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. 

Renewable energies CPD

Earlier this month I organised a CPD to unravel the complexities – claims and counterclaims – around the renewable energy sector. Several independent experts gave their views on how to sort through the issues and provided us with much food for thought. Thank you to all who contributed to an enlightening afternoon.

100 Sustainable Scottish Buildings

I recently attended the book launch of “100 Sustainable Scottish Buildings” by SEDA (Scottish Ecological Design Association). I strongly recommend it to everyone.

As Robin Harper (SEDA’s patron) said “It is a celebration of new ideas, of ingenuity, imagination, philosophy and art, a tribute to creativity, joyfulness, human scale design, an expression of our dedication to live with nature and the ow of life, to be genuinely sustainable in every possible way.”

Woodland to playground

Halvorsen Architects have just completed phase I of a new playground at Happy Days’ Eskbank nursery school. All the oak and larch trees were sourced from nearby woodland – trees that otherwise have no commercial value and were due for clearance. A tree lorry carrying all the wood just sneezed through the nursery gates and the on-board crane manoeuvred the trees seamlessly into place.

It remarkably only took three days for Leslie Winthrop’s team to position all the trees – either in meter deep holes in the ground or laid above ground – and build the structure to carry the various decks. All is now ready for phase II – decking and balustrades.

The play pieces follow a path from one end of the playground to the other, with several choices of route, and integrating some of the existing structures along the way. My favourite piece is ‘Nessie’ – the bendy oak surfacing from the ground.



Slovenian wood

Last week I was in Slovenia for a tour of Riko’s timber factory in Ribnica, about an hour’s drive south of the capital Ljubljiana. I was invited there to look at their facilities as I am intending to make the Woodland Nursery out of timber, or — more specifically — out of cross-laminated timber panels (CLT).

Five layered CLT panel

Cross-laminated timber is large-format, innovative, engineered timber that is manufactured off-site. It was first developed in the sawmills of Austria and Germany in the early 1990s there are now CLT factories right across Europe, but not yet in the UK.

Although wood has been used in buildings for centuries, the development and production of large format CLT panels was the first time a wood product had been produced that matched the structural qualities of concrete, whilst being sustainable. It has one of the lowest energy consumptions of any building material across its lifecycle.

CLT panels are used for walls, floors and roofs of a building’s superstructure. It is produced from small softwood sections that would otherwise be of no great value, made up in layers at right angles and glued together under pressure using a polyurethane adhesive (with no formaldehyde or toxic emissions) – or laminated. These panels are light, stable and very strong.

Forests around Ribnica

Slovenia is one of the most densely forested countries in Europe, with forest and woodland covering 58 per cent of its surface area. Beech, spruce, fir and oak are the most common species. I was impressed by the seemingly endless mountains of unspoilt forest. Where are the scars associated with tree felling that we see so often in Scotland, I wondered? Slovenia has a principle of what the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food calls “close- to-nature forest management”, but it is no doubt helped both by the large number of small forest owners with small and fragmented tenure and that 50 per cent of forests are situated inside the EU Natura 2000 ecological network. The amount of felling lags behind the allowable cut determined in the forest management plans.

The barn at Škrabec Homestead were I stayed, used as a cultural venue, has a state-of-the-art CLT panel structure hidden behind a traditional exterior.

As far back as 1492, the Austro-Hungarian emperor granted an imperial patent to the people of Ribnica for their wooden products after which they sold them all over the world. Sadly now, Slovenia exports much of its unprocessed timber to be processed in Austria and then buys back CLT panels.

Riko Hiše
, a subsidiary of Riko, was founded by Ribnica born, Janez Škrabec in the 1990s, and specialises in tailor-made prefabricated buildings. It manufactures a patented system incorporating structural panels, insulation (wood fibre), doors, windows, blinds, services, internal and external finishes. Riko’s team assembles the building on site, the panels being hoisted into position by crane and bolted together.

The advantages of prefabricated CLT panels include strength, speed and efficiency, as well as a light environmental footprint. They also produces less waste, improved thermal performance and design versatility.

Each CLT panel manufactured is cut and processed using state of the art CNC (Computer Numerical Control) technology. The precise tolerances achieved result in high levels of airtightness. This leads to benefits to health and well being, contributing to improved internal air quality. Studies in Norway indicate children who are taught in solid wood classrooms have heart beats that are 6 beats per minute slower than those taught in non-wooden classrooms.

It also has a surprisingly excellent performance in fire.

After the tour of the factory we went for a walk on some of the many paths through the forests around Ribnica. I was relieved not to encounter either a brown bear or a wolf, although at least I now know what to do if I do – play dead!

Traditional Slovenian timber barn