Grange House Transformed

Halvorsen Architects have just finished major works to a house in the Grange, a conservation area on Edinburgh’s south side which was first developed as an early suburb from the 1820s. 

The clients were keen to expand their Georgian villa in as sustainable a fashion as possible. We considered several measures, including renewable heating, insulation and airtightness. With the use of thermal imagery, we were able to identify the areas that were responsible for the highest energy loss and assess which measures to implement, taking into account the cost versus reduction in energy loss.

The clients already have solar panels on their existing, single-storey house. Solar panels for the new buildings, which were to be located on the new studio, were rejected, partly due to current limitations on battery storage. Instead, we decided to design the new buildings to “Passive House” standards of airtightness and super-insulation. That way, the source of energy (primarily for heating) would become less of an issue.


All the windows of the existing house were replaced with double-glazed windows, using Georgian sash windows at the front, due to the aesthetics and the house being in a conservation area, and larger, modern-style windows at the back, reflecting those in the new build.

Most of the materials that we specified are natural. For the exposed structure of the studio, we used Kerto beams, made from softwood veneers, with timber I-joists used for all the hidden structure. The insulation is a combination of sheep’s wool and wood-fibre board. A mechanical heat and ventilation recovery system has been installed, with underfloor heating throughout. 
The new-build consists of a South-facing, self-contained studio to the rear of the garden. This faces the existing villa, while a long extension down the East side of the garden contains utility rooms and a “sitooterie”.

The studio is open plan, with one room that can be shut off as a bedroom, with a hidden sliding door. The Kerto beams, exposed overhead, give definition to the space and are visible over the tops of the low partitions, increasing the sense of spaciousness. There is a large amount of glazing, predominantly to the south.

The garden has been remodelled, including new access from the road, a new driveway and a new footpath to the studio. The rear garden is now on two levels, with a sunken courtyard at the level of the villa and a wildflower meadow at the studio level.

Fast Fashion – The way forward

Last night I helped organise a Scottish Ecological Design Association (SEDA) event about the harmful effects of the fast fashion industry. Held in the David Hume Tower, George Square, Edinburgh, the event was well-attended by both students and people involved in retail and textiles industries.

The 3 hour session was loosely based around the ground-breaking documentary ‘The True Cost‘. Released in 2015 and made by the director Andrew Morgan, the film exposes the devastating environmental impact and human cost of the fast fashion industry, while also looking at the larger issues of consumerism, mass media and globalised capitalism. A couple of pretty gruelling excerpts were shown from the film, and these contrasted nicely with the shorter and charming documentary ‘Unravel‘, also made in 2015, by Meghna Gupta. The latter film focuses on the mainly female workers in a factory in the historic city of Panipat, North India, who recycle westerners’ cast offs.

The evening kicked of with a talk by Vivienne Low, a sustainable fashion designer who is the Scottish co-ordinator of Fashion Revolution, a global movement set up in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster of April 2013 (in which 1,134 people were killed when a garment factory collapsed near the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka). Fashion Revolution is a not-for-profit global movement with teams in over 100 countries around the world. Fashion Revolution campaigns for systemic reform of the fashion industry with a focus on the need for greater transparency in the fashion supply chain, aiming to “radically change the way our clothes are sourced, produced and consumed”.


The second talk was by Martha Myers, founder of SHRUB, a zero-waste co-operative based in Edinburgh that is “working for a world without waste”. It has a clothes’ swap shop, a food share and runs sewing and bicycle workshops.

Despite some harrowing images, including of underpaid workers protesting for fairer wages being shot at by police, in the films shown, the mood of the evening was generally upbeat. Regulations around textile workers’ rights are being tightened by the European Union and United Nations. India has also passed new laws in this area. Some Asian countries have yet to follow, though. We were also told about several grassroots initiatives in Scotland that are leading the way in changing peoples’ attitudes and designing more environmentally-friendly products – from SHRUB’s own community initiatives to the world’s first hemp-framed glasses made by Hemp Eyewear in Edinburgh.

Still from Unravel

The Beacon opening

Last week Gorebridge Community Development Trust held a party to celebrate the opening of the Gorebridge Beacon, our new community centre, earlier this year. Trust members and staff, funders and nearly all the design team came and celebrated the fantastic (award-winning) building. Since it opened over 5,000 people have walked through the doors, all the office spaces have tenants and it is now the go-to place for conferences in Midlothian.

Robbie Laird, Alan Thomson & Archie Pacey

The staff, mostly volunteers, say it as a privilege to work there and appreciate the design. They say no two days alike, given the number of different groups and activities operating out of the building – from yoga to sewing, from baby language classes to singing.

As I said in my speech, it is an inspirational building, an innovative piece of engineering and a very energy-efficient building. One stand-out feature is that both its structure and cladding are made of timber.

Over the course of a decade, Alan Thomson of Lee Boyd Architects led the design team over many hurdles to give us the Beacon. The team includes structural engineers David Narro Associates, mechanical and electrical engineers Irons Foulner Partnership and landscape architects Rankin Fraser.

Keith Hunter Photography


The café with views to the Pentland hills and Gorebridge parish church
Keith Hunter Photography

Sun trap in Dunbar

Halvorsen Architects recently finished an extension to and remodelling of a 1970s house in Dunbar, East Lothian. A sun room, at the heart of the house, links the principal rooms and, with the removal of a wall, creates a large open plan kitchen-dining room. Light floods in through the wall-to-wall South-facing glazing, high-level East-facing clerestory windows and a large roof light.

The clients call it their “Lovely Room” and in the depths of winter said this:

“We love the Lovely Room! Despite the freezing weather outside the room is flooded with light and heat (currently 22 degrees from sunlight only). We’d feared the kitchen would feel like a dark cave but it has plenty of light too.

We’re always delighted to come home to it – and want to thank Halvorsen Architects for a design that works so well”.

As usual, I advised the client to live in the house for a while to understand how the light moves around the rooms before committing to curtains or blinds. In this case I was delighted at my final visit to see the clients’ solution of batik hangings with Celtic designs made by Skye Batiks. They move the hangings according to the suns position – a simple and imaginative solution.

Wild strawberries on roof

Last month I visited Shepherd House, Inveresk, where I have carried out several small projects and was delighted to see wild strawberries growing on the green roof of the potting shed designed by Halvorsen Architects. The roof was planted with ferns originally and over the years wildflowers have self-seeded there, but this is the first fruit to take root.

SEDA conference 2019

A group of ecologically-minded people gathered in Forres to visit a collection of inspiring sustainable enterprises, hear some stimulating talks and exchange green ideas. Having spent the previous couple of months organising SEDA’s (Scottish Ecological Design Association) annual conference, it was underway at last.

For me the highlight was the trip to Makar Ltd. – architect Neil Sutherland’s factory that prefabricates timber-framed buildings using local materials. Neil employs nearly 50 people including joiners and architects. They work on a series of ‘stages’ assembling a whole panel on each platform following the Toyota fabrication method, of which Neil is an admirer. All the timber is local, the insulation is made from recycled newspaper and the panels from wood fibre. I believe that their main workshop has the largest span of any timber building in the UK.

One stage of the Makar process

We also visited Logie Sawmill which supplies timber to Makar, as well as to furniture makers and others. We all gasped when we entered their newly built shed – a beautiful construction of hardwood timber sourced from the Logie estate.

New bold House

We took over Newbold House – a large Victorian house – run by the Newbolds Trust charity, where we were served home-made food fresh from the garden. We heard from a range of stimulating speakers about, amongst other things, small community hydroelectric schemes and sustainable food production. You can see the full programme below.

East Whins housing ©Tom Manley Photography 

John Gilbert Associates, SEDA members, have been heavily involved in the Findhorn Foundation from the start. They showed us around their latest development there:- East Whins – an innovative eco-village of 25 homes which is a mixture of flats and houses, all with co-housing facilities  including common rooms, a laundry and workshops. This is a model example of cooperative housing with a communal garden. Two residents joined us, telling us about the joys of living there. They also told us that one of the few disadvantages was the time taken for decisions to be made by committee. It reminded me of one of my favourite things about Norway, my father’s homeland – that there are very few fences and it is difficult to know where one Garden ends and another starts, ensuring more social interaction. People lead less isolated lives in co-housing.

Allt Mor hydro

On the way home, following a long and winding road, we visited Allt Mor – a 350kW high head, run-of-river, hydro scheme at Kinloch Rannoch. Our initial disappointment that it had shut down due to lack of water was quashed when we had a heavy shower and I watched as the turbines started to spin. It was pretty impressive. This scheme produces enough energy to power 250 homes and an electric vehicle charger.


Nursery conference

The Salon Noir at L’Escargot, Soho

The venue was more Bohemian than most – the top floor of a celebrated French restaurant in Soho. I had been asked to give a talk about nursery design by My Montessori Child. The theme of the conference was Quality – Quality in Spirit, Quality in Space and Quality in Service. I was asked to speak on quality in space.

I opened my talk with an overview of ecological design, which sits perfectly with Maria Montessori’s philosophy on living in harmony with nature. This part included how to make a healthy indoor environment and how that can benefit a child’s health and well-being. I then went on to describe various aspects of design for young children – scale, movement, materials, exploration and learning from buildings. Finally I showed some examples of both my nursery buildings and some amazing Japanese nurseries – some of the most innovative and impressive in the world.

Although many delegates will be unable to build their dream nursery, mainly due to the exorbitant land prices in and around London, they did say that my talk had given them ideas of elements that they could incorporate into their nurseries.

Two nurseries in Japan: Bubbletecture H by Shuhei Endo & Hakusui Nursery by Yamasaki Centro from AECCafe

The main design themes that I covered in my talk were:

Indoor / outdoor relationship

Otherwise known as the biophilia hypothesis. In rural areas this is easy – just provide a lot of South-facing glazing and doors to the outside. In urban areas, especially with small or non-existent gardens, this becomes much more challenging. Suggested solutions include windows positioned strategically to frame specific views of trees/clouds that might otherwise be overlooked; using shadows, again of trees/clouds to bring an internal surface to life. Plants can be introduced indoors – smaller movable planters for nurseries which are in shared space and have to clear away at the end of the day or ‘living walls’ as a permanent feature.

Non-prescriptive play

Simplicity in all things. I advocate few and simple elements of play for children – whether as part of the architecture or pieces of furniture or play equipment. If you build a boat in the playground this can only ever be a boat and nothing but a boat. If you turn a tree on it’s side and put it in the playground it can become a boat, a train, a dinosaur, a dragon or anything else the child has the imagination to conjure up. Try and leave as much for the child to invent as possible.

Don’t waste space

I have always had an aversion to ‘circulation space’. Why cut off one of the most potentially interesting elements in the building – the staircase. In my buildings the staircase becomes an integral part of the play area. With larger than normal landings – often large enough to be a small room – and the stair itself, wide enough and shallow enough, to double up as stage seating. The space underneath the stairs is the perfect den –  don’t waste it. And why not introduce a slide alongside the stairs – it saves time carrying the children down! Similarly with corridors – they are a waste of space on their own, but they can readily be designed so they can double up as breakout spaces.

Slide from Halvorsen Architect’s presentation

Pizza oven

The children of Happy Days nursery, Dalkeith, wait with anticipation while they watch their handmade pizzas cook in their new pizza oven. The oven arrived with mesh around the insulation which we rendered and decorated with mosaic tiles. Not an empty plate to be seen!

The benefits of risk in the playground

For children to learn, it is essential that they take some risks and this is something pupils at Happy Days nursery, Eskbank are now able to do thanks to the new Halvorsen Architects-designed play area at the site. The playground was completed in June and the children are clambering excitedly all over the trees and ropes, negotiating the various obstacles with great dexterity.

Research and common sense show that children need to take some risks in order to develop cognitive, social and physical competencies. Imposing too many restrictions on outdoor play hinders their development. They need to be given the mental and physical space to figure out appropriate risk levels for themselves.

The natural forms of the trees at the Esbank play area encourage more imaginative play than more prescriptive structures. Bark left on the tree trunks; recycled anti-slip rubber tread inserts; and hemp rope all contribute to the range of tactile experiences with which the children can explore different materials.

Challenging the children in this way gives them more self-confidence in the outside world and teaches them skills such as balance and judgement.

New classroom

Pre-school pupils recently moved into their new brand classroom at Happy Days nursery, Hardengreen, near Dalkeith. The client wanted an extension to its existing nursery, which could be quickly constructed in order to help alleviate a growing waiting list. Halvorsen Architects response was to deliver a simple, timber-framed structure that is clad in Scottish larch. The classroom’s windows are all floor-to-ceiling, affording plenty of light and enabling the children to look out over the walled garden of the original Georgian house.