The Big Interview: HLM Architects Scotland head Lorraine Robertson

Lorrain Robertson points to a trend for the private and public sectors to look at reconfiguring facilities rather than commissioning new developments. Photograph: Jon Savage
Lorrain Robertson points to a trend for the private and public sectors to look at reconfiguring facilities rather than commissioning new developments. Photograph: Jon Savage
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Its projects north of the border span a host of sectors, from hospitals to universities and sustainable office developments.

And for HLM Architects Scotland head Lorraine Robertson, the focus is on more than just the buildings themselves.

Such facilities are brought to life by the individuals that use them, so the aim is to make them as “pleasant, beautiful and inspiring” as possible. “It’s about putting the people that you’re designing for at the heart of every single thing that you’re doing and making sure that they’re reflected in it,” she says.

HLM Architects started out in 1964 after students David Hutchison, Graham Locke and Tony Monk won a competition to design Paisley Civic Centre. Today the firm has offices across the UK as well as in South Africa and the Middle East, while its sole Scottish office in Glasgow is home to 27 staff.

The business offers architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, master planning, interior design and sustainability services. Such areas include education, health, defence, justice, civic, commercial and residential as well as mixed-use developments.

Among its projects in Scotland are the Royal Hospital For Sick Children & Department Of Clinical Neurosciences in Edinburgh and Tigh-na-Croit, an energy-efficient steading-style house at Gorstan, Ross-shire.

Robertson has been with HLM for more than 20 years, joining on graduating from the University of Strathclyde (“that was me in the door and I’ve been here ever since”), having been attracted to the subject due to her analytical mindset. “I’m a natural problem-solver, so once I set myself a challenge, I just basically work my way through it logically to its conclusion,” she says.

One area she specialises in is healthcare. Projects such as hospitals entail major practical and emotional considerations, so how does she balance these priorities? “Carefully,” she says, noting that she considers such a facility from the perspective of a patient and visitor “rather than just as an architect trying to design a space which functions or is beautiful”.

Hospitals are particularly anxious places, and “it’s about trying to calm that down and making people feel a lot more comfortable about the process. The way doctors deal with you is completely different to how it was 50 years ago – so the buildings need to respond to that as well, so you’re more at ease. And if you’re more at ease, you’re more likely to get to the resolution of whatever’s wrong more quickly.”

An effective emotional impact is also a key consideration when it comes to projects such as HMP Addiewell in West Lothian. The facility is designed as a “learning” prison, with at least 40 hours a week given to each offender to cut the risk of reoffending, “support employment prospects and general self-esteem and well-being”.

Robertson said when the £70 million project was completed in 2009: “What greater challenge and socially worthwhile use of architecture than in the context of a prison?”

She says this is a fairly specialist area in architecture that not many people take on, adding that such facilities are about rehabilitation rather than incarceration and must also take into account visitor and staff needs.

Education is another of Robertson’s focuses, with HLM’s work on the new Learning and Teaching Hub at the University of Glasgow concentrating on a mix of lecture theatres and smaller group, breakout and study areas. It comes after in-depth feedback from students regarding how they feel about various kinds of teaching spaces, and as the university looks to “further enhance its global standing and provide a positive contribution to the community it serves”.

The public sector provides most of HLM’s workload in Scotland, with the balance with the private sector somewhat fluid. “You think, ‘I know what’s happening going forward’ and then somebody will ask you completely out of the blue to do something completely different,” Robertson says.

The Dundee-born architect is also seeing a trend among both the public and private sectors to look at reconfiguring or upgrading existing facilities rather than commissioning new developments amid continued economic uncertainty.

This plays well to the firm’s growing interior design activity, says Robertson, who was promoted to director in October, having been associate director at HLM’s Glasgow office for “a considerable number of years”.

Her aim is to build on progress to-date and continue to pool resources across its other studios in Belfast, London, Sheffield, Cardiff, Manchester and Plymouth as well as Johannesburg, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

She is responsible for all of the Glasgow office’s projects “so I do make sure that I dabble in all of them”.

There is also an increased focus on diversification to avoid getting “pigeonholed into only doing certain types of projects”, eyeing growth in the residential and hospitality markets.

The hospitality sector “almost always needs a refresh”, often revamping several sites at once, and HLM has taken on some hotel work already, which is “turning into quite a steady stream of income”, Robertson says.

The firm is none the less operating in an economic backdrop beset by a range of challenges. Last month, the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) last month warned that the UK’s “world-leading architecture sector is particularly exposed to changes on the global stage because of its pre-eminent position as an exporter and its reliance on international talent”.

Riba said a “No Deal” Brexit could cost the UK’s architecture trade £73m a year in lost export earnings, while the industry currently contributes £4.8 billion to the domestic economy a year.

Furthermore, a hard Brexit could cost the UK construction industry almost £10bn by 2030, according to a recent Cambridge Econometrics study.

But Robertson highlights the importance of preparation to handle any hurdles.

“We pre-empt that there are big challenges and make sure that we can work across the whole of the company, so even if one office gets particularly quiet, there’s always going to be something else across the business that you can be working on.

“Over the past wee while we haven’t really suffered. If the Scottish economy has gone slightly quiet there’s always work that you can be getting on with elsewhere and there’s also research and development that can be done so that you’re primed and ready for the projects as they come out.”

She believes networking is key. “Particularly with architecture, projects can be in planning for years and years and years before they become a live project… so we’re used to this kind of slow pace… and then the frantic nature of drawing everything with ten minutes to spare when things have hit the ground running.”

Also helping is the practice’s involvement in projects overseas, such as a specialist rehabilitation hospital in Dubai, and these can be “huge” compared to contracts closer to home.

Robertson is also keen to continue focusing on innovation, with the firm using AI for example, but the aim is for the practice to progress at a more traditional pace. “It’s a case of growing from where we are at the moment – but being careful about how we do it.”