Make Do and Mend

There’s a wee phrase used in our industry, that’s key to understanding the reasons we build as we do: the short-termism, the inbuilt-obsolescence, the demolition and waste. I first heard it in 2007, after I resigned as Deputy-Chair of A+DS over their institutional refusal to investigate whether PFI – the private financing of public buildings – represented value for money. My appearance in the media alongside PFI, bizarrely, got me onto invite lists to Conferences run by this novel industry, built upon the vast profits extracted out the common weal – Conferences themed around, for instance, the selling-on of PFI debt, the potential for royally screwing the public being neverending.

I occasionally went, to try to understand what was happening to us, and at one such Conference I heard it explained that what the industry wanted from Government – from the obedient civil servants in the room – was Deal-Flow.

It was such a clarifying moment. I’ve heard the phrase many times since and on every occasion it perfectly captures our shared industry endeavour, to have the floodgates regularly opened and a river of money poured down our gullets.

To enable that we need a decent, short-term, “regeneration” cycle: demonisation of the existing built-environment as tired-looking, non-compliant, unfashionable, not-fit-for-purpose and “needing thousands to fix the roof”; replacement and rebuild for many tens of millions (spot the price inflation), with its associated consultancy fees; then decay, demolition and landfill and then replacement again, ad-nauseam. For us, as architects, the clear incentive is to follow the money and take our percentages; and there’s also the obvious pull on our architectural egos, that we’re supposed to be out there making big, bold, novel shapes, bending the built environment to our unfettered egos (though we might note we are increasingly but wage-slaves to the big construction conglomerates and the financier-gods that control them, and even the fees that we might charge for the regeneration degeneration get chipped away at by novel consultants touting their urbanist, educationalist, managerialist and general boosterish specialities).

Don’t get me wrong: I believe in the beauty, integrity, placemaking and ecological potential of what good new building can do. But we get allowed little of that by our public procurement processes, and I get mindbending moments like when one local authority asked me, as someone with a reputation for finding new uses for old buildings, to advise them on a future for their abandoned Victorian schools; and I looked at the buildings’ crafted stonework with hundreds of years of life left in it, their big, enlightening windows as perfect aids to learning, and their location at the hearts of their communities where children could easily walk to, and advised them that they would make good… Schools; better than the shoddy, deep-plan, mean-windowed sheds they’d built out-of-town – no doubt with plenty of deals done, lots of boosterish stuff about fitness for contemporary educational practice and local politicians boasting of how much public investment they’ve secured for the community.

And, in general, when we look around us at the result of our degeneration cycles we see a city like Glasgow, that has torn itself apart, displaced its people and loaded our landfill sites with sickening regularity, and we look at a whole infrastructure, across Scotland, of solid, Victorian and even 20th century Schools being abandoned and demolished, or “saved for housing” of the social or chi-chi tendency.

And rather than be complicit in the Deal-Flow I look at such a building and see its retention and upgrade as not just a matter of conservation, but that it hits a sweet-spot where the interests of conservation and tradition match those of placemaking and, most importantly, our climate and resources emergency, where the condemning and cowping of a 100-year structure and it’s replacement by a 30 year one is seen as the evil it is. And I have, I hope, some track-record here, my practice’s conversion of the old Royal High School, for the University of Edinburgh, into the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, meeting its brief for modern, flexible teaching and research spaces, but also being awarded the world’s first BREEAM “Outstanding” for a listed building. And I love the virtues of bringing old fabric back to life and am clear that I can forego the glam of the big newbuild, for the quiet satisfactions of the renew.

I continue to fight the madness of PFI, or PPP or MIM – the Scottish Government’s latest attempt to re-badge and continue to privatise the provision of our public buildings. I’m working with the Common Weal “Think and Do Tank” – whose Board I sit on – and Jubilee Scotland, on new models for ensuring that it is the public interest, and prudential borrowing, that leads the provision of public buildings.

But I’m also working on a specific strand which will question whether it is actually prudent to not do the big, shiny new project, and that a rational examination of lifespan, adaptability, location, solidity, lightfilledness and urban integrity might mean that the old building, with the thousands spent on its roof and even with some of the millions otherwise-available spent on upgrades and extensions, might be the right option – that that great old school might make a great new school, and that that big old infirmary, so nicely-located for an great upmarket, chi-chi urban quarter, with is sunny outlook onto the park, might also make a great new hospital.

I call it “Make-Do-And-Mend” – MDAM, as this is the world of acronyms – and I like its deliberate homespunness, though I am very open to other suggestions. And I’m needing help with evidence, and a rational analysis of Schools, Hospitals and other public buildings, and good examples of where things have gone wrong. If there’s anyone out there who can help with such Advocacy and Activism, please let me know!


Image Credit: Chris Leslie

Comments (20)

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  1. Neil Gray says:

    Brilliant, albeit brief, article. It should send alarm bells to the Scottish Government (though it won’t) that one of the most significant and progressive architects in Scotland feels free to unleash such justified venom on our planning and urban development strategies. I went on a walk in Glasgow a few years ago – admittedly I’m a fan of long urban strolls – and saw three different Glasgow corporation school board buildings (just like the header image in this article) being torn down within the radius of a couple of miles in one day. I know from many other walks that the same process was and is widespread in the city. Since housing stock transfer especially the same process has happened on a mass scale with high-rise buildings. But not just any high-rise buildings, of which there are plenty, specifically I mean public or former public housing high-rise buildings after decades of stigmatisation and under-investment. These also are replaced with privatised banal rabbit hutches with built-in obsolescence guaranteed. Thank you for using your position, Malcolm, for such a useful project. Bollocks to ‘Deal-Flow’. MDAM unless we are actually improving our urban environment with something better than before. The change to VAT laws you have recommended before – VAT laws which massively incentivise new-build over repair – deserves much more attention.

  2. Kenneth G Coutts says:

    Agree! I’m sure it is more cost effective to upgrade
    Existing structures for energy efficiency ect.
    Far cheaper than the burgeoning costs of never ending PFI, no matter what you call it , it’s still theft and larceny.
    Something unionists are good at.
    A new way, end all these so called contracts.
    Put people with backbones in place, to end this.

  3. Derek says:

    There’s a huge empty school next door to Tynecastle; it has interesting architectural features and I thought it’d make excellent housing (from what I could see from the road).

    1. Axel P Kulit says:

      Why is it empty? Could it have been emptied in order to sell it to developers?

    2. David Leslie says:

      I’ve just been re-reading this article (after reading about the Collina Street land sale). First of all, big support for the MDAM approach! Secondly, I’ve had some contacts with the current owners of the old Tynecastle School site about a possible location for a community garden. Previously they were open to considering it, but it seems they now have other plans for the site. And checking today, the site is up for sale as a redevelopment opportunity:

      The buildings are B-listed.

  4. Axel P Kulit says:

    I am in absolute agreement. It looks like business has captured the government here as well as in Westminster.

    Perhaps more local consultation is needed, as well as more people asking questions like “how long will it last if we renew and what will that cost relative to a new building”

    Bit then governments of all huses hate having to consult the public.

  5. Alistair Taylor says:

    Great arti<le, thank you, Mal<olm.
    (Btw, < = the letter between b and d in the alphabet. I refuse to buy a new laptop. Will either fix it, or make do).

    There is su<h shameful waste in today's world. Partly driven by greed, partly ignoran<e, partly i don't know what…
    We need to relearn frugality. How to make soup, how to darn so<ks, how to look after ea<h other. If we know how to do the small things, then the big things will take <are of themselves, perhaps?

    Here's to more big enlightening windows for learning. We sorely need them.

  6. Roland says:

    Well said Malcolm- it’s also true that the old buildings are beautiful and fit in just where they are.The Gaelic school in Edinburgh was the old Bonnington Primary refurbished. It has the faces of RLS and sir WS looking out of the roadside wall. I saw the new meadowbank from Arthur’s seat the other day and wondered how Edinburgh could have allowed something so boring to be built.
    I’m with you – though don’t have the skills you are after.

    1. Axel P Kulit says:

      Because councillors are boring with no sense of aesthetics beyond the design of banknotes?

  7. Duncan Macintosh says:

    A major factor (which Malcolm Fraser has raised over many years but does not mention here) is that VAT at 20% is payable for the repair of buildings, but no VAT is payable to knock them down and build anew. If you consider that developers will make less than 20% on any project, demolish and build anew is a no brainer. Even better greenfield greenfield sites, – no demolition costs and meanwhile the developer can land bank without having to pay rates (agricultural land was made exempt in WW1), benefit from its increasing value without taking any risk of building for a market which might slow down, and if you can get planning permission, the value shoots up.

    1. Jim Stamper says:

      Sitting on agricultural land waiting until planners give in and allow development to gain from the increased land value could be overcome by introducing Annual Ground Rent. This should also apply to brownfield sites. I am a retired architect get depressed at seeing the number of cranes at new high build multi storey developments in Glasgow which I believe will ruin the feel and scale of the city. The current Council seem to have given in to the greed of developers/landowners who sit on land until their unlimited planning appeals bare fruit. Introducing Annual ground rent would cost these developers/landowners and is likely to result in either developing or selling to others on the basis of them accepting planning restraints and progressing compliant developments within a set period of time. I would also like to see compulsory sales where existing properties suitable for refurbishment are being allowed to deteriorate – sale being on the basis that the purchaser must comply with planning constraints and develop within a limited timeframe while meantime ensuring the building deteriorated no further.

      1. Axel P Kulit says:

        How does Annual Ground Rent differ from Land Value Tax?

        I can see objections to the idea of compulsory purchase/sales and it would have to be monitored carefully. Developers and politicians can spot a money making loophole from outer space.

    2. Axel P Kulit says:

      Which means it is time to lobby for reversing the way VAT is imposed.

  8. Andy Law says:

    Not much to disagree with here, even for someone (me) who has been involved in a number of PFI projects. This funding mechanism is separate to architecture, often interferes with it and the downsides, to anyone genuinely concerned with creating a socially coherent society are undeniable. (For decades, as a healthcare architect, it has been the only way offered, hence my and others’ involvement). Make do and mend sits uneasily with PFI models. We carried out a wee piece of research (funded, it must be said, by Malcolm’s ex, A+DS) which looked at incremental refurbishment of a major hospital. Have a look.

  9. Malcolm Fraser says:

    Thanks All. One point in response is that the mad VAT imbalance – zero on newbuild and 20% on repair – just relates to residential. But, yes, that’s a parallel exemplar of Government’s compliance with business’ need for waste and destruction. I’ve another brief piece on that, might dig it out, M

    1. david black says:

      Something of a manifesto, as well as a statement of fact. Scandals like the de-schooling of Boroughmuir and the collapse of crappily constructed Oxgangs school, never mind the death of a child at Liberton, amount to a truly shocking litany of failure. The (so-called) health sector is even worse, the start being the privatisastion of Bryce’s Infirmary in Laurison Place and the development of Sickness City at Little France, with the Sick Kids fiasco, involving the sale of a wonderful Victorian biulding by the Meadows to a property tycoon based in tax friendly Switzerland. Likewise the Department of Clinical Neurosciences has been cursed with a building too shoddy to use, and remains in limbo at the Western General. The NHS management thinks its a property developer, flogging of assets like Bangor Village Hospital, Rosslynlee, and the wonderful Astley Ainsley. A complex of Edwardian buildings which formed the original Royal Edinburgh Hospital, including a garden courtyard which once had a bandstand to entertain the residents, has just been carpet bombed out of existence – and the mentally fragile are having to cope with this upheaval! Keep up the good work Malcolm.

    2. Neil Gray says:

      Please do. I’ve seen some fragments of that argument but a more detailed exposition would be very useful for groups like Living Rent to work with in challenging current housing conditions in the both the PRS and ‘social’ housing sectors.

  10. Duncan Macintosh says:

    VAT is of course a tax reserved to Westminster. We need to lobby in the SNP and Green Party to have this on the long list of changes which an independent Scotltish government will make.

    1. Axel P Kulit says:

      Agreed, in the meanwhile they could raise fees due to ScotGov for applications to knock down and build new but reduce or abolish fees for repair and repurpose. This might at least help to level the field.

  11. Justin Kenrick says:

    This is a really excellent piece. It touches on the fundamentals of what is wrong and how to put it right.

    “I can forego the glam of the big newbuild, for the quiet satisfactions of the renew.”

    A huge amount to respond to, but I’m knackered at the end of a tiring day and need to get some renewing sleep. Have you written this up as a longer piece, or can you write a few more this length for Bella as a way of building to a longer analysis for the rest of us?

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