Grand designs: the Glasgow office for Idox is one of Scotland’s best buildings

By James Carson

As a proud Glaswegian, I feel lucky to live in a city with an abundance of eye-catching architecture. With styles ranging from the classical and the exotic to the medieval and the ultra-modern, a walk through Glasgow can be like a journey across the city’s history.

So, it was a particular pleasure to learn that the office building from which Idox conducts its business in Glasgow has been selected as one of Scotland’s 100 finest buildings from the last century. The list, chosen by the Scottish public, was announced by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) to launch a year-long festival celebrating the best of Scottish architecture.

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Historic foundations

The Scottish Legal Life Assurance Building is located in Bothwell Street, in the heart of Glasgow’s central business district. Work on its construction began in 1927, when architecture here was beginning to respond to the influence of steel-framed commercial buildings in the United States.

The chief architect was Edward Grigg Wylie, whose practice had also designed the Glasgow Dental Hospital and Hillhead High School. When it was completed, in 1931, the eight-storey building became the headquarters of the Scottish Legal Life Assurance Society, which had grown from a burial society founded by six working men in 1852 to become one of the biggest life insurance firms in Britain.

Bothwell2Bothwell5The honey-coloured Northumberland stone façade of the building reflects the values that an insurance company would want to endorse. Bas-relief carved panels depict Prudence, Thrift and Courage, and above the triple-arched entrance a gilded crest evokes a proud heritage. At either end of the building two majestic clocks mark the passing of time. Inside, the impressive features continue, with an imposing staircase, marble tiling and art deco light fittings.

The building has been part of the fabric of Glasgow for the best part of a century, and may also deserve a footnote in the history books. One of the stories associated with the building concerns Rudolf Hess. In 1941, Adolf Hitler’s deputy made a dramatic flight to Scotland, claiming that he wanted to hold peace talks with the Duke of Hamilton. It’s believed that, after being captured, Hess may have been held in the basement of the Scottish Legal Building, pending his transfer to a prisoner of war camp.

An enduring legacy

Today, Scottish Legal Life Assurance still operates from the B-listed building, while other floors are occupied by companies providing construction, engineering, property and financial services. The seventh floor became the Glasgow home for the Idox Group in August 2011.

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The architect died in 1954, but the name of Edward G. Wylie lives on, not only in the title of his architectural practice, but above the doors of a pub occupying the ground floor of the building he created.

An exhibition showcasing Scotland’s best 100 buildings will go on tour during 2016, as part of the Festival of Architecture. After that, the public will be invited to vote for their favourite from the list.

Whether or not the Scottish Legal Building wins the crown, its important position as one of Glasgow’s commercial landmarks is set in stone.

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All photographs: James Carson


If you’ve enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested in our previous posts on the subjects of architecture and heritage:

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Goodbye Green Deal: the government’s decision to axe its energy efficiency scheme leaves a gap that will be hard to fill

By James Carson

The Green Deal is dead. Last month, the energy and climate change secretary, Amber Rudd, announced that no further applications for finance from the project would be accepted.

The Green Deal was launched by the coalition government in 2013 with the aim of improving energy efficiency in homes across England, Scotland and Wales. Under the programme, households could borrow up to £10,000 for household improvements such as double glazing or home insulation, and make repayments through their energy bills.

As well as addressing fuel poverty, the energy efficiency scheme was also regarded as having a crucial role in meeting the UK’s emission reduction targets.

But, almost from day one, the programme was criticised as too complicated for the energy efficiency sector to administer and too hard for householders to understand. The first round of Green Deal funding attracted fewer than 2000 applications.

Although take-up improved in subsequent years, the scheme was still poorly regarded, not helped by reports of botched installations. Last year the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee concluded that the Green Deal had failed to live up to expectations, arguing that its planning was flawed, its funding inefficiently delivered, and its implementation poor, all made worse by inadequate communication.

What’s the alternative?

But although few will mourn its passing, the sudden death of the Green Deal, with no replacement, has generated angry responses.

Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council, said:

“While the Green Deal was by no means perfect, the principle of enabling households to install energy-saving measures without paying upfront costs was sound.”

Greenpeace UK chief scientist Dr Doug Parr commented:

“Ditching measures to improve energy-wasting homes will simply leave people to pay more for their bills, with low-income families bearing the brunt of it.”

There’s little doubt that many of Britain’s homes need to improve their energy efficiency. In 2012, 357,000 homes in England had the worst energy ratings of F and G, and more than four in 10 of those were classed as “fuel poor”.

Badly insulated housing has significant impacts on health. Earlier this year, an analysis by Friends of the Earth suggested that cold homes lead to many more people in England than Sweden ending up in hospital with breathing problems, despite England’s much milder weather.

Announcing the Green Deal’s demise, Amber Rudd promised to work with the building industry and consumer groups to create a new system. The government has also commissioned an independent review to look at standards, consumer protection and the enforcement of energy efficiency schemes, to ensure that any future arrangements provide better value-for-money for taxpayers and consumers.

At the moment, another government energy efficiency scheme – the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) remains in operation. Under the ECO the big six energy suppliers are required to help vulnerable householders save on their energy bills and carbon emissions. However this scheme is due to be wound up in 2017.

With no replacement for the Green Deal on the horizon, the energy efficiency sector has been suggesting alternatives, including:

  • stamp duty and council tax rebates for homebuyers installing energy efficiency measures
  • setting aside some of the government’s projected £100bn infrastructure spending for insulating homes
  • A new ‘pay as you save’ scheme similar to the Green Deal, but one which offers more measures and is easier to administer.

In the meantime, industry, householders and environmental campaigners must wait for the government’s next move on energy efficiency.


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PassivHaus … a home for all seasons?

Passivhaus

Image by Pichler Haus, released under a standard Creative Commons Licence

By James Carson

This week, eight contenders are waiting expectantly for the results of the 2015 UK PassivHaus Awards. The awards celebrate sustainability and good building design, with the focus on the PassivHaus concept.

What is PassivHaus?

PassivHaus is an approach to building that is designed to eliminate the need for traditional central heating systems by combining:

  • excellent levels of insulation
  • passive solar gains and internal heat sources
  • excellent level of airtightness
  • good indoor air quality, provided by a whole house mechanical ventilation system with highly efficient heat recovery.

Since its small beginnings as a German-Swedish collaboration in the 1980s, over 30,000 buildings around the world have been built using the PassivHaus approach.

The benefits of PassivHaus

Energy efficiency lies at the heart of a PassivHaus building. The PassivHaus Institut, which plays a leading role in promoting the concept, has claimed that these buildings can achieve energy savings of up to 75% compared to average new builds.  PassivHaus proponents also claim that the buildings have significantly better levels of air quality, and greatly reduce carbon emissions.

Practical issues

While the long-term energy savings are impressive, PassivHaus buildings are not without their critics. Among their concerns:

  • Cost: The higher standards of PassivHaus buildings, including triple-glazed windows, mechanical ventilation systems and vacuum insulation, all add to the costs of PassivHaus construction. The consensus seems to be that PassivHaus will increase build costs by 15% to 25%, and it’s believed that the higher costs have limited the concept’s application to a handful of private housing developments in the UK.
  • Construction time: Because of the optimum performance demanded of them, PassivHaus buildings can take longer to install. In the Republic of Ireland, concerns about slower construction times during a serious housing shortage has prompted the government to oppose plans by local authorities in Dublin to make the PassivHaus standard mandatory for new homes.  PassivHaus proponents in Ireland have condemned the moves as short-sighted, and claim that PassivHauses won’t slow down construction.
  • Adaptability: Another criticism of the PassivHaus concept is that it’s not readily adaptable, and that structural alterations may interfere with the integrity of a PassivHaus building.

A building or a lifestyle?

There have also been claims that residents may themselves have to adapt to PassivHaus living.

“Building a house to this standard means agreeing to live a certain lifestyle, which if lived to the book can work very well, and has been proven to do so time and time again. You must appreciate, however, that building such a home is a lot of trouble to go to if ultimately you do not want to live the PassivHaus lifestyle.” (The Green Home)

However, PassivHaus supporters dismiss the idea that these buildings are too complicated to maintain:

“The ventilation system, not common in conventional buildings, is user-friendly and easy to operate with fewer controls than a normal television.” 

PassivHaus in the UK

The PassivHaus concept was slow to take off in Britain, but more and more UK architects have become interested in PassivHaus since 2013, when the government committed to implementing zero carbon homes from 2016. The zero carbon homes standard will require house builders to decrease all carbon emissions from energy arising from fixed heating and lighting, hot water and other fixed building services, such as ventilation, in new homes. It’s worth noting, however, that the zero carbon standard is less strict than PassivHaus.

The PassivHaus approach is not limited to residential properties. Among the buildings shortlisted for the UK PassivHaus awards this year are a primary school, an office and an education centre.

Elsewhere, the University of Leicester’s Centre for Medicine is currently under construction, and is set to be the UK’s largest PassivHaus building. It’s estimated that the high levels of insulation and a state-of-the-art heating, cooling and ventilation system will reduce the university’s energy bill for its new teaching and research facility by 80%, compared to the previous building.

PassivHaus may also be able to contribute to alleviating Britain’s housing crisis. A social housing project currently under construction in Rainham, east London, aims to demonstrate that PassivHaus is a commercially viable solution to the UK’s shortage of affordable homes. The builders of the 51-home project claim that this will be the first PassivHaus development to be let entirely at affordable rents.

Future prospects

Inadequate heating, poor insulation and high energy costs have become significant factors in the rise of fuel poverty among households in the UK. At the same time, there is a pressing need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. So, it may be that the buildings being showcased at this year’s PassivHaus awards may come to be seen as ahead of their time.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on housing; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading*

 Footprint: three Passivhaus projects, IN Architects’ Journal

Lancaster co-housing (a Passivhaus development), IN Products in Practice

First look: only way is social for Essex Passivhaus homes (energy efficient social housing), IN Property Week

Keeping cosy in Rainham (affordable housing scheme built to Passivhaus standards), IN RIBA Journal

Lessons from Germany’s Passivhaus experience 

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service