This week we are posting excerpts from an interview between Professor Miles Glendinning and another architect involved in the design and building of the Ellor Street Development Area, Norman Raitt. Raitt had trained in Aberdeen, and after two years working in Sweden joined the Edinburgh University Architecture Research Unit (referred to in the interview as ‘ARU’). Raitt became involved in the Ellor Street development from 1962 whilst Percy Johnson Marshall was director. In the excerpts, Raitt talks about the adoption of system building, a method of building used to speed up construction. The interview with Professor Glendinning was conducted in 1987 at Raitt’s office in Edinburgh.
NR: Salford decided to redevelop their central area as a whole, and employed Percy as planner; the ARU were involved in doing the plan for the whole area, and Ellor Street in particular. When I became involved, they were looking for architects to design particular groups of blocks.
The ARU, through connections with Percy, was appointed to design that high-rise block-type, not as a system built block, but just as a block. It originally had four flats per floor when we got involved. The decision to appoint had been made, and there was talk about using a system, because that was popular at the time, there was pressure from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (MHLG) to use a system. This we went along with that quite enthusiastically as a research unit, because it was something new. There was a quick review of the systems that were developing at the time. We took a superficial look at the systems, and decided mostly for planning or economic reasons, but they weren’t suitable. So the decision was made to design our own system.
Arups were involved as engineers. At the time the Salford direct works department were going to build these blocks traditionally. Then, when we decided to develop the system, they couldn’t handle the precasting, so a specialist firm, Fram [a concrete firm established in Manchester before 1939] was brought in to cast the blocks. And between Fram, Arups, and ourselves, the system was developed. Five blocks were built with the direct labour organisation as general contractor, and Frams by specialist subcontractor. The plan changed from 4 to 6 flats per floor for economic reasons.
The Salford housing committee, as a council, they were very anxious to get on and get redevelopment going, because of the state of their old housing. There were some forceful characters in the council. They saw themselves as separate from Manchester, they wanted to have their centre, but appreciated it was difficult to compete with Manchester.
The plan with six flats per upper floor came from the Ministry, it was based purely on the economics of development, not to increase the density. Salford were not unhappy either about it.
Percy’s brief for the four per upper floor blocks: they had in mind a block they had seen in London, but our feeling was that with the six per flat plan, we were being forced to fit flats into a shape, or a model. We’d have preferred to stick to the four per floor plan. In developing the system, we looked at how we could use the system to design various plans.
Concerning the density, the feeling at the time was that it wasn’t all that high.
The point blocks were decided on by Percy. The idea was a mixed development. Four flats per floor, we thought it was all out of date. Within the ARU, there must’ve been some disappointment because the unit had done a number of projects in low-rise high density, with the intention of developing the idea of low-rise high density. The contract for the point blocks was taken on for economic reasons. The unit survived by the projects it took on. We were looking for a job, and Salford and the projects that followed it supported the ARU for many a long year.
We thought the deck plan for the centre was pretty crazy, but we had to design in accordance with them; the High Street blocks had the deck access door. There were also seven storey slab blocks. The council had to abandon the deck arrangement, because the development of the shopping centre wouldn’t go along with shops first floor level with traffic beneath.
The adoption of systems came because of pressure from the Ministry, from the MHLG, care from the politicians, and the most obvious and quickest systems to get built on the ground were those that resulted in high-rise. The systems didn’t influence the design very much except for system building itself and the decision to go for six rather than four flats per floor.
But we ourselves were also quite interested in developing a system. This was partly because there were no large panel package deal systems tried and tested in the country at the time. We thought, with Arups, that we could design a system at least as good ourselves, and Frams thought they could precast it. Almost all of the firms who were talking of importing a system were talking of a minimum contract of 1,000 dwellings.
Charles Robertson, when he was in the ARU, went and looked at some of these systems, probably with Fram and staff from Salford. I remember seeing the Wates blocks in London, and I knew of Skarne from Crudens in Edinburgh. Larsen-Nielsen I would have seen in Scandinavia myself. Also I was familiar with Tracoba in France. My view of the time with offsite prefabrication had definite advantages in terms of time. There was a certain excitement about the idea of using a system. I’m not sure whether the form of our block was considered all that exciting, especially when it changed to 6 flats per floor.
Among the Salford officers, there was a chap, Alan somebody or another, a principal architect, who was quite involved in the project. There was McWilliam himself, while he was there. There was a chap on the housing management side. There was one particular councillor who was Chairman of the Housing Committee and also a representative for Leyland Paints, so we had to use Leyland Paints! He was very good on the Housing Committee. He was very keen to get the whole of the Ellor Street and High Street development built. Stan Orme, the MP, was involved a bit.
There was a deadline: we had to develop a system within that time, we had to get Fram to the stage of having a factory set up. We had to get them a letter of intent from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and from Salford, before they’d set the factory up.