What’s the driver?

For this year’s Doolan prize winner, low margins but job satisfaction were par for the course

West Burn Lane housing’s ‘rear’ elevation reveals private courtyards hidden from the public road.
West Burn Lane housing’s ‘rear’ elevation reveals private courtyards hidden from the public road. · Credit: David Weir

Dickens’ opening lines from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ spring to mind for no reason, hearing the throaty rev of the client’s classic Porsche as it pulls into St Andrews’ West Burn Lane. Before that, Sutherland Hussey Harris’ Colin Harris had been telling me how Edinburgh’s smaller practices struggle to secure new work: this coming from the director of a firm that’s just won the UK’s most lucrative architecture prize – the £25,000 Doolan Award for the housing that we’re standing outside. Yes, its got the accolade, but it turns out that didn’t stop the firm shrinking to a core team of six from the pre-recession glory days of 18, only turning a profit on West Burn Lane once the prize money offset its final outlay.

Client Mark Wilson meanwhile, of Eastacre Investments, seems a million miles from such concerns. An architect, he saw the light many moons ago, moving into lucrative development after concluding those nights spent burning the midnight oil for others’ profit was a thankless task; and he’s come a long way. Concentrating all his efforts in the bubble economy of St Andrews, inflated by affluent international students and global golfing money, this £3.5 million, 14-unit speculative development of houses and high-end apartments is his largest to date. Wilson treated himself to a classic car after he sold the lot at a healthy premium to, among others, a Swiss accountant and Spanish diplomat. The car’s limited edition colour, I note as he temporarily parks up in one of the garages, is very similar to the pale grey green that Harris specified on the garage door. As it silently closes behind its boot, it resembles for an instant a huge rear spoiler; Wilson emphasises he never once doubted the firm’s design nous.

  • Looking north, the town houses with garages offer privacy at street level while between them are glimpsed stolen views into the private courts.
    Looking north, the town houses with garages offer privacy at street level while between them are glimpsed stolen views into the private courts. · Credit: SHH
  • The apartment block on the south tip echoes the articulation evident in the townhouses.
    The apartment block on the south tip echoes the articulation evident in the townhouses. · Credit: SHH
  • Local stone working techniques give grain at  eye level.
    Local stone working techniques give grain at eye level. · Credit: Keith Hunter
  • Oak stairs are simply but effectively detailed.
    Oak stairs are simply but effectively detailed. · Credit: Keith Hunter
  • Upper level terraces counterpoint lower level gardens in neighbouring town houses.
    Upper level terraces counterpoint lower level gardens in neighbouring town houses. · Credit: Keith Hunter

Being an architect, he also understood the pressures on practice, offering an all-too-rare honorarium to the four practices he invited to submit for the project adjacent to one of the colleges at Scotland’s oldest university – and he knew a good thing when he saw it, as Sutherland Hussey Harris’ keenly worked-up proposal of six houses, four maisonettes and four apartments arrived duly presented in a book of Japanese washi paper. But key to the commission win was SuHuHa’s novel treatment of the site’s narrow rigg of land, stretching 114m down south almost to the banks of Kinness Burn; a tenure form rooted in Scotland’s medieval past and very much in evidence here at the ‘home of golf’.

The firm had obviously listened closely not just to Wilson’s required density demands but to intimations bound up in his accounts of the closes and courtyards typifying the city’s vernacular grain and honed further in its university colleges. It also took on board the exposed nature of the site on both sides, leading to a more subtle distinction of front and back, the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ elevation. So the firm’s response was to split the brief into its constituent elements and to twist the homes at right angles to each other as they snake down the rigg, creating narrow alley runs across the site. These offer tantalising views through to private courtyards, the six four-bed houses – either broad to the street or narrow and deep – effectively hiding them from West Burn Lane.

The three spaces created between projecting homes meanwhile catch the best of the south-east light and open out to the neighbouring church house, beyond a low stone rubble wall.

If Wilson was inspired by the urban grain, SuHuHa seemed as much driven by Tanizaki’s ‘In Praise of Shadows’. Harris waxed lyrical over formal massing that saw lower level living spaces opening to the courts countered by high level external terraces on adjacent blocks, making the most of the views east over the rooftops to the cathedral ruins, the hills and the light. The yin/yang approach is echoed in section in the maisonettes further south, tessellated like two Tetris ‘L’s’ and in the cuts into the duplex apartment block at the southern tip of the rigg. The deep articulation so evident in the rear elevations is echoed to a lesser degree on the street side, recessed entrance porches and projecting upper level bedrooms reaching almost indiscreetly across the lane to the university’s psychology and biology faculties. Garages act as a foil for the prying eye at ground level, their double/single rhythm interrupted only by the viewing alleys and the final planted square in front of the maisonettes at the south of the site – this has ­seven parking spaces but still retains a sense of a courtyard. Like Wilson’s taste in cars, it’s sophisticated; in all there are 20 vehicles on this site. You wouldn’t think it.  

The zinc roof and rooflights stagger north up the site to the town, blending in with its picturesque roofscape.
The zinc roof and rooflights stagger north up the site to the town, blending in with its picturesque roofscape. · Credit: SSH

It’s moot now but perhaps Harris could have saved on office resourcing by spending less time on the specification of the external Peak Moor sandstone, leaving it ashlar faced, rather than insisting on the characterful treatment, to give the project its rusticated base. He could have spared the man hours given to churning out umpteen studies on the size and amount of fine-etched droving on the stone window architraves and rough horizontal broaching that casts deep set shadows in the low winter south light so well. Surely he could have foregone the Berlin trip to look at Chipperfield projects and decide the right shade of Danish Petersen Tegl D17 brick and lime mortar colour, or the time inspecting the 12 different full-size sample panels of brickwork.

But any architect worth their salt doesn’t know when to leave well alone – which is probably why they live in unfinished houses. How many early nights might have been enjoyed had the firm adopted a standard flat roof system rather than creating a variegated landscape of low-pitched zinc sheet meeting rooflights that bring light deep into the plan and meld into the higgledy-piggledy roofscape of the town? Maybe it offset exterior efforts with the generic internal finishes more suited to speculative work – albeit high end. But time has even been spent here too, notably on the wide oak halls and staircases; no doubt detailed to death on paper, even if they’re more compromised in life. But to tell SuHuHa to down pens for the sake of the fee would be pointless. Mark Wilson could probably have told them that much – though I’d quite understand that he wouldn’t.

It might be a thought preying on Harris’ mind as he drives me back to Edinburgh in a more workaday vehicle. On the way he offers to show me the place he’s building for himself and his family in a remote hamlet. A half-built steel structure, just roofed, and extrapolated out from a grass bank, the raw internal space is cavernous. One whole side will be nothing but glass. Open to the elements for now, the view out to the distant peak is magnificent, dark clouds rolling ominously by. Being procured for a fraction of the price of a cramped two-bed flat in London, it in part explains why the firm might yet be able to hold on for that next big project with a skeleton staff and modest turnover. Well outside West Burn Lane’s prime property bubble, it’s still about quality of life and the lengths you’ll go to, to pay for it.

The best of times or the worst of times? Returning home to my gardenless, insalubrious flat in London, the view of the Paps of Fife fresh in my mind, perhaps it’s all a matter of perspective.