Neil McAllister reflects on his 10 years at GLM

Posted by on Apr 6, 2018 in Architecture

Neil McAllister reflects on his 10 years at GLM

Ten years ago, the world was a different place.  Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, George W. Bush was the American President and some things were the same – Vladimir Putin was the Russian President.  The world was at the peak of a huge financial boom and people were spending like crazy.

I started at GLM on the 31st March 2008 as an Architectural Assistant working towards my Part 3 exams.  I came from a small conservation practice, Tod and Taylor, where I had enjoyed working for 3 years but needed to broaden my experience.

From the beginning, GLM’s training strategy became apparent – they love to throw you in at the deep end and see how well you can swim.  I was put straight onto the contract administration of a large extension to a family house in East Lothian, Bughtknowe – a job about 10 times the value of the biggest job I had run before.  I was supported well but it was also a huge learning curve.

I was also put to work on a series of alterations to estate cottages for a highland sporting estate.  These quick-fire design projects were a real opportunity to practice fitting accommodation suitable for modern lifestyles into existing structures in various levels of dilapidation.

This then played out on a larger scale in my next major project, Arbuthnott House.  This house had been lived in for the past 800 years by the same family with many changes over the years.  It was now about to once again pass to the next generation and was in a sorry state.  While the formal public rooms on the first floor were impressive, the family accommodation on the ground floor was basic and gloomy – and to top it all the whole house was “heated” by only three radiators and was freezing.  We created a new purpose-built library to house the existing bookcases allowing us to free up the south side of the house for a bright and spacious kitchen and family room.  The gloomy north was then used for utility rooms and the heating plant fuelled from the client’s own wood pellet factory.  Several new bathrooms were slotted into the upper floors.  At first the planners were opposed but after working with architectural historians Ian Campbell and the late Charles McKean we were able to put forward a case that the planners could not dispute.

On top of these alterations we stripped cracking cement render and reharled in traditional lime, renewed the slate and lead roof coverings and dealt with a major outbreak of dry rot.  Now the house is standing proud, ready for the next hundred years and cluttered with all the happy paraphernalia of family life.

Fairly early in this project everything changed.  In September 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the global economy with it.  As David Attenborough said, “Anyone who believes in infinite growth on a finite planet is either mad or an economist.”  Suddenly, the money dried up and with it much of the work.  Practices were collapsing all around, salaries were being slashed and somehow I managed to hold on to my job.  When I came to sit, and ultimately pass, my Part 3 exams in early 2009 the normal rules had to be relaxed to allow the many candidates who were no longer in employment to sit the exams.

Fortunately for GLM, 2009 was also the time when we started working for a client who was determined to ignore conventional wisdom and expand through the depths of the recession. Natural Retreats were looking to expand beyond their successful Yorkshire Dales holiday lodges and were looking for a site in Scotland.  After reviewing several possible sites with them they settled on John o’ Groats.  At the time there was little going for the place other than its name.  Thousands of visitors every year would park in the windswept expanse of tarmac, take their photos at the signpost in the shadow of the derelict former hotel and turn around and drive on.


It became clear that what was needed here was more than just holiday accommodation but also a landmark.  The place needed a major shot in the arm to bring it back to life. After trying several more conventional ideas, I played with the idea of a row of gables – Scandinavian fishing village style – in bright colours attached to the end of the restored baronial core of the old hotel building.  Where many clients would have thought me crazy this client was willing to take the risk and signed off on this concept.  There followed a couple of years of late nights and hair pulling as we tried to turn this concept into reality – on a tight budget, to a crazy programme and with a radical change in brief while on site.  It was a crazy learning curve doing things I had never tried before but it was also great fun and satisfying trying to do the most with as little as possible.

While I was very pleased with the result, and the client was happy, it came as a surprise when the awards started rolling in.  The RICS showed themselves to be lacking in taste when they only gave it a “Highly Commended” but then it picked up awards at the Scottish Design Awards, the RIAS awards and Wood for Good and a special mention at the Andrew Doolan Award.  This came as a real boost – to know that what we had done was considered highly by our peers although nothing beats the feeling of for the first time seeing against the horizon what had been a crazy idea in my head.


There have been many other projects since – some big, some small – some built and some unbuilt.

One project that was great fun was Townfoot – a converted farm steading.  Our Building Surveyors were initially called in to deal with defects in the recently completed main wing of the house.  It became clear that while there were technical issues for us to address there was a dramatic sequence of living spaces that then connected through to low, cramped and gloomy bedroom accommodation.  There was an opportunity to complete the house by creating a master suite and guest bedrooms of a quality that matched the rest of the house.  The client didn’t just want more space but wanted drama in their daily routine which gave me an opportunity to indulge in a bit of whimsy including a large picture frame window seat with concealed folding shutters, a dressing table inspired by a school desk, a dramatic bathroom with an infinity pool style bath in-front of a large switchable glass window onto the private garden and a WC compartment lit by coloured glass blocks in deep splayed recesses – a homage to Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel.

And most recently, I have had the chance to design a new build private chapel on an Argyll estate.  This was an opportunity to go back to my first love – the heavy simplicity of Romanesque architecture.  While this is a tiny building – only 23m² internally – it was one where there was the chance to work out every single detail perfectly – in 3d and many full-scale details.  It was great to work with skilled craftsman who could turn the design into reality – in stone, oak and bronze.

And then there were the ones that got away – the ones where the funding didn’t stack up, the clients changed their plans or where we lost out in competition to another architect – a water sports centre, a Cornish holiday village, a yacht club and restaurant, a neo-arts-and-crafts country house.  While it would have been great to see these become reality, they were all fascinating to work on and ideas developed in them may well make their appearance again in the future.

Over the last ten years I have had the privilege to work on a series of projects that I could never have dreamed of.  What will the next ten years bring?  Currently I am working on concept designs for a hotel, feasibility studies for various churches and a couple of holiday houses – who knows what exciting things lie around the corner.

Neil McAllister

Associate Director