Housing to 2040 Voices: The Architect’s Experience – Tom Connolly, Elder & Cannon Architects – Dunbeg

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During the summer in 2019 A&DS and Scottish Government travelled to four locations across Scotland to review the delivery of recent affordable housing – built and planned. You can read more about the workshops here. We also spoke to people involved in the projects –  from the resident to the client, the architect to the councillor.  Here are their stories.

 

Tom Connolly, Director, Elder & Cannon Architects

As architects for phase 3, our first task was to understand the physical and cultural characteristics of this unique rural site. We began by working on the masterplan for the site – as part of its evolution, we spent a lot of time studying Dunbeg and other rural communities to develop a unique sense of identity and place.

We examined how we would integrate this new development of 300 homes with the coastal landscape. Our first port of call was building up an experienced team – including landscape architects Gillespies, archaeologists and environmental consultants – to work with us to understand the history, geology and topography of the site. We also needed to consider its appearance from the existing village of Dunbeg and from the sea, so how it sits within the landscape, both visually and technically.

Coastal Location

The topography, geology and hydrology of the coastal location presented physical challenges – it’s peaty and wet, and with it being an exposed site on the west coast of Scotland, the fluctuations in weather and environmental conditions are considerable.The social challenge of integrating the new housing with the existing community also needed to be considered in the masterplan and the eventual design, so that doesn’t end up being an isolated enclave.

Finding ways of weaving it into existing settlements was key. We set out to connect to, and through, this new development from the existing villages of Dunbeg with Ganavan. We also aimed to integrate and subsume the scattered housing of previous phases into a holistic piece. Two tranches of government funding in previous phases had created good homes for people, but they were somewhat isolated.

Through the design evolution, our aim was to create a well-connected woodland settlement integrated with the unique landscape and setting.We use woodland screening with through-routes and pathways to connect within and around it. Though residents will most likely use a car or bus to reach the settlement, they’ll be able to walk around it easily once there, thanks to pedestrian-friendly streets and pathways. You’ll also be able to walk from Dunbeg down to the coast through this new community, and cycle all the way to Oban as we’ve linked with the existing cycle path. This interconnectivity is designed to overcome social isolation and shape a sense of place.

Quality of Life

It’s not just about the place, but also the individual homes providing quality of life. Our brief was to design well-planned, low-energy social housing on a budget, connected to the place – somewhere people could be proud to call home.

The process has seen community consultation throughout.In the masterplan phase, rather than starting with a blank sheet of paper, we shared our initial understanding of the characteristics of the place – this provided a template for people to add their thoughts to. They also had issues to discuss in terms of transport and connectivity.

Consultation has continued into the planning application and construction phases, as the community benefits have become clearer. Construction is being done by a local builder, creating employment opportunities for local people onsite – there is engagement with the school around this. A community trust has been set up for the future care and maintenance of the woodland, and its potential use in education. We’ve definitely seen greater interest from the local people now that there’s something happening on the ground they can relate to.

From a design perspective, I feel there’s a practical lesson to be learned for the Scottish Government and local authorities. If pedestrian-friendly street design and integration is to be encouraged, there should be a more joined-up process within local authorities. We may design great streets, but they’re maintained in future by the roads department – unfortunately the process is long and complicated. The roads department really needs to be more integrated with the planning system.

It’s not often that the opportunity arises to develop a unique site like this. Hopefully it will be an example of what can be achieved in terms of place-making in a rural Highlands and Islands location, within the budget restrictions of a publicly-funded housing project.

Read more about the Housing to 2040 Summer Workshops here.

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