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Sci-fi design and Biomass plants

Biomass plants form an exciting plan to power Scotland. Rory Olcayto finds a dynamic aesthetic at the heart of Gordon Murray Architects’ vision

For the past year, Chris Malcolm has had a pile of sci-fi albums with artwork by the likes of paperback-cover artist Chris Foss and Star Wars concept-artist Ralph McQuarrie sitting on his desk.

The books specialise in Boilerplate, a Heavy-Metal fantasy aesthetic, a hand-built Futurism, which films like Aliens and Blade Runner have helped popularise. Director James Cameron calls it the ‘used future’ look. Alongside these, albums of Iakhov Chernikhov plates and designs by Antonio Sant’Elia crowd out the worktop. For Malcolm, project director at Gordon Murray Architects (GMA), it’s like being a student again.

But this is work, and the albums are research, inspiration for a bold nationwide plan. Malcolm is leading GMA’s project centred on Scotland’s renewable energy infrastructure, the Forth Energy biomass project, a joint venture by Scottish and Southern Energy and Forth Ports. The remit is to give shape, colour and texture to four coastal, 100- and 200-megawatt renewable-energy plants - serviced by ships loaded with homegrown timber - at Dundee, Grangemouth, Rosyth and Leith.

GMA first opened talks with Forth Energy in December 2009. The firm had just completed a study for Scottish Power, for a far smaller 25 megawatt coal-fired plant at Longannet in Fife. The experience guiding the design alongside Architecture and Design Scotland and Fife Council encouraged it to approach Forth Energy. ‘Having dealt with a large team of plant specialists, and previously addressed the concept of mitigating visual impact on large-scale industrial projects, that gave the client confidence,’ says Malcolm. In February last year, Forth Energy appointed GMA to work up plans for the four plants.

Now, with four Section 36 applications to the Scottish Government lodged, the most recent just last month, Malcolm can reflect. ‘It’s a unique challenge,’ he says. ‘You’re dealing with a machine, a fixed process, but this is more than a simple exercise in envelope design.’ The documentation the firm has produced is testament to that, a detailed typological study of >> power stations around the world and a design guide for the four biomass plants with scheme proposals for each.

These are defined with recurring elements such as linear colour bands, elevated forms, sculptural modulation, and are informed by precedents such as Avedøre Power Station near Copenhagen and Ariake waste-to-energy plant in Tokyo. As you can see from the renders by GMA’s visualisation expert Gordon Brown, there’s a fairly large dose of Malcolm’s fantasy Futurism in the mix too.

Each study, as well as providing a fresh take on green aesthetics, forms part of a vision to revive Scotland’s heavy engineering and architectural design heritage, signalled first by RMJM’s millennial Falkirk Wheel and once again by Zaha Hadid’s Riverside Museum, completing now in Glasgow. If the eventual form of the stations - which take two-to-three years to build - resemble GMA’s proposals however, Forth Energy’s biomass project, to be up and running in 2015, promises to be more significant than either of those schemes.

As well as generating 14 per cent of Scotland’s electricity needs, the plants, explains Malcolm, will encourage businesses to grow, campus-like around them, inviting new ways of thinking about urban design. ‘The plants are vast sinks of heat energy too,’ says Malcolm, which means they have reserve energy on site, which could power local development. ‘When you realise a typical bulk ship can deliver up to 35,000 tonnes of fuel, equivalent to 1,000 lorry loads, it changes the way you think about townscape and land use.’

Malcolm, whose final-year project at Strathclyde University imagined a future of rising sea levels and offshore colonies - ‘armoured monsters’, he remembers - is clearly in love with the process. Aberdare is a ‘fragmented mountain at the water’s edge’. A plant in Smolensk resembles a ‘spaceship about to take off’. And the fixed elements, so specific to plant design, just make it more interesting: ‘When you know the day silos need to be alongside the boiler, you can take a step back, play with massing, the skyline, and consider how best to draw upon context.’ And how best, of course, to maximise the Isaac Asimov 1970s paperback-cover aesthetic, also known as Boilerplate.

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