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August 1 2008

Think not what you can do for your professional institute…

Stop press: important professional institution fails to sell prestigious Georgian headquarters in central Edinburgh to finance move to more modern premises.

No, not the RIAS (I know, the word ‘important’ was a bit of a giveaway), but the Law Society of Scotland whose hopes of raising £6m for its Drumsheugh Gardens’ premises have been dashed by the slump in the capital’s property market. The Society had been keen to leave the building because of “its old fashioned image, lack of storage space and inadequate facilities for visitors”, a description strangely similar to that used during RIAS’ Council debates only a few years ago over proposals to sell the Incorporation’s Rutland Square premises when the city’s property market was at its peak.

At that time the choice was between custom-designing its own new premises or moving to rented accommodation in a (then) recently completed, award-winning speculative office development. It being the RIAS of course, neither opportunity was realised - a combination of Council members whose ability to look to the future makes even Gordon Brown appear as a paragon of decisiveness together with the reputed influence of one prominent Edinburgh architect who was not about to allow the opportunity to design the Incorporation’s new headquarters slip through his fingers managed to kibosh the whole idea.

Whatever the circumstances, the moment passed and with it the chance for the Incorporation to enter the 21st century in fit-for-purpose premises. The current state of the capital’s commercial property market must make any move in the foreseeable future the stuff of pipe dreams and whilst the worthy members of the RIAS’ Council will no doubt continue to pontificate on the matter, the fact remains that the Incorporation’s shabby Rutland Square premises are a national disgrace. Almost every other country in Europe has a decent architecture centre and a national headquarters building that combine to act as a shop window for the skills of its architectural community: what will it take for the RIAS to get its act together and give the profession a base it can take pride in?

Sustainable Restoration?

Ever since the decay of Kinloch Castle on Rum was highlighted by Griff Rhys Jones on the BBC’s ‘Restoration’ programme, the building’s future has continued to exercise discussion as to how the funds necessary for restoration might be found. The A-listed building needs a lot of dosh - £10.6m at the latest estimate – to restore and improve the castle’s accommodation and education facilities, money that owner Scottish Natural Heritage simply doesn’t have. Intriguingly, the castle cost the equivalent of £11m in today’s money to build.

SNH inherited the building when it took over the care of Rum, but not having any particular remit to look after historic structures, it has ever since been accused of neglecting the 111 year-old building. The plan now seems to be for SNH to sell other surplus property to generate a couple of million and kickstart an emergency rescue by the newly formed ‘Kinloch Castle Trust’. By this stage you’ll be thinking “OK, and the other £8.6m?” and perhaps even “what will it actually be used for?” Well, following the ‘Restoration’ series, SNH commissioned the Prince’s Regeneration Trust (yes, that Prince, wearing his Duke of Rothesay hat) to come up with some ideas, the result of which was that of the three options put forward, the preferred scheme is one that includes the repair and conservation of the principal wing of the castle and its contents, the creation of six apartments in the rear wing and a new 42 bed Education and Residential Activity Centre.

It would be good to see the business plan that put this combination of uses together, especially since its realisation seems to depend substantially on further dollops of public funding coming from sources as diverse as Historic Scotland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Highland Council. With Lesley Riddoch chairing the Scottish Government appointed and fabulously titled ‘Rum Task Group’ the capital required for the new Trust to carry out the plan will no doubt be found, but given Scotland’s long history of discovering inappropriate new uses for historic buildings, experienced observers may well wonder whether the revenue streams from this remote and most likely seasonal project will stack up quite so well.

Strangely Alien, Part 2

Is it really only four weeks since I wrote about Aberdeen City Council’s strange approach to delivering Section 75 Agreements? In that time the administration’s lawyers have moved with remarkable speed to produce a ‘secret’ internal report on the matter that claims the “damage done to the authority’s reputation and professional standing of staff involved had been severe”. It goes on to suggest that Lib Dem Councillor Paul Johnston’s comments highlighting the £5m deal as a ‘sweetener’ to the Trump Organisation could be considered a breach of the councillors’ code of conduct.

Now far be it for me to raise an eyebrow at this interpretation of events, but I suspect most objective observers will think that such an accusation merited investigation to see whether or not land worth millions was actually being given away without any councillor having had the opportunity to discuss it, never mind approve it.

But this is Aberdeen, remember, and with a track record of victimising councillors who have had the temerity to object to the Trump rollercoaster, far better to deal with the matter internally or – even better – refer it to the Standards Commission, since it has the power to officially censure, suspend from all council meetings or disqualify councillors for five years. The referral option is, however, fairly unlikely since the Commission might well feel it necessary to delve into the decision that prompted Councillor Johnston’s comments in the first place. 

Never mind eco-towns, let’s have eco-waterfronts

The UK government’s plans for 10 new ‘’eco-towns’ look more and more unrealistic by the day, with the lack of clear preliminary thinking a major factor in the level of opposition each proposal has encountered. That plus the determination to drive the new developments through in the face of established local plans.

Say what you like about the existing planning system, but it is difficult to argue that there are compelling reasons to promote eco-towns outside the existing statutory plan-led system, and you can bet opponents throughout England will not be slow to seek judicial review to ensure proper scrutiny of the developer-driven proposals. Such moves will of course consume time, a critical issue with an election no more than two years away and with a Conservative Party having withdrawn its initial support for the programme, the near certainty that - presuming it is elected to government - the idea will quickly wither and die south of the border.

But is the notion of the eco-town a completely undeliverable phenomenon and is there an opportunity for Scotland to pick up the reins and show a better way forward? Looking to examples in Europe, there are clear lessons that, if learned, could salvage the disaster areas that currently form the waterfront areas of our major cities. Sjostad in Sweden shows the kind of successful dockland development that is possible if planning and design are predicated on sound environmental principles rather than the greedy motivation that underlies the buy-to-let market’s overprovision of one and two bed flats in these areas.

With the latter market in near-terminal decline, some other route is required to deliver waterfront Nirvana and the sooner we start looking at new ways of planning and providing the necessary infrastructure the more chance we will have of attracting – and directing - developer interest once the credit crunch has subsided. It does need to be led by the Scottish government though, since our local authorities and port operators have proved themselves singularly bereft of the imagination and determination necessary to successfully transform these areas. One for the Directorate of the Built Environment at Victoria Quay to show some joined up thinking on?

Not many people know this

The acronym HBG has been a part of this country’s construction firmament for so long that few will recognise its full title as the Hollandsche Beton Groep. All that is about to change however with HBG henceforth taking the name of its parent company in the Netherlands.

As rebrandings go, this one may not travel particularly well and, one suspects, especially not to Glasgow. Whether or not the new name will inspire confidence and respect in the city’s construction sector remains to be seen, but look forward to site signboards for Bam Construct UK and its siblings Bam Design, Bam Properties, Bam Plant and Bam FM being quickly defaced. Curiously the full title of the organisation is not being used, perhaps because Royal Bam already has other applications in this country.

And Finally

Richard Murphy has developed something of a reputation for travelling by microlight to site meetings; less well known is Dualchas’ Mary Arnold Forster’s penchant for travelling by kayak from her base on Skye to building sites on outlying islands. Clearly those architects who feel worthy from their use of bicycles have some way to go if they’re to rise up the league table of unusual transport modes, but it would be good to know what other methods members of the profession employ – especially in winter – to get from their offices to sites and other meetings. Cross country ski-ing anyone?

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