Construction Leader: Callum Houston on designing value at Holmes Miller

Construction Leader: Callum Houston on designing value at Holmes Miller

Callum Houston

SCN’s latest Construction Leader Callum Houston talks to Margaret Taylor about Holmes Miller’s proud public sector achievements, working in China and the challenges architects face to ensure they are appropriately remunerated.

When she visited the Scottish Prison Service’s new site for women in May, justice secretary Angela Constance hailed HMP & YOI Stirling as “world-leading”, saying it had been created to “meet the specific needs of women, focusing on rehabilitation and reducing reoffending”. Built to replace Cornton Vale, the facility aims to take a trauma-informed approach to incarceration, with open spaces and natural light helping create a stress-free environment.

Designed by Glasgow-headquartered architectural practice Holmes Miller, it has been built with the purpose-driven aim of reducing recidivism rather than punishing offenders. It was, says Holmes Miller managing director Callum Houston, a fine balance to strike.

“If you look at the images some people might classify it as a five-star hotel,” he says. “It’s trying to recognise that if you create the right environment it will help prevent recidivism, although if you make it too good people might reoffend to get back in as some people can become institutionalised [in the prison system].

Construction Leader: Callum Houston on designing value at Holmes Miller

HMP & YOI Stirling © Chris Humphries

“We were thinking a lot about mental health and with Cornton Vale it’s almost like a mental health care facility than a traditional prison. There’s always a balance to be struck between security and mental health.”

Holmes Miller, which was founded as Jack Holmes Architects back in 1951, has been involved in the justice sector since the nineties, having initially applied for a place on a framework that enabled it to pitch for small jobs in and around the prison estate, such as the design of a police station in Saltcoats. Building that relationship with the client put Holmes Miller in a strong position for when the Scottish Prison Service decided to modernise its estate.

Partnering with construction firms Carillion and Skanska, it has, in addition to the replacement for Cornton Vale, also worked on prison facilities at Low Moss, Polmont and Grampian. Plans for Barlinnie replacement HMP Glasgow, which will be built on a 54-acre site at the former Provan Gas Works, have been signed off and are at the masterplan stage.

Construction Leader: Callum Houston on designing value at Holmes Miller

Bangholm Outdoor Centre in Edinburgh © Chris Humphries

“We have just submitted the masterplan and will submit various planning applications over the coming weeks,” Houston says. “The plan is to have the new facility up and running by about 2026-27.

“Prisons these days are far more modern. To some extent there’s a template developed by the Ministry of Justice and that gets rolled out. The challenge with HMP Glasgow is that they are conscious of the site — it’s just beside the motorway on the way into Glasgow so is a gateway building.

“We have to meet the challenges of planning in that it’s still a prison so we can’t increase the size of the windows to make it look more classy, but we do have to be community facing. The front-of-house buildings will be interacting with the local population and it will be trying to be a good neighbour. The local community will be able to come and use the café, but behind that it will be a secure environment.”

Construction Leader: Callum Houston on designing value at Holmes Miller

London South Bank Technical College © Chris Humphries

The public sector accounts for a large proportion of Holmes Miller’s work, with sport and leisure as well as education key areas of work for the firm — clients include the SFA and SRU, and in addition to working on the fit-out of Murrayfield and redesign of Hampden, it modernised the entire primary school estate for South Lanarkshire Council.

The education sector also plays a big role in the firm’s St Albans office, which recently led the design work for London South Bank Technical College, a science, technology,
engineering, arts, and maths centre commissioned to replace a sixties complex that was no longer fit for purpose. The firm first made the move into St Albans via a partnership with a local firm in 2015 but, after that didn’t work out, chose to relocate a member of staff from Glasgow to launch a stand-alone base that now numbers 12 people.

Holmes Miller also has an office in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, opening there a decade ago after getting what Houston terms “soft approaches” from potential clients there. Though the pandemic made running the outpost from afar challenging, Houston says things are now back on track with the base poised for growth.

Construction Leader: Callum Houston on designing value at Holmes Miller

Hengqin International Transaction Centre in China © Holmes Miller

“We chased a few clients around China for a while without any real success,” he says. “A colleague in China had friends running a company there. The way the Chinese market works is you are either an international company or a local one and as a local company they had found themselves inhibited by the opportunities they could go after. That grew into a formal partnership that became Holmes Miller China in 2015-16.

“The market is pretty different out there — it’s high-rise buildings and a lot of commercial-type developments. The tallest one we’ve worked on, which is currently under construction, is about 200m. But we’re doing schools out there too. I didn’t think we’d be doing that there but because of the growing economy and the growing nature of the cities they need the infrastructure to support that.

“To some extent, the office was growing really quickly pre-pandemic but the Chinese reacted very quickly to the pandemic and shut down the country for three years. I’ve only been out once since they took down the walls earlier this year, but we’re starting to see growth again.”

Construction Leader: Callum Houston on designing value at Holmes Miller

Allander Leisure Centre © Chris Humphries

Back in Scotland, like all other businesses operating in the sector, Houston says finding and retaining staff is proving a challenge. Yet while much of that is down to the wider economic situation and the recruitment challenges posed by Brexit, he says architectural businesses are being further impacted by an undervaluing of the service they provide, something he says means architects are not appropriately remunerated for the work they do.

“My frustration at the moment is probably how the architectural industry has allowed ourselves to water down the service so the salaries we pay our staff are not competitive,” he says.

“It makes it more challenging to maintain youngsters in the industry because there are opportunities to make more money elsewhere. We need to recognise the value we bring to clients. We need to charge a bit more so we can recompense our staff to stop the flow of people out of the industry. We’re always having conversations with clients about fees. They always have a certain budget to spend — it’s about understanding what the fair distribution of that is. Over the last decade or so that’s been watered down.”

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