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Saltire Award winners

19 Nov 2004

by Penny Lewis

Old Fishmarket Close by Richard Murphy Architects
Lotte Glob House by Gokay Deveci
The Icon by Elder and Cannon
Succoth Avenue by Reiach and Hall

The Tanks, Wormit by Pask Architects
The Drum, Bo’ness by Vernon Monaghan Architects
Queen Elizabeth Gardens, Glasgow by Elder and Cannon
Ronaldson’s Wharf, Leith by Dignan Read Dewar and Fraser Brown McKenna
Tarland, Aberdeenshire by Michael Rasmussen
Minnow House by Nicholas Groves-Raines Architects

The winners of this year’s Saltire Awards come from across the housing market and across Scotland, but they were all built by the private sector. Among the commended developments there are just two public housing projects, Queen Elizabeth Gardens in the Gorbals and Ronaldson’s Wharf in Leith, which is a private development with a public housing component. The fact that public sector features so peripherally in this year’s awards is a reminder of how much the Saltire Housing Awards have changed since their inception in 1937. The purpose of the society was to promote “all aspects of Scottish cultural life”, a clarion cry that sounds vaguely familiar today. The difference is that back in 1937 housing was a central issue for government and therefore considered central to cultural life.

The purpose of the Saltire housing panel was to review the public sector housing, to perform a role as the public client at a time when there was no-one to advocate in favour of the end-user. In the 1940s and 1950s award winners tended to be medium-rise blocks located in suburban environments. In the 1960s high-rise and industrialised house-building and the hillside terraces of the New Towns picked up most of the credits.

By the 1970s the restoration of old houses and towers became a preoccupation and by the 1980s the early concerns about social housing and the more recent concerns about architectural heritage converged into a preoccupation with regenerative schemes. The most successful schemes of the early 1990s were commissioned by housing associations but by the end of the century it was clear that there was a major shift taking place. Social housing landlords had less money to spend and, with a few honourable exceptions, appeared to be less interested in design quality and public space and the private developers, conscious that there was money to be made in the residential market, were responding enthusiastically to planners’ requests for denser developments with a strong sense of the public realm.

Which brings us back to the present day, at a point when it is the private sector that is determining the character of our new environments. Where does that leave the Saltire panel? In a world where the consumer can make their own choices about the size, shape and character of the homes that they buy, the role of the Saltire panel is no longer to advocate on behalf of the public for better housing standards and design innovation. Many of the decisions made by judges focus on the contribution made by the building to the public sphere. The Old Fishmarket Close in Edinburgh impressed all of the judges with the way in which it sits comfortably in a difficult historic site and, at the same time, animates the pend on which it sits. The Icon building by Elder and Cannon on Glasgow’s Clyde Street was a more contentious winner, because it does not follow the architectural conventions of the Glasgow city grid. However, in addition to having an inventive wedge-shaped plan designed to make the most of river views, it does contribute decisively to the riverside. Succoth Avenue by Reiach and Hall is housing at the top end of the housing market in an extremely affluent suburb. It picked up a Saltire Award because it is extremely well designed, detailed and built, but it is also an imaginative approach to the challenge of building a block that reflects the qualities of the surrounding suburban villas. Lotte Glob’s House by Gokay Deveci, a simple, barrel-vaulted structure in Sutherland, addresses the thorny issue of how rural housing sits in the land. “It is wonderful to see a contemporary dwelling on a prominent and sensitive site that is at once bold and appropriate,” commented one of the judges.

by Alison Blamire

The Scottish Executive recently stated that the government has a duty to create conditions that allow creativity to flourish in Scotland. The Saltire Society’s longstanding aims include supporting Scotland’s cultural heritage and advancing Scotland’s standing as a vibrant creative force in Europe. Within this context, the Housing Design Awards Panel’s remit is to promote a high quality of design and creativity in residential buildings.

Residential buildings play a crucial role in making places, as they make up the vast majority of the built form in our settlements. The importance of “place” as an aspect of our culture is reflected in the role of architects, who, under their professional code of conduct, have a duty to the general public, who come into contact with their work, as well as a private duty to their immediate clients.

In assessing the awards, the panel pays particular attention to the contribution to making places made by each project. This is especially true of large-scale residential projects, where there is an opportunity to shape public and private space, but it also applies to smaller projects, where there is an opportunity to reinforce, enhance or transform an existing spatial pattern.
Saltire Housing Design Awards are self-evidently awarded for good architecture, and this year’s crop demonstrates that there is a high level of creativity out there. The good news is that most of our awards and commendations in 2004 are from the private residential sector and it is encouraging to see these setting the “gold standard” for private house building.

The bad news is that a large number of residential projects in Scotland, particularly those from volume house builders, are not represented in the Saltire Housing Design Awards. This is disappointing if we are hoping to improve the quality of our places in Scotland and increase creativity across the board.
Ultimately, we would hope that in terms of “place”, public sector and private sector residential work would be indistinguishable and of equally high quality of design.

At a time when the Cultural Commission is considering how best to foster talent and creativity across all sectors of society, using the “cultural sector” (which includes architecture) as the creative impulse to drive this forward, it may be worth reflecting on the prerequisites for good architecture to come about, with a view to addressing some attitudes which need to change.
For good architecture, in the first place, you need a good client. How do we get good clients? There are some, but there are not nearly enough. We need to work out how to create more good clients.

We need to create a better public understanding of good design. This includes education in school but TV has proved that it is also an effective medium for changing public perceptions, with programmes such as “Grand Designs” capturing people’s imaginations. We need to educate clients to value creativity and to increase their confidence when dealing with creative people. We need to change attitudes within organisations so that they recognise the need for projects to be design-led. If they appoint design champions for their projects, they need to support them from within, not work against them. Too often the “bottom line” rules and tools such as value engineering are used as cost-driven hatchet jobs.

So what makes a good client? The job description might include the following: A good client wants good architecture and is prepared to take a chance to get it. A good client values talent and creativity. A good client needs to trust their architects and to know when to support and when to question. A good client is definitely not a pushover. A good client is prepared to do and pay what it takes to create good architecture. A good client understands that creativity and working at the “cutting edge” means taking a risk, and that sometimes risks are worth taking.

Secondly, you need a good architect. How do we get good architects? In fact, we’ve been producing talented and creative architects in Scotland for some time and we continue to do so. They’re educated – a process that begins in school, continues in architecture school and subsequently in architectural practice. Good architects learn a lot of their craft in practice and, since a creative approach involves thinking things through from first principles, each project has a learning curve. Creative thinking takes time. This is something that those who don’t do it often fail to appreciate, with the result that sufficient time is not made available during the process of design, and remuneration for creative thinking is poor. In reality, the premium for the creative aspect of a project should reflect the unique skills that a good architect has to offer.

Good architects value their creativity but also need opportunities to demonstrate their skills and capabilities. As a country we need to create a climate for creativity to flourish. We could do a lot more to support our native talent so that it is positioned to take on significant projects. At the moment we have a large number of very small practices (many with very talented and creative people) operating in a marketplace where clients do not feel confident about commissioning them for significant projects. Other small countries such as Eire, Norway and the Netherlands have found ways of developing and nurturing their own architectural talent. Indeed, over the past 10 years, the Dutch have created an architectural “brand” which now works both in the Netherlands and all over Europe.

We also need to bear in mind that architects don’t operate alone in creating good architecture – they usually lead the design team and administer the building contract. For the design team to operate more creatively, a greater number of professional colleagues in the surveying and engineering fields need to become more creative. This is particularly true of surveyors, who have gained increasing influence in a variety of roles across the construction industry as a whole. We also need to reverse the trend where the QS is appointed separately from – and sometimes in opposition to – the rest of the design team.

Thirdly, you need a process that ensures that a good client finds a good architect for their project. What is a good procurement process? How will it be able to predetermine good architecture?
As Jon Rouse, the former head of CABE, has pointed out, recent developments in the construction industry have focused on the quantifiable and measurable aspects of architecture – “commodity” and “firmness” – and ignored the third part of the Vitruvian triangle – “delight”.

This risk-averse culture, which relies on ticking the right boxes, now pervades the process of procuring the design team – as the typical OJEU “pre-qual” document amply demonstrates – emphasising previous track record or experience of a particular building type or process as a major criterion for selection, and all but eliminating the possibility of fresh talent coming through. The news that social housing projects are now required to follow OJEU rules for procurement is likely to extend this attitude to the residential sector.

CABE advocates the use of Design Quality Indicators in an attempt to redress the balance in favour of “delight” – but, as there is a whiff of “painting by numbers” in this approach, there is not the fullest of confidence that it will be successful. However, at least it brings “delight” back into the equation.

In addition, the fee bid process known as “best value” militates against talent and creativity because it drives fees down to a level that is unsustainable in the long term for many professional teams. This penny-pinching approach is counter-productive. Since the design team’s fee is minuscule when seen in terms of the project’s capital value or cost in use over the lifetime of the building, another method of negotiating a fair professional fee for the project should be adopted.

If we seek a better way of finding, using and fostering the talent and creativity, we need to find a procurement process that includes judgement, is able to take calculated risks and values creativity.

Fourthly, and finally, you need a good contractor to construct the project. We need to work out how to foster an attitude where the craft of making buildings is respected and recognise that the craftspeople who make buildings should also have the opportunity to become more creative.

The construction industry has seen a lot of change over the past 10 years as a result of Latham and Egan. A rash of new procurement processes have replaced the “traditional” route. Some of these processes work well, some don’t. The principal differences between them lie in the emphasis they place on cost, quality and time.

There is no doubt that the traditional route favours quality and shares risk between the client and the contractor. However, it has fallen out of favour, having become bogged down in adversarial attitudes. Partnering is now the new antidote to the adversarial approach and the signs are it may give a new lease of life to traditional procurement. At least it recognises that the process of construction should be co-operative and not confrontational.

If competitive tendering is seen as the only possible method of selecting a contractor, then the rules on acceptance of lowest tenders should be reviewed to eliminate the problems of too-low tenders, which reinforce a confrontational claims culture.
If we are to foster talent and creativity in the construction industry, we have to shift attitudes away from an overly “contractual” approach to one where pride in the quality of the built product and craftsmanship are much stronger driving forces. That way the industry will both provide a service to consumers and have a better chance of creating the listed buildings of the future.

Back to November 2004

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