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Cast away in an upturned boat

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BBC TV's Castaway series was dominated by bickering, intrigue and . . . an architect.This is his story BY AUSTIN WILLIAMS

Love it or hate it, an awful lot of people watch it. The second series of installments of the Castaway project shown on BBC last month was watched by 20 million people.

The concept for the series is straightforward. Take 28 adults and eight children (representing, as executive producer Jeremy Mills says, 'a cross-section of society'), stick them in the middle of a God-forsaken Scottish island, and see what happens. The concept buys into millennial fears about modernity, alternative lifestyles movements, and the desire for a revitalised sense of community.

The series shows the temporary inhabitants of the tiny Hebridean island, bickering, absconding, misbehaving and generally enjoying themselves.We all have our favourites. Ben, the man who can't possibly be that good-humoured; Tammy, whose lingerie still lingers in her drawers; the scare-mongering doctor; the crusty professor; the dreadlocked trapeze artist.

All of life is there.

One person who rarely appears, but has received his fair share of criticism, is Andy McAvoy.As the architect for the accommodation, stores and outbuildings, he has regularly come in for criticism during the televised community squabbles, especially in relation to the weathertightness of the structures.With some families refusing to set foot on the island until the full homestead was completed, McAvoy has been vilified by default. So what is the full story?

Andy McAvoy is senior partner in B@LAST (Buildings Landscape Architecture Systems Today), an architectural firm based in Scotland 'specialising in ecological architecture and design'. Because of previous collaborative work with The Stornaway Trust on the Isle of Lewis and his experience of timber-framed construction, McAvoy was chosen to design and assist in the management of the scheme to refurbish and construct the new community structures on the deserted island of Taransay. The buildings were due for occupation before the New Year celebrations.

Unfortunately, the architect had his first briefing meeting in early September 1999, leaving only four months to complete the scheme from scratch!

Forgotten islands

Suffering from economic and geographical isolation, and buffeted by severe wind and rain, Taransay, and its more famous neighbour St Kilda, have been uninhabited for many years.Remnants of previous occupation were a derelict school building and barn and a barely habitable house. These buildings were surveyed in a single day's visit and a scheme proposal to make them safe and useable was quickly pulled together.

Schedules and a specification document were drawn up and negotiated with a local contractor, Neil McKay & Co, ready for work to begin on 9 October.

McAvoy had approached the Western Isles Council in early September with a view to assessing the likelihood of Taransay being deemed acceptable for rehabitation. Although the council gave permission in principle, the design of the accommodation had to be sensitively handled, given the dramatic landscapes to be built upon.The decision was taken that the existing buildings would suffice for some of the functions, but a full range of accommodation units needed to be constructed.

McAvoy camped at Gleneig, where he sat out the first storms of the Hebridean winter, while designing the 'sleeping pods', as they have become known, to produce sympathetic, organic forms; reminiscent of the indigenous 'blackhouses' with their rounded edges and roofs. The form gave maximum water shedding capabilities and also blended well into the landscape.

McAvoy has said that, 'Personal space is very important to this project, but as important is the fact that these people have the chance to escape their everyday lives and there is something very Zen about that. I wanted to design buildings that would enhance their experience.' The architect was also keen to provide a pleasing illuminated landscape, 'to repel the darkness of the long winters'.Lighting and walkways feature highly in the external considerations.

To speed up construction, McAvoy set up a base in the derelict house on the island and, via a satellite phone link, directly organised and managed a series of local tradesmen. Concept sketches moved straight into the workshop and the good working relationship built up with the local authority meant that sketches could be supplied to the planning department in batches - as they were finalised in sketch form. The quick-assembly construction method chosen for the pods comprised large section curved timber frames held down on concrete pad footings, ensuring minimum disruption to the landscape.

Furthermore, the buildings were designed to be easily removable - a stipulation of the TV company, as well as the planners.

As one of the most isolated areas of the Hebrides, careful thought was given to the erection process. Due to time constraints, the original desire for Glulam beams was not deliverable and instead naturally curved oak was sourced from the Scottish Borders and North Wales. A helicopter speeded up deliveries and assisted in the site handling. The main members were flown in - in pieces governed by their weight and length - and pegged together to form each arch. Each pod required three arches, each spanning 15m.

Howling gales, torn roofs

With w inter sett ing in , the concrete pads had to be laid in unsuitable weather conditions and the contractors had to work 12 hour shifts - six hours of which were under arc lamps.With winds in excess of gale force eight over seven days, forcing the construction team to speed up even more, detailing became a luxury. Hand-drawn sketches were supplemented by hands-on descriptions. With the eager castaways' arrival on New Year's Eve, the pods still had two weeks work left to do.Flooding the site with untrained labour didn't help matters.

On 1 January 2000, the essential roofing membrane and turf were not in place.

Despite repeated attempts with harnesses and ropes to secure a heavy-duty (nongreen) plastic membrane, the pod roofs were left dependent on the felt underlay for water-tightness. Within 48 hours, the worst wind to hit Taransay in 30 years lifted half of the temporary roofing felt, preventing habitation of the most of the new pods. Over the next two weeks, under the architect's direction, the builders and castaways fought gales to finish the roofs, with turfs held down with fishing nets and ropes weighted down with beach stones, in the local tradition.

The internal frames and linings have been built from larch, cedar and Douglas fir and the insulation provided by sheep's wool and recycled newspaper, packed into the voids. The pods have ended up - in a tradition of upturned boat imagery - well suiting their surroundings and providing basic accommodation for the (fool)hardy castaways.

Given that the very purpose of the castaway project is to get back to basics, the new inhabitants haven't done too badly.

The leaks at thresholds - during spells of driving rain - is a minor grumble, and most of the castaways have accepted it.

However, as with the incestuous life on a secluded island indicates, minor problems have sometimes become inflated out of all proportion. Complaints about leaks and drying out are standard fare at practical completion. Most architects would be pleased if that was the only complaint on normal jobs, let alone for this fast-track contract in howling gales.

Pioneers or whingers?

The outcome of the social experiment is yet to be determined, but the design experiment has provided a valuable insight into the harsh realities; the pressures, failures and compromises of small-scale architecture - and not an M4I pro-forma in sight.

It is an experiment that Andy McAvoy may not wish to repeat.


Although there is a back-up diesel generator, electricity is generated through Proven's wind turbines and hydro-power, which provide more than the 100kWh per week demand.

Due to the strong prevailing winds, which average 8m/s, the 2.5kWh turbine affords an average of 600W. This primary source of power fluctuates considerably so it is backed up by wave power. The hydro-turbine on Loch na Gaoithe provides another 80-100kWh per week.

This electricity is permitted for lighting only. Heating is provided by driftwood-fuelled stoves and bottled gas.

The water supply is provided from a disused spring, which was tested by environmental health officials prior to occupation. Existing soakaways, which had served the previous occupants (the McRae family who left the island in 1974) have been extended and Klargester septic tanks installed.





RENEWABLE ENERGY/AGRICULTU RAL EXPERTS Alternative Technology Centre, Machynlleth

WIND TURBINES MANUFACTURER Proven Wind Turbines, Kilmarnock

CONTRACTOR: Neil McKay and Co

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Brian Wright, Deeside

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