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.

By • Galleries: Uncategorized

For a spell in the 2010’s, I did consultancy work for an environmental charity which was headquartered down south, but worked all over the country.  They were keen on Homezones, pedestrianisation and the like, but their roots lay in the construction of bike paths along abandoned railway lines. 

It’s ironic that many of the lines they chose to save became battlegrounds.  For example, when the Airdrie to Bathgate line was reopened as a railway, there was friction when the charity realised that their bikepath would disappear.  It raised a rhetorical question. Should bikes take precedence over railways, despite the fact that the infrastructure was built for trains in the first place? A compromise was struck, the trackbed was bought back by the railways (Network Rail, it had been owned by BRB Residuary before that) and a new bike path was constructed alongside it.

Of course, other organisations have utilised the trackbeds of dismantled railway lines for footpaths and long distance tracks.  Around Dundee, stretches of the Dundee to Newtyle line have become footpaths – such as the Miley, leading from Lochee towards the Kingsway along a muddy, litter-blown cutting.  Beyond Rosemill and Bridgefoot, its character changes completely: it was once a goods line serving the Leoch quarries which provided Dundee with building stone, now it runs through a completely de-industrialised landscape.

The goods branch to Fairmuir and Maryfield, both of which were early industrial estates, has largely disappeared under houses and parks. Just like the first mile of the Dundee to Forfar Direct line, which later becomes a footpath as it crosses the Seven Arches viaduct, then heads northwards beyond the city boundary and disappears into scrubland where railway bridges have been demolished, leaving only a series of stranded abutments punctuating the trace of a line along cuttings and embankments.

The photos show another former rail line a few miles north of Dundee, which once ran from somewhere to somewhere. It’s always cut through a rural district but it passes sawmills, oil depots with giant tanks, farm steadings with silos and grain dryers. Once, all those were fed by rail, now the trackbed is choked with brambles, birches and willow trees and thorn bushes.

I’m sure it’s far down the list of railway lines to be reinstated: the Borders railway, the Alloa line, the Levenmouth branch and perhaps the Peterhead and Fraserburgh tracks will gradually come back to life, but others have been forgotten for good. Perhaps that’s because this line is far away from the decision-making centres of the central belt. It’s also far from the heartland of environmental charities, populated by student activists on fixed gear bikes, middle class commuters on Bromptons with laughably small but lethal wheels, and the angry, angry men who take many-thousand pound carbonfibre cycles for Sunday races on public roads.

As I discovered when I revisited the trackbed with a friend, nothing has changed since my last visit a decade earlier. The irony is that this area – beyond bus routes, miles from post offices, corner shops, GP practices, village schools and further education colleges – and most of all, far away from opportunity and well-paid jobs in the city – is crying out for the better transport links that doing something productive (anything productive) with the trackbed would bring.

By • Galleries: ghosts, dundee

Arkwright Ruby

09/01/23 21:43

We're about to start investigating a high profile building with a failing roof, which I daren't name, even for the best of reasons. It's a piece of "iconic" architecture by a Big Name, and already I notice a touch of schadenfreude from people who always suspected that the Big Name didn't have the architectural firepower to detail junctions and penetrations or the nous to handle the weathering of complex surfaces.

So it proved, and a few years after completion the envelope appears to be staining badly, and leaking through rooflights and perhaps other joints and vertices too. It has an unusual form, but pure “form-making” is the preserve of second year students and paper architects; fabric design takes longer to understand and the further into practice I go, the more I realise I’ve still got to learn.

Part of the issue is that the building with the failing roof is a one-off in every sense. It’s an experimental prototype, probably the only building of that ilk the practice has designed, using systems and techniques they won't use again. It’s a Mark 1 building, when the client really needed a Mark 10 version with the detailing refined and all the problems ironed out.

So I come back to something I've written about here before, perhaps to the point of repeating myself.  An architect who doesn't master materials and detailing can never really be a fully-formed architect. If you don't know which material or system is appropriate for the form you’re drawing, all is lost.  You’re just like a would-be musician who hasn't progressed to read music, so plays everything by ear.

Until he reached his late 30's, my father was a commercial grower: firstly in a market garden producing flowers, fruit and vegetables for the wholesale market, then later in commercial landscaping where he was involved with nursery work and planting schemes.  As an aside, Dad’s career evolution showed me there’s hope for late developers: another example was Howlin Wolf, who was 42 years old when he signed to Chess Records.

The final project my father worked on before he shifted industries was the landscaping of the Scottish Amicable site at Craigforth on the edge of Stirling. Craigforth is about to be razed for redevelopment and I have conflicted feelings every time I drive down the A9: the trees and shrubs around the buildings are some of the last living links with my Dad, and that's particularly poignant at this time of year.

Hard landscaping was important at Craigforth and other projects he worked on in Dundee and Glenisla, but my father’s main raw materials were plants.  Three years ago when I sorted through things after he died, I found some old seed packets which he had set aside.  Not the A6-sized consumer packets with luridly colourful photos which contain around 20 seeds, but miniature brown paper envelopes, each little bigger than an old-fashioned railway ticket, but with four or five gross of seeds in each.

One packet was marked “Arkwright Ruby”. I had to look that up, and discovered it was an F1 hybrid Viola. An old-fashioned cousin of the pansy and the violet plant, it flowered for six months at a time, producing profuse, coppery-maroon petals. Dad had a connection to Carter’s Seeds of Raynes Park in London, but this particular packet came from Thomson & Morgan of Ipswich.

My father also had dozens of monographs dedicated to plants and plant families, and he kept a note of varieties, yields, successes and failures.  Seed packets along with diaries, leaflets, flyers and bulletins from the Ministry. By recording how well every crop did each year, he built up a record which became more detailed as the years passed. Each market garden, croft and farm has its own unique microclimate and soil, slightly different to those around it.  For that reason, textbooks can only be so helpful and beyond that point, empirical information is vital.

I don't think it's too stupid to suggest that architects should be this close to their raw materials, too.

How many architects can say they walked the context before designing a building, observing how well similar materials used on similar aspects have lasted?  Paddy Hislop at TRADA is a really helpful source of advice on timber cladding; for other materials you have to develop relationships with experienced suppliers.  That's how I learned about plywood, from one of the original directors of Rembrand Timber, who entered the industry just after the war when factories which made de Havilland’s timber aircraft were re-tooled for furniture and construction.

So before I even considered a form-making exercise, I’d make sure I really understood which systems were appropriate to achieve it – and after I’d built one, I’d monitor it in order to learn how to improve it the next time around.

By • Galleries: specification

Sometimes it feels like trying to resolve competing demands, like thermal performance against the limited depth available in a wall or deck build-up, is like trying to post an octopus through a Venetian blind.

The push to improve U-values has run all through my career. We scoffed at the buff-covered copies of the Building Regs which the greybeards had, prescribing walls which didn’t even achieve 0.45 W/m2K. The old-timers each had their own dog-eared copy, but when the new Technical Standards came in later in the 1990’s, the office only bought one copy and it came in a ring binder: all the better to swap pages out each time the thermal performance of walls and roofs became more stringent.

As values rose from 0.45 to 0.3 then 0.2 W/m2K, how best to achieve them became a concern, because material performance didn’t improve so insulation thicknesses just kept increasing. I vaguely remember 100mm kit walls, which soon became 140mm studwork, then 200 or 250mm JJI joists were used as studs to accommodate increasing depths of glasswool, cellulose or rock fibre.

As a result, we've always been up against it with wall linings and timber kit build-ups and rather like computers during the 1990's, as soon as processor speed and RAM increased according to the so-called Moore’s Law, the gain was more than absorbed by a more sophisticated programme carrying out ever more intensive tasks.

Similarly, despite pressure to move from glasswool and stonewool to polystyrene (EPS or XPS) polyurethane (PUR), then poly-isocyanurate (PIR) foams, which offer progressively better R-values: as soon as thinner insulation was developed, the minimum U-value improved too, so you needed more of it. The net gain in footprint won back was nil, because materials technology and the Technical Standards had fought themselves to a standstill.

However, what feels like one of the few genuine pieces of materials tech progress in recent decades has become a commercial proposition: Vacuum insulation, or more accurately evacuated insulation. As you may remember from the teacher’s explanation of the Dewar Flask in Higher Physics, a vacuum, or the absence of air, has no thermal conductivity and that makes it the perfect insulant. Nothing can pass through a vacuum apart from radiation, so no heat is lost to either conduction or convection.

Vacuum insulated panels (VIP’s) have been in use for a few decades in refrigeration plants, cold stores, cryogenic freezers and the like, manufactured by companies like Morgan Advanced Materials (the UK company which was previously known as Morgan Crucible). They’ve only made their way into the building industry in the past decade or so as firms like Kingspan and the German firm Va-Q-tec began production. Around 2005, VIP’s were introduced into the construction industry in Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia, to begin with as deck insulation on balconies and other locations where deep build-ups cause detailing headaches.

VIP’s are made from fumed silica sand, which forms a porous matrix from which more than 99.999% of the air is evacuated. The silica is encapsulated in a vacuum-tight envelope made from aluminium foil, and the key thing is to make sure that isn’t penetrated by a nail or screw. In 2022 terms, silica is inert so it won’t harm the environment, and it’s not flammable so it won’t go up in flames, like foam insulation frequently seems to do.

In thermal performance terms, vacuum panels have a lambda value four or five times better than the best foam insulations, and one analysis demonstrated that a VIP board 20mm thick achieves the same thermal performance as mineral wool or PUR insulation board with a thickness of 185mm.

At the same time as VIP boards emerged, a new type of double glazing was developed.
Similarly to the ever-thickening walls conundrum, upgrading traditional sash and case windows to double glazing often means using bulky glazing units which ruin the fine lines of the transoms and astragals.

Vacuum glazing is similar to a double glazed unit in construction, except that it doesn’t have a gas in the cavity, it has a vacuum. That vacuum is far more effective than filling a 20mm cavity with a noble gas like Argon or Krypton, and therefore only requires a 0.2mm cavity - hence the unit’s thickness is greatly reduced. Some of the first vacuum glazed units to come to market are the AGC Fineo and the Pilkington Spacia; for example, a Super Spacia unit achieves 0.65 W/m2K, against standard 4+20+4mm double glazing which achieves around 1.2 W/m2K.

Thanks to vacuum technology, finally we have the potential to return to the slim glazing profiles and slender walls of the 1960's… and even more importantly, to use far less raw material in order to save much more energy, and in doing so to reduce the gross floor area of the building. That’s a triple win, and as a result you may not need to post your octopus through a Venetian blind after all.

Happy Christmas when it arrives. :-)

By • Galleries: technology, specification

An acquaintance tells laypeople that architects learn something new every day – and it’s true, sometimes we do.  There’s no upward limit to the knowledge available about all the buildings for all the purposes built during all the periods of history. Conversely, there comes a point in your career when you realise the enormous extent of what you don’t know.

Sometimes we’re confronted with a single problem that seems to consume everything else. In a way that makes the world simple, for a little while, and it’s almost comforting. In a working lifetime you might develop an expertise in a specialism – but even that only helps you to map the extent of all the things you don’t know in more detail. Eventually you’ll realise that your knowledge will only ever be fragmentary.

Of all the subconscious traits our little ape-descended brains exhibit, one of the most telling is the Dunning-Kruger effect. Soon after I left architecture school and began work, I recall an offhand comment from someone much older that architectural graduates embody a dangerous mix of ignorance and arrogance.  If that sounds cheeky and judgemental, it's underlain by research which shows that people with a lack of experience sometimes overestimate their ability and knowledge. 

That's the Dunning-Kruger effect, and put simply it states that you need to know a reasonable amount before you understand how much you *don't* know.  We tend to learn by designing buildings, taking lessons directly from the process, discovering significance as we go along.  Perhaps that’s the best way to learn – a gradual accumulation of knowledge and expertise. 

At the time of hearing that comment, I would have argued that other attributes make up for a lack of experience.  Perhaps that proves Dunning and Kruger’s thesis.  However, two or three years later I did begin to acknowledge the extent of just how much I didn't know.  I've written about that epiphany before, and the dangerous implications of a special type of ignorance: while a lack of knowledge can be fixed by learning, denying the need to learn is a special kind of ignorance. 

So I have a soft spot for Dunning and Kruger.  Their work, like that of many other sociologists and behavioural psychologists, seems to be the preserve of stock investors, psychometric analysts and management consultants, but it should really be at the heart of everyone's self-knowledge, especially when we embark on learning something new, such as BIM, Passivhaus design or the like.

Mere technical knowledge takes time to accumulate, but give it a few years and a few projects, and it happens. Much more difficult are finding strategies to deal with people. Particularly those well practiced in trying to get one over everyone else – such as politicians. For example, somewhere in Spencer Walpole’s History of England he mentions a government minister – it may have been Palmerston – who justified his passive approach to a foreign crisis by characterising it as one of “masterly inactivity”.

That phrase was originally coined by Sir James Mackintosh, who apparently did much of the research for Macaulay’s similarly titled History of England, and used it to describe parliament’s traditional stance. Soon masterly inactivity became a catchphrase, rather like “economical with the truth” has more recently. Amusingly for the people who wrote History of England, Macaulay had Scots parents and wrote for the Edinburgh Review, and Mackintosh was a Scot, full stop. It seems the masterly inactivity of English writers in those days prevented them from writing their own book for themselves…

In practice, masterly inactivity can be helpful, especially on occasions when angry emails arrive from contractors or clients, usually late in the afternoon when you’re starting to think about dinner. It’s dangerous to react instantly and provoke a whipsaw of actions and reactions, culminating in furious back-and-forth accusations. Instead it’s better to stop and draw breath, and preferably sleep on it before replying calmly the next morning.

So masterly inactivity has potential, especially when paired with fait accompli. You know the script, when architects tussle over a detail with contractors. Sorry mate, too late - it’s already been built! Both sides know that un-building the detail is likely to be impossible given cost and time pressures, and the sly look on the contractor’s face tells you that he thinks he’s won. But just occasionally you can condemn the work, and that may utterly change the relationship – paradoxically, sometimes for the better.

Another ploy was spotted a while back on a political blog. “I recently heard a story about an architect who would feature massive stone lions in the atrium of whichever building he was designing, knowing that the client would focus on getting rid of them from the plans, distracting them from asking for other changes.”

That’s called a diversionary tactic, and I suspect the lion architect was Edwin Lutyens. Its effect is much the same as presenting a “strategic” scheme at the PAN stage of a project, knowing that the number of houses or parking spaces will be negotiated down by the Planners. If you want 60, ask for 100: in the end, you might be able to split the difference.

Masterly inactivity, fait accompli and diversionary tactic aren’t terms I'd normally use here, but they form three sides of a Rhinehartian decision-making dice (along with pwned, fluke and chance). That ingenious device helps us work out what the pro’s would do, when faced with the same situations.

In the cult novel The Dice Man, the narrator Luke Rhinehart decides to hand his life over to randomness. His biggest decisions will be made by the dice. In one episode, he leads a mass escape from a secure mental hospital. In another, he tucks his young son into bed and then, after consulting the dice, leaves his wife and family for ever. It’s an unsettling book, and Rhinehart is an exemplary anti-hero whose behaviour leads to his ruin.

Sometimes rational thinking doesn’t come up with the goods. So where did I put that dice…

By • Galleries: politics

During a recent trip to an archive north of the Highland Line, I began to ponder the evolution of colour conventions. I watched the archivist unload cardboard boxes from the filing trolley, then untie the little cotton ribbons to release rolls of tracing linens and dyelines. The Victorian and Edwardian working drawings had brightly-coloured walls, roofs and founds which peeked out from the curve of the sheets.

Architectural drawings from the Italian Renaissance were usually monochrome, but I’ve read that the French military engineer Sébastien de Vauban was the first to introduce colour to his sectional drawings. Eighteenth century architects in France and the Low Counties appear to have adopted de Vauban’s idea of shading the cuts on cross sections with a pink wash. I assume the habit spread across Europe thanks to foreign architects who trained at l'École des Beaux-Arts in Paris then returned to their home countries.



From there, a set of conventions developed, and most Dean of Guild and contract drawings from the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century use the same set of colours to denote materials. The best of them have ruled Indian ink lines and vivid washes of colour on stout cartridge paper that’s stayed white – rather than the dull, fugitive watercolours of the early 19th century on cheap paper which by and by has faded and foxed.

In the Georgian era, two centuries beforehand, the drawing began with pencil guidelines, then the architect drew over the pencil sketch using a ruling pen with india or bistre ink. Typically thinner lines or diluted ink were used to outline more distant forms; heavier darker lines outlined the structures in the foreground. Unlike today, human figures, dogs and cars weren’t added to anchor the architectural scale. Finally, the drawing was brushed with diluted washes of colour.

The consensus seems to be:
Yellow for wrot timber
Pale orange for unwrot timber
Brown for masonry
Red for brickwork
Dark blue for iron and steel
Turquoise or green for concrete
Bright orange for copper
Purple for insulation and also render or roughcast
Pale blue for glazing



So two hundred years ago, the architect and artist used exactly the same techniques and materials. You only have to look at the work of Francis Towne, the “Lone Star of Watercolour Painting” as Adrian Bury’s book called him, to see how he influenced the architectural perspectivists working even a century later, and their line and wash techniques were also used for orthogonal drawings.

Speaking to a recently-retired colleague, he recalls that colouring-up drawings for Warrant was an absolute requirement back in the day. It had to be done for all drawings whether new build or extension, although latterly the requirement was only to colour the extended area.  Colouring started to fall by the wayside as printing methods changed. For example, architects used to make copies on linen sheets, but those were supplanted by plastic sheet copies, which he recalled were terrible things to crayon on …

I entered practice towards the end of the tradition, so only had a few years of sending Building Control “two papers and one plastic” (some older officers even referred to them as, “two papers and one linen”) before the Portal appeared and the chore of printing and folding then the Post Office run, was replaced by the chore of uploading PDF files. Even so, a few Building Standards departments such as Midlothian still request a drawing in what they refer to as "traditional" colours…

Until then, I coloured up a print occasionally, but it was usually with coloured pencil on a plain paper copy by that time – or maybe the last of the dyeline prints, during holiday jobs while I was still at architecture school. The death knell for hand colouring drawings would have been accelerated as CAD came more to the forefront and practices started invested in colour-capable printers which allowed the drawings to be more realistically rendered by computer.



Downtakings are still dotted red, which is a convention that survives – even though the multi-coloured sections and details haven’t lasted into the CAD era. But coloured pencil or CAD both compare unfavourably to the pleasurable but exacting task of using coloured wash. The archive drawings were originals drafted on heavyweight cartridge paper, and were effectively pen and ink manual copies of the original drawings made for tender, contract or record purposes.

Plan copiers were rare beasts at the turn of the 20th century, and while big city practices like Keppies had access to a heliostat or velograph machine at the time when Mackintosh was working on the Glasgow School of Art, it took several decades for diazo (dyeline) copying to emerge as a universal method. Until then, you worked on originals, and copies were manually made on tracing linen.

As my retired colleague noted, “I’m not sure at which stage junior staff would have been entrusted with colouring up and potentially ruining expensive, hand-drawn proposals. Pretty far down the line, I expect.” Running a wash and getting it badly wrong would be a game of jeopardy which the apprentice just couldn’t afford to get wrong. There’s no Ctrl-Z command in watercolour painting.

Meantime, a side effect of spending time in the archives was the need to buy an Imperial scale rule to measure the archive drawings with. All I’ve ever used is metric, whereas this is the realm of 1/12, 1/24, 1/48 and 1/96 scale. So off to Ebay we go…

Nevertheless, it could be worse. They said of the Vikings “Once you’ve paid the Danegeld, you’ll never get rid of the Dane” and CAD software firms learned that lesson at the start of the CAD era in the late 1980’s. Once you’ve bought CAD licences, you’re trapped – the software libraries and proprietary filetypes are embedded in ways that would be painful to unpick. So you have to keep stumping up licence fees. CAD software firms are the classic rentier capitalists.

I’d be very interested to read more about the evolution of colour conventions from years gone by: I searched books and hunted for research papers, but didn’t find much at all. Like the Giant Rat of Sumatra in the Sherlock Holmes books, the story will probably never be told. As Conan Doyle explained, it may even be a story for which the world is not yet prepared…

It’s also a demonstration of the tacit knowledge an older worker holds in his head that a younger colleague can access by picking his brains. From experience, some graduates thinks you can learn about most things online, with little need for guidance or mentoring. Here’s a small lesson in just how wrong-headed that notion is.

So please get in touch if you have anything to add, as it seems this tradition has more or less died out. That’s a pity, because colour makes drawings more legible, and can lift them from mere working drawings into architectural artwork.

By • Galleries: ghosts, canon