SOME people would say it’s just bricks and mortar but for Robin Ghosh, it’s personal. When he was a little boy, he would come to this place with his father, Brian, and play in the grounds. Now 40 years on, Ghosh’s son comes to play here too. Full circle.

The place has changed of course. Big time. When Ghosh was coming to Seafield House in Ayr as a child, it was a children’s hospital where his father worked as a surgeon, but by the 1990s the health board had abandoned the building completely and it was empty and neglected.

You probably know what happened next because it happens to lots of old buildings: the vandals got in, there was a fire, the roof collapsed, and the talk was of pulling it down.

It almost happened as well. Two attempts were made to secure consent for demolition, but some concerned local residents formed a Friends Group in 2012 and kicked up a stink.

Some of the members of the group are here today to see what has become of the building now: saved, preserved, and on a sunny Scottish May day, looking very fine indeed. Robin Ghosh is here to show me round and as we tour the place, he tells me that he knew he had to save the building not just because of the personal connection but because of its history too.

HeraldScotland: Inside the tower of the Tower apartmentInside the tower of the Tower apartment (Image: free)

Dating from the 1880s, Seafield House was the former home of Sir William Arrol, the great civil engineer and MP whose face features on the five-pound note.

A leading figure in the golden age of Victorian bridge building, Sir William’s work includes the Tay Bridge, the Forth Bridge and London’s Tower Bridge.

He first started work on Seafield House while working on Tower Bridge and envisaged a fine country mansion that would be a retreat from the pollution and noise of the city while also being within commuting distance of his iron works at Dalmarnock in Glasgow.

Constructed in the most beautiful butter-yellow sandstone, the house had views out towards Arran in one direction and Ayr racecourse in the other; it’s said Sir William could watch the racing from the top of the Italianate tower that dominates the front of the building.

Today, the tower is part of the quirkiest of the 10 apartments that Ghosh and his colleagues at their development company Econstruct have created out of the building, each one designed around the existing windows and doors to keep the feel and atmosphere of the original building. There are also still plenty of the original touches of Sir William around the place, from the original brass door plates inscribed with his initials WA, to the enormous sandstone fireplace in the communal hall that cries out for a banquet or party to celebrate the building’s rebirth.

Ghosh says it hasn’t been easy to get to this point.

“It took us about a year and a half to go through the acquisition process with the NHS to show them we were credible enough to take this on,” he says. “At that point we were probably the only people left that were showing an interest in saving this building – everybody else wanted it demolished.”

HeraldScotland: Robin Ghosh, director with Econstruct Group is pictured in the open plan kitchen and living area of the Forth apartmentRobin Ghosh, director with Econstruct Group is pictured in the open plan kitchen and living area of the Forth apartment (Image: free)

Ghosh’s idea was to build new houses in the grounds and use some of the funds raised from their sale to restore Seafield but from the start it was tricky, and expensive. Over the years, huge trees had taken root in the building, all of which had to be removed by hand. Robin and his team then started work just as the pandemic hit which meant the whole build had to be shut down, adding to the expense.

Ghosh was also determined to use original materials and techniques – the new wing, for example, is built with matching sandstone sourced from one of the few remaining quarries in the UK.

“We had to do the right thing for the building and show what can be done,” he says.

Which brings us to the other motivation that has been driving Robin Ghosh: his belief that the type of development he’s done at Seafield House demonstrates that old buildings can be part of the modern building industry and don’t necessarily have to be pulled down.

“It’s an important part of the story,” he says. “Developers nowadays don’t want to take on buildings that are complicated and they can’t put a figure to. This is about trying to show that we can make buildings like this work.”

Ghosh says there’s another possible example of how things could be done differently not far from Seafield House: the old Station Hotel in Ayr.

The hotel was closed in 2013 and has been deteriorating ever since; a dangerous building notice was slapped on the structure in 2018. Most of it has been covered by scaffolding and sheeting, and a large part of it is now under threat of demolition.

However, Ghosh believes there is still a way to save the building and has had conversations with the station’s Malaysian owners and the local council in trying to find a solution.

HeraldScotland: Sir William ArrolSir William Arrol (Image: free)

It’s fair to say Ghosh has been pretty frustrated with the lack of progress. He says he came up with a plan to turn the hotel into council offices, along the same lines as the work his company did with the old Johnnie Walker site in Kilmarnock, but the plan is no further forward. “At Johnnie Walker, an old derelict building was turned into council offices and injected the dying town centre with over 1,500 council staff Monday to Friday so we proposed that for the Station Hotel,” he says. “With the right package, the hotel could kickstart the regeneration of Ayr, but local government doesn’t want to take risks.”

The conservation architect Patrick Lorimer, who’s worked with Ghosh on Seafield House and is a member of the Friends Group, agrees there’s a model here that could be used elsewhere. Lorimer is someone else who has a personal connection to the old hospital – he had his tonsils taken out there when he was a child – and with others started to campaign to save the building in 2012.

“We made the argument that it should be a listed building and it could be saved because there was acres of potential development that could fund the project,” he says. He says flats was the most obvious option but that the Friends Group was open-minded about what could and should be done. He’s also hopeful that there are signs of change in the attitudes that developers and builders take to old buildings.

“Things are better than they were in the 1960s when wholesale demolition was the order of the day,” he says. “It hasn’t gone completely but buildings like this are more likely to be saved and Robin and his colleague Derek Shennan have achieved a remarkable conversion and conservation at Seafield. It demonstrates that even the most neglected of historic buildings can have a future.”

Rosalie Menon, a teacher at the Mackintosh School of Architecture in Glasgow who’s just written a book celebrating some of the finest buildings of the city, agrees there are signs of hope that developers are realising that old buildings can be saved by incorporating them into new builds. She cites the stable block on Bell Street in Glasgow once used to house the horses that pulled the council’s rubbish collection carts; it has now been converted and restored as part of a development of new flats.

Menon says the motivations for preserving old buildings rather than knocking them down are strong. “The starting point is trying to keep the theme of the building, and the integrity of it, but also make it possible for 21st-century use, integrating the old and the new,” she says.

“Knocking a building down isn’t seen now as a mainstream option because the most sustainable building is the one that already exists. Everything has to go to landfill and you’re potentially throwing away very good quality sandstone and then what you’re replacing it with is probably imported. A lot of the new materials now include toxic materials and they never guarantee a lifespan of more than about 25 years.”

Menon also believes the next generation of architects and developers are beginning to understand that you can’t just keep knocking down the old and building new, but she also recognises that there are problems with implementing the change. For a start, the UK has de-skilled on a lot of the traditional trades that support conservation and building. And, as Ghosh found out at Seafield, a lot of the British quarries that would have supplied quality stone are just no longer there. “We’re driven by construction being cheap, fast and easy,” says Menon.

However, on balance, Menon does believe there is a bit of a renaissance and is optimistic about the general direction of travel. “I’m positive that the students that we’re putting through university are seeing the potential of adaptive reuse and have a stronger desire to build ethically. They’ve got a huge grasp on the issue of climate change and they know they have to be responsible in how they build – I can see that change and it’s optimistic. We’re keen to challenge the way we’re building and learn from the past.”

Hunter Reid, the architect who led the renovation of Maryhill Burgh Halls in Glasgow, is also optimistic, although he puts the chances of success for any renovation and conservation project at 50/50. He also talks me through some of the lessons he’s learned about how to make such projects work.

The first lesson – and it was one of the reasons Seafield House succeeded – is that a conservation project is more likely to work if you establish and encourage local support and enthusiasm for the building. Reid is also clear that to succeed long-term a building will need a rigorous business plan and a way to earn money. It’s something Robin Ghosh agrees with. “You have to be very careful about what the end use is,” he says. “It’s got to be realistic.”

Hunter Reid’s other lesson from his Maryhill experience is that it’s important to investigate and celebrate the history of the building you’re trying to save and that’s something that the team at Seafield have certainly done.

In the garden at the front of the house are two steel beams which are similar to the ones which were incorporated into the building by Sir William based on his pioneering work constructing steel-framed bridges. He built houses like he built bridges. The interior of the house is also a lesson in history, architecture and design. It was elaborately decorated in the late-Victorian style with wooden panelling, William Morris-style wallpaper, William de Morgan-style ceramic tiles, decorative plasterwork and bespoke stained glass. It was also equipped with some of the best modern facilities of the time such as electric lighting in every room.

At the time the design and construction of the house cost Sir William £8,000, the equivalent of some £1million today.

HeraldScotland: Derek Shennan, left and Robin Ghosh, both of Econstruct Group are pictured in the grand hall at Seafield HouseDerek Shennan, left and Robin Ghosh, both of Econstruct Group are pictured in the grand hall at Seafield House (Image: free)

Robin Ghosh and his team have tried to maintain as many of these original features as they can, and it means that whoever buys the apartments is going to be living in a striking combination of old and new.

One of the best is the flat at the top of the building that incorporates the tower because it has both a swanky new bespoke kitchen and a stone spiral staircase to your own private steeple. Ghosh proudly points out some of the best features: the beautiful tiled floor, the arched windows, the views out to sea.

He also summons up the terrible idea that we might have lost all of this, that it might have been knocked down.

“This was about an underlying determination to make it work,” he says.

“It was about showing that it can be done.”

Fragments of Glasgow by Rosalie Menon is published by EatSleepArchitecture at £30