In pursuit of high placemaking standards at Alloa’s Primrose Street

THIS was meant to be a feature about designing for dementia, as it applied to a new residential apartment block in the middle of the Clackmannanshire town of Alloa, opposite a historically-sensitive site: a Grade A-listed former swimming pool and gymnasium, now a library and local authority offices. 

Instead, it’s become a feature about having the humility to reach out. 

Plus, having the permission – in the context of recent Scottish Government enthusiasm for ‘placemaking’ – to reach for the stars. 

There was already planning approval in place for the plot (which was owned by the council): a residential development, with retail space taking up the ground floor and car parking to its front. 

But as it became clear that the retail element of the scheme had no viable operators, the council re-focussed its ambitions for the site around a project focussed on town centre living. 

When Place Design Scotland met with Clackmannanshire principal placemaking officer, Grant Baxter, he was putting the finishing touches to a presentation – to be made the following day to his team of four fellow planning officers – imagining what Alloa might become. 

Baxter clearly takes his job title seriously, and, as it applied to Primrose Street, he felt the answer was a building defining the streetscape, hard up against the pavement, not separated by a moat of car park asphalt. 

And then came the masterstroke. It began with a conversation with the Scottish Government advisory body, Architecture & Design Scotland (ADS), and continued with making contact with the Dementia Services Development Centre at the nearby University of Stirling. At the same time, the council was linking with one Scotland’s best-known housing associations, Fife-based Kingdom Housing Association, to deliver the development. 

Baxter’s own council colleagues – in housing – had made it clear there was a particular shortage of housing appropriate for older people in the town. And while the town centre location meant some initial concerns (noise, personal safety, etc), these proved to be anxieties that could be directly responded to by design. 

Scottish Government policy on placemaking might have its sceptics, but for Baxter it provided the necessary context to set the tone, from the outset: that Primrose Street could not be about accepting second-best. 

That he found, in his invitees, immediately willing accomplices, he knew he had that trump card up his sleeve in the event of any reservations: read the policies. 

Begins Baxter: “Once you had taken part in any of our workshops, you could not fail to see what was right for the development. We were fortunate in that there was a forward thinking registered social landlord {Kingdom] involved and not a developer who had done these types of sites 30 times before and would not be persuaded from their tried and tested. 

“Maybe in the past, development of any type in the town was assumed to be always a good thing. But maybe a line in the sand has been drawn, with Scottish Government policies clearly aimed at delivering excellent design in every town. 

“My team certainly believes we have permission to push ahead with town centre masterplanning, and do it in anticipation of the necessary financing coming along.” 

“What I like most about Primrose Street is how it sits within the whole area. The parts all fit together. We knew that housing alone would not be enough, although of course that option existed and we could easily have settled for that, and patted ourselves on the back. 

“We needed the building to sit in a streetscape and make it work, as a place, for everyone: residents, people coming into Alloa to work and for other visitors. 

“The health and well-being aspect came into our reckoning very early on. And seeing it in action, it struck me that designing-for-dementia is really designing-for-everyone; there’s so much common sense to it.”

Says Lesley Palmer, acting director of Dementia Services Development Centre: “Research has demonstrated that dementia design can sustain independence and support quality of life for people with dementia.

“Here, at the DSDC, research underpins all that we do, and we work with clients internationally to support them in their journey to be dementia inclusive.

“Clackmannanshire Council should be commended for their willingness to adopt evidence-based design principles into the development at Primrose Street in Alloa. By creating a building that will be supportive of an ageing population and people living with dementia, it will support residents to remain as independent as possible while staying within their community.”

Continues Baxter: “We were designing for more than just housing: the communal spaces, the garden and, of course, car parking needed to sit correctly in a site of significant importance to the town.” 

It was Baxter reaching out to A&DS – during an informal conversation at a conference in Glasgow – that got the ‘ball rolling’. 

“I basically said: ‘Look, we are a small local authority, with limited resources, and we don’t want it to be just good enough. Can you help? And to A&DS’s great credit, they were supportive all the way.” 

Says Steve Malone, from A&DS: “The process allowed professionals from different organisations to find out about one another’s work. This evolved into a new and broadly shared sense of the task at hand and inspired them to go forward and take collaborative action.

“Architecture & Design Scotland can help with getting the right people around the table, allowing everyone to contribute to creating places. We have experience in bringing diverse voices together using a range of tools – for example, the Place Standard tool or so-called ‘persona workshops’.”

Kingdom commissioned the principal architect: Gavin Lloyd, from Bracewell Stirling

Says Kingdom Housing Association of the £9m (£5m from the Scottish Government) development (here): “The new homes will provide residents with energy-efficient homes which will meet Housing for Varying Needs, achieve Secured by Design gold [level] and [our] design standards.”

Outside, there’s a variety of plants, including fruiting trees, meadow grass and fruiting bushes – to encourage biodiversity. Raised planters encourage residents to plant and grow their own herbs, fruit and vegetables, and a boules court provide a social focal point. 

Meanwhile, a ‘sustainable urban design system’ (SUDS) has been designed to help reduce surface water flows off the site and alleviate any potential surface water flooding issues. 

Inside, the building is  detailed to provide a high level of air tightness and insulation, to increase energy efficiency and reduce heating bills. An upcoming building performance evaluation will hopefully deliver a B band in the Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP)(here) for energy efficiency.

Low-energy light and water-efficient sanitary fittings are also included, along with large areas of generous, high-performance glazing.

All flats are ‘dual aspect’. Currently, electric vehicle and bike charging points are being installed, as well as bike parking.

Each flat has mobility scooter parking and charging space within it. 

Notes the A+DS website (here) of the block of 60, one and two-bedroom apartments: “Not only does [Primrose Street] provide a housing solution that meets the needs of a local ageing population, and maximise the time they can remain within their own homes, it has also been a catalyst for regeneration and further improvements around the town centre.” 

Other townscape works in the vicinity were all funded by the Scottish Government. 

One particular improvement to the town centre was to a nearby lane.

Adds Baxter: “It was a lane linking the rail station and the High Street; but it was narrow and ugly. To widen it, we had to negotiate with a landowner, which was quite drawn-out, but we eventually got there. 

“Now, you can see from end to end, it is well-lit and feels a lot safer. And it has been turned into public art: local signwriter, Ross Hastie, combining with local artist, Michael Corr, to create an attractive mural that people are very proud of. 

“ It’s a small but vital improvement in the town that required a lot of hard work and input from a number of parties, but worth it for the outcome. It demonstrates that transformational change, even on a small scale takes time, effort and collaboration.” 

Sounds like another productive collaboration that has yielded a positive return. 

Mike Wilson is a member of the Place Design Scotland team

Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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