The names Robert and Hugh Fraser, Susie Hawkins, Jonathan James, Karl Brocklehurst and Philip Tout probably sound familiar. They’re all past winners of the Forecourt Trader of the Year Awards, but there’s something else or rather someone else that links these highly successful petrol retailers.

And that’s Alec Cornish-Trestrail, founder of ACT Design, who designed all of their award-winning forecourts, along with many more award-worthy sites. But reaching 71 years of age, Alec has finally hung up his drawing board and is settling into retirement. Well, almost...

Alec is a man who clearly loves his work and feels a huge responsibility and loyalty to his clients, many of which, he says, have become good friends. So while the work of ACT Design has been transferred over to Richard Ezard of Bayliss Design, Alec will join him as a consultant to help with any historical information.

"Bayliss Design has worked closely with me for 30 years and thanks to its architectural expertise and knowledge of the petroleum industry, it has been instrumental in turning my schematic drawings and thoughts into reality," says Alec. "Richard has been shadowing me for the past year to ensure he is fully conversant with all of my projects. We have 10 forecourts to build next year.

"Everything we build is to a very high standard and, as far as possible, maintenance free," adds Alec. "I have always invested my clients’ money as if it was my own."

In the beginning

An aeronautical engineer by profession, Alec formed ACT Design in January 1990 after taking early retirement from Esso where he was employed for 25 years. During his time with Esso as a regional surveyor and construction engineer he was responsible for the design and construction of more than 90 new service stations. He also carried out minor improvements and maintenance on a further 150 company-owned forecourts and advised on the design of many dealer-owned sites.

As Alec waxes lyrical about many of the projects he has undertaken, he reflects on how things have changed over the years. One area that has changed dramatically is with the regulations, which are far more numerous now.

"We have dreadful planning issues now," says Alec. "There used to be planning approval, building regulations and petroleum licensing to consider. Now we have that as well as Design and Access Statement, the Environment Agency, underground surveys, asbestos surveys, site investigations, the Party Wall Act, Condam Regulations and so on. You can’t start building now until all of these things have been addressed."

One of the sites to be built for retailer Jeremy Symonds, for example, took six months instead of two months just to get planning permission. And when permission came, it was with 30 conditions, which have to be discharged before construction can start.

Meanwhile, Robbie Campion’s Crosskeys Service Station in Hardwicke, Gloucestershire, which is due to open this month, was one year behind schedule because of a need to divert a sewer. And Jonathan James’s new Wisbech Road Service Station in Littleport, Cambridgeshire, took three years to get going and is opening next month (six months later than planned) because of the delays dealing with all the various interested parties.

Along with ever-expanding rules and regulations, the forecourt shop has certainly changed hugely, too. "When I left Esso we were building 60sq m shops," says Alec. "Then we increased to 80sq m and, when I met the Frasers in 1994, they wanted to build a 100sq m shop in Lower Earley near Reading."

Six years later Alec did a knock-down-rebuild for Philip Tout who wanted a 180sq m shop in Langford, Bristol.

"I said to him ’Do you really want a shop that big?’ But he insisted," recalls Alec. "We were then back within three years to extend the shop to 280sq m. That kept it within the 3,000sq ft restriction for the Sunday Trading Laws, but we then discovered service stations don’t have to comply with those.

"So, in 2007, we built Philip a site with a 400sq m shop in Wraxall, Dorset."

While forecourt shops have changed remarkably over the past 20 years, Alec says we’re seeing a revival in fridge doors. "Ironically, we’re coming full circle with fridges. We started with fridges with doors, and then moved to open fridges, but now we’re back to fridges with doors. Three of the four sites we’re working on now are having fridges with doors.

"The only difference is they have remote condensers, which we didn’t have before. The reason for fridges with doors is a green issue because they don’t use as much power, but psychologically, they could be seen as a retrograde step."

One feature that hasn’t changed is the forecourt layout. "We still build either four square or starting gate forecourts similar to 20 years ago," says Alec. "We have increased the distance between the pump islands recently because cars have become wider."

Elsewhere on the forecourt, tanks have gone from single skin to double skin, steel pipework is now plastic, and the standard 2,400l interceptor in 1990 has increased to 10,000l 20 years later.

While Alec talks fondly of his clients, recalling times when some of his local customers have popped round to his house for tea and worked together on designs on the dining room table, the feeling is clearly mutual. The Lakeside Group sent Alec into retirement with a pair of Wimbledon tickets and a party cruise along the Thames.

But as he steps into retirement, it doesn’t look like Alec will be putting his feet up. With two grandchildren to entertain, tennis to play four times a week, and a passion for designing and building radio-controlled scale jet aeroplanes, it doesn’t sound like there will be much time for doing nothing.

still to come...

Site: White Post Service Station, West Coker, Yeovil, SomersetRetailer: Ed SeatonProject: New 180sq m Budgens shop with off licence and hot food area, and ATMOpening: This month

Site: Wisbech Road Service Station, A10/Wisbech Road, Littleport, CambsRetailer: Jonathan JamesProject: Four-square forecourt and separate HGV forecourt with rear on-sales building, 140sq m Spar shop, off licence, ATM and two jet wash baysOpening: November 2010

Site: Crosskeys Service Station, Bristol Road, Hardwicke, GloucesterRetailer: Robbie CampionProject: New tanks, canopy link to existing canopy, five-island starting gate forecourt, sales building with 200sq m Spar shop with off licence and hot food area, ATM and jet washOpening: November 2010

Site: Blenheim Service Station, Woodstock Road, Yarnton, OxonRetailer: Hugh FraserProject: New tanks, four-island starting gate forecourt, sales building with 220sq m Budgens shop, Subway, post office, ATM, automatic car wash and two jet washesOpening: November 2010