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News / Professor’s claim that isles have ugly affordable housing rebutted by local industry

The Grodians scheme is one of several in Shetland to have won national recognition. Photo courtesy of Hjaltland Housing Association.

FIGURES within the local housing industry have sternly criticised a university professor for claiming Shetland is marred by unsightly modern affordable housing that risks deterring tourists from visiting the islands.

Robert Gordon University (RGU) professor Gokay Deveci claimed earlier this month that modern-looking homes were “spoiling the best things” about places such as Shetland and Skye – going on to expand on his thoughts in The Shetland Times last Friday.

But Hjaltland Housing Association and Shetland Islands Council’s housing department both begged to differ, while some local architects also took exception to his comments. They pointed out that Shetland is currently enjoying a tourist boom and also boasts various award-winning social housing schemes.

Hjaltland Housing Association’s head of investment Paul Leask described Deveci’s claims as “utter nonsense” with “no context and little investigation given the isles are currently experiencing a boom in tourism with figures projected to rise over the next few years!”

Shetland has enjoyed an upsurge in tourist numbers on the back of the eponymous BBC-screened crime drama, growth in the cruise ship industry and the popularity of events such as Wool Week in recent years.

Hjaltland Housing’s Paul Leask described the professor’s claim as “utter nonsense”.

Leask pointed out that Hjaltland had received various national awards for some of its housing schemes, including the Royal Incorporation of Architects Scotland (RIAS) and Saltire – with the Grodians development in Lerwick “held up as an example of best practice in design” by Architecture and Design Scotland (A&DS).

SIC housing manager Anita Jamieson said she was “quite surprised at the comments made and the context they were made in by a respected professional in architecture who is involved in designing affordable housing”, while she also saw no evidence supporting Deveci’s claim about damage to tourism.

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“From that perspective I would have hoped for a better understanding of the challenges faced in the provision of suitable affordable housing in rural areas,” she said. “Personally, I think that for all housing whether affordable or not, as for many other things, beauty is in the eye of the beholder to a large extent.

“I have met many people who have been very positive, particularly about the more recent affordable housing developments locally and the different uses of colour and materials used – and the sympathy with Scandinavian influences, which is very different from most of the rest of Scotland.”

Stewart Douglas, a chartered architect with Lerwick-based CDM Services, also took umbrage at Deveci’s remarks.

“The professor’s views are highly subjective and don’t seem to be backed up by any facts or figures,” he said.

“Design principles and concepts for these projects are developed by professional designers and form part of design statements which are fully considered by professional planning officials before planning permission is granted.

“This helps to ensure high quality and sustainable housing development is achieved. I would suggest the design and quality of the housing being built is what people need and want, and at a price they can afford.”

In an article in The Times earlier this month, Deveci said Scotland was “spoiling the best things it has”, citing Shetland along with Skye and other rural areas as blighting the skyline with “uninspiring” homes.

SIC housing manager Anita Jamieson was surprised by the professor’s comments.

“Poems, singing, architecture – these are crucial parts of culture,” he said. “You don’t get the same poems and singing coming out of Fraserburgh, the Borders and Skye, yet we are still seeing the same kind of housing.”

Last week he told The Shetland Times: “I would like to see a different type of architecture in Shetland or Orkney or Skye, either addressing the waterfront or the particular landscape – maybe to do with the colour, the form, the mass, the setting and how do they handle the climate, how do they handle the exposure to the wind?”

Deveci said the “last thing you want to see on beautiful landscape is a cheap box” and he called on planners to “raise their game” and pay more attention to housing design.

Incidentally, Devici was among those shortlisted for a 2011 competition for a house design most suited to Shetland’s environment, won by local firm Redman + Sutherland.

Another local architect, Iain Malcolmson, had a nuanced take on the professor’s comments, saying he agreed that architecture “should reflect the landscape and the climate in which it sits”.

He referred to an “explosion of building” in Shetland during the 1970s and 1980s amid the oil boom.

“People, for good reasons or bad, wanted to move out of the traditional ‘croft’ house into a modern, warm, more spacious accommodation,” Malcolmson said.

“It is this time that little care was taken to examine what did this actually mean to Shetland as a whole. Little or no care was taken about where buildings were sited and how they sat in the landscape because they happened so quickly.”

He said there was a growing recognition of the importance of using professional architects to design homes and the situation has been improved by things such as Channel 4’s Grand Designs TV show, but “there is still much more to be done”.

He said the affordability of housing “has got nothing to do with its design”, praising Hjaltland Housing for coming up with some “really well considered beautiful homes that are affordable. That is because they understand the link between a well-designed house and the sense of wellbeing it gives to a tenant.”

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