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.  


Prototype hut?

Two years on from the launch of Reforesting Scotland’s Thousand Huts campaign‘s ‘New hutting developments’ and not a lot has been built, but woodland sites at Carnock and Falkirk are attracting a lot of interest.

Most of the hut designs built to date follow a fairly boxy design, probably to maximise the small permissible floor area, but I wonder if something a little different might better compliment Scotland’s stunning rural settings – mountains, forests and coastline. I was struck by the tent-shaped design of the Kimo hut, which stands alone on a hill in New South Wales, by Anthony Hunt Design and Luke Stanley Architects. Though designed for Australian weather this would be suitable for the Scottish climate too. Without the decking it falls just within the 30m2 floor limit. Let’s hope the new wave of huts in Scotland will be inspirational and an asset to our beautiful countryside.

Photography by Hilary Bradford.

You may be interested in my two earlier blogs about hutting:

Huts planning guide celebrated 

Hutting in Scotland


Newbyres Castle – Recording the archaeology

Last Wednesday I organised the latest community workshop at Newbyres castle – a 16th century ruin in the heart of Gorebridge. The day was lead by Piers Dixon, an archaeologist from Historic Environment Scotland, who was ably helped by two colleagues – Eva Boyle and Adam Welfare. The day started with a tour of the castle and the land around. Piers speculated about what buildings might have surrounded the castle. By looking at the flat areas and man-made banks, some of which were only just discernible to the layman’s eye, we slowly built up a picture of what might have stood here once, including workshops, barns and kitchen gardens. 

Plane table and alidade

Aligning the alidade

Surveying the ruins

We then took a more detailed look at the ruins themselves and were delighted to find one slit window, partially hidden, and an intact corbel stone from the eaves of the roof. 

After making some freehand sketches of the area we were able to check them by carrying out a measured survey of the site in the afternoon. We used traditional pieces of equipment that would have been used to make the first OS maps. There was something wonderfully therapeutic about slowly anddiligently recording the site and a pleasant relief when the three teams’ drawings were overlaid and pieced together perfectly.

Discovering a slit window

The weather was kind to us and it was fascinating insight into the methods of archaeological recording.

These recordings are the first of a series that we plan to do of the castle which will form part of an archive about Newbyres Castle along with historical documents and maps.