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How to build a town: Duke of Fife reveals urban vision

One of the UK’s most ambitious new settlements is under construction, led by the Duke of Fife, whose vision for the town shies away from conventional urban design.

“To get a land block of this size and design a town from scratch is a unique opportunity. We can’t afford to get it wrong.”

Construction News is visiting Chapelton of Elsick, one of the biggest new towns currently under construction in the UK.

We’re here with the Duke of Fife, a co-director of the Elsick Development Company (EDC), the joint venture developer behind the new town at Chapelton.

EDC has plans to build around 8,000 homes in a series of neighbourhoods here, around 18 km south of the centre of Aberdeen. They aim to abide by the design principles of New Urbanism, the urban design movement which aims to create environmentally friendly, walkable neighbourhoods with a range of housing and job types.

It’s one of the most ambitious urban developments in the UK at the moment – presenting potential opportunities for contractors in the future, as well as providing a fascinating case study into how to get a new town out of the ground.

Taking control

The masterplan calls for a wide range of different homes to be built, ranging from two-bedroom apartments to five-bedroom houses. The homes will use local materials such as granite, stone and lime harling, and have been designed with other local north-east Scotland towns in mind.

It could take as long as 40 years to build out the full masterplan, the Duke says. “Who can tell?”

Chapelton of Elsick Aberdeenshire Elsick Development Company town overview

Chapelton of Elsick Aberdeenshire Elsick Development Company town overview

The Duke owns 634 ha of the masterplan land, with 204 ha owned by local farmers

The masterplan for Chapelton came to life as a result of the construction of the long-planned Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route.

The new road will come down the western side of the town, joining the existing A90 dual carriageway that leads to Aberdeen just to the south.

As it became clear that the AWPR would be located here, and that the Aberdeen City and Shire Strategic Development Planning Authority had plans to build new homes on the Aberdeen-Laurencekirk corridor south of the city, locating the development at Chapelton became the logical choice for the Duke of Fife, the major landowner in the area.

“It became clear that there was probably going to be a lot of development around our land here,” the Duke says. “So we decided to take control of it and propose that we build the houses on our land instead, and do it properly.”

The Duke owns 634 ha of land included in the masterplan, with another 204 ha owned by neighbouring farmers – hence the establishment of the EDC.

“It’s a consortium of landowners and the JV model has made it easier to give access,” he says.

“We decided to take control of [planned local development] and propose that we build the houses on our land instead, and do it properly”

Duke of Fife, Elsick Development Company

EDC now has outline planning permission for 4,045 houses in the masterplan and detailed planning permission for the first 842 homes, the first 10 per cent of the settlement.

It is working with three housebuilder partners to deliver the town: ZeroC, a specialist in sustainable housebuilding; AJC Homes, a privately owned boutique Aberdeenshire housebuilder; and Stephen, a Perth-based builder.

EDC sells collections of housing plots to each builder, who then build out the homes and sell to residents. The firms started on site in May 2014, finishing the first homes by Christmas for residents to move in last February. EDC has sold 200 plots in total so far, with 77 completed and occupied houses.

Chapelton of Elsick Aberdeenshire Elsick Development Company 3

Chapelton of Elsick Aberdeenshire Elsick Development Company 3

The town is being built with walking and cycling in mind

“The team worked very hard to push that along,” the Duke says. “People have really enjoyed it, and are putting their heart and soul into it.”

Commitment to planning

The first challenge was to gain planning permission, which was only granted on the morning that work began in May 2014.

The team held a 10-day period in which everyone came together and took on board views from a public consultation to draw up the masterplan, which has remained largely unchanged ever since.

“It hasn’t changed because it’s really important that we build what we’ve said we will,” the Duke says.

“The first residents here really bought into a vision of what Chapelton will be [in the future], so we have to stick to what we’ve said. The initial buyers were buying houses that didn’t exist in a town that didn’t exist – it was a leap of faith.”

Thinking differently

The companies already working at Chapelton have had to get behind the vision of the Elsick Development Company to make the scheme work.

Local civil engineering contractor WM Donald is carrying out the infrastructure work on site, and operations manager Ian Donald says the site is “out of the norm”.

“When I’m employing new guys, I tell them to come and look here to see what our company is about,” he says.

“It has a totally different feel here and it will last the test of time.

Graeme Clark is site manager for ZeroC at Chapelton. ZeroC has previously worked on building homes at Poundbury, the new town in Dorset overseen by the Prince of Wales.

“We’ve been here since day one,” he says. “One of the big challenges has been trying to communicate together as a whole team, with lots of different partners.

“We’ve also had to make subtle changes to the designs – and we really have to think a year in advance when planning what goes next. It’s a different project.”

The Duke of Fife himself sums up the spirit of the development team, saying: “We want everyone to be proud of what they’ve created.”

The public consultation actually resulted in more homes being added to the masterplan, the Duke says, as local residents from nearby towns and villages saw the benefits of concentrating development in one place and ensuring that their own communities wouldn’t get swallowed up by housing stretching south from Aberdeen.

EDC’s relationship with Aberdeenshire Council is “very good”, he says, despite a recent dispute over contributions to local infrastructure improvements.

Aberdeen City and Shire SPDA sought £8m to help pay for a new bridge over the river Dee and a train station at Kintore, but EDC argued it shouldn’t be liable to pay for other projects due to the level of investment at Chapelton.

Chapelton of Elsick Aberdeenshire Elsick Development Company Bunting Place

Chapelton of Elsick Aberdeenshire Elsick Development Company Bunting Place

EDC has plans to build around 8,000 homes in total in a series of neighbourhoods

In the end, the courts came down on EDC’s side, slashing the bill to just £287,000 – although the councils are considering taking the case to the Supreme Court.

The Duke says this episode has just been an “unnecessary distraction” that hasn’t affected the two parties’ working relationship. “They’ve been really positive and supportive of what we’re doing,” he says. “We just disagreed on this one issue, so we decided to be grown-ups about it, agree to disagree, and let it be sorted out [by the courts].”

Walk the walk

On site, the Duke takes Construction News for a walk around Chapelton’s first neighbourhood, Cairnhill, which is under construction.

It’s an opportunity to show off some of the ways in which the town has been designed to create a pleasant place to live.

“We want people to live, work and play here,” the Duke says. “We don’t think anyone really wants to get in a car to commute, so we’re very deliberately trying to make this a place where you can walk and cycle.”

“We don’t think anyone really wants to get in a car to commute, so we’re very deliberately trying to make this a place where you can walk and cycle”

Duke of Fife

Cairnhill is the town’s south-eastern corner and construction will move outwards from there towards the north and west – ensuring that building work is never surrounding or disrupting residents.

The houses are designed with garages behind, to keep the cars off the main streets and maintain a tidy look. And on the main road, trees have been planted to act as a natural traffic-calming measure, designed to keep cars slow.

It’s a car-friendly place, necessitated by the town’s location – but it is also possible to walk everywhere. On one of the back streets, the Duke remarks: “You should always be able to feel like you can walk on the road safely here – we want the children to be playing football and running around, too.”

Right at Hume

The centrepiece of Cairnhill is Hume Square, a village square that is designed to act as a focal point for the community. It’s already home to a tearoom and nursery school, with a hairdresser set to open soon as well.

“It’s not as profitable for us as a developer for us to have this, but it gets the point across that this is mixed-use,” the Duke says. “We need that first point of ‘soft’ contact with potential buyers, so that when people are interested we can take them to the tearoom and there’s an atmosphere.”

Chapelton of Elsick Aberdeenshire Elsick Development Company 1

Chapelton of Elsick Aberdeenshire Elsick Development Company 1

Hume Square, a community focal point already home to a tearoom and nursery school

It’s noticeably quiet on the Tuesday afternoon when we visit, with most residents presumably at work, but groundworks are visible to the north-west corner of the site, preparing for the next phase of development to begin.

Each of the neighbourhoods in Chapelton will have a similar commercial hub, with local businesses catering for the community, and all will be connected by a circular road to allow for buses to move around efficiently.

“We’re working with them to develop our designs, as there’s no point building something that won’t sell”

Duke of Fife

In the middle of the settlement will be a larger town centre, anchored by a large supermarket and other retail and leisure spaces.

A number of new schools and health centres will also need to be built to cater for the new community – potentially providing opportunities for contractors. The Duke says that EDC had hoped to procure contractors itself, but that discussions about this are still ongoing.

“We initially thought we’d be able to design and build the schools ourselves, as we have our own architect,” the Duke says. “We know that good schools sell houses.

“But this has been a bit of a culture shock for the council as it’s a different view from most developers, so we’re still talking about how these are going to be procured.”

Iterative process

To keep the development at Chapelton proceeding, though, EDC has to keep selling land and the housebuilders have to keep selling houses.

So far, so good – but the fall in the oil price has drastically changed the economic landscape in Aberdeenshire and has meant that the housing market has changed too. In particular, the demand for large houses has declined significantly.

“When we sought partners, we wanted flexibility,” the Duke says. “We’ve already changed some plots of land away from single large houses to now build a row of cottages – it’s about responding to the market.

He describes the design of Chapelton as an “iterative process”, with the phased approach to development enabling the team to learn lessons as it goes, constantly improving without compromising on the original vision.

“Our housebuilders suggested different housing types to us, and we’re working with them to develop our designs, as there’s no point building something that won’t sell.

“We also wanted builders who would be flexible to work with us – there are many larger housebuilders who are good at what they do and didn’t want to change their formula, and that’s fair enough.”

AJC Homes project manager Gordon Taylor echoes this, saying: “It’s quality – it’s not mass-producing.

“The guys working here seem to have to got that. My eyes have been opened as you see guys really taking pride in this work and taking care for the trades that will be following in behind them.”

The message is clear: Chapelton of Elsick isn’t your normal housing development.

And with another 40 years of building potentially to come in a number of different phases, there’s set to be plenty of work available for those companies that are willing to buy into the vision and get on board. 

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