homes reflecting the culture of our country just the muse of the bored middle class of a liberal democracy whose culture is really no different from that from each other?  We all eat the same food, watch the same tv, talk the same way.  Or is there a aspiration to cultural independence driving on the architectural profession in Scotland.

Well I don’t know the answer to this.  No doubt a political or social scientist will tell us one day.  I think architects in Scotland are, post devolution, thinking more about a national identity and architecture.

But the people who are building not the one off houses or small schemes are the likes of Stuart Milne.  These guys build thousands of units a year and will unwittingly ruin a historic village unless protected.

Now Stuart Milne is a capitalist and he cannot expect to care about the landscape or the built environment, let alone any sort of Critical Regionalism. They build units within a globalised world.  And the architects such as Forster and Rogers are little different.  They are producers of a brand , an icon for global companies and global markets.  Sometimes it appears they have little interest in knitting together the fabric of cities, creating a sense of place or a sense of identity.  But that type of architecture is required and I hope that among you is a fantastically talented Scottish architect who will become world famous.   The question has to be asked why an architect hasn’t set up a company and become the biggest house builder in the country and why architects aren’t changing the political landscape of the country?

We’ve recently set up a kit house company and we will be expanding our range shortly.  We probably get 20 times as many hits on this website as we do on our Dualchas website.  .

We asked M + K Macleod, the biggest kit builder in Argyll to price our kits for us.  Within a few months they had produced their own range of Gaelic Kits, marketing the range with their Highland, Skye identity.  It will at the end of the day, in our capitalist liberal democracy, money and the market that will force change on housebuilding.  I for one will be delighted if more kit companies produce long house ranges, claiming a Gaelic heritage as their inspiration.

But people building these new houses which reflect the Gaelic identity of times past may very well be the prosperous, the middle class indulging themselves with ethnic second homes – just like the middle class obsession with organic food.

Because the reality on the ground, is that politically things in there own way are just as bad as they have ever been for many in rural Scotland. Last week a father came to me on behalf of his son.  He’s in his early twenties, a joiner and is trying to build a house.  Despite being promised a mortgage at 4 times his salary, being eligible for a 30% grant and a subsidised piece of land from a charity, he will still be 20,000 short of being able to afford a house in his community.

In Sleat, land is now selling at over £100,00 for a quarter acre. We cannot employ people because they will have nowhere to live so we have opened an office in Glasgow.  The college cannot retain staff because of the severe housing shortage.

As Mary Morrison, whose father was cleared from Boreraig said, when asked if she was encouraged that there was new employment in the area ‘But whose is the land, whose is the sea?’

And that is why the situation is still deplorable and it will be harder for your generation than it has been for many before. The same people who controlled the land still do and this is why those without land, without housing, especially the younger generation, who do not have inherited wealth, are in a awful position.  A few communities have been lucky enough but this policy only benefits a few and is divisive.

Lewis, which has lost 41% of it’s population since 1901 and has the sharpest fall in young people of any part of the UK is now divided over windfarm proposals. The absurdity, is that under current proposals, some crofter and some communities will become wealthy.  The neighbouring township, the sister who never inherited the croft will not.

The government has endless schemes to help resolve the crisis facing our rural communities.  Not a crisis of poor design, but a crisis of homelessness.  The hidden homeless which forces people to stay at home into their thirties, live in caravans, or more commonly, move away because there is no option.

At a conference I was at I listened to many people tell stories of how they struggled to obtain land in a community from a landowner and eventually secure funding to build four affordable social housing.  The irony is that in that time it took to build those social houses many more social houses had probably been lost to the community with the right to buy.

Every scheme which awards additional grants makes people more and more dependant.  And with every increase in the value of land and housing is to the benefit of those who already have and takes wealth out of the pocket of the next generation.  How can most young people ever afford to live in Sleat when they are burdened with student debt.  How can they raise a mortgage?  How can they start a business or think about starting a family. And working in the communities architects are in the perfect position to see this.  And the triumph of the Scottish Parliament is not just the building but the fantastic opportunity it gives everyone to engage in politics and try and make a change.  Now I’m a member of the snp and I think their policy of paying off all existing student debt will be of a huge benefit to individuals and the economy. But I also think their policy of giving £2000 to each first time buyer, although well intentioned is a waste of time.

Because it fails to answer Mary Morrison’s question.  Whose is the land, whose is the sea? It just means more money into the pockets of the haves.

We currently have a situation where the landowners are compensated, paid for having services put into their land which makes their land more valuable.  The absurdity was best explained by Henry George, the 19th century American land reformer.

He explained through Cane and Able the absurdity of ownership.  How it makes a person a slave or a murderer.  On his visit to Scotland he told of the Irish millionaire who made his wealth by staying in bed for seven years.  He asked the pious audience if Moses had led the Israelites into Scotland and he broke a rock and water gushed forth would it not belong to a laird who would be liable for payment.  Would he not need a permit to shoot the quail.  And he described the utter misery and degradation that he witnessed in the slums of Glasgow and the Highlands of Scotland.

The answer he sad was a land value tax.  An assumption that people did not own land but possessed it and for that privilege had to pay tax to the community, to the government.

The result of this could be land designated for a particular use taxed on that basis.  So if land in a community was needed for housing it was taxed for housing.

This would mean that communities could plan 5, 10 ,15, 20 years in advance.  Proper plans, developed with architects and master planners, with full community participation can be drawn up .  Villages and towns and cities can be properly planned and it will be design quality not price alone which drives the market.

I don’t see why everyone in this country in every community shouldn’t be entitled to a decent home.  I don’t understand why we can’t expand our business on Skye or why we can’t get housing for staff.

The Highlanders have been told how worthless they are.  Currently in Scotland we are being told that we uniquely are incapable of ruling our own affairs.  Another form of confidence destruction.  But I firmly believe that as architects you are able to change things by engagement with politics and architecture.  A desire to make not just design, but the built environment, your community and you country better through your work.

That will give a purpose to your job, and a drive to your ambition.  I do not expect many of you to stay.  I expect the majority of you will be forced down to London, sucked in by the billions of the Olympics.  Those who do stay though are not failures. You have the chance to use your professional skills to make your country a better place for everyone.

Taking it on the Chin by Neil Stephen

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Neil Stephen talks about the importance of image in the architecture profession.


You live and learn. Tragically, just when you’re ready for the exam, you die.

Despite the bleak outlook, I’m focussing on my CPD – Continued Personal Development. It’s not just about knowledge; it’s about people believing you are worth listening to.

An elderly Highland gentleman taught me this in my local Skye pub several years ago. He was resplendent in tweed and magnificent sideburns, and had his upright sisters either side of him, handbags clutched to laps. His voice had the precision of the educated Gael; he was someone who commanded his audience.

“Now”, he said. “Are you one of the Dualchas boys?” I told him I was. “I’ve been meaning to speak to you for some time. I just wanted to tell you: I think your buildings are absolutely disgusting.”

With that he indicated that the conversation was over; the sisters beamed in admiration.

I want that demeanour. I have the tweed suit – fitted, not off the shelf. And I’m growing a beard: the style will suggest authority, the thickness maturity, and the lustre youthfulness.

Unfortunately, the upper lip suggests my great, great granny had intimate relations with a Sumatran ape. But I accept the gingerness; you can’t help your genetics – you just do the best with what you’ve got. A trim haircut and sharp clothes doesn’t maketh the man, or secure the job, but ensuring that your fly is up can prevent your gravitas from puddling on the floor.

After all, architects are “creatives” so the look has to be right. When Dualchas was part of the Rotterdam Biennale a few years ago, we searched round Glasgow airport for the other architects we’d be travelling with. They were easy to spot. Black Norman Foster turtle-necks, dark thick-rimmed glasses, every one of them. The public could tell that this was a group of confident professionals; they oozed style, imagination and individuality.

I discovered recently that the collective noun for architects is “an arrogance of architects”. I was told this, with a certain amount of vehemence, by a professor of architectural technology who was an engineer by profession. He confirmed my guess that he must work in Edinburgh, and while this perhaps made his assertion understandable, I still think it’s dangerous for engineers to start such games.

I didn’t find out if the group of Rotterdam-bound architects was arrogant or not, as I never got to go on the trip. As the girl at check-in took great pleasure in repeatedly pointing out, my passport was two months out of date. I had to make the miserable, sick-to- the-pit-of-the-stomach bus journey back to Skye as my brother, who had contributed nothing to the exhibition, flew off on expenses with his trendy new friends. The West Highland Free Press published a photograph of him grinning in front of the Dualchas display. I try not to dwell on it.

But if the architect has to look the part, so does the office. Our previous Skye base was an old stone school – it had no insulation, no central heating, and windows that didn’t open. Just after Mary joined Dualchas we found her one morning on her hands and knees in a distressed state, furiously scrubbing the carpet. She had forgotten to close the door and a flock of sheep had taken shelter overnight, to a prodigious defecating effect. In her defence, this problem had never arisen at Patel Taylor Architects, but the new clients were due in one hour.

Fortunately they turned out to be Yorkshire sheep farmers, and they took in the aroma as if it were Italian coffee.

This reminds me of when another potential client came to interview us for a job – his lady wife owned a huge Perthshire estate, a castle, and they had big plans for the future. We had to make a good impression; this was a man to take care of. When I offered coffee he asked what we had. It was Nescafe or Gold Blend.

“Ah”, he said. “Your first mistake.”

We almost never went on to make any more. The first winter in the building was miserably cold – we were given some old gas heaters by the landlord, and we had to blast them out so our fingers could hold a pencil. One day the four of us were discovered in deep slumber. We were revived and the heaters removed, and after a Nurofen and quick breath of air, we got on with our work (some clients will not accept any excuse).

We’ve now got a shiny new office in the Templeton Carpet Factory in Glasgow as well as a Skye office we built for ourselves a few years ago. The German kitchen and the percolated coffee may not win a job, but it helps give the impression to the client that you want to look after them. We even have a dress code after one of our previous employees (you’ll remain nameless, Alex) turned up to a meeting sporting that youth-wear where the gusset of the jeans is round the knees and the waist round the scrotum. He had Spiderman pants on.

Of course, in reality, judging people by their underwear or the quality of their HobNobs is facile. The shambolic John MacLean of Glenelg has probably never worn matching socks in his life, but is known as “the Guru”, because of his huge intellect and ability to turn his hand to anything. Locals talk of the time a visitor to his house complained when, before pouring the tea, he rinsed the cups in a sink of ink-black water. John showed him that he wasn’t to worry about dirt by plunging his hand in to the sink and lifting out an octopus.

People still let him install heat recovery systems, fix their engines and teach their children science. Which shows that skills can overcome personal hygiene issues.

This may not be a profound observation, but it’s one of the things I’ve learnt over the last 14 years since I graduated. The adage that you learn far more from your mistakes than your successes is also true – if you fail to make a good impression, you learn how to improve for next time; if you screw up, you won’t do it again.

I’ve been through the problems of dealing with a building being structurally defective, of having badly worded contracts that allowed a client to escape paying. I’ve dealt badly with bullying contractors who tried to pull the wool over a young architect’s eyes, and angry clients with ludicrous expectations. I now have that empirical knowledge.

It’s also been recorded at a council planning meeting that the local representative thought my design was “the ugliest thing he’d ever seen.” And looking round the chamber, he must have seen a lot of ugly things.

But I’ve also had the experience of working with great colleagues, clients and tradesmen, of seeing designs come to fruition, and feeling some sense of achievement from helping to make something which is solid and tangible.

The trouble for youngsters is that they’re not getting the chance to do this – not even to make the mistakes. As the professor from Edinburgh told me, he has nothing but admiration for the skill, endeavour and enthusiasm of his graduates, but nothing but despair when he sees the opportunities that are open to them. As the recession hits hard, and the bankers and politicians continue to line their pockets without a semblance of shame, young hopefuls face a hopeless situation.

At the moment, as probably many practices are finding, we’re being inundated with applications from people with great portfolios and CVs. Sometimes the cover letters are almost plaintive, with the student offering to work for nothing for experience. What sort of state are we in when people offer to work for nothing?

One of the hardest things for people to deal with is loss of confidence – once you’re on the dole, or out of the profession for a while, this can open a psychological wound which takes years to repair. With talk that things are going to get worse when public spending is cut and interest rates rise, prospects are not looking good.

My only advice to young graduates is to do something which keeps your hand in. Take on small work if you can get it, travel if necessary, build or draw when you can. Keep being creative – you never know what might happen.

When a young man in a Skye hotel was complaining that he couldn’t afford to buy a house, the barman showed him a model of a student-project house design he was working on. A holidaying builder from Edinburgh, who’d had more than a couple of whiskies, promised to build it for £35,000.

Dualchas was born, or spawned some would suggest, and my brother Ali no longer has to work behind a bar. I can honestly say that I don’t know what I’d be doing if it wasn’t for him bringing together our friend Domhnall-Angaidh and the builder Jim Cook back in 1995. I certainly wouldn’t be writing this. It gave me the confidence I required to start a business and career.

The whisker-free youth that was photographed in a Big Issue article about the house is now a bearded man in tweed. So with the acquired demeanour of authority, maturity, yet youthfulness, I can now try and impart some sort of encouragement to young people who undoubtedly have huge potential to achieve great things.

And I do this grimacing from the painful truth that I still have a lot to learn.

Last week a potential new client was showing me his house as he explained his project. His big black lab was chewing something. He said, “Excuse my dog…he has a hobby of running round the house with a pair of pants in his mouth.”

“Oh”, I said. “I have the same hobby myself”.

He didn’t even smirk. My young colleague stared at the carpet with head bowed. In the tumbleweed silence I felt I had learnt something important. Get the contract signed, then attempt the jokes.


Reserved for the Humble by Neil Stephen

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A blog written by Neil Stephen from 20th January 2009 reflecting on the virtues of modesty.


Self-promotion is one of the hardest things in life, especially when you’re naturally modest. For my colleague Mary Arnold-Forster, it’s almost crippling.

When she went up on stage at the recent IAA ceremony to accept the award given to her house for the best new building, she looked like Gregory crossing the playing field. No matter how far she pressed against the back wall, or ducked down, we could all still see her, exposed by the spotlight.

Offered a microphone by Muriel Gray and asked to say a few words, she cried NO! looked heavenwards as if to say, “God, why do you torture me so?” and cringed off the stage.

Perhaps Mary had a plan, as someone once said that “a modest demeanour arouses thoughts of seduction”, and surely the tables of corduroy and bearded men could not have helped but be enflamed by her coyness.

The judges had praised the restrained modesty of her architecture. Fearful that Mary didn’t manage to convey fully her inherent self-effacement on the night, I issued a press release the next morning to all Highland news outlets to let them know she had spades of it. Modesty must be trumpeted.

But I realised that this was not a wide enough audience– Wayne Hemmingway, up north as a celebrity speaker, may not pick up the Lochaber News in Blackburn. So I persuaded Mary to humbly accept the offer of featuring in a Channel 5 “architecture” programme where her humility can be fanfared to millions.

It’s called – ‘I Own the Best House in Britain’.

A demure Mary will lead a polished-faced presenter around her home (or the Shed, as she deprecatingly calls it), followed by camera, sound man, producer and director, and if the voting public is crazy enough to believe that her house is better than the 24 others it’s up against, she’ll trouser 25 grand (to be donated to the Lighthouse, of course).

A token acknowledgement of the struggle to hide her Saxby stainless steel down-lighters under a bushel.

I’ve told her she’ll be the skinny equivalent of John Sergeant on Strictly Come Dancing – pity always works with the public. But don’t feel too sorry for her, she’s got a choice life in a remote rural idyll, working with charming people. And, as she will explain, “if the twins tease me it’s because they care”. Which we are happy to let her believe.

Fortunately for Mary, beneath all that feminine delicacy, she has a will of steel and an unshakeable confidence. This was probably forged in the tumultuous London upbringing of a large extended family of artists, novelists, political radicals and free-lovers. And the security of a Cambridge education.

How else could she have had the brass-neck to send a note to a flower-sending suitor, explaining she only travels to London for work, so to meet her would be £50 an hour?  I think she undersold herself- an engineer would have quoted eighty – but you need confidence to administer such a withering put-down.

I’ve never received flowers, (though am hopeful of a small bouquet at my funeral, God willing), but if I did find myself in a similar situation, I’d have to rummage deep to find Mary’s cajones. My rate would be a packet of Monster Munch and a tin of Tizer, per day; more likely I’d be the one making the payment (up to twenty quid).

But maybe that’s because I’m Scottish.  Despite our conceit at being the world’s best at the put-down and piss-take – built on the strength of an established ancient culture- researchers have found this to be a mere mask to low self-worth and an insecure nature. We spend so much time undermining each other (see above), both personally and politically, our deficiencies become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I remember this subtly happening to me many years ago, after I finished my Highers, when my mum’s pal took me aside for some back-stiffening advice before I stepped in to the big world. “Neil” she said. “ Always remember that in Scotland, to be better than most, you don’t have to be that good.”

Inspiring words for the challenging climb to the summit of mediocrity.

The Scottish Higher Education approach to suppressing innate spunk was a bit more straightforward. At the first crit at the Mack I attended, the task set was to make a model that “expressed your personality”. The earnest young student before me explained to the gathered year that the cardboard pound-sign represented the money he made, the records what he spent it on, and the broken records that he was wasting his money. The tutor asked him a straight question.

“This either indicates your lack of imagination or lack of personality. Which is it?”

His stunned silence and the sniggering of other students probably defined the rest of his education. Why have the confidence to do anything when you’re met with derision from your “tutor” and humiliation before your peers.

Fortunately, the tutor looked at my effort and said, “I love it, don’t say a word.” (I had impaled an apple on a decayed rusty drain cover. No idea.)

But can anyone learn properly in an atmosphere where people are loath to be free with ideas for fear of being ridiculed? People don’t gain confidence, but either bluster bravado or retreat to a shell. And it’s not a fault to admit that you don’t know or aren’t sure.

Doubt should be an attribute. I always had sympathy for the Fountainhead character Peter Keating, who constantly questions his ability as an architect. For this, he is despised by the author. Meanwhile, the ginger hero (oyxmoron, I know), Howard Roark, the epitome of confident ego, is supposed to inspire readers by his single-minded pursuit of architectural integrity.

Yet he specifies suspended polystyrene ceiling panels, and we’re still expected to believe he’s a genius.

I thought of him when I heard a certain high profile architect recently address a conference. His practice is brilliant, he was telling us. No modesty here, and confidence was oozing from every pore. He only employed the best architects in the world, and if anyone in the audience thought they were among them, see him afterwards. (Who would be so arrogant as to stay behind?)

Put this practice not only features great architects – their website also claims them to be “socially, economically and environmentally responsible”. They were bringing “sustainable” architecture to the Middle East, with their tower in Abu Dhabi, which is a “green building” that employs clever technologies to harness the wind and sun, and collect water.

Let’s get this into perspective.

The 66-storey tower will be covered with a gold-coloured titanium crystal. It will house shops, offices, a restaurant and a 300-bed hotel, and will cover an area of 2.5 million square feet. Its cost is undisclosed, but estimated between astronomical and absurd. The energy required to make and to run the building is also unknown, but probably about that of a medium-sized nation. The building is grotesque – like a giant petrified golden sphincter, standing tall in the desert sands. The architect should at least have the modesty to acknowledge the absurdity of claiming this as “sustainable” or “responsible” architecture.

But away from the superficiality and vulgarity of the Emirates (did you see that firework display?), and back in the modest surroundings of Inverness, the architects at the IAA awards were playing, by comparison, in the Highland League.

When it came to the Open Award shortlist for the Best New Building in the Highlands and Islands, everything was understated. The Culloden Centre, the Eden Court Theatre extension, the Belmont House renovation – nothing close to resembling a sphincter.

Images of the Stromness Arts Centre by Reiach and Hall were then flashed up on screen to announce the winner, and the sewerage designer next to me was baffled. “Where’s the architecture?”  “Exactly” was my response. The building fits so seamlessly into the harbour townscape you hardly notice it – yet the spaces are beautiful and the building works.

And we also saw an award for something that actually was “socially, economically and environmentally responsible”. Neil Sutherland, a politically driven architect, with huge commitment to his community, uses timber hewn from local forests for his own building firm to build affordable housing. And he’ll turn down work from clients if it doesn’t tie in with his ethics.

Not a gold-coloured titanium crystal in sight.

There was no arrogance in Inverness, but there is a confidence in the Highlands that was tangible. Where simple, beautiful architecture, using developed technologies, can enhance and sustain the local culture and environment.

It’s a lie that in Scotland you don’t have to be good to be better than everyone else – Reiach and Hall showed you have to be world class. Despite the recent dross of the housing developers, the quality is getting better, and projecting a distinctive Highland image to the world.

And it was reassuring to see from our Norwegian presentation, that while they do some exquisite architecture up there, they make their ghastly mistakes as well.

But meanwhile, I’ve confronted Mary with the charge that she has allowed her undergarment of humility to be indecently exposed. Was it not her chaste appearance that left her with a purse-full of business cards from corduroyed gentlemen?

She says she just happens to be socially competent at making business contacts. By comparison, when I went home a-flutter from the Roses Awards, clutching a single card from a thick-lashed blond beauty in publishing, I ended up being invoiced for an £800 full-page ad (damn, these woman are persuasive).

But I better redeem myself, as I do tease Mary too much (and I sit within punching distance). Scottish mask removed, I’ll go against my cultural instinct and give a friend a compliment.

Mary, you’re a genuinely modest and talented woman – with nothing to be modest about (that one should last me a year).

Postscript: I have suggested to my sewerage consultant friend, that a scale-model golden Stellar Sphincter should be presented at the annual Scottish Waste Management Industry Awards Dinner for the Most Vulgar and Expensive Jobby Wheecher category

No Spare Change by Neil Stephen

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A blog from Neil Stephen from April 2009 where he discussed the responsibility of being a ‘boss’ and the Scottish ‘banter’.


Being a “boss” is power. The bar-manager hangs a fist of keys off his belt to display his responsibility; the Heid Yin at the factory has the biggest swivel chair, and his wife-polished Italian leather shoes reflect back to staff their subservience.

I met a boss who exuded casual authority: open-shirted, smooth-chested, and surrounded by an entourage of fawning young woman. I asked him if he had any spare work, and he replied, “Why? Are you a spare?” The ladies laughed hysterically (such a clever and powerful man). I reddened, but replied honestly and said no. I must have impressed: I got the job as a bus boy.

I was 20 and working abroad for the summer. My mother was immensely proud: she crowed at a dinner party that her twins were earning good money as bum boys in Canada.

Now it’s me who’s the boss guy: the polished shoe is on the other foot. I have a key ring and swivel chair; women now laugh at my jokes. I no longer have to nervously approach someone for a job, CV polished and tie straight. Others come to me. This is when the feeling of power courses through the veins, when the gag about the spare you’ve been working on can be prosecuted to devastating effect.

But the moment is never quite right: conducting job interviews always feels too serious. You need to find good people to run a business, and the hopeful candidate is looking to you for employment and security; to help plan out their future. Every response is weighted: it’s not a time for mirth.

And yet, occasionally, you do have to bite your tongue. It can be a painful experience.

A well-turned out young man applied for a job with Hebridean Homes – our sister company that sells kits for the rural housing market. I asked him, “Are you interested in rural architecture?” He thought about it, and then replied, “No, not really.”

Another, from South Africa, struggled when he started a sentence, “I am not a racist, but…”

But the most baffling was when an applicant for a year-out position at Dualchas, who we’ll call John, turned up when we were expecting Mark. John explained that Mark was his twin, and because they had done the same course, and had similar experience, they shared a CV. OK….but he really fell down when asked about his interest in music. He sparked to life when describing the gig the night before: he was a bit shaky on account of not hitting bed till 4am, but it had been “f*ckin’ mental”.

Fortunately we found an impressive part 1 student from the Mack. He’s been with us a few months, and is a credit to his school, his parents and himself. He churns out work with unbridled enthusiasm, his eyes widening with delight at the chance of doing even a menial task, and his monstrous appetite hoovers up any food in the office that might be on the turn.

But now he’s got the job and is firmly embedded, the temptation is to unclench the tongue and take the mickey. I suffered in the past struggling to follow out my boss’s wish for a head on his pint of cider – I know people who’ve been sent on errands for tartan paint and a long stand. It’s tradition.

But with my young apprentice it’s completely unnecessary. He entertains us effortlessly.

I discovered this when telling him about a programme I saw on Discovery about a man-eating Nile crocodile which was 30 foot long, and was still alive despite being riddled with bullets.

He asked, “On Islay?”

“No, no, Nile I said. “

As I puzzled over his initial response, he asked me a question which is perhaps the most shameful indictment of the Scottish education system ever uttered.

“Do you get crocodiles in Scotland?”

I could have put this down to an aberration, until he came in to work late and ashen faced, explaining that he had skidded his car on ice at Breakish after an antelope jumped out on the road. He didn’t help his situation when he Google-searched for antelopes, got a picture of one up on screen, and said it looked just like a deer, so it was “an easy mistake to make.”

With this sort of material, it’s very tempting to ridicule. Actually, it’s impossible not to: the antelope bolted after being startled by the sudden movement of a three-toed sloth. But I do know I should restrain myself (which is why I’ve written it down for everyone to read).

Fortunately my young colleague appears to be able to put up with my equivalent of “are you a spare?” comments. But I am aware that as someone’s senior, it’s very easy to overstep the mark.

I have a sticker on my bathroom mirror which tells me “Don’t Be a D*ck.” It was left by a former lodger and employee, and I think he was trying to tell me something.

A friend of mine, concerned for my success, advises that it’s time to remove it: ladies using the facilities may find it “unsophisticated.” But it’s useful. It’s the reduction of a thousand religious morals in to one pithy jus. If the wicked queen had reflected on it, there would have been no poisoned apple, and she may have resolved the relationship issues with her daughter.

But it is very hard to adhere to – mainly because you have to be able to recognise when your behaviour is unacceptable. At what point does banter become bullying, does an innocent tease become a hurtful jibe?

I’ve been on the end of a few in my time, with my thin skin and big ears, but my sharpest memory is of a time I doled it out. There was a boy in our Scout troop who, it had been decided, was of a striking resemblance to Ghandi. I made up a song about him based on the chart-topping Candy Girl, and when the leaders requested I sang Ghandi Boy over the camp tannoy, I performed as a dutiful young Scout should, to widespread acclaim.

I returned grinning to my tent, and found John sobbing. Apparently it wasn’t as funny as I thought.

But some boys were deliberately malicious. At one camp, a particular patrol leader gathered all the boys around the campfire, and organised that everyone, from the ten year olds upwards, had to say something nasty about one boy he regularly picked out. When it came to his turn, he said, “If I was someone else, I’d hate me too.”

It was brutal.

There were sticks and stones as well. Ritual staking out of boys with sisal and tent pegs, prior to indignities being performed on them, were par for the course, and then there was something called “hampering”. A boy was secured in a wicker hamper and heaved into the river. They were retrieved once it was submerged. A kind of extreme waterboarding technique.

All this was done by feral boys on other feral boys (someone should write a book about it).

But one suffered more any.  A mocking ditty was made up about him that went, “My name is Gerald, I read the Glasgow Herald, I can’t read the small print, because my eyes are squint.”

My pal Donnie has used these lines in a song which looks back on the cruelties of youth from the distance of adulthood, and asks what it did to the victims, how did they survive. “They never faced the demons at school, but they made you what you are, they left you with the scars.”

I don’t know what happened to Gerald, I trust he’s OK; in the song he’s “back on top, he runs a barber shop.” But some people never recover. A local brickie in Skye will tearfully admit that he ruined the life of the person he remorselessly bullied at school. The man is now a hopeless alcoholic, and an apology thirty years later won’t make the slightest difference.

And of course, the bullies of childhood often end up the bullies of the workplace. Statistics show how many hours and how much money is lost due to work related stress – often caused by ill-treatment from colleagues or management.

What it doesn’t show is the human misery caused: the loss of money, self-esteem, and health.  I’ve seen this happen to someone close to me who worked for a target-driven local authority, where line-managers thought it was their job to blame those below them for their own failings. Self-awareness and common-decency were totally lacking.

We have wonderful people working at Dualchas and Heb Homes, who I know have common decency, and I think have self-awareness. They are incredibly committed. For example, Ann almost single-handedly organised the moving of our Govan office to Templeton, fitted out the interior and threw a fantastic opening party.

I was having beery dreams as she tidied up till 4 in the morning.  My only excuse is that I forgot to read my sticker that day.

Recently I found a Scout log book when I was clearing some boxes. It covers the dates 1982 -1985, and the last entry was for a weekend camp, written by me when 15. Recorded are the assault courses, trips to Stewarton, the dreadful camp food, and the obligatory staking out and humiliation of one boy.

But the one thing that jumps out the page at me is my cheek. And the desperate attempts to be funny. In fact, I’ve hardly changed, which means I’m probably the same as a “boss” as I was a child. This puts me in the David Brent category.

What makes this worse is that my brother Alasdair is known as the cheeky twin, always has been. He takes comments way beyond where I will go. It’s a bad cop worse cop routine – I just provide the back-up when his quips fall flat.

It turns out I was wrong. I am a spare after all.

Getting on in Architecture by Neil Stephen

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First published in February 2009 on Neil Stephen reflects on the ageing process.  You can see the devastating effects on the young man below above.

Soon, I’ll no longer be a young architect. The dream of being one of the AJ’s 40 under 40’s, where young architects are exhibited and celebrated, will now have to be binned along with the dream of scoring the winner for Scotland in the last minute of extra time in the World Cup final against England, and snogging Stevie Nicks (she’s getting on a bit).

Impending mid-life was rammed home recently after I joined a few school pals for a weekend in a Fife chalet, where we went though the formality of drinking to our poor health and burying our youth. I looked across at the people I used to scarper around the playground with, and saw balding men with grey hair, puffy eyes and dance moves that would embarrass John Prescott.

Someone once said that the trouble with hanging around with old pals is that the ageing you don’t notice in a mirror is instead reflected back in their sagging faces.

Fortunately for me I have a twin, and he could pass for 34.

But it’s a good time to look back and assess what you’re doing and what the future might hold. One generation inevitably takes over from the previous – foolish youth of today become the wise elders who frown on foolish youth.

One of my friends at the weekend trip used to be foolish – he still is.  He’s a project manager. He was so highly wound-up from the stresses and pressure of work, I was wondering if he’d reach 40. He was telling me in all seriousness that he was hoping to get a junior colleague sacked, because he wasn’t prepared to put in the 13-hour day that he does; apparently he had children he wanted to see in the morning.

What sort of industry is this? When I was 22 and getting screamed at by my boss Tom Yip in a Hong Kong office, I found that I had to assess what was important to stop myself from getting upset. Firstly, I’d ask myself: ‘Do I respect this guy?’ No. ‘If I lose the job, is it the end of the world?’ No. I was young, and the world was my oxter.

My stressed-out project manager friend shared a room with me in Hong Kong, along with countless bed bugs. He was a newly qualified Q.S. and seemed to cope fairly calmly with what the world threw at him. One morning he asked me if he’d seen me in the middle of the night with my genitals hitched up over the basin, frantically cupping water over them while making high-pitched noises? Or was he dreaming?

He was very relieved to hear that it wasn’t a dream (he was at a confused age), and that I’d had a dreadful miscalculation applying Tiger Balm to my bug-bites. The memory still brings a tear to my eye.

If I exposed myself (metaphorically) to my pal in his work arena, I wouldn’t get the same sympathy I got then. I get the impression that he’d have no qualms about ripping my balls off and ramming them down my throat, if he felt it was necessary to keep his client happy. It’s a worrying thought, almost enough to make you gulp.

This is of course highly speculative and very unfair – but the industry does encourage aggression. 18 years ago my pal was a whisker away from giving up quantity surveying to follow his dream of being a jazz musician. Instead he’s now had a divorce, got a bachelor pad with guitars hanging off the walls, and spends his days tearing strips off contractors and nailing architects to the floor.

But then things don’t always happen as you imagine or hope.

My first experience of working in an architect’s office wasn’t great. To start me off, I had two weeks to practise my calligraphy. When I found some escape from the mind-numbing boredom by carefully penning phrases like “a piddle of politicians” the boss’s son told me to mind my P’s and Q’s and get back to the alphabet.

Another day I managed to get greasy fingerprints on one of the architect’s drawings, and the same culprit kliped on me to the second in command, who took his lofty position seriously.  I was primly told in front of all the staff that if I ever did that again he would “have my guts for garters and my balls for earrings”.

His bark was sharper than his bite.

The boss had his drawing board up the stairs next to mine. He rarely used it, but I would hear him charging about the office, constantly battling his indigestion and stress. I clearly remember one day when he sat beside me at his board, stared at the paper for minutes in silence (I was hardly breathing) and then slammed his T-square down as hard as he could, shouting F***!

My heart almost jumped out of my mouth, but it quickly plummeted to the pit of my stomach at the thought of continuing to work in such an atmosphere. The only thing that kept me going was the chance to stare at the cat-eyed 25 year-old receptionist in the leopard-tight outfit (it was her permanent skin – I think she must have smelt like a leopard).

Instead of being a 19 year old with all the joys and ambitions of over-confident youth, I was miserable.

I phoned one of my dad’s architect pals – I wanted his advice. Should I stick with architecture or go back to art school?
“Are you telling me that you have the choice between art school and architecture?”  he said.
“Yes, that’s what I said.”
“Listen, please listen to me. Promise me. Go back to art school. It’s a nightmare out here.”

But I didn’t listen to him; I knew about that architect’s career and achievements. Along with my dad and many others, he designed some of the best hospitals in the UK, the Glasgow Sick Kids and Paisley District General. They were young graduates from the late 60s with an overwhelming sense of social responsibility and purpose, who took their role as architects extremely seriously. They thought they could change the world for the better.

And they did. Unfortunately the world hasn’t been so good to them. My father retired early due to ill health, and when I look at the casualty list of his contemporaries –alcoholism and heart disease, mental health problems and family break-up, you can see the dreadful and unjust burden that the profession places on people.

My dad will now happily pass on his wisdom to folks he meets in his local pub in Aberdeen – he’s in his late 60s but most of his architect pals from his student days are dead. He can also pass on advice to his sons – he has an incredible wealth of untapped empirical knowledge and skill – but his main advice is simple. ‘Don’t let the job wear you down, and don’t allow the conflict of contracts affect your health.’

It’s a sobering thought. And if I look at my project manager pal and worry about his health, I should also look at mine.

Fortunately, I manage to avoid stress, usually, and I like to think I have the physique of Barack Obama (or is it Gok Wan?) I run cross-country, I’m a member of the local football team (non-playing committee member) and have been getting unsolicited karate lessons from a black-belt Broadford butcher (I only went in for something for my dinner and I ended up with a load of mince and four chops).

But I’m probably not yet half way through my architecture career, and I still don’t have a clear vision of what I want to achieve. I know I want to avoid the burnout and disillusionment of my father’s generation, but I’d love to have their sense of purpose that sprang from the social morality of the 60’s and 70’s. Hard to find in the modern world of PFI and coddled clients.

Some young architecture graduates probably dream of being a renowned and successful architect, head of a huge organisation, with millions in the bank, churning out sleek metal and glass perfection for the grotesquely rich of the Middle East and the City elite, and humbly taking a seat in the House of Lords when not at home in Switzerland.

Most, though, probably just want to earn a living. Not easy when even the experienced are getting dumped by the cart-load as the recession wreaks havoc across the industry.

But, before things pick up, as they will eventually, perhaps it is the right time for the profession to ask itself, ‘what is our purpose?’ Are we ‘servants to the industry’ as one eminent Scottish architect stated recently? Or do we have another role, as leaders and visionaries, who want to make the world and our communities a better place?  Rather than just scratch a living, please a client, or pick up some baubles from our peers?

We have a responsibility to set the agenda in building our communities – not leaving it to the soulless developer, mundane planner, or blinkered politician.

And we also have to do it in a happy and healthy working environment. After all, getting to design and build things was always brilliant fun as a child – and it still should be. Why should the sheer vitality and ambition that springs from us all dissipate to routine and regret?

A couple of years after I left my first architect’s office, I saw my former boss’s obituary in the paper – dead in his mid-sixties. He’d done some good buildings, brought up a family, but my overwhelming feeling was sadness – sadness that a man who had worked so hard and under so much pressure, never got the chance to relax and look back on his achievements, or even ask the question: ‘Was it worth it?’

For my school pals, all I can say is that I’m fortunate still to be in touch with such good friends. I hope that when I have a reunion with my Mack pals later this year I can look at them and see happy, contented faces, not too worn by the rigours of work.

And what for my highly-strung friend, the project manager? Isn’t it time to take one of the guitars off the wall and do the thing you really love? Who knows, your life may depend upon it.

Life in the Deep Freeze by Neil Stephen

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My friend is getting his head frozen.

Not in the way that it goes cold when you bite in to an ice cream, but cryogenically, like Walt Disney’s.

He wears a metal bracelet that tells medics what to do when he (temporarily) drops off the mortal coil. Phone this number in the States for further instructions, and most importantly, “do not embalm, no autopsy”.

In perhaps a hundred, or a thousand years time, technology will have developed so much that his head can be “reawakened”, and all the knowledge, memory and passion that he feels now will have been salvaged, rather than have been left to rot in a box or burnt to ash.

As a follower of science he believes that there is no soul that departs the body, but that the brain is a complex computer that can be rebooted.

My friend appears to gain comfort in seeing death as something which should not be accepted, and that technology has answers, if not to his prayers, his deeply held convictions.

On his deathbed he won’t just be looking back on his life, but contemplating his future. It’s like a Christian gaining solace from the after-life, except without the family and friends to greet you on the other side.

It’s mind-numbing stuff, and keeps his friends endlessly entertained. His story has even inspired a play, which should be premiered next year. His quest for immortality is working.

It’s easy to be flippant about this, because it sounds crazy, but I respect his sincerity. We all have to face the moment of goodbye, and it’s a dreadful prospect. This idea that young people have that “when I’m eighty, I’ll be glad to die” is nonsense. Nobody likes to give up everything they know and love.

Unfortunately for my friend, all this may be in vain. Even if technology advances to make it possible, the trust fund only covers the storage cost. Someone else in the future will have to pay to defrost his brain and bring him back to life.

And one thing that puzzles me: why would anyone want to?

I was thinking this when reading the biography of James Boswell. He was a friend to some of the greatest figures of the 18thcentury: Hume, Adam, Rosseau, Garrick, Johnson and Goldsmith. Not only was he a man of wit and charm, he was loved by his friends and inspired passion among the ladies.

As a young man he had decided that he was of “singular merit” and would surely prove himself to be a man of genius. In his later life, he considered himself a dissolute failure. He had failed as a London barrister, and despite having struggled over years to write his great biography, the Life of Johnson, he was lampooned in the press as a buffoon and lackey.

During his final illness he was oblivious to its seriousness, and still had ambitions to prove his worth. He died unaware that his books and journals would establish him as one of the greatest literary figures of all time, outshining many of his revered friends.

Surely, if we could, we should bring Boswell back to life, so he could receive his much sought after plaudits? And wouldn’t it be fine if he could share his charm and anecdotes with his new friends?

I don’t think so. I’m sure Boswell can rest easy without the praise, and we can do better than resurrect him as a dinner party oddity. And we know from his journals that it would be unspeakably cruel.

Boswell was obsessed with death, and constantly struggled with the “black dog” of depression that blighted so much of his life. His fear of mortality saw him interviewing condemned men, desperately trying to understand how they dealt with the prospect of public execution.

He sat by the deathbed of renowned atheist David Hume observing him face oblivion with equanimity. And he tortured Dr Johnson by interrogating him on the subject, making him confront the prospect of “losing everything he knows”.

But he held on to a faith in God and the Christian afterlife, where he would be at one with his beautiful wife Margaret and daughter Veronica. Why disturb his peace to bring him back to this lonely, alien world, where his black dog will be ten times fiercer?

And how would we cope with the anti-climax of a man who could never match the character sketched out on the page?

If we would have doubts about bringing back the great James Boswell, then my friend’s prospects are decidedly bleak.

Whether the parable of Lazarus can come true or not, the safest course is to focus on the life in front of you, and make the most of the time you’ve been allotted. As I think Braveheart said, in one of his profound moments, “every man will die, but not every man will truly live.”

But then, how do you know if you are truly alive? Are you doing what you were put on this earth to do? Or are we all destined, like Boswell, to end up disillusioned and regretful?

This is a depressing thought – a black dog is creeping up on me (or at least, a black and white spaniel, R.I.P. Balach). What is the purpose of my life? In 32 years my three score and ten is up, and all the dreams of youth may have dribbled away in a puddle of mediocrity.

Instead of being the next Corbusier, I’m another architect dealing with the soul-destroying bureaucracy of building control, covering every corner of my arse for fear of litigation, and chasing builders to get their fingers out.

Then there are the constant queries and demands from clients sent by e-mail. Even in the process of wading through them, you are demoralised further by being told you need your penis extended (how did they find out?).

Is it any wonder architects are unhappy?

Fortunately, I never wanted to be the next Corbusier, so I don’t have that sense of disappointment. I wanted to capture animals like Roger Hunt in the Willard Price Animal Adventure books, and bring them back to Calderpark Zoo.

I lost this ambition when I noticed that the polar bears weren’t swaying from foot to foot to entertain us: they were depressed.

Standing on a slab of concrete in the pissing rain in Uddingston does that to you.

When you’re trapped in the wrong environment life gets you down. You know that there’s something better out there for you, it’s just that you’re caged by your salary and tethered to your mortgage. Instead you just pad from foot to foot, project to project, year after year.

But this is too dark. You can’t cast a shadow without the sun, and the job of being an architect has many bright spots, when the creative juices get going, and the pleasure of making something gets hold.

And anyway, there’s more to life than work. Being at one with the great outdoors of the west coast of Scotland can shake off any stupor and raise the consciousness.

On a kayak trip last week, my brother and I followed two otters along the coast for a mile, while terns, herons, gannets and curlews skirted the boats. A low mist lifted to reveal the Cuillins in their full glory. Truly life-affirming.

And when multi-badge holder Lara had a mishap with her “She-Wee”, and filled up her dry-suit, life could not have been better.

In retribution for our laughter, Lara decided we should be tested. This involved capsizing and trying to get back in the boat. I learnt two valuable lessons.  That I can’t breathe underwater, and that a saline solution will flush an amazing amount of stuff out your nose.

But the biggest test was on the way back, when the wind picked up and waves were breaking over the front of the boats. This is when nature can become a death-affirming experience, and you realise how small and insignificant you are in the face of the powers that govern our universe.

Boswell discovered this for himself during his tour of the Hebrides with Dr Johnson in 1773, when their boat heading for the Small Isles was almost lost in a storm.

Boswell prayed to God during his near-death experience – and his prayer was answered. He never had the career that he felt his talent merited, but he lived life to the full, through its many highs and desperate lows.

Maybe the lesson from Boswell is that you shouldn’t judge yourself too harshly. You can try to join the dots in life, hoping it will reveal a bigger picture in our journey towards the graveyard, but it may in the end all be random patterns.

Perhaps if I had children my perspective would change. Someone mentioned to me, they don’t inscribe “excellent at working drawings” or “good administrator” on your gravestone, but things like “loving son”, “beloved father” or even “great uncle”. This is worth remembering.

But while I’m still sprachling about, trying to find my way, my brain-friend is becalmed in his life-laboratory. His biggest concern is the bracelet’s 1970’s porn-star style, and can he discard it if he tattoos the information on to a prominent part of his body instead? But then, what happens if the cryogenic centre change their phone number?

But in the main he is content with the process – I think he may even be looking forward to his icebox, just so he can see if it works or not.

He’s asked that I don’t reveal his name on the blog, but I can tell you that he is a Highlander. Which left me with another profound thought inspired by a movie.

Christopher Lambert’s Highlander was one of the immortals – cursed with everlasting life, having to watch his wife age and die as he retained his youthful good looks. The only way he could be killed was by decapitation. For my Highlander, decapitation will, he thinks, give him the chance to live forever.

You couldn’t make it up.

Credit Crunched by Neil stephen

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My friend is getting mangled by the credit crunch.

He’s built a couple of houses, can’t sell them, and the loan repayments are crippling him. There is plaintive despair in his voice, and his weight loss suggests restless nights.

Meanwhile, the person largely responsible, a certain Gordon Brown, tucks in to eight-course dinners before telling us to be more careful when shopping. Tighten your belts, he preaches, as he slackens his and forces in the last wafer-thin mint.

You may think it unfair to blame our PM for an individual coming unstuck when taking a risk: no one said that the housing market was a sure thing. But the former chancellor, and his array of treasury experts, knew that the housing bubble was going to burst at some point – yet they encouraged everyone to borrow, borrow, borrow – to get on that housing ladder, no matter that you were living off credit, with nothing left to invest in a pension or put aside for a rainy day.

The big bad wolf of negative equity is about to blow away the dreams of thousands of people who borrowed when prices were high and interest was cheap. When front-loaded sweetener mortgage deals end, and jobs start getting lost, the prospect is grim.

Meanwhile, the mass house-builders who, like the wise piggy, thought they’d be safe with their Brookside-banal brick, tiles and bitmac – are facing the butcher’s machete. When houses are worth less than they cost to build, it’s no wonder that banks are now refusing to lend money and marking down assets.

The business model developers followed depended on increases in land value, not the bricks and mortar, with investors getting a quick return. So for the foreseeable future, as the market bumps along the trough of the 18-year housing cycle, this model is dead. Noddytown is finished.

It would be a bit unfair on the guys losing their jobs to call this a silver lining within the gloom – but it’s got to at least be seen as an opportunity to take stock. We do, after all, still have to deal with a housing shortage and a government target of building 35,000 houses a year.

So can we use this hiatus to find a means of not only building, but developing places and communities that are much better than we’ve been doing?

When public money is tight and banks have pulled down the shutters (and we can’t get the Highland Housing Fair off the drawing board), how do we find the means to build the equivalent of a new Inverary or Edinburgh New Town, where value is built-in to the bricks and mortar?

A clue may be found in an unlikely place – the Ministry of Defence, usually noted for wasting vast amounts of taxpayers money on failed computer systems and unusable nuclear bombs. My pal Sandy’s practice was involved in designing housing for soldiers, to be done to a PFI model, funded by a high interest loan from the bank. After 25 years, the MOD would own the property, just when the buildings were coming to the end of their useful life and had to be replaced.

Then a bright chap in the ministry was struck by an idea. Rather than housing being built which decreases in value, why not design a high-quality community, so that in 25 years there is a huge uplift in property value, which both the bank and the taxpayer own? Why not follow the examples of market towns and planned villages, where good design results in high value?

So the bank is lending money cheaply, and the MOD is investing in quality, with the knowledge that their equity shares will yield a lucrative return. And, most importantly, the soldiers, and future generations, are getting a wonderful place to live.

But can this idea be transferred to Civvy Street ? People in the apparently sleepy Perthshire village of Comrie think so. After noticing that vital local services were being lost to high-end housing, the community realised that their community would have not have a future if things continued as they were – other than as a commuter belt village and lifeless holiday resort. So they set up a trust – an organisation that has dual limited company and charitable status.

They now have a development plan which sets out ambitions for their community for the next thirty years. The community has identified themes, then projects, then actions. And because, like the MOD model, there is a vision of a community improving and gaining value, they have found funding easy to access.

They are now well on their way to restating vital services in their village, giving opportunities for business to expand, and providing housing for old and young alike. Local landowners, whether private or public, are buying in to the masterplan. Strategic support is coming from the planning department and service providers. And capital is pouring in from housing providers and private investors.

But most of all, it has the backing of a community where long-term regeneration and sustainability have become core values.

All of us share this aspiration: these are the buzzwords of politicians and architects alike. But Comrie is actually delivering. If communities could decide how they should develop, they would all choose to be beautiful places, with good services and attractive housing.

We would not allow our councils to flog off land to developers, meaning that we lose control of our assets. We would not impose local plans which have no relevance or commitment to the community. We would not allow development to be dictated by the whims of developers or stuck within a reactive and conflict-rivven planning process.

And we would definitely not choose the results: the dreadful roundabout planning and Tescoland of Inverness, the stack-them-high condominiums of the Clyde and Leith, or the failed “regeneration” projects of urban Scotland, where well-meaning social housing providers have built boxes then ticked boxes, only for their public investments to end up failed communities within a decade.

Laudably, the Scottish Government says that they want us to start building high quality sustainable communities. But the Scottish Sustainable Communities Initiative fails to describe a vehicle for delivering its aims

But strangely, it asks that developers should bring forward proposals of high quality, which can then access assistance for community consultation. Never has a cart been placed so firmly before a horse: as Comrie shows, the community must come first –then the development.

The government has to be the facilitator to allow our communities to grow. They should fund setting up urban and rural community trusts which can be used to provide a legal structure and an investment vehicle for communities to flourish. This is not a new idea – it has been done to great success throughout Dorset.

They should offer funding for master planning and community consultation and advice/education about where to seek professional help and what to look for (perhaps there’s a role for the Lighthouse staff here, where they could get in to communities and use their communication skills productively).

Once a long-term development plan is in place, local and central government should then help communities deliver their ambitions, by putting in infrastructure in advance, such as water and sewerage, local schools and roads. Service providers should plan for demand, rather than react to demand.

And the big bonus for the developers is that the unidentified risk in buying unserviced land is reduced – they can start competing on quality, building to the appropriate density and mix, as required by the masterplan.

None of this will help my friend who is still losing money and sleep.  A consolation may be if his misery encourages the introduction of the Land Value Tax, which would flatten out the boom bust economic cycle, and stop the present angst happening to future generations.

But this needs leadership from politicians. As Gordon Brown chews over food shortages, and Alex Salmond picks his way through the litter-strewn streets of Glasgow’s east end, both would agree that they want to see sustainable, beautiful communities.

But sentiment is not enough – it is about delivery, and this is our opportunity. Wimpey and the like are down but not out, and when they awake, we have to put them to work – on our terms.

The Fax of Life by Neil Stephen

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After losing my passport and my wallet to a frisky gang on an Athenian tube, I thought I was stuck. The lady at the airport check-in shook her head ruefully – no ID means no way home. The financial implications of sorting it out were huge. “But I have a twin,” I said, pointing plaintively at Ali. “Aha” she replied. “This could work.” And it did. I got home on the basis of a flesh and bone facsimile.

So there was evidence that copying is good – or at least useful. My mother didn’t mind splitting heirs and, apparently, architects can learn from this a lesson.

It was actually a client of ours who suggested that architects are obsessed with the original and lacked appreciation of the existing. We’re far too worried about being “creative”. He’s a naval architect, and is determined that we should follow his own profession’s ethos: find the closest design to what you want, and then see if you can improve it.

He insisted that the metalworkers of the Clyde could have built the sails of the Sydney Opera House no problem. His firm had been designing and building hulls like that for years – if only Jorn Utzon had asked, it could have been done without the fuss and at a fraction of the expense.

Too late now, but I told him no doubt he was right. What I didn’t tell him was that I was actually taught the art of copying during my year out in Hong Kong. But not in the way he was suggesting.

This was 1992, and I’d ended up in one of the city’s less prestigious offices after saying at the interview, “I’m here for the experience, not the money.”

I got the experience of being poor, in a cut-throat practice.

The managing director, a nice bloke called Roger, wanted a high-rise like one they’d made earlier. Except taller, and with two towers. My first job was to photocopy the building, and paste the two towers together. Then for the elevation to cut the tops off, and paste in another ten stories. Within half an hour, the design was done.

Tom Yip, the boss, would then bark for someone to do a sketch, add in some trees, perhaps a lady with a pram, and off it would go the client. Money in the bank; another triumph for the New Territories.

This was the start of my air-conditioned career of high-rise design. The basic principle was that you have as small an area of service core to rentable floor space as possible. There’s a lobby floor, the middle floors, and perhaps a wee special floor on top, just to cap it off. The plans were manipulated to fit the site, and the materials chosen to match the client’s car.

One time I was given the elevations of a huge thirty-story tower block, and told to make it look like a “Glasgow tenement”. I found it wasn’t possible. I was handed a standard plan for executive houses for the Chinese party elite, and told to do “ Spanish, Chinese, Italian and English versions”. Mr Yip came to see my labours, and after peering over my shoulder for an eternity asked me a question. “Neil. Why are you so shit?”

I should have asked him the same.

At a design meeting, he took the pile of drawings from the architect sitting opposite him (who happened to have started that week). The first drawing he didn’t like, I assume, as he shouted, “shit!” He then scrunched it in to a ball and threw it in to the architect’s face. He repeated this with each one of the drawings. The poor bloke sat with head bowed and took it.

I can hand-on-heart say that I’ve yet to do that to someone at Dualchas (get back to work Laura, you don’t have time to read this).

But back to real architecture. Incremental improvements to what has been proven to be successful. This is what the naval architect was talking about, not the depressing crap that was churned out by the likes of Yip San. Our client was of the opinion that architects like to reinvent the wheel – to do flights of fancy with other people’s money, rather than finding the best solution developed from the research and skills of others.

Fortunately for our client I’m not clever enough to reinvent the wheel, or anything else, but I like to think that we can learn from others and keep trying to improve.

As my old tutor Gavin Stamp used to enthuse, Greek Thompson didn’t copy the Greeks – he sought to understand ancient architecture and then use the vocabulary to create an architectural language of his own. His fancy only took flight after he fully learnt how to fly – and understood how to ground architecture within the fabric of a city.

Another thing Mr Stamp used to say was that the most important requirement of a building is charm (after keeping the rain out). If the building sat charmingly within it’s surroundings, and charmed it’s occupants, then the architect was close to doing his job.

And Andy MacMillan would say that dogs pee for location; people build buildings.

This all sounds rather basic, but for me it’s easier to understand than the complexity of Meier, or the angles of Zaha. Keep it simple, but aim for beauty.

Which takes me back to my twin.

Through a burdensome labour, my mother had followed the working methods of the naval architect. She launched Alasdair, her first design, and almost exactly one minute later, she slightly improved upon it.