DAVID Ross, architect and design director at Keppie, is standing on a Kilmarnock street gesturing towards a patch of barren wasteland.

Viewers of BBC 1 fly-on-the-wall documentary The Scheme may recognise it as the location where the Ardbeg Community Centre, which the Cree family fought so hard – and failed – to save, once stood.

The crumbling building in the heart of the Onthank and Knockinlaw estates has since been demolished. But like a phoenix from the ashes, new hope will soon rise out of the derelict space.

Loading article content

Once completed, the site will house a new community centre and a communal garden. The BBC's Beechgrove Garden team will arrive later this week to lend their expertise to a £325,000 project that aims to breathe new life into the area.

For Ross, who has created and overseen the project's design, his own involvement came after watching The Scheme and barely recognising the streets where he himself grew up.

When we meet, he is reticent to pay too much lip service to the series, which he believes misrepresented the beleaguered Kilmarnock community. "The streets and cul-de-sacs featured seemed far more pallid, grey and washed-out than I recalled them from my own childhood," he says. "The title of the programme in itself – The Scheme – was disorientating as, to my own recollection, Onthank has never been referred to by that name.

"It painted a stereotypical picture but didn't balance that out with some of the more vibrant aspects of the community. It appeared to be almost 90% aimed at one particular aspect and 10% the other. My experience of the people here, though, is that those percentages should have been reversed.

"I believe you could make the argument Onthank is no different from any other suburban area, in any other town in Scotland, facing the same sort of challenges. I realise, however, that doesn't necessarily make interesting TV."

The Onthank that Ross, 47, remembers from his formative years is one of a proud and hard-working community – something he says endures today. "Having become involved with the people, hearing their stories and getting an understanding of that, I would say they are relentlessly positive. I find it inspiring."

A key theme that runs through his design work, says Ross – who offered his services to the project free of charge – is empowering those in the immediate community to feel part of the decision-making process about how a space is best utilised. He has sat down with those living in Onthank and Knockinlaw to find out what their hopes and aspirations for the project are.

"The problems facing estates such as Onthank are not going to be solved by simply knocking down the odd four-in-a-block and replacing it with a sculpture set in an open space," he says. "The issues are far more complicated than that.

"You could commission a fantastic piece of artwork and put it on that bit of grass up there. That would start to indicate to people the community was worth that investment, but there has to be a longer-term plan for how the area regenerates itself."

Ross draws parallels with a £4 million Community Outreach Building in Belfast on which he worked in 2000. There, the site was bordered on either side by staunch Catholic and Protestant areas alongside a small, fiercely neutral community who hoped to change the demographic of a troubled landscape through education.

"We had to get over some difficult issues on that project at the beginning," says Ross. "Some of the initial negativity we faced included people saying 'someone wreck it', 'it'll be ruined', 'the walls won't stay white for long', 'the windows will get broken' and so on.

"What we discovered, though, is that if you speak to people, engage them and reinforce that it is their building, then community identity and ownership go hand in hand.

"Some 12 years on, I'm delighted to say they have had a low ongoing maintenance programme in Belfast. The building has never been vandalised or spray-painted. For me, I have to believe that is because it's a catalyst for regeneration and offers people a wee bit of hope. It's something I would like to see with this project here in Onthank too."

The passion for his work is palpable, but were it not for a quirk of fate Ross may not have become an architect at all. "I had no interest in going to university. It was 1982 and everyone my age was scared of being called up and sent to the Falklands War to fight," he says.

"I drifted through a series of jobs – including working in an ice-cream factory and as a groundsman/part-time coach at a tennis club – simply to appease my mother. I was a DJ too, a vocation I thought would last me forever.

"Eventually my mum suggested it was perhaps time to get a real job. My best friend and I went to the Jobcentre together, where we found there were two positions available: one as a junior in an architect's firm, the other in the accounts department of the council. Given I'm on the verge of innumerate, the latter was never going to work. I was always good at art, so architect it was."

He took a job with WI Munro architects in Kilmarnock and studied part-time at Glasgow School of Art. His first project was a sheltered housing complex in his home town. "I'm delighted to say it's still standing," he says, grinning.

Ross joined Glasgow-based Keppie in 1989, becoming a director in 2001. Specialising in education and healthcare facilities, he was involved in the design of four schools for North Ayrshire Council, the new Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Larbert and the new Ayrshire Maternity Unit. He was also responsible for Keppie's collaboration with New York-based Richard Meier and Partners, which was shortlisted for the Scottish Parliament building design in 1998.

Current projects include office development St Vincent Plaza in Glasgow; the design of a new city in Tangshan, China; a hospice in Singapore and the multi-million-pound transformation of Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen.

"There is barely a town in Scotland that doesn't have a building from our 155-year history," he says. "Our practice has been involved in social and education projects throughout its history. I like that – those are the kind of projects that interest me, the ones where you can potentially have a direct impact on people's lives."

There are some lofty footsteps in which to follow, with Charles Rennie Mackintosh among the former partners of the firm. "When I first became design director I was a bit uncertain how to consider that legacy," admits Ross. "There is always that feeling of wanting to be known for what you do now rather than what the practice has done 100 years ago. I think now, though, I understand the recognition we get for that legacy. I'm extremely proud to be a director of a practice which has that background."

Married with two children, Ross's other big passion is music, with his most prized possession a signed Joe Strummer LP. "If the house burned down and my wife, kids and the dog were OK, the next thing I would save is that album," he laughs. "I admire Strummer's whole attitude to life."

Ross has penned a novel, titled The Last Days of Disco, which he hopes to get published. "When I turned 40 I decided three things: I wanted to play football for Rangers – actually that is becoming more of a likelihood," he jokes, referring to the team's recent fortunes. "The other two goals were to run the New York Marathon – which may be beyond me, if I'm honest – and write a book."

That summer of 1982 has clearly had an impact on him, with the novel centring on two friends as they leave school and ponder a tumultuous future. "It's about friendship, music, small-time Ayrshire gangsters – and the fear of being sent to the Falklands by the biggest gangster of them all," he says.

He has plans to write a second book, but in the coming days Onthank will be his main focus. I'm curious as to whether Ross believes that if The Scheme hadn't portrayed the area in the negative light it did, the community centre and garden would have galvanised the same support.

"It's difficult to say whether or not the programme acted as a catalyst and gave it more momentum," he says. "I'd like to think not, actually."

David Ross

architect

Career high: The opening ceremony of the Community Outreach Building in Belfast.

Career low: Not winning the Scottish Parliament building design contract.

Best personality trait: I'm approachable.

Worst personality trait: Impatience. If things don't happen quickly enough I run the risk of losing interest.

Favourite holiday location: San Francisco. It's my dream to live there for a year.

Favourite meal: Italian food. Do I cook? Er, I will try to assist ...

Favourite film: The Godfather: Part II.

Favourite music: Paul Weller, The Smiths, The Clash and Arctic Monkeys. In short, guitar music with intelligent lyrics.

Last book read: Pack Men by Alan Bissett.

Best advice received: Don't lose belief in yourself.

Biggest influence: Joe Strummer, pictured.

Perfect dinner guests: Muhammad Ali and JD Salinger. I'd serve them something Italian.