An Exemplar Project
by Gill Sherry
There are many buildings of historical significance in Ayr, few more elegant than Seafield House. Which is why it was so distressing to witness the gradual deterioration of this once so beautiful home.
Completed in 1888, Seafield House was designed and built by Sir William Arrol, the civil engineer responsible for the Tay Bridge, the Forth Bridge, and Tower Bridge in London.
Upon his death in 1913, the house was gifted to the British Red Cross and for a time was used as a convalescence home for injured soldiers. Later, it became a maternity hospital and children’s hospital before closing in 1990. The property then lay empty, succumbing to neglect until a fire virtually destroyed it in 2008.
Among the many people saddened by its demise was Chartered Town Planner, Robin Ghosh. Robin was born and brought up in Ayr and not only had an interest in the built environment but also had a personal connection to Seafield House.
“My dad was a surgeon at Seafield House and I was dragged round there at weekends. I thought I was going for a nice drive and I was actually going round all the hospitals because my dad was visiting patients. On Christmas Day I wasn’t allowed to open my presents until I went down to Seafield and wished all the kids a merry Christmas, which was fine looking back at it now, but at the time it was a little bit frustrating.”
Ironically, Robin now finds his own children waiting from him in the car park at Seafield House where he has been overseeing the property’s rebirth.
Robin studied at Strathclyde University where he did a Civil Engineering and a Town Planning degree. He set up EDesign Architecture & Planning Ltd with his business partner, Derek Shennan, in 2013.
“What I quickly realised was, to make change to the built environment, it wasn’t quite good enough working for the local authority, you had to really be driving change, making change yourself.”
Along with that desire for change was the determination to succeed and to give everything they could to the Seafield House project.
“I think that shows through every element of the project from the general holistic design approach to the finish of the workmanship and the material finish.”
Indeed it does. Having been fortunate enough to see Seafield House in all its renovated glory, it’s fair to say that the B listed building is every inch the grand home it was intended to be, albeit divided into ten separate apartments.
So meticulous was the plan, a stonemason was on site full time. Sandstone was brought up from Penrith after a geological report matched the existing stone to a quarry in the Lake District. All of the windows were timber sash and case, handmade and designed to the same specification as the originals, and no additional openings were created.
“Everything was done as sensitively and as good as it could be. It’s not an easy process if you’re trying to follow what you believe and stick to your guns in terms of not losing the traditional character.”
To complicate things further, the building needed to be compliant as far as current Scottish Building Regulations were concerned. It was a battle, but one they were determined to win.
“This was our development,” continues Robin. “We had the option to put our money where our mouth is. Potentially we were going to be judged on how this was but… I was fed up with moaning about bad developments and how there’s no pride in development anymore. Our generation is, in a sense, a guardian of the built environment for the future. What we see now is going to be left for our children to look at and I think we could be doing so much more.”
In order to save Seafield House, Robin’s strategy was to design an enabling development model which utilised the 6.5 acres of ground that surrounded the house. Basically, 27 houses would be built in the grounds and then sold to fund the main project.
“The planning package that I developed was one of the first in Scotland to be approved in that way. Thinking outside the box, trying to find a dynamic solution for such a complex problem, will hopefully inspire others to think that these buildings can be saved.”
But Robin was just as particular about the 27 houses as he was about Seafield House itself.
“The design of the 27 houses was a huge responsibility because the spotlight was on this to be an exemplar project. I wanted to inspire others which meant that I wanted to get the housing mix right, the site layout right. I wanted to create a real sense of place and local identity with Seafield House at its core. I didn’t want this just to be a generic housing development.”
Everything was given careful consideration from the house design (there are seven different house types) to the layout and the road geometry, right through to the types of plants and the way the trees and shrubs were planted. For Robin, it was all about creating a soft approach and framing Seafield House.
Not only was this a huge project in terms of scale and finance, it was also a project that so many others had turned their back on. Thankfully, Robin wasn’t put off by their reluctance.
“So many larger development companies had looked at Seafield House and couldn’t make it work. It took quite a young, dynamic company like ours to say that we could.”
The result is ten exquisitely unique luxury apartments finished to the highest standard, each with its own felicitous title: Bothwell, Dalmarnock, Finnieston, Forth, Harland, Hawkesbury, Houston, Tay, Tower and Warrington.
Mention of the apartment names, returns the conversation to the original owner.
“This was Sir William Arrol’s House. He designed and built this house as a seaside home for himself. Becoming more involved in the process opened my eyes up to what a fantastic businessman he was for Scotland and what a legacy he’s left all over the world. Sir William Arrol designed and built fantastic structures that are still with us today and are still focal points. He’s on the five pound notes. He’s probably one of Scotland’s greatest engineers and this was his house.”
Robin goes on: “We are seeing how he designed, engineered and then built his own house. When it’s your own property you tend to give it that little bit more. That’s probably testament to how it’s still standing because it stood with no roof since 2008 with trees growing out of it… trees that were huge in size, and the building still managed to stay upright. I think the way it’s been built definitely helped us on our journey to rebuilding it because it was designed in such a solid way.”
Back on the subject of inspiration, Robin has more to say: “In general, what I want to try and inspire is that we’re not scared of old buildings and that we should be looking at intellectual ways of saving them. It’s embracing the principles of local sustainability.”
He’s also aware, however, that encouragement must come from all stakeholders. That includes developers, architects, agents, Councils and building owners who must all work together to try and find a combined solution.
The easy solution for many of these old, derelict buildings is, of course, demolition, but Robin insists this is definitely not the right approach. I take this opportunity ask about Ayr’s troublesome Station Hotel.
“I have looked at the Station Hotel and I do think there are solutions there. At the moment I’m trying to come to terms with the end of one quite large project before moving onto another, but I think what it does require is the same principles… it requires everybody to be on the same page with dynamic thinking, challenging the norm, questioning the normal way of working. I do think with the right team, solutions can be found for problems like the Station Hotel. Wouldn’t it be a great success story for the town?”
The fact that Seafield House was saved from demolition is encouraging when thinking of the Station Hotel and other buildings in a serious state of disrepair. Again, Robin believes it’s the combined efforts of stakeholders that is key to saving them. He also thinks that involving different groups can be beneficial.
“The NHS applied for demolition of Seafield House twice but it was refused by the Council. I think they were helped into that refusal by a local action group called Friends of Seafield. There’s no denying that they ultimately did help save Seafield House from being demolished by objecting fiercely to the application. It’s about not turning your back on groups but involving them.”
Robin and Derek have certainly proved that what many people thought was impossible is, in fact, possible. They overcame every obstacle and restored Seafield House to its beautiful best.
“This is ultimately an exemplar project,” Robin concludes. “I think it can be rolled out across Scotland. Nationally, this should be, and is being, recognised.”
For more information on the four luxury apartments still for sale within Seafield House, visit www.seafield-house.com or corumproperty.co.uk.