Jim Tough: Take courage as we build for our future

Architects are undervalued in our society and should be at the centre of housing policy, argues Jim Tough

Charging VAT on rebuilding and refurbishing older buildings while newbuilds are zero rated seems contradictory. Picture: Getty Images
Charging VAT on rebuilding and refurbishing older buildings while newbuilds are zero rated seems contradictory. Picture: Getty Images

Housing policy, like education, is a universal aspect of civic life in Scotland; the vast majority of us (notwithstanding the issue of homelessness that still blights society) have a house that we live in, a place where we live.

My own experience has been one of good luck and privilege. For my first eight years, a single end with a shared toilet in Bridgeton. The next decade in a brand new house in the newtown of East Kilbride. Then, student life in a series of Edinburgh flats in various degrees of unhygienic communal living , early married life in a rented flat, then a first-bought house – and now in a self-built home in the Scottish Borders. I have been lucky. And I have had direct experience of what I believe is at the heart of the Saltire Society’s Housing Design Awards, where that new family home in East Kilbride – front and back garden, inside toilet and bathroom, a safe place to play and a school within walking distance – arguably typifies the standards that the awards seek to encourage.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

In the Year of Architecture, Design and Innovation, which coincides with the Saltire Society’s 80th anniversary, we have been paying particular attention to the impact and influence of those awards and how they, and the projects themselves, have stood the test of time. This was the topic for a panel discussion at this year’s awards ceremony, where broadcaster Kirsty Wark, artist Toby Paterson, and architects Malcolm Fraser and Jude Barber reflected on the state of building design and related issues from their collective experiences as judging panel chairs past and present. New pamphlets from Malcolm Fraser (“Shoddy Buildings and Fancy Finance”) and another from a fellow distinguished Scottish architect Neil Gillespie (“Rebuilding Scotland”) have added to the debate. Some key issues emerged that the panel felt merit serious consideration in a national policy context. Finance for public buildings and social housing should be driven by public interest – the recent high-profile issue with PFI and Edinburgh school buildings is not only a matter of money. Good design takes account of light, space and place and this has a direct effect on the health and wellbeing of those using and living in those buildings.

Meanwhile, at a time when recycling is part of the zeitgeist, it seems contradictory to charge VAT on rebuilding and refurbishing older buildings while newbuilds are zero rated. The importance of design and the role of the architect should be part of the curriculum – the idea of the “starchitect” and celebrity buildings can create an unhelpful impression of the architect as somehow removed from our daily experiences. Good design and good designers are not simply nice to have but are an essential part of any ambition we have to improve health and quality of life. Encouraging children to be confident in their understanding of design is part of this aspiration.

In the words of the introduction to the influential Saltire Society publication “Building Scotland”, written by founder members Robert Hurd and Allan Reiach in 1944: “The point of this book is to introduce you to the pleasures and pains of ancient and modern forms of Scottish architecture: and in doing so indicate that, to be a good citizen in the age of reconstruction, every man, woman and child should learn to use their eyes and be competent to know a good (or bad) building when they see it.”

The discussion also found general support for a simpler regulatory environment governing architecture and place making. By all accounts, the understanding architects must have of complex and accruing regulation adds cost, complexity and inhibits a holistic approach to design. A simpler, more coherent regulatory framework would allow architects and clients to use their time more effectively.

It’s exciting to be part of the Year of Architecture, Innovation and Design and it is important to celebrate excellence and achievement in what is such an integral part of our society. It is equally important to be ambitious for the future. To quote from Neil Gillespie’s Saltire pamphlet, which refers back to Hurd and Reiach’s original 1944 publication: “At one point in Building Scotland the authors say ‘If the ability of the 20th century architect to tackle modern problems is still in doubt turn over and take... courage!”

Some 70 years later the call remains the same: “Take… courage!” To find out more about this year’s Housing Design Awards or to get copies of any of the related publications mentioned, please visit our website: www.saltiresociety.org.uk

• Jim Tough is executive director of the Saltire Society