RIBA House of the Year – my winner

I was slightly disappointed when the 2015 RIBA House of the Year was announced in December last year. The winner is worthy – Flint House by Skene Catling De La Pena – but I was seduced by the less iconic but more subtle short-listed Vaulted House in Chiswick, London. At first glance it is not so alluring but the more one looks at it and understands how the complex brief was resolved in such a simple design it is impressive. The challenge of bringing light into such a land-locked, ex-industrial site has been dealt with poetically with a pattern of vaulted roof-lights.

It is also the generosity of spirit that I appreciate – seen from above from any of the surrounding houses (the only external view one can get of the house), especially at night, the Vaulted House is a beautiful patchwork sculpture.

 

Sunshine on Leith

IMG_6725 - Version 2IMG_6761A recently completed extension to a Victorian house in Leith, Edinburgh, this project was designed to maximise the light coming in from the client’s south-facing garden. It’s a large, single room for sitting, dining and showing films.

The new multi-purpose room is pulled away to the rear of the original stone building with a three-metre wide link, which has transformed the original kitchen.

For this relatively low-budget project Halvorsen Architects used local Scottish larch, which is more knotted but more sustainable than it’s more popular and sleeker Siberian cousin. The roof structure is exposed inside and through the large open gable ends. The roof is supported on a series of scissor trusses, which also support the lighting system and projector for films, shown on a roll down screen on one of the end walls.IMG_6746

Old dairy restoration

IMG_677845 Main Street is a listed Georgian house in the heart of Gorebridge’s old town. It falls within a conservation area that is part of the Conservation Area Regeneration Scheme (CARS) funded by Historic Scotland and Midlothian Council to help in the restoration of buildings.

No. 45 used to be the town’s dairy. Halvorsen Architects acted as architect for the restoration of the building, predominantly of the front facade. The works included replacing or repairing damaged sandstone, repointing with lime mortar and enhancing the roof.

history1930_3171945kThe renovation, now complete has included replacing the original, faded ‘DAIRY’ lettering around the porch, where warm unpasteurised milk, collected from cows in the milking shed attached to the back of the original building, was once poured from the mild churns into jugs of local residents.

Hempcrete – a natural building material

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The hemp plant

Marijuana may be great for getting high, but the architectural value of cannabis is in the industrial hemp that forms a vital ingredient of products including hempcrete.

Hempcrete is low-tech natural building material made from the chopped stalk of the hemp plant and a lime-based binder. It is carbon-negative in that it absorbs carbon dioxide and can be recycled. The materials are sourced locally – hemp is grown in South-East England.

A few months ago, a new four-bedroom house in Midlothian designed by Halvorsen Architects was granted planning permission. An application for building warrant has been submitted for the hempcrete home. The client is an organic farmer who powers his milking machines with a large array of photovoltaic panels. He now wants a new house that is as sustainable as his farm management.

Having considered using materials sourced from his farm – including sheep’s wool, straw bales – and having visited several buildings around Scotland using natural building materials, we decided to build the new house in hempcrete. When weighing up the options we visited two hempcrete houses by Sue Manning on Loch Tay. One of these was finished a few years ago and the other is currently on-site, so we were able to see how the first had aged and witness the building techniques with the second. Sue is already designing her third hempcrete house and says she favours the material over all the other natural building materials she has used.

Hand-placed-hempcrete-cast-around-a-central-softwood-frame.

Hand-placed hempcrete wall with shuttering

One of the biggest advantages of hempcrete construction is its monolithic form – the material’s continuity around corners makes it airtight and reduces cold bridging at junctions such as eaves. Another is its simplicity and multi-performance. Hempcrete provides insulation and thermal mass as well as insect, fire and moisture control. Not only that, it is a natural material and therefore, combined with its Gore-Tex-like breathability, gives a healthier (chemical and damp free), more pleasant indoor environment.

Hempcrete can be cast in-situ, sprayed or built-up in brick form. We have opted for the first or standard method – the lowest-tech and most labour-intensive solution that gives the highest level of quality control. It is not load-bearing and so it requires an internal frame, in our case untreated timber.

Internal walls and floors will be insulated with hemp fibre and all the walls finished in lime plaster to maintain the integrity of the breathable and non-toxic fabric.

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Finished hempcrete wall, shuttering removed

The principal rooms of the new house face South. We are currently deciding which renewable technology to heat the house with – the most likely options are a district wood-chip boiler using wood from the client’s farm or a ground source heat pump.

We look forward to starting work on what we will believe will be the first house in the Lothians to be built of this remarkable material.

Assemble: a worthy winner

I am delighted to learn that Assemble has won this year’s Turner prize. Assemble is a London based architecture collective carrying out innovative low-cost work with local communities and arts organisations.

Photograph: Assemble

Photograph: Assemble

There has already been some discussion about is this art? Bearing in mind some of the conceptual art that has won the prize over the past 20 years the question is hard to fathom. The modern notion of Art, “with a capital A”, with a single semi divine creator, has become pretentious, ignoring whole reams of other creative work, often collaborative, which get dismissed as design, craft or whatever.

I had the pleasure of spending a weekend in May with the Assemble member, Amica Dall, at The Scottish Ecological Design Association (SEDA) Conference 2015 – Power up or Power Down?

She talked eloquently and enthusiastically about several of Assemble’s projects including one of my favourites – Folly for a Flyover – which transformed a disused motorway undercroft in Hackney Wick into an arts venue and new public space. Over nine weeks, 40,000 Londoners came and participated in an enlivening mishmash of activities including creative works, discussions and performances.

What Assemble, which was founded in 2010, does is innovative, collaborative and yes – art. Here’s how they were described by the Guardian when nominated for the award in August:-

The diversity of Assemble’s work is matched only by their ability to make things happen in unlikely circumstances, where the usual necessities of a client, site or budget might not be in ready supply.

Alistair Hudson, one of this year’s Turner Prize judges, said Assemble fit into “a long tradition of art working in society”.

What Assemble have done in Toxteth is both socially admirable – they have turned around a downward spiral of disuse and demolition and helped build a renewed respect for the local architecture. Their designs are imaginative, innovative and practical in their modesty.

Well done Assemble!

 

Disappointing planning decision by Midlothian Council

As co-chair of Gorebridge Community Development Trust I sent this letter to the Midlothian Advertiser. Unfortunately it seems that nothing can be done now to change the council’s mind but a lot of people are very angry.

Dear Editor,

Gorebridge Community Development Trust is dismayed and troubled by the recent decision by Midlothian Council Local Review Body to overturn the rejection of outline planning permission for ten houses at the former Arniston Gas Works to the west of the A7. We agree with previous condemnations of the decision by Gorebridge and Moorfoot Community Councils.

The application by Pegasus for planning permission in principle for the housing was rejected on 30 June by council planners. This was largely because it contravened Midlothian’s local plan and because of the absence of good public transport links. The way the council’s review body rode roughshod over such concerns has already been well-documented. We commend Green councillor Ian Baxter, the only member of the review body to oppose this, for being a rare voice of sanity in this debacle.

The local review body turned a blind eye to the Forestry Commission’s recommendation that this site should be returned to natural woodland, following earlier illegal tree felling. Councillor Jim Bryant comments in his letter of 5 November that the site is a “dump” and an “eyesore” but it is the very fact that the site was brownfield and has had the chance for natural succession of the ecological habitat that makes it such a special site, where at least two rare plants exist. Sites like this are excellent for natural regeneration just like Gorebridge bing where the University of Edinburgh makes field trips to study the habitat. On the other hand it could be argued that if turning a potential site into a ‘dump’ means it’s far more likely to get planning permission, what signal does that send to potential developers?

The site also forms an important boundary to the unique habitat of the Esk Valley corridor. Two rare plant species that are not found anywhere else in Midlothian are Wintergreen (Pyrola Media) and hellebore orchid (Epipactus Heliborine). To develop this site would fly in the face of the Scottish government’s Biodiversity Action Plan which stipulates that “All councils have an obligation to implement and enforce the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity.” Given the presence of these rare species it is essential that before the first sod is cut that the council at the very least carries out an environmental impact assessment.

The vegetation along the Borders Railway corridor has already been drastically over-felled. Isn’t it about time that some respect was shown for the wonderful countryside around Gorebridge. People move to Gorebridge because of its natural beauty. This site is in the buffer zone of the Esk Valley corridor and Gore Glen. Eat into it and a bad precedent is set for erosion of the natural habitats around Gorebridge.

Gail Halvorsen

Marco Biagi visits trust

Marco Biagi MSP, minister for local government and community empowerment, visited Gorebridge Community Development Trust in August. It was a valuable meeting and gave us the opportunity to quiz him about the Scottish government’s Community Empowerment Bill and also to share some of our frustrations regarding our new community hub. We explained the problems we have had in raising capital and revenue funding, as well as our lack of access to affordable advice and need for expertise in areas including arbitration law.

Marco was an engaging man who took a keen interest in the trust.

Two New Houses

Planning permission has been approved for two separate, new, four-bedroomed houses designed by Halvorsen Architects in rural Midlothian. 

They are both in the beautiful area around Crichton Castle, with one actually overlooking the ruined keep. Midlothian Council was concerned about the impact the houses might have on this area of outstanding natural beauty, so great care was taken to integrate both buildings into their surroundings. As is often the case with planning departments nowadays, the council wanted to see a modern aspect to both designs to underline the fact the buildings are new, but also wanted to blend this with the use of traditional forms and materials.

It is an interesting discussion – old versus new, particularly in sensitive areas. I believe that since the 1980s, bodies such as Historic Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland have paved the way for architects to build overtly new buildings in close proximity to historic ones. This has made the new acceptable alongside the old, especially the trademark glazed link between the two in instances where they need to be physically connected.

However, I do believe that it takes a particularly architectural aware planner to find the middle ground between modern and traditional/vernacular design. In one project I designed an extension to a listed Georgian farmhouse, the walls of which were entirely of glass. OK. But I wanted a pitched roof – a continuation of the existing pitched roof of an adjacent farm steading that was being extended into. I was told – no, it had to be a flat roof. Apart from flat roofs not being the ideal solution in the Scottish climate, I think the planners ”all or nothing” approach was flawed. In my view a hybrid of glass walls and pitched roof would actually have worked better.

That was nearly ten years ago and the planners now seem more accommodating. In the two new houses the issues and solutions were different. One, a house for a farm worker, is on a greenfield site overlooking Crichton Castle. The second replaces an existing barn on another farm and keeps the shape of that barn.

It is our intention to use Hempcrete as the main building material for one of the two houses. I am very excited at the prospect of using this innovative but sustainable material, but more about that in another blog!

DNA Installation

DNA Installation

Last year a colleague asked me to join her in designing an installation that represents DNA and it’s unchecked mutations that can lead to cancer. She is a poet and wanted a sculpture related to her poetry and also a place where one could listen to the poetry.

Excited by this interesting proposal I met with her and a genetic scientist several times for brainstorming sessions on how best and most accurately to represent the complexity of DNA when it replicates and mutates.

After several attempts we all agreed that a large scale, walk-through linear sculpture best represented the strands of DNA. The two complimentary strands of DNA were the two sides of the narrow and sinuous walkway. The structure is made of scaffolding to represent the skeletal backbone and the paired bases are fabric strips wrapping around the scaffolding.

The sculpture is meant to go in public spaces such as town squares where there will be the possibility of as much interest ion with the public as possible – both with those coming to walk through it but also the people cutting through as they go about their daily business and inadvertently trigger a mutation in the DNA strand. Both the Royal Botanic Gardens and Summerhall in Edinburgh were hoping to host the sculpture.

DNA Interactive area

DNA Interactive area