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Issue 10 - Bringing History back to life

Scotland Magazine Issue 10
September 2003

 

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Bringing History back to life

PROPERTY EXPERT JOHN CORMACK LOOKS AT HOW ONE SCOTTISH COMPANY IS METICULOUSLY RESTORING OLD CASTLES AND MANSIONS

It is a sad fact that many buildings of historic and cultural interest in Scotland are in need of substantial repair and maintenance. And, it is into the care of only a handful of specialised firms of building surveyors and architects that these buildings are entrusted. A building surveyor is a unique British professional whose expertise straddles the world of property value, design, construction and maintenance and repair.

When Gibbon Lawson McKee – GLM – set up in Edinburgh in 1985 there was, at that time, no other independent chartered building surveyor in the city and certainly none with a bias towards architectural projects. Today the practice, located in a secluded lane a stone’s throw from Princes Street, is making a name for itself in a very specialised marketplace.

The practice is led by David Gibbon who together with three further directors and a team of nine support staff are presently working on a basketful of projects from the North of Scotland well into England. Although the practice is building surveyor led, it employs architects as well as surveyors. This has been a conscious choice and perhaps has become one of GLM’s greatest strengths.

But what can a firm such as this offer that an architect cannot? Usually an architect-led practice would tend to split its project team into themselves as designers and would then appoint an independent firm of cost consultants. This works extremely well for large new buildings but according to David Gibbon when it comes to the care, conservation, repair and alteration of existing buildings, this modus operandi can prove to be a rather cumbersome arrangement.

He comments: “In most countries clients expect architects to have a degree of confidence in the management of costs, but in the UK this presumption should most certainly be questioned.” Projected costs of building projects are often notoriously understated at the start of a project.

But if, as in the case of GLM the design and the cost management functions are offered by one person or one in-house team, substantial benefits can accrue to the client. Most importantly a strict eye can be kept on the costs as every design change or new idea can have cost implications.

Building surveyors tend to be more commercially aware and will therefore have an understanding of how important costs are to their clients. Many of GLMs clients are private individuals. For them costs tend to be highly significant and any arrangement to keep them in check must be welcomed.

The supply of interesting old buildings in need of being rescued from neglect and decay never seems to dry up in Scotland. The Scottish Civic Trust produces a “Buildings at Risk Register”. Currently it has 1,322 entries including houses, factories and offices. All these buildings have one thing in common – they are of some architectural merit. Many are for sale, just waiting for an injection of cash to bring them back to life.

Although the practice, by no means confines its activities to working only with old historic buildings, this sector is most certainly its speciality. All who work at GLM have a love of old buildings. Comments David Gibbon: “Everyone loves the work we do.”

“We get involved in an astonishing range of building conservation and refurbishment projects, helping clients realise their dreams.”

The starting point for any major building restoration project is a pre-acquisition appraisal. This needs to be an in-depth study of the building and a building surveyor is best placed to do this.

One of GLM most challenging projects, and in fact its first major instruction following setting up in Edinburgh was rescuing a traditional Scottish tower house on the shore of the Pentland Firth on the extreme north coast of Scotland (http://www.ackergill-tower.co.uk).

Before the GLM’s involvement Ackergill Tower was a classic example of neglect and decay. The owners of the 15th Century castle, John and Arlette Bannister, used to describe it as “a Marie-Celeste of a building”.

The couple bought it for a song in 1987 complete with its contents that had been there for generations, then turned their attention to a complete restoration.

Gibbon Lawson McKee Ltd was entrusted with the massive task of restoring the castle to provide one of the world’s most exclusive retreats for corporate meetings and hospitality, entertainment or even for private house parties.

David Gibbon recalls how the practice solved all the problems of bringing the castle back to life. Corporate clients, of course, need en-suite facilities and overcoming the problems of threading the plumbing and wiring through massive walls to some 17 bedrooms was certain to tax the grey cells.

“One of the trickiest problems, ” says David Gibbon “was how to create adequate means of escape in a building of the highest grade of historic protection. We managed, after much thought, to insert a spiral staircase into the thickness of the ancient walls which provided a protected escape route from the 6th floor down to ground level.”

Adapting historic buildings to suit new patterns of living is not always easy. GLM was asked, as part of a larger scheme of refurbishment, to provide an en-suite shower room for the principal bedroom of a grand 18th century mansion near Edinburgh – Gilmerton House. The practice came up with a highly innovative idea – it cleverly concealed the shower inside a reproduction mahogany wardrobe.

Bigger on the inside than it appears, it takes advantage of a recess in the wall behind it. The inside of the wardrobe is luxuriously lined with silk moirée. Externally, one of the doors opens to reveal access to the shower room, the other provides hanging space for clothes. The drawers are fully functional and the upper ones conceal useful shelving.

Gilmerton House is not an hotel, but a magnificent home owned by the Kinloch family, whose ancestors have lived there for 12 generations. They have now opened its doors to welcome private parties looking to take over the house as a relaxing retreat in the country. (http://www.gilmertonhouse.com/)

Current GLM projects include the refurbishment of a Highland hunting lodge for a Scottish client and his American wife. This is a house that was built in the 17th century, and remodelled in the 18th and again in the late 19th centuries. The present project will bring the house up to a modern and contemporary standard.

A further project nearing completion was aimed at making sense of a fine but rather dour, Aberdeenshire castle. Although a large building, it had too few bedrooms for the growing family that had recently moved in.

There were some second floor bedrooms but they were unused, approached by a tiny “servants” stair, which made the occupants feel isolated from the rest of the house.

These bedrooms were reconnected to the house by a new centrally positioned oak staircase that also brought light from a new skylight into a dark corridor. Various other subtle improvements and a comprehensive upgrading of the services have turned the castle into a home well adapted to modern family living.