I’ve been struggling to articulate the creeping malaise I’ve felt about politics for the past few months, and that came to a head with the recent meltdown in the Scottish Government, then the announcement of a general election at Westminster. If you’re not keen to read about politics, look away now.

Six weeks ago, it was announced that the Scottish Government was to abandon its “world-leading” goal to cut carbon emissions by 75% by 2030. Put simply, instead of improving things, our politicians are making matters worse – but perhaps not in the way you think. Surprised?

I’m conscious of the environment and invested in sustainability. Thanks to my far-sighted mentor Mike Gilmour, I worked on one of the first zero-energy housing developments in Scotland, which he designed along with Prof. Gokay Devici. That was fifteen years ago, and ten years before that the subject of my honours thesis was the salvage and re-use of scrap materials.

However, I’m critical of politicians who set unachievable carbon reduction targets – which scientists acknowledge couldn’t be met. That’s known as greenwash. Humza Yousaf did the right thing by acknowledging that the 75% target for 2030 wouldn’t be met; the Greens are much diminished by continuing to suggest that the targets should have been retained. The longer they insist, the more naive they sound and to me it comes across as hypocrisy, phonyism and pomposity.

By withdrawing support for Humza Yousaf and the Scottish Government, the Greens sided with the people who have blocked the fitting of carbon capture equipment at Longannet and Peterhead power stations, who have held up pumped storage hydro developments in the Highlands, and have objected to onshore wind developments.

In Mike Gilmour’s words, which paraphrase the US president Lyndon N. Johnson, you need to decide whether you’re inside the tent pissing outwards, or outside the tent pissing in. The way to make progress is to take part and to take people with you – to win them over to your way of thinking. The Greens are firmly outside the tent.

The concept of “de-growth” which they promote goes against everything we need: more homes, better infrastructure, modern hospitals, technology to create clean energy, and to refurbish existing buildings. For what it’s worth, my opinion is that the only way to deliver that is by encouraging the economy to grow, rather than shrinking it and thus destroying our ability to improve Scotland. We just have to make sure the economy grows in a clean way, rather than a dirty way.

The other self-interested point to make is that a shrinking economy will need fewer buildings, and that almost certainly means less construction work, hence fewer architects.

Strangely, the BBC and newspapers barely give airtime and column inches to independent, non-partisan bodies in Scotland, including a wide spectrum which takes in the Common Weal, the Jimmy Reid Foundation, The Fraser of Allander Institute, and investment firms like Baillie Gifford. The latter were the biggest investor in Tesla for many years, and whether or not you approve of electric cars, they’re potentially one way to reduce the carbon dioxide being produced by transport. Yet Baillie Gifford are currently being vilified in the media, thanks to a tiny group of activists who focus on a negative but refuse to acknowledge the positives.

The second strand of political malaise is much closer to our profession. While getting some work done to a crown (ouch) I had a conversation with my dentist, who explained that the Scottish Government has instructed the dental profession to reduce check-ups from six monthly to annually. Of course, you can go private, as many of my friends south of the border have been forced to do, as there are even fewer NHS dentists in England. My dentist is very much against that, as she believe that oral health will suffer.

Around the same time, I had a meeting with my solicitor. She also had concerns about government funding. In this case, her fee of £240/ hour is set at that level to cross-subsidise the court work which her practice carries out – in this case because the UK Government won't pay what’s required for Legal Aid.  Again, my solicitor thinks that the quality of justice being dealt in Scottish courts is reducing as the years go on.

Both my dentist and solicitor are around my age. Both studied at Scottish universities, both consciously decided to practice in Scotland, and both are unhappy with the way their professions are being undermined by government. It seems that Westminster and Holyrood are both determined to attack the professions.

In the architectural profession’s case, it’s been going on since the 1980’s when Thatcher legislated to remove fee scales, and the-then Prince Charles attacked Modernism and Modernist architects like ABK. The status of the RIBA’s fee scales changed from “mandatory” to “recommended” in 1982, then to “indicative” in 1992, following investigations by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and the Office for Fair Trade.

Architecture’s voice is weak, and that’s because our professional bodies don’t carry the weight of a $tn American social media company which employs ex-politicians to lobby endlessly behind the scenes so that legislation is watered down – or the weight of a politically-connected media mogul who is part of the Establishment and can thus keep press regulation as a voluntary rather than mandatory.

As a result, I’ve grown suspicious of activists, campaigners, pressure groups and protesters who seek the ear of politicians. Do they have your interests at heart? Think about that, before you make your mark on the ballot paper on Independence Day.

Next up, something entirely unrelated to politics.

By • Galleries: scotland, politics

Although I’ve been writing steadily in 2024 and have published in a few magazines including UR, I haven’t posted anything here for a while.

I’ve just been to the dentist for half an hour’s worth of crown preparation work, and I came close to posting an angry political rant as revenge on the world – but thought better of it. I’ve left the rant simmering in the “drafts” folder until I calm down, and to give John Swinney time to sort out the mess the Greens have made of our carbon reduction targets. Clownshow.

Meantime, a little anecdote from a few years ago, which is of course based on a true story.

Mr Wolf inherited the refurbishment and extension to Deer Island’s only hotel from a practice down south who won it in competition – then realised they would lose enormous amounts of money flying up to Scotland and taking two ferries each time they needed to visit site.

At first, they wanted Mr Wolf to take over the project in its entirety and carry his own P.I. cover; I believe that type of arrangement is known in the trade as a “poisoned chalice”. After lengthy horse-trading, they agreed that he could work freelance and would be covered by their insurance. Mr Wolf relied on his ten year old car to take him to the thirty year old ferry which crossed the Sound to visit the two hundred year old building.

He quickly discovered that things are different on Deer Island. The builders order everything online and collect it from the merchants in the Port; it has to come across on the big boat. The big boat only sails twice a week; the rest of the time, Deer Island is only connected to Scotland by a car ferry. Post persons on the island have little electric vans which never last the route, so they have to return to base where they swap to the diesel. Tourists are welcomed ambivalently; except when they’re not. Day trippers, as above.

On his first overnight visit to Deer Island, Mr Wolf discovered that the takeaway had a monopoly and kept short hours; you had to time your hunger carefully. Mr Wolf joined the queue and discovered that the woman behind the counter was appallingly rude. She was a human version of Shrek: surly, cynical, venomously cranky – and with a strong Scots accent. Innocent questions were met with sarcasm mixed with disdain: ordering a fish supper was a bit like visiting the zoo to watch the orang-utans misbehave.

When the customer in front politely requested something advertised on the board outside, her response consisted of one word: "No". This was repeated, accompanied by a deadpan expression, when he asked a follow-up question. Then he got a very sharp retort, along the lines that this isn't an establishment which sells anything “ready to eat” – despite the signboard outside to the contrary which advertised Fish & Chips.

When he dared to ask a fish-related question, he was met an even frostier reception. What about the crab turnovers which are advertised on the sign outside? "No, you can’t have any – I've not made them yet". Once he decided to order some fish suppers – seemingly the only food available from the rapidly diminishing options, she harassed him with, "So how many DO you want, I need numbers, NUMBERS…"

The customer eventually left, four fish suppers heavier and thirty pounds lighter. After he reached the counter, Mr Wolf asked if he could have an extra portion of chips? The proprietor told him curtly that she supported the local fishermen, not the local potato farmers.

During the wait for his supper to be cooked, Mr Wolf heard the two guys in the kitchen arguing with each other, "I kennt this wasnae haddock, why did you say it was haddock, I kennt you made a BIG mistake". Then one decided the chips were done, the other thought not, so he poked his fingers amongst the chips and squashed a few of them. “See, I telt you,” before dropping them into a polystyrene carton.

Mr Wolf offered Amex. The proprietor shook her head. MasterCard? Nope. What about Visa? She gave him a withering look. A £10 noted was accepted, ungraciously, but change wasn’t forthcoming until he asked for it. When the fish supper was being wrapped, he picked up the 70p Tesco ketchup bottle from the countertop, and discovered that it was temperamental with its squirts. It dribbled into the Formica. Mr Wolf set it down again and the proprietor scowled at him.

Finally leaving the chip shop half an hour after he joined the queue, Mr Wolf spotted a rat running along the side of the building, unperturbed, with a giant chip between its jaws. Mr Wolf headed in the opposite direction, to sit on a bench in front of the hotel, just downwind of the island’s distillery, then breathed in deeply. Next time, he’d have his tea in the hotel bar.

I hope that image cheered you up; meantime the dentist’s freeze in my upper jaw has almost worn off, so I’m away for something to eat. More from Deer Island in due course, as Mr Wolf discovers how difficult it can be to build things in rural Scotland.

By • Galleries: scotland, politics

I visited the Tartan exhibition at the V&A Dundee a few days ago, just before it was due to end. The show was wide-ranging, thought-provoking and left you wanting to learn more, which is always a good thing as you clatter down the stairs and back out into the wintry blast of the firth.

Outside the exhibition hall, in the first floor foyer where one of Ian Callum’s Jaguars used to sit, was a Hillman Imp with tartan seats. I read the caption closely, twice; despite what it said, the Imp wasn’t the last mass-produced car to be built in Scotland. After Imp production ended, the factory at Linwood – which passed from Rootes Group to Chrysler and would soon become Peugeot-Talbot – began making Sunbeam hatchbacks. Mass production in Scotland ended when the Sunbeam went out of production.

However, the initial jolt that things you read on exhibition walls aren’t necessarily true, did prompt another connection. Although it doesn’t get a mention in the Tartan exhibition, I recalled a snippet about the Volkswagen Golf GTi which demonstrates the international reach of tartan.

The decision to select tartan upholstery for the Golf GTi came from designer Gunhild Liljequist, who was a porcelain painter and chocolate box designer when she was hired, at the age of 28, to work in Volkswagen’s Department of Fabrics and Colours at Wolfsburg in 1964. She was one of the car industry’s first female designers and prior to her, the VW’s interiors were drab. Some would say that many of them still are.

Liljequist’s focus was on colour, trim, and interior detailing: when the first Golf GTi was planned in the mid-1970s, she was asked to design a “sporty” interior. Specifically, Scottish sportiness: the tartan cloth design. She recalled, “Black was sporty, but I also wanted colour and quality. I took a lot of inspiration from my travels around Great Britain, and I was always taken by high-quality fabrics with checked patterns … you could say that there is an element of British sportiness in the GTi.”

The fabric she chose was named “Clark” by VW, as a reference to double F1 world champion Jim Clark, whose his home in Duns isn’t far from the cloth-weaving heartland of the Borders woollen industry. Jim Clark was the talent of his era, and just like most great drivers he made speed look effortless, with none of the theatrical oversteer and screeching tyres you see in Hollywood films.

So the sporting check made its way to the grouse moor and the golf course, then it was co-opted by the fashion industry, and finally crossed over to motor racing. The GTi’s tartan upholstery is now referred to as “Clark Plaid”, which confuses people because tartan and plaid aren’t the same thing. The pattern on the x- and y-axes is identical in a tartan, but the patterns are different in a plaid. Nonetheless, tartan is often misrepresented as “plaid”, especially in the US.

Liljequist’s decision to use tartan-upholstered seats made the GTi of 1976 easy to distinguish from a base model Golf, just as she had intended. Fifty years later, tartan seats have endured, although the fifth-generation Golf GTi which emerged in 2005 had a classic black, white and red tartan renamed “Jacky”, perhaps in tribute to Jim Clark’s friend Jackie Stewart.

Meantime, for me, the best images in the V&A Tartan exhibition were firstly a shoot for Vogue magazine by Sarah Moon, a French photographer with a superb eye. True to the original clan tartans, prior to Walter Scott and George IV’s Public Relations visit to Scotland 200 years ago, the models in her photos wear subtle, autumnal colours. The second image is a Bo Diddley album cover which stands out thanks to the joy of his shy smile and pillarbox red tartan jacket. Compared to the po-faced fashion plates on show elsewhere in the exhibition, Bo Diddley is having the time of his life.

Passing the Hillman Imp again on the way out, though, something was missing. I had a nagging feeling that the V&A’s curators treat their subject as art historians would, rather than as a living tradition. Perhaps they didn’t speak to Johnstons, Isle Mill or Strathmore Woollens – who have a mill just up the road – while they were putting the show together. The exhibition needed a tangible demonstration of how tartan is made, with a Dornier P2 loom – like the working mills in Forfar, Keith, Elgin and Hawick use – so that visitors could see tartan cloth physically forming in front of their eyes, as the rapier swishes to and fro through the warp.

When folk reportedly say of the V&A, and other galleries, that “It’s no’ for us,” or that “There’s nothin’ for us there,” that’s sometimes construed as people in Dundee’s traditionally working class northern suburbs saying that they don’t have a connection to the arts, especially to visual culture. That shouldn’t be the case.

Just as The Rep theatre has made an effort over the years to put on shows which connect to the working traditions of Dundee’s jute industry, perhaps the V&A should look closely at what was (and is still) made across Tayside. Then, everyone in the city would make a connection with the tyres, watches, lasers, computers, confectionery, ships and many other things which their families helped to make, and which contribute to Scotland’s material culture – including the polychrome checked woollen fabric on the Hillman Imp’s seats.

By • Galleries: dundee, scotland

Right to Decide

01/01/24 12:27

A few years ago, a fresh critique of the Town Planning system came from an unexpected direction.

You can’t do this; You can’t do that; You can’t go forwards; And you can’t go back.

The psychedelic rock band Hawkwind released the single, Right to Decide, in 1992. Mark Radcliffe played it a few times on the radio, but at first I couldn’t decipher the lyrics. A week or two later, I came across a snippet in one of the inkies – weekly music papers like Sounds or Melody Maker, which have long since disappeared.

Right to Decide is about a long-running dispute over an illegally-constructed building: householder Albert Dryden took on the Planning department in County Durham, but got nowhere with them. Songwriter Dave Brock’s lyrics speak to the constraints which are placed on individuals who want to build, but eventually have to bend or ignore the rules: Dryden felt so strongly that he took the law into his own hands, and the story came to a tragic end when a Planning officer visited site.

Brock’s analysis is correct. There’s a massive list of Can’t Do That’s in the Planning system. Feu splitting, building on the Greenbelt, ribbon development, restrictive zoning, drainage embargoes, and the concept of plot ratio are just some of them. The 21st century perception is that Planning has become an expensive handbrake on progress. Everyday folk are required to engage architects, sometimes Planning consultants and occasionally solicitors, just in order to build a house extension.

Besides the hassle and delay, the suspicion of some is that Planning fees are just another tax: a way for Councils to raise money, justify their existence and maintain a larger public sector than right-wing politicians would like. That’s become an attractive narrative for the tabloid press: why can’t we just build what we want on the land we own? It’s a theme I explored a few years ago when I wrote a feature about Judy Murray’s plans for Park of Keir.

Yet Hawkwind come to the subject from a diametrically opposite direction to property developers, right-wingers and celebrity tennis mums. The band formed in the hippie squats around London’s Ladbroke Grove, and their politics are anti-Establishment, pro-anarchist and far to the left of the angry letters-to-the-editor writers in the Tory press. In fact, Hawkwind and libertarian free marketeers seem strange bedfellows, until you realise that everything printed about the Planning system nowadays is negative.

Right to Decide was a departure for Hawkwind, a protest song rather than an exploration of inner space. In the Indie era of the early 1990’s, they seemed like an anachronism from a time before I was born, part of the ancient scaffolding of rock ‘n’ roll which included King Crimson, David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Apparently, writing about music is as pointless as “dancing about architecture”; yet sometimes, it gives expression to people’s frustrations about how society is ordered, rather than just channeling teenage angst. At that point, it’s fair game to explore what the songwriter intended.

Meanwhile, developers feel projects are being delayed unjustifiably, when they have to appeal every other application to the Scottish Government’s Reporter. NIMBY’s feel their concerns are overridden, and local democracy is being trashed. Westminster feels that Planning is an impediment to meeting housebuilding targets – although perhaps the Planners are useful idiots in that regard, since they have become a scapegoat for Britain’s perennial issue of under-providing affordable housing.

Perhaps Right to Decide could become an anthem for the disaffected, from right-wing ideologues such as Michael Gove, to the anarchist squatters which Hawkwind once were.

Happy New Year, let’s hope that 2024 provides a solution to all our Planning problems.

By • Galleries: politics


18/12/23 22:45

The end of the year is a time for reflection, and I guess this year won’t be any different.
About to make a change in my own career, I inadvertently realised that I started out with a holiday job at a “traditional” slightly old-fashioned practice, then went to work for a “design-led” practice after I graduated – and spent the rest of my twenties there.  During my thirties I worked for a practice which blended good design with commercial acumen, then I worked for an out-and-out “commercial” practice for most of my forties.  Accidentally, the jobs seem to coincide with my own decades.
The categories are set in inverted commas because they’re categories which other people apply to the practices, rather than their own descriptions of themselves.
The Narcissism of Small Differences is a term coined by psychiatrist Sigmund Freud to point out that we sometimes find ourselves arguing about the trivial details which distinguish us from others, who are in fact virtually the same as we are.  To the layman, the differences are invisible, because all architects are the same – even those wearing bright red trousers or black polo neck jumpers.
A classic example of the NoSD are the imaginary lines we draw between what we perceive as different categories of practice.  So you get “conservation” practices, “design-led” practices and “commercial” practices, neatly pigeon-holed as if there’s no crossover between their work.  I blame tutors at architecture schools, who in turn lean heavily on critics such as Pevsner who had an art historical training.  Pevsner couldn’t help himself from sorting sheep from goats.

One result of sorting the sheep and goats into different pigeonholes (apologies for the strained metaphor…) is that swathes of good architecture are ignored.  I’ve just finished researching an article about the evolution of power station architecture in the UK.  It includes a discussion on the roles of the critic Reyner Banham and a practice called Architects Design Group in the development of the 2,000 MW capacity coal-fired mammoths which are currently being demolished in the Trent Valley.

ADG were based in Nottingham and their work was ground-breaking: they helped to developed an approach to landscape design which is still used today (the Zones of Visual Influence technique), and their work won many awards at the time. However, ADG’s work is no longer widely known, quite a lot has already been demolished, and very little has been written about it.
That’s the curse of being a “commercial” practice: your work isn’t taken seriously by historians and academics.
An opposing example is a small project which a big-name architect took on a few years ago.  Desperate to wring some expression from the brief, and to demonstrate what a “design-led” practice could achieve, they took a speculative bungalow built by Bett Brothers in a town with a history of masonry construction.  It was a perfectly ordinary house, designed in the modern vernacular of the 1970’s, which just needed modernising and upgrading.
It could have been upgraded almost invisibly by adding 300mm of Rockwool in the attic, 150mm in the solum, cavity fill insulation in the walls plus triple glazed windows – allowing it to retain its character by tidying up the white Skye Marble harling, and setting it off with black eaves boards and window frames.  Instead, the walls were overclad in rough-sawn timber boarding and stained in a virulent colour, then a clashing colour was chosen for the replacement windows, and an oblique dormer sprouted from the roof.  Now, the house looks utterly out of place, as if it’s been parachuted in from an Icelandic fishing village and repainted by fashion designer Paul Smith.
That’s the curse of being a “design-led” practice: you strain to do something visibly different, when you could have done something thoughtful instead.
I think I was happiest during my thirties, working with a mentor who understood intuitively how to design effectively while making money, who valued good architecture above novelty or self-indulgence, and who saw there wasn’t any mileage in trapping himself in a pigeonhole.  I learned more from him than from all the other firms I worked for, put together.

As is traditional, I wish you Happy Christmas and hope you avoid being pigeon-holed – although at this time of year, partridge-holing or perhaps even turtle dove-holing would be more appropriate…


By • Galleries: canon

While legislators down south wrestle with how to implement Judith Hackitt’s Golden Thread, the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire is being felt in Scotland, too.

In her Building a Safer Future report, which was published in the wake of the fire at Grenfell Tower in London, Hackitt recommended the introduction of a “golden thread” to ensure that building safety is taken into account at every stage in a building’s lifecycle.  At first, it wasn’t clear how that would work in practice, but it turns out that the impact is far reaching.  Even though the requirements of the Scottish Technical Standards are seen as being slightly tougher than those down south, and the Building Control system here is more strictly applied than the third party verifier model used to date in England, they have lots of things in common.

Fundamentally, we buy the same materials and products manufactured by the same corporations and sold by the same merchants. Despite the fact we practice in Scotland and are not directly affected by Hackitt’s report, we’ve discovered that it's no longer enough to state that a material complies with the relevant standard. Now we also need to produce fire test certificates for everything we specify:

• Intumescent paint
• Fire-rated windows
• Fire doors, of course
• Sandwich cladding panels
• MF partitioning systems

I’ve always tried to avoid sandwich panels, due to their lack of fire resistance, the plastic foam insulation inside each one which is environmentally nasty thanks to the blowing agents used in its manufacture, and the near impossibility of recycling panels at the end of their life – but we’re sometimes forced to use them, to meet a client’s branding requirements. American motor manufacturing corporations even have a habit of specifying US cladding products which simply aren’t available here – and even if they were, they wouldn’t meet our standards because they haven’t been fire tested in the UK.

However the last category, MF partitioning, has proven to be the trickiest. Over the past two or three years, manufacturers have quietly re-tested and re-badged all of the walltypes in their White Book, Green Book or Pink Book.  Suddenly, internal wall constructions which we’ve used for years to achieve 60 minutes at 6 or 7 metres high, no longer comply.  As a result, all the internal wall constructions which we specified during the Covid era, marked up on the walltypes drawing, then detailed, have had to be revised. 

Where we can’t get Warrington fire test certificates for particular build-ups, such as the fire-resistant “umbrella” where a compartment wall head hits an existing sandwich panel roof, we needed to get fire engineering assessments which took much longer than we expected.  Then we discovered that one of the major plasterboard firms no longer markets horizontal Shaftwall, which is proved to be an acute hassle since it’s essential to form the fireproof lid over the fire escape stair enclosures, if you’re to avoid using wet trades and heavyside materials. So now we have a mix-and-match building, using systems from rival manufacturers, which won’t greatly please the contractor’s buyer.

I guess that’s one difficulty of working on refurbishments of modern commercial sheds, which I’ve had to do once or twice recently – rather than taking either an older industrial building with a concrete frame and brick walls, or designing a newbuild on a clean sheet of paper. The older industrial is bombproof: the frame and walls are inherently fire resistant and will achieve 4 or more hours of fire resistance, effortlessly. The newbuild can be engineered to do whatever’s required from the outset.

Unravelling the Golden Thread means that more product information is needed at an earlier stage of the scheme, and each Building Warrant application becomes a larger package which takes longer for the BCO to assess – and at the very end of the project, O&M manuals will grow to be two or three times their current size.  Architects, structural and fire engineers have to put together a narrative, telling the story of how they struggled to make relatively modern retail sheds and warehouses comply, and documenting the increasingly complex systems they needed to do it.  However, if that saves even one life, it's a price worth paying.

By • Galleries: specification

Sunday was the first bright, clear day in Angus for a long, long time, so I went a few miles out the road to Ardestie.  The souterrain there, just off the A92, sits on a hillock that rises gently from the surrounding fields.  It's a place I like to visit during short days when the light slants low across the Firth. It can be peaceful there too, when the wind blows the noise from the dual carriageway away in the opposite direction towards Carnoustie.

At the entrance to the souterrain, a Pictish earth house built perhaps three millennia ago, is an interpretive board.  Often these boards are a cop-out, because we enjoy it better when we have to figure out for ourselves what we're looking at.  However, rather than an artist's impression of Picts with woad tattoos and Neil Oliver mullets, the board includes a photo of the RCAHMS team who excavated the earth house in 1950.

We learn that FT Wainwright led the dig, and there he is in an Indiana Jones canvas jacket and boots, with clay pipe and homburg hat both tilted at a jaunty angle.  Then there are the assistant diggers, keen young women in short sleeved blouses and sensible slacks, and young men in sweaters with strange, pre-Brylcreem hair piled up above their foreheads like a cream horn pastry.

But the interesting aspect is what you don't see, either in the exposed souterrain or on HES's board.  A while after the dig was complete, the archaeological findings were written up and published in a learned, peer-reviewed magazine.  In return for academic scrutiny and the certainty that experts had checked the 3000 year old facts to the extent that anyone can, the article was circulated among a coterie of specialists.

It would be left to someone else, perhaps writing in the Scots Magazine or Scottish Field, to write for a broader, interested public.  That article would likely be shorter, use little or no jargon, and would use hooks to pull ancient history towards the modern world. But in return, it reached tens of thousands of people, rather than a few hundred. That's the contradiction I've come across time and again during my career. 

Mostly I write for trade or specialist magazines like Urban Realm and Blueprint and Archive, and in parallel I've contributed to titles such as Leopard, and also ended up writing for Scottish Field a few years later. Their bag is cultural journalism with a more popular remit (definitely not "populist", now that word has been debased by far right politicians).

Occasionally I've been invited to contribute to academic titles, but that’s where the system falls down, at least for someone who maintains that research and publication are an important part of being an architect, yet doesn't have any ties to an institution.

Academic magazines generally don't pay contributors, because they can get away with it.  They know that academics with tenure have a stipend and receive grants for research and conference attending, and are mostly glad of the chance to publish – plus that keeps them in a job, indirectly.  Some academic careers rely on making a set amount of journal contributions each year.

As the late Charles Rattray told me ruefully, Architectural Research Quarterly or ARQ, where he was associate editor for many years, had keen contributors but a fairly small circulation.  He sometimes asked himself, what's the point of publishing if your ideas and hard work don't reach as wide an audience as possible? Sometimes you write for the love of architecture only, reaching a small audience of peers – but that isn’t quite the same as journalism.

Thankfully each piece of research eventually finds a home, hopefully including a 6000 word essay which I wrote last year during a difficult time in my life.  The research and writing helped to take my mind off life in the evenings.  The essay was short-listed in a competition, but didn't win: nonetheless the judges were keen that I should publish it somewhere.  It wasn't bound for the society's journal, nor for another they suggested which is based in the same city but not only doesn't pay for publication – it takes and retains copyright to your text and images, forever!

That practice should be outlawed, since it takes advantage of the young and keen but inexperienced. In the real world, an author or photographer always licences their work to a magazine for publication, normally first publication rights only. Anything else is exploitative.  Sometimes you have to set your ego aside, when trying to get your name into print, and be patient.  You consider your options then decide, "None of the Above”.

By • Galleries: books, dundee

The last few years have proved that governments aren’t qualified to predict the future, especially when it comes to technology.  When they take a stake in something, they usually back the wrong horse.
During the 1960’s and ‘70’s, Britain developed Advanced Gas-Cooled (AGR) nuclear reactors while other countries built power plants based on Boiling Water or Pressurised Water reactors. The AGR concept was more sophisticated, but the reactors were fiercely complex and as a result extremely expensive.  In Jonathan Glancey’s introduction to a book about Dungeness power station, he posits that AGR reactors were, at that point, the most complex machines every devised by man – even more so than Concorde or the Apollo spacecraft.
In the early 1980’s, the UK government backed INMOS to develop microchips called “transputers”, which it’s acknowledged were about 30 years ahead of their time, but never quite caught on.  Their factory in Newport, Wales is still going and is currently caught in a controversy about Chinese ownership and proprietary knowledge.
Recently, Ferguson Marine’s dual-fuel ferries have made the news for all the wrong reasons. CMAL apparently insisted on their propulsion system being fed by either gas oil (diesel) or liquified natural gas, but the shipyard has struggled to make this hybrid technology work in practice.  As with nuclear power plants and microchips, their heart was in the right place, but politicians and civil servants think and work in a different way to scientists and industrialists.
The latest eye-opener appears in Section 7.2 of the June 2023 edition of the Technical Standards, which were published recently.  This mandates that every Scottish newbuild, or house with on-site parking which is undergoing major renovation, should be fitted with a 7kW electric car charger.  Every flat with parking inside its curtilage should be provided with something similar.  There are some caveats about costs and enabling infrastructure.
Cars have defined the shape of our cities, from the Radburn Layout to out-of-town retail parks.  Accommodating cars also influences the shape of individual buildings, from inner city basements incorporating Wöhr Parklifts, to carports and double garages in the suburbs.  There are 25 million homes in the UK, of which around 5.5 million are flats or maisonettes.  Give or take, that means there are around 20 million houses, most of which would need to be retrofitted with chargers if electric cars are adopted by the mass market.

Whether or not you think electric cars are a good thing, many industry experts feel that electric power may be a stepping stone en route from petrol and diesel to more truly sustainable fuels. Given the high cost of electric cars, the issues with range and finding chargers that are unoccupied and actually work, plus the fact that some of the ingredients of modern batteries come from unsustainable sources, battery electric using current technology isn’t ideal. 

I first came across electric cars in reasonable numbers when I visited Bergen ten years ago: I was amazed to find that all the taxis were Teslas, which at that point seemed futuristic but also unaffordable.  Today, there are alternatives.  It looks like buses will evolve directly from the current diesel-electric hybrids to hydrogen fuel cell power – there are already a number of hydrogen buses running in Aberdeen.  JCB have begun to build excavators with hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines, and shortly the first few jet aircraft will be converted from burning kerosene to synthetic fuels.
By comparison to those 20 million or so houses, there are around 8000 filling stations in the UK.  It seems logical to convert these petrol/ diesel stations to hydrogen incrementally, as demand increases, and that’s bound to be easier, cheaper and faster than fitting 7kW chargers to every house.  Yet that’s what’s being suggested, with the Scottish Government enacting the fitting of chargers in the Building Regulations, and the UK Government insisting that the sale of new petrol cars will be phased out by 2030.
For architects, the charger mandate means a few things.  It fixes the parking place so that the car becomes an immovable object, rather than something that can be tucked out of sight.  It increases the house’s electrical load, and with fast chargers that probably means you’ll need a three-phase supply.  We already know from a couple of current projects that the power infrastructure isn’t adequate to cope with demand, and chargers won’t be futureproof when future cars are inevitably developed to new and different standards. 
History teaches us that by the time a reasonable number of houses and flats have been built or renovated to include a car charger, the world may have moved on – perhaps to synthetic fuels and hydrogen fuel cells. What we could be doing meantime is NOT buying cars; but for those of us who need them, perhaps we could keep using older cars for a while longer.

By • Galleries: technology

Having tracked down a missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle, I thought it was worth updating and re-posting this post from 2016 about Dorran Construction and W, T & H Dye Builders. By accident, it’s begun to evolve into a snapshot of housebuilding in Tayside during the 1960’s and 70’s.

During the 1950’s, the Hull construction firm of R.G. Tarran, builder of the Tarran Prefab, adapted the former dyeworks of Pullars of Perth to produce the Dorran House, a single-storey bungalow built from precast panels.

Dorran houses are like Structural Insulated Panel Systems or SIPS houses, but pretty much without the “I”. The Dorran system consists of storey-height precast panels which are 16 inches wide, which seems an odd width for a structural module, but we now live in a world which has the luxury of setting out in metric, usually on multiples and fractions of 2.4 or three metres.

Whether Dorran licensed the system from Tarran, or the company was a direct subsidiary, isn’t clear – but during the 1950’s, they sold to the public sector with houses for the Forestry Commission in outlying parts of the Highlands, small developments of social housing in rural counties such as Argyll and Caithness, and even domestic accommodation at RAF Saxa Vord on Shetland.

Dorran Construction later offered a range of bungalows to private buyers; the housetypes had couthy names such as The Glen Shean, The Glen Varloch, The Glen Frugart and The Glen Clova. By the 1960’s they were fabricating around ten houses each week at their precast factory in Perth, and a total of 2500 had been erected by 1962.

According to the Building Research Establishment (BRE) report I consulted, two-storey Dorrans have a characteristic protruding band at first floor level, like a string course, formed by a precast ring beam. Timber floor panels were strapped to the ring beam with joist straps, and the precast panels were tied together using steel bolts. Some Dorran bungalows appear to have a concrete ring beam at ground level, too.

For vapour control, the concrete panels were lined with 2-ply bituminous felt as a damp-proof membrane. When the wall was erected, the joints were filled with gunned bitumen, then pointed up in cement mortar. Interestingly, a newspaper article from the 1960’s notes that one of their outstanding features was the level of insulation in the walls and ceilings. A half-inch-thick internal layer of expanded polystyrene sat between the concrete panel and its plasterboard lining … half an inch, which is laughable nowadays, but better than nothing.

By the 1970’s there was disquiet about non-traditional methods of construction, and two of the Dorran houses’ failings were shared by several other systems. The panels’ lack of decent, continuous insulation led to condensation problems, and serious corrosion of the steel ties between the panels was a by-product of that.

The BRE diagnosed the problems during the early 1980’s, which eventually led the designs to be designated under the Housing Defects Act 1984, which effectively condemned them and made them un-mortgageable. However, the 1984 Act was soon consolidated into the 1985 Housing Act, which provided grant assistance for people who had unwittingly bought former council houses constructed using problematic systems.

Perhaps if the Dorran system had been constructed using stainless steel fixings, and with effective insulation, the design might have succeeded. As it is, the remedial works entailed in fixing the problems range from adding a masonry skin outside the precast panels, to propping the roof then demolishing the panels and building a brand new external wall. Instead, many chose to demolish the existing house and start again, often building a timber kit on the site instead.

While it’s true that we probably won’t make exactly the same mistakes again in future, we may make slightly different mistakes in pursuit of the same goals. A few years ago, I worked on a project with some of the first zero energy houses in Scotland, built using a SIP system comprising JJI joists skinned with OSB board, and a cavity filled with injected cellulose fibre.

There have been no insulation or corrosion issues that I’m aware of – but the high degree of airtightness meant that when tenants switched off the whole house ventilation system (because they were concerned about running costs) they suffered from condensation problems in kitchens and bathrooms.

A different kind of prefabrication, a new type of problem, caused partly by a novel approach to design and more so due to poor communication between the landlord and tenant about how the house worked. The other lesson of Dorran Construction Ltd. lies in how we may try to meet today’s unmet demand for housing by using “off-site construction”, which is the new, untainted name for system building, a.k.a. prefabrication.

In the early 1960’s, Dorran looked southwards and after 1964 during which it made a profit of £96,000, the firm opened a precast factory in Consett, and another in London. By 1967 the firm had built 4000 houses across Scotland, but by signing up to fixed price contracts in England during an era of rampant inflation, Dorran committed its fatal mistake.

The company lost money on its English contracts, the factories in Consett and London closed, and the parent firm in Perth struggled to survive. By the time that Dorran Houses began displaying the first symptoms of structural corrosion, the firm was no longer producing them – and the post-war housing boom was over. As demand slackened, the industry pulled back from mass produced housing.

“House factories”, the dream of technocrats and Le Corbusier alike, are much trickier to achieve in practice than you might think. Dorran Houses have been condemned, both literally and metaphorically, as a failed experiment in mass production. After the 1984 Act, mortgage lenders viewed precast panel houses as “Non-Traditional” and as far as most buyers were concerned, that euphemism was the kiss of death for prefabrication.

Another name from Tayside during the 1960’s and 70’s is W, T & H Dye Ltd. which was founded in Dundee around 1959 and fell into liquidation in 1988. In the intervening thirty years, William, Thomas and Harry Dye were less radical than Dorran, and they targeted a different market. If little has been written about Dorran, I’m not aware of anything at all about the Dyes.

Their family-run business generally built their own developments. They concentrated on small sites in the West End of Dundee, Broughty Ferry and Monifieth, and their houses were thought of as better quality than run-of-the-mill bungalows built by other firms of the time such as Interbuild, Pat Dempsey or McCabe. Dyes typically built cavity wall detached and semi-detached houses, with harled walls and panels picked out in Fyfestone. The 1960’s houses between Victoria Street and Grange Road in Monifieth are typical of their output.

The Dyes didn’t attempt to compete directly with Bett Brothers of Downfield, who were Dundee’s largest housebuilder for several decades. Betts built thousands of houses in the western, northern and eastern suburbs of Dundee – plus Perth, Fife and Aberdeen too. Before they were taken over by Gladedale, they were Scotland’s biggest house developer north of the Central Belt.

Betts employed their own architects, including Bert Stevens and the late Ron Valentine who later worked in partnership together. While I was preparing a portfolio for my architecture school interview, Ron Valentine kindly set aside a morning to chat about the course, show me his own drawings from Duncan of Jordanstone, and offer some pointers.

A year or two after I published this piece, the son of one of Dyes’ directors, also Harry Dye, got in touch. He was generous with his time and very helpful in providing more background about the family firm, but he pointed out that some of the developments I highlighted in Barnhill – including a couple of dozen houses on the Dalhousie Feus in Ardmore Avenue, half a dozen in Holly Road, and a couple in Navarre Street – weren’t actually built by Dyes at all.

As I’d relied on anecdotal information, I held my hands up and promised to track down whoever did build those houses in Barnhill. Their facings in Leoch stone, harling and natural slate roofs combined to create what one ambitious estate agent described as “Voysey-style” bungalows. Not quite, but some of their larger houses were vaguely Arts & Crafts in a watered down fashion. While a Bett bungalow in the area we’re talking about now sells for upwards of £200k-£250k, the houses in question are now worth at least £300-£350k.

People notice the difference in quality, and there’s a reason why many homebuyers are conservative. Most have little say in what their house looks like or how it’s built, yet they tie up most of their wealth in it and sink much of their sense of self into it, too. “Traditional” housing has always been popular: partly because it’s time-proven, and also because it doesn’t lose its value in disastrous ways, like Dorrans’ houses did.

The developer of those houses in Barnhill built in the spaces left behind by other developers – they were evidently happy to achieve a slow and steady rate of sales on gap sites. They built on ransom strips, backlands, landlocked plots and spaces left over after planning. The rising tide of land values means that the quarter- or fifth-acre parcels they used are now only a seventh- or even an eighth-acre in area!

Nowadays, small-scale developments avoid Planning Gain and Section 75 agreements (providing parks, playgrounds, contributions to roads schemes and primary schools), and the complexity of SUDS systems using swales and constructed wetlands. The developer in Barnhill avoided those too, but one giveaway is that some streets have unmade pavements and unadopted roadways: they were “unbonded” developments. In other words, there weren’t financial bonds in place for the roads and sewers when the development was completed, so the local authority wouldn’t touch it.

On reflection, “barriers to entry” for this type of housebuilding seem low. Many joinery firms entertain the idea that if they can build houses, they should also be able to put together developments of houses. But the functions of a developer – land acquisition, finance, project management, marketing – are very different to those of a builder, and for the past thirty years they’ve become ever more complex.

Similarly, with the coming of the timber kit from firms like Interbuild and Stewart Milne, cavity walls with stone facings became an anachronism. Also virtually gone are the “All Trades” building contractors who directly employ their own concrete workers, bricklayers, masons, workshop and site joiners, roofers, painters and decorators. Likewise firms with joinery shops which can manufacture their own doors, windows and stairs: the best you can ask are Howden kitchens, Magnet doors and kit panels rattled together with a Hilti gun.

As a consequence, houses are built to meet the ruling standards of the day, but the construction is less robust with gang-nailed trusses rather than couple roofs, and timber kit walls versus cavity masonry. They’re generally finished to a lower standard, with flush ply versus panel doors, and MDF rather than hardwood facings.

Traditionally-built houses from the 1960’s and 70’s would be tricky to procure in large numbers nowadays, but they’ve proven to be a remarkably good store of value over the past half-century. Perhaps, depressingly for those with a “social” model of housing in mind, that’s the real message.

Meantime … the final piece of the jigsaw? A few days ago, I discovered that the houses in Ardmore Avenue, Holly Road and Navarre Street were developed and built in the early 1960’s, by Hills Brothers of Brechin. That firm wasn’t even on my radar, so there’s another rabbit hole to disappear down. Perhaps they were designed by a local practice, in the same way that the now-forgotten architect James A. Fraser of Blairgowrie designed houses for A&J Stephen of Perth during the 1960’s…?

By • Galleries: technology, dundee

A couple of years ago, Holyrood’s presiding officer Ken Mackintosh met Bertel Haarder at the COP26 conference.  Haarder was President of the Nordic Council, which consists of elected members from the five Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, plus the Faroes, Greenland and Åland. 
Shortly afterwards, the biggest Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, published a long piece entitled “The Sixth Nordic country”, and a Finnish MP called Mikko Karna said he would launch an initiative to achieve observer status for Scotland on the Nordic Council.  So they postulated that the sixth Nordic could, possibly, potentially, be Scotland.

This is a theme which Lesley Riddoch has conscientiously pursued for over a decade, and her recent book McSmörgåsbord, subtitled, “What post-Brexit Scotland can learn from the Nordics”, tried to kindle a political debate about the parallels and differences on either side of the North Sea.

At the time, there were a few headlines in the popular press about Scotland becoming Scandinavian, then the story was swiftly buried under other things – Covid, Brexit, Trump. Yet we still gaze across the North Sea occasionally, wondering whether the Nordic countries are a good model for what Scotland could become. 

Scandinavia is seen as having egalitarian values and wise government.  The Norwegians have been canny, investing their oil wealth for the future.   The Finns have been steadfast in holding off their neighbour, the increasingly grumpy Russian bear.  The Swedes have always been clever engineers – developing cars, aircraft, ships and heavy engineering. And the Danes have achieved excellence in architecture and design. 

Danish design companies have become global brands. A few names spring to mind in furniture, lighting, jewellery and audio: Skovby, Louis Poulsen, Georg Jensen, Bang & Olufsen – plus of course the architect’s favourite brickmaker, Petersen Tegl. Many of their products were created by designers with an architectural training, such as Arne Jacobsen, Jorgen Moller and William Wohlert.
Denmark is a small country on the North Sea coast, not so different in size and population to Scotland. The two countries have traded with each other for centuries, so they share a common heritage. But there is the paradox. Scotland had (and in some cases, still has) comparable designers and companies working in similar areas of the economy to the Danes, but despite the efforts of The Lighthouse, A&DS, sporadic visits to the Venice Biennale and so on, Scotland’s reputation for design-led manufacturing is patchy.

Linn Products make audiophile stereo systems in an impressive factory designed by Richard Rogers. Linn’s products are high end and uncompromising: the company’s founder Ivor Tiefenbrun even developed his own microprocessors, when commercially available computers wouldn’t do what he wanted them to. Critics occasionally snipe at Bang & Olufsen, claiming that they make steam-powered spaceships which look futuristic but use old technology; the same criticism can’t be levelled at Linn, which remains at the cutting edge of audio technology.

McIntosh of Kirkcaldy are best known for their mid-century modern furniture, particularly teak cabinetry and sideboards. From 1948 until 1983, Tom Robertson worked as head designer and while his most notable design, the Dunvegan sideboard, could be mistaken for a piece of Danish Modern, the company was proudly Scottish. McIntosh employed skilled cabinetmakers who used traditional techniques, and their emblem was the Scottish thistle and crown. I can vouch for the quality, as my folks bought a Macintosh dining table when they married in 1969 and it’s still as good as new. The firm is still in business as ESA McIntosh, although no longer making the design-led timber furniture which made it famous.

Coughtrie have occupied the same factory in Glasgow since their inception eight decades ago, and they still make their SW wellglass external light and SP bulkhead which were designed during the Second World War and have gradually become design classics. The wellglass fitting in particular, with its cast aluminium top, and teardrop-shaped glass is a characteristic "retro" form. Coughtrie were established in 1941 on Montrose Avenue in Hillington Industrial Estate and their lights are beloved of salvage hunters and those in search of industrial chic - think of TV celebrity antique dealers with flat caps.

Caradale was the last traditional brickmaker in Scotland and could easily have developed along similar lines to Petersen. Their brickworks at Carluke and Armadale used ancient Mitchell of Cambuslang brick presses, and their Hoffman kilns were fired with coal and oil: they were the last of the so-called colliery brickworks, and the last maker of Scotch Commons. They had a proud heritage and made a unique product, yet theirs is a sad story.  After the firm closed down, I visited its brickworks at Carluke and Armadale. While I was standing in a clay mill building at dusk, having just shot some photos, a former worker appeared though a hole in the wall where a door used to be. He’d come for a final look, before the brickworks was pulled down, and his parting words were, “I’ll better away up the road afore I start to greet.”  
The truth is that for all the talk of Scottish Design (common usage always places those words in capital letters), we may have fostered the careers of some architects and designers, but we haven’t championed the companies we need to make the things they design. If we want to join the Nordics, that’s something which needs to change.

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