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Listed Scottish farm becomes Italian-style campus

A 19th century dairy on a rural Scottish estate is being redeveloped and refurbished to provide a new campus for the Glasgow School of Art – as well as space for the local community.

Project: Blairs Farm Steading redevelopment
Client: Altyre Estate (Sir Alastair Gordon Cumming)
Contract value: £3m
Region: Scotland
Main contractor: Darroch & Allan
Civil engineer: Idom Merebrook
Start date: April 2015
Completion date: August 2016

The old and the new have come together on a project to redevelop derelict farm buildings on a Scottish estate.

Altyre Estate in Moray, north Scotland, is the seat of the Gordon-Cumming baronetcy, the title currently held by Sir Alastair Gordon Cumming.

Sir Alastair is the client on the job, which has seen three buildings on his estate refurbished to create a new ‘Creative Campus’ for the Glasgow School of Art.

The school currently has a base in the nearby town of Forres, but will relocate in the Highlands and Islands, with teaching and research space, to Altyre.

“GSA has been closely involved since the beginning and so the specifications have been designed to very much meet their needs,” says Alison Tunnah, engineer for Idom Merebrook, which is carrying out civil, structural and mechanical engineering on the project.

Local builder Darroch & Allan is carrying out the construction works.

Listed site of varied history

The 19th century Italianate-style Blairs Farm Steading comprises six buildings, labelled A to F by the project team. All six are Category A-listed – the equivalent of Grade I-listed in England.

Altyre Estate Idom Merebrook Glasgow School of Art campus 0044

Altyre Estate Idom Merebrook Glasgow School of Art campus 0044

The buildings had last been regularly used during the Second World War

The project team is refurbishing buildings A, B and C, which sit in a horseshoe shape around a courtyard that is also being landscaped. A new road will run across a patch of grass next to the steading that used to be a cricket pitch, providing easier access to the site.

There are another three buildings in the complex: D, which is to remain undeveloped for now; E, a cricket pavilion currently used by shooting parties staying on the estate; and F, a cottage next to a pond that is housing the site office.

“The client now is trying to restore the estate to its former glory and provide a legacy for the local community”

David Spacey, Idom Merebrook

The buildings date back to the 1830s and originally formed a working dairy farm, with C featuring a feeding trough.

Blairs Steading was built in the Tuscan style and designed by famous local architect Archibald Simpson after he went on a grand tour of the Mediterranean. Mr Simpson is known as one of the men generally credited with giving Aberdeen its character as the ‘Granite City’.

The steading changed use over the years, eventually being used during the Second World War as accommodation for service personnel, as shown by graffiti that was found on the walls inside C. But after this the structures fell into disuse and disrepair.

“The client now is trying to restore the estate to its former glory and provide a legacy for the local community,” says Idom Merebrook technical director David Spacey.

Restoring services

An early challenge was to restore services to the site, with only an old electricity substation providing any utilities.

“We had to go through quite a process to sort this,” Mr Spacey says. “The water supply is all natural and is coming from a spring three miles away, and we’re installing a biomass heating system as well.”

The biomass system will be fuelled by woodchips that will come from Altyre Estate’s own sawmill, located on a different part of the site, providing a sustainable source of energy. There are a number of houses on the estate too, including one belonging to Sir Alastair’s mother, that will be connected to a district heating system powered by the biomass, too.

Altyre Estate Idom Merebrook Glasgow School of Art campus 5707

Altyre Estate Idom Merebrook Glasgow School of Art campus 5707

The revamped structures retain their Italian design

The system is being housed in a new-build steel-framed building on the north-west corner of the site, with a precast concrete area for storing woodchips as well. “It was originally planned to be located in the office [building F], but that needed to be kept free for potential future development,” Ms Tunnah explains.

The aforementioned natural water source has required the installation of a “very large” water treatment plant away from the main site. As this foul water system for the development is private, detailed consultation with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency was required.

Following consultation with the local SEPA office, a licence to discharge was granted for the system. “The design includes a very high-spec custom-built water treatment plant, which discharges to a dosed soakaway system via a 500-litre pump chamber before it discharges into a burn,” Ms Tunnah says. 

”As water flows in the watercourse were so low, SEPA insisted on a very high level of treatment to ensure the cleanest possible discharge”

Alison Tunnah, Idom Merebrook

“This was required in order to meet the standards specified by SEPA. As water flows in the watercourse were so low, SEPA insisted on a very high level of treatment to ensure the cleanest possible discharge. This system has been installed over the past few months and is fully commissioned and operational for the project’s completion.”

On the main site, the three buildings were all in varying states of disrepair when the team arrived on site, but required different works to get them back into shape.

“The foundations were wafer-thin – they were set on cobbles, so we had to do a lot of underpinning,” Mr Spacey says. “The walls were in a bad condition and the roofs were even worse. We had a lot of broken roof beams.”

Altyre Estate Idom Merebrook Glasgow School of Art campus 5713

Altyre Estate Idom Merebrook Glasgow School of Art campus 5713

Lime harling adorns the external walls

Every window has been repaired and refurbished, with lime harling on the external walls to match the traditional surface finish typically found on Scottish buildings of this era. “It would have probably been easier to replace all of the windows but Historic Scotland insisted on repairs, which have been quite extensive,” Mr Spacey says.

Bat tower off-limits

The site’s most striking feature, however, is the 15 m-tall tower atop building C.

The tower won’t be open to GSA students, however. Instead, the original staircase is being kept intact while the top of the tower will be home to a bat sanctuary, ensuring the current chiropteran residents won’t have to move out.

The team here created a link between the two buildings, requiring the most significant structural alterations on the job. Here, a complex arrangement of PCC lintels was required due to the position of the new opening and the loads imposed by the tower. “This has worked out very well and has actually created an attractive link between the two parts of building C,” Ms Tunnah says.

“Nothing on this job automatically ticks any boxes – it’s been a really interesting project”

Alison Tunnah, Idom Merebrook

Idom Merebrook also oversaw the removal of a sheet of asbestos from the side of C, as well as its top storey, which archive material showed had actually been added later on and was not an original feature of the structure.

“It was discovered that the second storey had in fact been an add-on at some point, so consultation between Historic Scotland and the client resulted in a decision that it would be best to put the building back to its original single-storey arrangement,” Ms Tunnah says.

Altyre Estate Idom Merebrook Glasgow School of Art campus 5709

Altyre Estate Idom Merebrook Glasgow School of Art campus 5709

The Glasgow School of Art spaces are designed to be flexible

”It does actually look much better without the second storey as it seemed to balance the building out visually,” she says. Pre-manufactured roof trusses were used to accomplish the transformation.

Though a relatively small one, this job has been far from simple – and has kept the project team on its toes. As Ms Tunnah puts it: “Nothing on this job automatically ticks any boxes – it’s been a really interesting project.”

With the campus opening in time for the new academic year, the team has ensured the finished spaces are as flexible as possible, allowing each building to be operated independently if need be and even used by other tenants in future – breathing new life into disused structures and ensuring they will be used for generations to come.

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