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RetroFirst Stories: Collective Architecture on saving Glasgow’s derelict Bell Street stables

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The first in a new AJ series looking at architects who have saved buildings from the bulldozers or brought them back from the brink of ruin

With up to 40 per cent of carbon emissions coming from the construction industry, the profession needs to find ways of adapting the type of buildings it designs, and fast.

In order to tackle the climate crisis the default – and less carbon-hungry – option for any project should be to adapt and reuse an existing building, one of the key demands of the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign.

With the spotlight on retrofit, our newly-launched series seeks to celebrate the projects that save buildings from ruin or demolition and to hear from the architects that designed them. 

To kick off, Collective Architecture’s Andrew Cardwell explains how the practice converted an 1890s stables in Glasgow into 52 affordable homes for Glasgow Housing Association.

RetroFirst Logos 2019 3

Tell us about the project

Bell Street Stables is an 1890s industrial building on the eastern edge of the Merchant City area of Glasgow and, conveniently for me, is visible from my desk. The stables were built to house the cleansing department of Glasgow, including its many Clydesdale horses which were, rather incredibly, stabled on the upper three stories, accessed via a large ramp and external gangways. The brief was to convert the building into 52 mid-market affordable-rent flats for the client, Glasgow Housing Association.

What were the challenges of the existing building?

One of the key challenges in developing the site was balancing the tight, publicly funded budget with the amount and quality of works required to repair and convert the existing building fabric. Fortunately, despite the state of dereliction, the basic massive masonry structure was sound, although we had to rebuild the courtyard access balconies and replace all truss ends and a significant amount of the timber floor joists.

Besides the very poor condition, the building construction varied quite a lot reflecting the original varying functions from food/hay storage, saddlery and mess halls, to the stables themselves. The building had also been intensely used for 80 to 90 years as an evolving industrial stable building for the both the cleansing department and then the police. Compounding the problem was a major alteration in 1955 to add a goods lift, office spaces and, amazingly, a second horse ramp. Much of this was not sympathetic to the original structure.

So there were decades of layers of new additions, many using toxic materials, which only became apparent during the works once the decontamination and down-takings began. Responding quickly and effectively to these and generating a large volume of bespoke details in collaboration with specialist craftspeople was one of the key challenges of the site, but also one of the most enjoyable aspects.

Had demolition ever been considered? 

The building had been derelict for many years and proper maintenance of the roof and surface water drainage had ceased decades ago. As a result, the building was wet, with a lot of rot and was generally in a very poor condition. There were multiple plant and animal infestations to be dealt with and layers of contaminants, including lead paint and multiple accretions of asbestos as might be expected of an industrial building used throughout the early to mid-20th century.

When we first surveyed the building, or at least the parts that could be safely entered, we quickly advised the client that if it would not last many more winters before the whole roof would cave in and the damage would be quickly beyond what could reasonably reverse. After this demolition may have been the only financially viable option for developing the site.

Bell street 2017 6 web crop

Bell street 2017 6 web crop

What other aspects of your design reduce the whole-life carbon impact of the building?

The nature of the construction, the condition and building location limited the number of typical energy-reduction strategies that could be employed. One key aspect was the use of locally sourced materials and manufacturers, minimising transport and embodied energy in the new materials used.

Early analysis of the stone identified that the original building had been built from a quarry that was still in operation in the Borders, so we managed to rebuild and repair the masonry, particularly the parapets, using locally sourced and authentic stone, dressed within a few miles of the site.

Bricks and granite setts were recycled on site from the down-takings and, when these ran out, the mason used hand-made bricks he had as surplus from another local restoration. During the site investigations we established that there was an adjacent blacksmith that had been in the same premises since 1894. While it was not certain whether they might have made the original ironwork pend entrance gates we were keen to use this local resource, which the contractor facilitated. Windows and doors were made bespoke for the project by the main contractor, CCG, in their factory less than 5 miles from the site.

Were the planners supportive of the proposals?

The planners were generally very supportive of the proposals, although we met with some preconceptions which we had to work quite hard to overcome. These came from the fact that the site had been the subject of a previous approved application to convert to a business hub. This proposal retained two flights of the horse ramp and one of the existing stables intact as part of an office space.

In our own analyses of the building we saw the circulation system of courtyard, full height of the ramp and the access balconies as the critical and unique aspects of the building, and so proposed retaining these entirely. The planners, however, maintained the view that a stable be retained intact, even though this would be an unmanageable high-level space in the flatted development and would mean the ramp could not also be kept in its entirety without compromising viability.

We worked through this by continued engagement with the planner and Historic Scotland and eventually our concept was agreed to by both parties. 

What have been the main lessons from the project that you could apply on other developments?

We carried out a number of surveys ahead of the main works but, due to hazards in the dilapidated building, these were necessarily limited. On previous project we have recommended separate soft strip contracts to remove hazardous materials and allow better surveys ahead of the main works. Whilst not possible on this project this is something we would still promote. 

Another lesson learnt was the strong sense of social and historic continuity that comes from retrofitting an existing building. Although quite unique, Bell Street Stables was only vaguely known outside the immediate area by my contemporaries. Throughout the course of the project, however, whether through formal community consultation or informal discussions with neighbours and businesses, I learnt that this building was a key landmark in many people’s memories of this part of the city. Stories keep emerging of aunts or uncles, friends who had worked in or had connections to the building or directly remembered the noise of the horses coming and going over the granite setts. 

Webcrop collective

Webcrop collective

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