Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Festering sores and parapets

It's difficult at times to raise a head above a parapet and speak out about something you feel is wrong; it's especially difficult when it involves crticism of fellow professionals, but there are occasions  it has to be done if you can look yourself in the eye in the mirror in the morning.

So well done Jon-Marc Creaney of GCA Architecture + Design Glasgow!/scarpadog/

for penning this piece for the STV News Airdrie website, about the new Community Health Centre undergoing construction.

I hope he and STV don't mind me stealing the text and his photographs. There's not a lot to disagree with in what he says. However, is it too late to stop this? And in a wider view what on earth is the purpose of Architecture + Design Scotland  if a damning Design Review results in no change to the plans?

Airdrie Community Health Centre

Local architect Jon-Marc Creaney gives STV Airdrie his view about the development of the Airdrie Community Health Centre
13 October 2010

In 2000, Airdrie gained the dubious honour of winning the Carbuncle Cup for being the most dismal town in Scotland.

Ten years on, huge sums of money have been invested in the town, millions on streetscape improvements, the award-winning and environmentally accredited business centre has been constructed, and the oldest church in Airdrie , Old Wellwynd, which lay empty for fifteen years, has been rescued and re-used through conversion into a modern community facility.

Airdrie’s problems are shared with many places in Scotland; it is a former industrial town struggling to find a new identity in tough economic times, and it is a victim of poor planning and design decisions of the past few decades.

At the time it was given the Carbuncle Award, the accompanying statement was clear: This is not a criticism of the people of Airdrie, it is a criticism of the professionals who decide what does and does not happen.

This is why I feel strongly enough, as a local architect, to voice my concerns over what I perceive as a fresh mistake, the recently commenced Airdrie Community Health Centre.

The Health Centre is a welcome major investment of £27million; it will provide a wide range of primary care and community-based services under one roof in the heart of Airdrie, and bringing these services together is an opportunity to breathe further life into the town centre.

The problem begins, however, and this is where I see history repeating itself, and the potential for future criticism of the professionals involved, in the design of the proposed new building. I feel this is misconceived, in terms of a lack of civic presence, a failure of integration with the town centre, and visual appearance.

I understand fully issues of budget and design constraints in the delivery of a building of this type; however, in a building of such importance to the regeneration of the town, I believe there is a duty amongst design professionals to stick our heads above the parapet, difficult though this is, and question exactly what is being built.

The design of this building has gone through a rigorous planning process and a design assessment carried out by the government official body Architecture and Design Scotland; yet the comments and recommendations made by A&DS in its report, which heavily criticise the proposals for a lack of civic presence, have been paid barely lip service in the final design.

The architects claim, on their website, that they are a team ‘driven by design excellence’, and they are indeed an award-winning practice.

I have no doubt they will be working to a tight budget, on a challenging site, to a demanding brief. All this will have to be delivered for a ridiculously low fee. However, all this should not prevent appropriate design considerations to be a priority.

The façade of the proposed building includes large amounts of white render.This a fundamental mistake for a building situated where it is proposed; one only has to look at the problems of this material at Glasgow’s Homes of the Future, Glasgow Green, to understand the inherent difficulties posed by white render in the Scottish climate in a building situated next to a busy roundabout.

It will soon shed its bright new image and become very grimy indeed.

In addition, the facades are featureless and bland, a nod to modernism without any of its soul, and a repeat of why Scotland has so few really good modern buildings.

There is little articulation or sense of what this building could be. No doubt the designers could argue there is little local context to draw on, but that is no excuse to build something as architecturally uninspiring as the lump being torn down to make way for the new.

This building should be an exemplar of what Airdrie could achieve in future and allow it to finally shake off its Carbuncle image.

The new building does nothing to enhance or engage with the streetscape, and it turns its back on Graham Street; these issues have been raised during the design process so there is no excuse for the decision makers if this goes wrong.

I believe architects have a responsibility to the wider built environment and should not consider their designs in isolation. They should be brave enough to question the brief, to explore alternative approaches to present to clients to demonstrate how buildings can work better as part of a holistic solution rather than merely providing an envelope to house the brief.

There is a wider question of the purpose of a Design Review; why bother, if comments made are not acted upon?

A building of this civic importance should be designed as an integral part of what will become the Conservation Area of the centre of Airdrie, and designed to stand many decades into the future.

As things are, it will be lucky if it survives as long as its 1960s predecessor.

Here is the Design Assessment report from A+DS April 2009


This report relates to proposals submitted for Planning Approval for a development of a retail and primary care facility in Airdrie town centre. A+DS carried out an earlier Design Assessment through our Health Programme, in conjunction with the building developers, NHS Lanarkshire and the Local Authority. The Assessment report was issued on 13th November 2008 and was forwarded to the Planning Authority for guidance.

Our comments are based on a desk top analysis of the information in discussion with a member of the original A+DS Design Assessment panel and with reference to the previous Design Assessment Report.

A+DS Views

1.0 General Comments

1.1 We support the principle of locating public facilities in the centre of Airdrie, providing a major new public building and helping to reactivate the town centre.

1.2 When the design was previously assessed, our report raised a number of issues including: the lack of an entrance to the Health Centre from Graham Street; poor quality of the surrounding public spaces, particularly along the west side of the building; a confusing and functionally difficult internal layout; and a lack of a confident or unified expression in the external form.

1.3 We welcome the process of reviewing the proposals and some amendments in the submitted scheme, particularly the inclusion of a public entrance to Graham Street, and some improvements to internal wayfinding and the quality of some public areas. However, there are still a number of issues which we feel need to be addressed.

2.0 Wider Context

2.1 Community Context and Development

This part of Airdrie is set for significant change, with the development of the rail station and improvements to retail and community developments on this and adjacent sites. This important public building should become an integral part of the vision for the town. We previously recommended that the Council develop a strategic framework for spatial development and the public realm across the broader area, considering the location and nature of public routes and spaces, within which the designs for this site can be developed. If this opportunity is not taken at this stage then the town could lose the opportunities that come with the planned new developments, potentially resulting instead in a series of dislocated interventions.

2.2 Urban analysis / design statement

We note that a Design Statement has not been included in the referred documents. Without this, or an analysis of the urban grain and fabric, it is not possible to assess how the building and surrounding spaces will integrate with the town, or how design principles have been applied. There is not sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the current designs will best use the opportunities available to achieve a high standard of development.

2.3 Urban Design

2.3.1. Entrance Strategy

We welcome the introduction of an entrance to the Health Centre from Graham Street, and the omission of the overly prominent escape stair at the north east corner. However we note that the south entrance from the car park, which has been retained with a projecting lobby, still reads as the most significant. In contrast, the new entrance to the major public space to the north is smaller and recessed. Neither entrance has the sense of occasion or spatial generosity that one would expect from the entrances to a major public facility.

2.3.2. Building footprint / Lane along West side of building

We believe that there are significant opportunities to activate the areas around the building by modifications to the building line, particularly along the north and east sides. These improvements to the quality of the public realm would create a more attractive area for retailers and shoppers, maximizing the benefit of the increased footfall generated by the Health Centre. These spaces should be used to clearly direct the public to the Health Centre entrances and link into the other routes through the town.

The pedestrian access along the west elevation, which is currently a narrow and hostile alley, is also a well used route to the shopping area, and will be even more so once the Health Centre is open and the station upgraded. We acknowledge that some improvements are now proposed that address some problems of this route, with the public realm works now extended into this area. However the lane itself is still ungenerous: the addition of 600mm to the width is not really ‘significant’ as stated, and the cross section remains tight, meaning that the lane is still likely to be overshadowed and unwelcoming.

2.3.3. Form and surface of the building

The elevations have been rationalised and are more unified than previously, but this has been to the extent that they have become faceless, and still lack civic presence. We welcome the larger areas of glazing where waiting and circulation spaces have been brought to the exterior providing animation to the street. However, we feel that there are considerable opportunities to lend the building greater articulation by celebrating the entrances to the Health Centre which, particularly at Graham Street, currently appear highly underplayed. The Design Team should be more ambitious in aiming to achieve a far more confident expression to give the building a greater civic presence in line with its important public role.

There is potential for creating additional life on surrounding streets by the provision on the ground floor of shop units and the Council Social Work facility, where there are currently blank facades. However, we remain concerned that the proposals for these frontages will not necessarily create the activation as well as they should, given the unit layouts and elevations. We note the frontages appear likely to be made from standard commercial shopfronts with some areas closed off, and we would like to see a more imaginative approach that contributes positively to the streets. We have particular concerns about the introduction of the long dark brick wall along most of the east side pavement which prevents any overlooking and invites vandalism. We would suggest looking at other more varied facade proposals to resolve the issue of blank side walls to shop units facing Graham Street. Similarly we recommend solutions that can add real animation, better than using advertising panels, to deal with their side walls onto the lane, e.g. opening up the entrance lobbies visually to this side as well.

3.0 Internal Design

3.1 Plan layout in relation to entrances

There have been a number of improvements in the proposed layout, but it is still potentially confusing for many users of the building, particularly those who are not familiar with it. The inclusion of a central reception point on each floor, adjacent to the daylit open central court, is welcome, but has significant problems in being located away from the vertical circulation / entrances on the corners on the east side. There will be issues for many visitors in needing to be directed to it and then navigating the building to other receptions elsewhere. We note that staff-only areas in the north east on each floor can still only be accessed through other practice areas, which we understand need to be locked down individually.

3.2 Use of Courtyard

The central courtyard is inaccessible and isolated, and is unlikely to be a pleasant environment for rooms to look out onto. We believe that the courtyard could be better used. We are aware of similar facilities where the design has been able to resolve the demands of circulation and privacy to create a usable and pleasant place that also aids in wayfinding, daylighting and ventilation. Again, we believe that a more imaginative approach to the entrance and internal plan arrangements could achieve this, with a minimal loss of ground floor commercial area and large gains in usability.

3.3 Circulation and waiting spaces

We welcome the relocation of some waiting areas to the external facade, allowing natural light and views. However, several other waiting areas, and the majority of corridors, remain entirely internal, resulting in poor quality spaces and a lack of legibility or opportunities for orientation from within them.

3.4 Connection to Social Work offices

We note that there does not appear to be a fully accessible connection between the Social Work offices on the Ground Floor and the Health Centre above. We acknowledge that there is no current requirement for this link. However, we suggest that the inclusion of such a connection could produce great potential benefits for future flexibility and the integrated functioning of these facilities.

4.0 Sustainability

We note the intention to achieve a BREEAM rating of ‘Excellent’ but are not clear how this will be achieved. Several occupied rooms remain entirely internal, and so will be reliant on mechanical ventilation and artificial light, with implications on build and running costs and carbon emissions. There are still opportunities that could be exploited by using the central courtyard, which would allow it to contribute to both natural daylighting and the ventilation strategy within the building, and assist in achieving the ambitious targets set.


We support the project in its aspiration to improve accessibility to services and in the potential of enlivening the town centre. This initiative presents a unique opportunity for the town to acquire a building and public space of civic presence and which will set the standards for surrounding developments. As currently presented the proposals do not demonstrates that this will be achieved. We encourage the Design Team to continue to develop the designs, to match the aspirations and commitments given in the Council’s own guidance ‘Designing North Lanarkshire’, the Scottish Government’s ‘Designing Places’ and the ‘Policy on Design Quality for NHS Scotland’.

We believe there are opportunities that can be taken to achieve a project of a standard that will help promote a vision for improvements in the town centre and enhance the lives of the people of Airdrie. We look forward to having the opportunity to comment on a revised scheme in the future.

Airdrie: Elevations

What has been altered as a result of that damning report? Not a great deal it appears.

Is it too late to do anything other than gnash teeth?


Sad, but so many professionals involved in this, and it seems that lessons have still not been learned from 2000:

At the time it was given the Carbuncle Award, the accompanying statement was clear: This is not a criticism of the people of Airdrie, it is a criticism of the professionals who decide what does and does not happen.

Airdrie, futher picture gallery:

Airdrie Town Trail:

Old Wellwynd Church:



Jonathan Clarke said...

Nem, it seems to me that the problem with planning is that too many things happen for the wrong reasons. Good things don't get built because they're near a Councillor's house, and bad things get built because, ooh he know's so-and-so and it'll bring 4 new jobs to the area over the next 10 years (never mind the Grade I palace that will be demolished).

Similarly, many planning officers either have no understanding of design, or are too hamstrung by local politics to speak out. Design quality tends to be very low down the list of priorities for many local authorities.

This is why I think it's so important that there is a professional check on the system, and the check is design review. Unfortunately, as you've pointed out, design review isn't always listened to, but I don't think that's a reason to do away with it.

I think Rowan Moore's comments about CABE were spot on; no question there has been nepotism and the top tier of CABE does seem to be dominated by an old boys club. But at a lower level CABE Enablers have had input into projects, which otherwise wouldn't have had any decent advice (or CABE will say what the consultants wanted to say, but weren't allowed by their clients).

You can question how good a job CABE has done, but if it is abolished I think private developers will increasingly get their way and design standards will drop.

Nemesis said...

Well, it seems CABE has been abolished in its current form, as I suspected it would be; I can see that really this was the only way. Far too much wrong and they failed to heed the warnings given several years' ago when we had a Commons Select Committee on CABE. As one who submitted evidence, sat through live CSC sessions, read every piece of evidence and transcripts of sessions, had contact with others who also submitted evidence, and welcomed the final report, only to then find it virtually ignored and a recommendation which in part came from me skewed so that it was more 'jobs for the boys' I am not sorry to see it go. I also think the last choice of Chair a bad one; too tainted with the CABE of Lipton and an apologist for Lipton are only a couple of a number of reasons I saw Finch as a bad choice.

Anyhow, AJ reports today

It will be interesting to see how things move on and develop.