A lesson in innovation and renovation

18th January 2013 at 00:00
Youngsters have stepped off their school site and on to a building site as they take part in renovations at Dumfries House. And it seems their work with local home developers is fit for a (future) king, says Jackie Cosh

Driving from Cumnock in Ayrshire through to the neighbouring town of Auchinleck, you would be forgiven for missing the fledgling village of Knockroon. While most new-builds stand out as such, these houses blend in extremely well with the rural Scottish architecture.

Knockroon is the brainchild of HRH Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay - a sustainable village being developed through the Prince's Charities Foundation. Work is at the early stages - only a handful of the planned 700 houses have been built - but set slightly aside from the development is the "Wee House", a prototype of a one-bedroom house that house-builder Hope Homes has designed. With the help of pupils at Auchinleck Academy and Cumnock Academy, the second house will be built by the summer, with more planned.

As part of their Skills for Work programme, six pupils from each school will spend two days a week at Knockroon, working with the tradesmen and playing the main part in building the house, from the plumbing to the architecture. The house has been designed so that it can be dismantled and transported anywhere by lorry, and will be available for sale to the public.

The company has had a strong relationship with both schools for a number of years, taking pupils for work experience. It recently employed five of their school leavers for six months to help with renovations work at nearby Dumfries House, which HRH Prince Charles, along with a consortium of charities and heritage bodies, helped to buy in 2007. The pupils have also assisted with marketing and catering for the company, having built up a partnership over the past 18 months.

"I wanted to build on the relationship with the schools," says director Ian Hope. "A while back, we had some pupils working in the drawing room. One drew plans for a one-bedroom house but it looked too much like a caravan, so we adapted it.

"What encourages us from a commercial perspective is that the housing market is so poor. Young couples can't afford houses, so we decided to develop the idea of sustainable housing. Then we saw that it was a good project for schools to be involved in, so we decided to build a prototype and get schools to replicate that."

To start with, the boys will be working on the same house, getting involved in all aspects. Once they have more experience and as long as the business can accommodate it, they will also be offered the chance to focus on a trade or area of their choice. All the boys were interviewed for the project. In each school, 11 students applied for the six positions, and a panel of interviewers questioned them to choose the most suitable candidate. Timetables have been organised to allow the boys two days a week out of school, with supported study sessions offered and additional homework given to make up for the time lost in class.

Martyn Hendry, the business enterprise schools coordinator at Auchinleck Academy, liaises with Hope Homes and other employers in the area to find out what type of skills they are looking for, so the schools can do what they can to equip pupils with them. He also oversees the implementation of the project at Hope Homes, liaising with Mr Hope to ensure that everything runs smoothly.

"As teachers we do what we can, but we can't meet these standards," he says. "Here they are given the opportunity to break into the real world. It makes teaching easier, as they begin to understand what school is all about. It helps them to develop a positive attitude that they can use when talking at job interviews."

Today the boys are working at the workshop at Dumfries House and Mr Hendry is surprised to see that they have already constructed one of the walls. Temperatures are freezing but this doesn't bother 17-year-old George Black. The Cumnock Academy student is the son and grandson of joiners and feels that he grew up on a building site.

"It has been exciting to get back to it," he says. "I have loved being in this kind of environment. It is cold but that doesn't bother me, and you build up a sweat. I am thinking of going into engineering when I leave school. My dad has advised me to do this, as there are not many jobs in joinery any more."

Sixteen-year-old Curtis Dhinsa, a fifth-year pupil from Auchinleck Academy, is also thinking about a career in engineering. "I plan to do sixth year and then maybe go to college. I like working in teams and it has been really good so far. I have learned a lot and am building up the confidence to talk to folk," he says.

While once locals spoke of rivalry between the two schools, today things are quite different and Mr Hendry recalls hearing of a party held recently where pupils from both schools attended - quite unheard of a few years ago, but one result of the time the youngsters now spend with each other.

These days, the staff and pupils work more closely together, thanks to the business enterprise skills fund that was set up by East Ayrshire council in 2011 (TESS, 27 January 2011). This has enabled both schools to buy the latest equipment and technology to help pupils develop their skills and be better prepared for industry. The schools often collaborate on projects and share resources, such as the new laser cutter and rapid prototyper that have been bought.

"The fund was set up to improve leaver destination for engineering-type jobs," explains Lindsay Bull, head of business technologies at Cumnock Academy. "With the decline in mining, it has become harder to leave school and get a relevant job in East Ayrshire. This was to provide schools with the funding for future technologies, to give a leg up in the engineering work. There are very few jobs in joinery nowadays. We canvassed local employers to find out what skills set they wanted and then we bought new equipment."

Pupils have used the technology in their work with Hope Homes. The new laser cutter inspired the Auchinleck pupils to set up a business selling personalised, engraved glasses. When Mr Hope saw them, he ordered 40 to be given out at company events.

"Last year, as part of their Higher product design, the students developed a design proposal based on a brief from Hope Homes. They designed street furniture for Knockroon - outdoor seating, lampposts, tree grates, bike parking, litter bins," says Mr Bull.

"Jim Harvey, the site manager asked to see a few and as far as I know he is going to use some. Usually they will have a pretend brief, but this was a real one."

When the Prince's Foundation for Building Community showcased at the Ideal Homes exhibition in Glasgow in June, pupils joined them and were in charge of selling, marketing and publicising the outdoor equipment they had designed for Knockroon.

Teachers hope the combination of pupils having access to up-to-date material and the experiences they are gaining at Hope Homes will make them stand out when applying for jobs in the future. Mr Hendry and Mr Hope talk of "the natural link" that is needed.

"We are not trying to interfere with what schools are doing," says Mr Hope. "We just feel we can help." "You are helping," Mr Hendry assures him.

"It is important that we are creating a stepping stone and a link to employment. We are trying to support the education system, as we think it is fantastic. We are just trying to produce a bolt-on link to working age and school age," sums up Mr Hope.


In 2007, HRH the Prince of Wales headed a consortium, consisting of various heritage charities and the Scottish government, to buy Dumfries House, a Palladian country house in Ayrshire.

As part of his vision for the 2,000-acre estate, Dumfries House Education was set up to develop programmes for schools, communities, those who are unemployed and those who wish to re-skill or up-skill.

The Dumfries House sawmill has been restored and turned into a traditional skills centre, with a classroom, woodcraft workshop and stonemason shed.

Vocational training in sustainable building techniques is offered to young people not in employment, education or training.

The old laundry building has been restored and renovated to provide four artists' studios, and an artist-in-residence programme is being developed.

A new-build cookery school with attached training restaurant - the Belling Hospitality Training Centre - will open in April. Developed and supported by Dumfries House and the Prince's Trust, the school offers a "Get into hospitality" vocational training programme.

An outdoor residential education building is being developed in support of Youth United, a charity supported by Prince Charles. When opened, the 60- bed building will be used for leadership and confidence building and by youth groups, schools, colleges and community groups.


When the Prince of Wales bought Dumfries House in 2007, Knockroon Farm also formed part of the estate. In February 2008, the Prince's Foundation explored potential options for the site and decided to go forward with their vision of a sustainable urban extension to Cumnock.

The eco-village, often compared with Poundbury in Dorset, has been designed so that it fits in well with the traditional architecture of Ayrshire, aiming to create a community of different-sized houses and flats to accommodate people at different stages of their lives.

Whenever possible, eco- friendly materials have been used and the houses have been built so that they are environmentally friendly, with heating and energy costs designed to be low. Workspaces will allow for small businesses to be run in the village, to build up a greater sense of community, and a dentistry practice has already opened.

Walking and cycling paths to Dumfries House, Cumnock, Auchinleck and beyond encourage less reliance on cars, and the village has been awarded Scottish Sustainable Community status by the government.

Photo: Martyn Hendry, a teacher at Auchinleck Academy, shows students some architectural plans outside Dumfries House. Photo credit: James Glossop

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