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Saturday02 August 2014

Scotland’s Housing Expo 2010

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After a long and difficult birth, Scotland’s Housing Expo is offering visitors to Inverness a showcase of living spaces that range from the functional to the progressive

There are two kinds of people who visit Scotland’s Housing Expo: those who swing into the site by car from the A9, and those who arrive on the number 4 bus from Inverness station.

The bus offers newcomers to Inverness a crash-course in the city’s residential architectural history. Climbing south of the town centre, it skims between solid sandstone Victorian villas before a quick stop at the 1970s Raigmore Hospital and a passing glimpse of Page & Park’s Maggie’s Centre. Like a satellite swung around the moon for a trajectory into deep space, the bus hurls itself into a roundabout and emerges 320 degrees later for a tour down streets of seventies bungalows and detached houses.

This might have been the last renaissance in British suburban design, when volume housebuilders found a satisfying balance between simplicity of form and generosity of design. Expansive windows complement subtle combinations of brick, pebbledash and timber siding.

Approaching the new suburb of Milton of Leys, it begins to fall apart. Bizarre 1980s cuboid boxes of pebbledash and brick float on a rolling sea of neatly cut grass, and the first Doric columns appear. Climbing the hill along Stevenson Road, built through empty fields with mini-roundabouts in expectation of cul-de-sacs and crescents, we approach the most recent developments: pale noddy-boxes with varying degrees of external decoration. In the architectural language of modern suburbia, more cornicing generally means more expensive.

Where it is successful is the comparison of different solutions to similar briefs

Here, at the end of the line, is Scotland’s Housing Expo. There is no cornicing here. Originally scheduled to open a year ago as the Highland Housing Fair, the expo has fought through the financial crisis and this particularly inclement summer to open for a month-long exhibition of 52 houses and apartments. Several are incomplete, and one plot is completely empty following the collapse of a major contractor. Many of the multiple developments, such as Nord’s Stone House, are only partially completed, and in some of the houses there has been precious time for snagging or remedial work. But considering the circumstances through which the expo team has battled to make this event happen, it is churlish to complain.

Unlike neighbouring developments by volume housebuilders, the expo site is built around a considered masterplan by Cadell2. Existing waterways have informed the direction of the two principal streets down the north-facing site, with views towards Inverness and the Moray Firth. The intent was to make sure that the individual houses did not sit like “boxes in a field” but rather contributed to a coherent streetscape. Cadell2’s masterplan is deceptively simple; deceptive because by articulating and justifying such apparently obvious moves, it recedes into the streetscape rather than overwhelming it. It is highly optimistic to think that considered planning alone will help nurture a diverse and lively community of suburbanites who know each other’s names, but compared to the standards accepted by most planning authorities, it’s a commendable framework to hold together not only many diverse architectural responses, but also an awkward programmatic combination of house types: terraces to the south, an apartment block in the west, and various sizes of family homes towards an as yet unbuilt second phase in the north.

Where the expo is successful, and where its purpose as a showcase of modern Scottish architecture is evident, is in the side-by-side comparison of different architectural solutions to similar briefs.

If you tire of playing ’spot the architect’ try a game of ’spot the opportunity for value engineering’

Plots 18 (Brennan & Wilson Architects), 19 (Joseph Thurrott Architects) and 20 (Keppie Design) are all three/four bedroom family homes of around 160sq m, all designed with flexible spaces for additional living or semi-independent workspace. Of the trio, Keppie’s feels the least imaginative and most cellular. Thurrott’s Twin Peaks house hinges around a dramatic (read “expensive”) double-height living space with vast glazing.

Thurrott’s is not a viable design for volume construction, especially considering its projected heating costs are three times of those of its neighbour by Brennan & Wilson. Its Whole Life House is the most accomplished of the three, especially in the crowd-pleasing interior, with its exposed beams and window shutters. The south-west-orientated sunspace of the Whole Life House is also the most eminently liveable of all the many such double-height propositions at the expo, being as it is easily separable from the rest of the house.

Numerous houses feature voluminous voids between ground and upper floors, and the extensive sponsorship of a certain roof window manufacturer also appears to have inspired the specification of some vast rooflights. If, during your tour, you tire of playing “spot the architect” among your fellow expo visitors, try a more fruitful game of “spot the opportunity for value-engineering”.

Some of the most important designs are, therefore, to be found clustered on the affordable housing plots. Highland Council’s Shed Houses (Plot 3) and John Gilbert Architects’ Timber Houses (Plot 4.1) both demonstrate that a generosity of domestic space and natural light is not dependent upon expensive or expansive glazing. In responding to more limited means, these adjacent designs – using a 140mm timber frame and cross-laminated timber structure respectively – are stylistically unadventurous but some of the most provocative challenges to the faceless commercial developments near the expo.

Despite striking appearances (corrugated cement board and corrugated metal respectively) both are deeply rooted to the functional vernacular familiar to many remote communities in Scotland’s Highlands and islands. Both will be offered for rent through local housing associations after the expo closes at the end of August.

Offered such huge diversity, some visitors are likely to retreat into their comfort zone

Envisioned as an “exemplar community” to inspire alternatives to the soulless norm of contemporary domestic architecture, the expo offers visitors such a huge diversity of choice that some conservative homebuyers are likely to retreat into their comfort zone. Bracewell Stirling’s Modular House (Plot 15) is a cutting-edge exploration in air-tight prefabricated design disguised under a thick appliqué of Barratt-bling decor.

It’ll surely do more for the cause of progressive residential architecture than Oliver Chapman Architects’ Skewed House (Plot 23), the cedar shingled form of which writhes indignantly around an interior of bizarrely ill-proportioned rooms.

Trevor Black Architects’ Gem (Plot 12) and Rural Design’s Secret Garden (Plot 17) appear to be two of the most popular designs with early expo attendees. They successfully combine modest architectural gestures with immediately liveable and well-proportioned living spaces. Their authorship also recalls the original aspirations of the expo’s brief as a regional Highland – rather than national Scottish – event.

Situating the expo on a greenfield site adjacent to heart-achingly dull commercial developments brings to mind a conundrum. While the participant teams all contributed houses that engage with Cadell2’s community-incubating masterplan, not all are convincing propositions for the volume housebuilding that the location inevitably proposes. There is much to be said about our collective responsibility to dissuade clients from perpetuating unsustainable car-dependent communities, but when the expo closes and its properties are offered to the market, they will inevitably be occupied by families with stronger connections to the city of Inverness than this nascent “community”. As architecturally entertaining as the route of the number 4 bus is, it’s a fragile connection between a mature and coherent city and an immature and sporadically growing satellite.

Scotland’s Housing Expo brings together a cacophony of legitimate alternatives for Scottish domestic architecture in a sophisticated alternative suburban form. But by situating itself in a greenfield suburbia it’s unable to adequately tell us what type of new-build communities we should be constructing. Whether or not there is another expo in two, five or 10 years’ time, it’s up to us to get on board the bus and take home our own inspiration from its successes and disappointments.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • I read with interest your article on the Housing Expo in Inverness and visited eagerly on Tuesday 17th August.

    The Expo was largely was described with many interesting technologies and construction systems and a few of the results were even beautiful houses. The affordable housing was indeed generous and interesting. The most successful proposition was probably Rural Design's Secret Garden house which one had to admire the efficiency and livability of.

    However we disagree on one of the last houses I visited. You write that Oliver Chapman's Skewed house "writhes indignantly around an interior of bizarrely ill-proportioned rooms". This house was one of my favourite houses, with an exterior of amazingly beautiful cedar shingles and two house arrangement that formed a courtyard which, once the garden is planted, will be a very successful outdoor space. The unfinished interiors will I think be calm and reflective once complete were let down by such simple things as the positioning of light bulbs (which also afflicted Brennan and Wilson's lovely house). But this served only to suggest that time was tight and the electrician whisked around sticking in pendants a few hours before the opening...

    The Expo was fantastic, everyone should go.

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  • I will go to see the Expo this Saturday. Hopefully it's worth while to go.

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  • Why is it open for such a short time? Seems a bit of a waste not to open for longer.

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