Branched tree posts – first in Scotland?

Woodland, Abbey St Bathans

Woodland where oaks were sourced

Last week I spent another glorious day surveying trees in woodland near Abbey St. Bathans in the Scottish Borders.

These are to be used as posts and beams in two new buildings that I am designing for Happy Days, a nursery in Dalkeith. But we’re not just looking for any old posts and beams – we’re looking for unmilled timber structures (and especially branching timbers). That means that the trunks are not machined, or regularised, but left in their original state, knots, bends, forks and all. This a good use of otherwise redundant or underused wood.
The woods belong to Willie Dobie of Abbey Timber, which is a small sawmill located at Abbey St Bathans.


Festival Foods, Madison, USA - over 5,000sq.m.

Festival Foods, Madison, USA

Underhill House, Wisconsin, USA

Underhill House, Wisconsin, USA

I was inspired by the website of Whole Trees Architecture and Structures, an American company that specialises in using raw trees in a range of projects including hypermarkets.

Little did I realise when embarking on this project how difficult it would be. The construction method is almost completely alien to the UK timber industry and specifiers. Whole trees are not recognised in design standards used by engineers.

So it was with great difficulty, and after an extraordinary wild goose chase the length and breadth of Scotland that I tracked down a ‘grader’ who is qualified to certify the whole trees that Willie Dobie and I had selected for possible structural use in the nursery. I discovered that there are only a handful of graders in the whole of UK capable of grading whole trees, and all of them based in England.

Iain measuring the oak's girth

Iain measuring the oak’s girth

Willie Dobie & 'tuning fork' larch to be used for our longest - 6.7m beam

Willie Dobie & ‘tuning fork’ larch to be used for our longest – 6.7m beam

Iain Thew of Dossor MCA, an engineering firm based in York, joined me and Willie in the woods last week to assess whole trees and identify which ones had the right load bearing capacity. This was done visually by assessing the position of the branches – and therefore the knots – and carefully measuring limbs and trunks.

Luckily the sun shone on us for both my visits and we found all the trees and round poles that we needed – 18 in total – a mixture of oak and larch. The UK hardwood grading rules only cover a very limited number of tree species – oak and chestnut, while larch is the only UK grown species that can be visually graded for strength.

I will be returning in the next few weeks to witness the trees being felled, and to choose which branches to keep. By the time the nursery is complete, I will have followed the journey of each tree from its original woodland setting to supporting the finished educational building – less than 40 miles away.

The building warrant application for the buildings has been submitted and we hope to start work in late Spring. The oak posts will be carved with some woodland motifs such as treecreepers’ foot prints spiralling around the trunk.

Iain Thew officially certifies some round pole larch with a pink spray can

Iain Thew officially certifies some round pole larch … with a pink spray can

Both Willie and I hope that we have somehow burst the logjam and that more people will consider using this cost-efficient and sustainable construction method – which permits the use of otherwise redundant trees – and that the UK’s constrictive regulations can be brought into line with those in the US and continental Europe.



Main image: Whole Trees Architecture and Structures



Huts planning guide celebrated

Last night the Thousand Huts campaign launched its ‘New hutting developments: Good practice guidance on the planning, development and management of huts and hut sites’ at the Scottish Parliament.

It is a comprehensive document with many seductive photos of huts, both old and new, to help planners and hut builders respond to the emerging opportunities for hut building in Scotland. It was produced by Reforesting Scotland’s Thousand Huts campaign, established in 2011 by Ninian Stuart, director of Falkland Centre for Stewardship. This is the first stepping stone for Thousand Huts campaign in its aim to get more Scots out in the forests and onto the mountains. Their next goal is to get a relaxation in the building standards for huts, which the campaign hopes to achieve by the end of the year.

I have already written about the campaign for The Magazine of the Architectural Heritage of Scotland. The article, Hutting in Scotland, was published in 2013.

The document’s launch is an exciting first step in getting Scots to reconnect with their landscape.

As I said at last night’s event the big challenge now is to make the cultural shift to get people away from their caravans or cheap package holidays and into the Scottish countryside. Being half Norwegian and having spent many a holiday in hytte (the Norwegian equivalent) I suggested that we need to think about encouraging organisations to build huts for the use of families and individuals.

Many people will not want to commit the time and money required to own their own hut but if they have access to a workplace provided one or a community-owned one that they could rent at a reasonable rate might well be tempted to go, whether for the weekend or longer. As a child I stayed in hytte with my father owned by the Royal Norwegian Air Force. Now when I go holidaying with cousins we often stay in huts owned by the energy company Statoil.

There is plenty of evidence around to suggest the benefits to health and wellbeing of time spent in the countryside. Norwegians recognise this and many organisations both state and private own hytte for use by their employees.

There is also the possibility of community-owned huts riding on the back of the many community buyouts around Scotland. It would be great if NGOs such as the National Trust for Scotland or the RSPB could also free up some of their land for hut building. Reforesting Scotland and Scottish Waterways Trust have already started to look at building huts on their land.

With the potential further changes to land reform after the next Scottish election this is the time to think seriously about growing the community of hutters in Scotland.

New build at Eco-Nursery using natural materials

Halvorsen Architects was recently granted planning permission to enlarge Happy Days nursery near Edinburgh, for a design that reinforces the pre-school facility’s green ethos.

The client, Genesis, which owns and operates several nurseries across Scotland’s central belt, chose Halvorsen Architects after seeing our timber building projects with local primary schools. Genesis promotes a healthy lifestyle for children with plenty of outdoor activities – for example the children collect eggs from Happy Days’ chickens and harvest fruit and veg from the nursery’s garden – and has achieved Green Flag Status in the Eco-Schools Programme. This fits in well with Happy Days 6
Halvorsen Architects expertise of environmentally-friendly buildings.

We are designing a new dining room, an arts & crafts room and a second toddler room that will be used as a performance space and a venue for scientific experiments. The latter room will open out onto a small grass amphitheatre through a fully-glazed, South-facing wall. The dining room also overlooks the garden and will contain a new pizza and bread oven enabling children to bake bread and pizzas.
Happy Days 5We considered several designs that had a strong connection to the outside. In the end Genesis asked Halvorsen Architects to proceed with a design that is orthogonal on the outside, but whose more organic interior incorporates Hobbit-style breakout spaces, tree-like columns and a bridge link. Windows will be either full height in the larger spaces or small and at a child’s height. The Scandinavian themed environment will include ‘living’ stone walls on which plants will grow and could become the herb garden.Happy Days 7

Christina Walters, director of Happy Days, said: “Gail’s progressive, energetic and passionate approach throughout the design and consultation process has been exceptional. Listening intently to our needs, Gail has created incredibly rich and inspiring learning areas within her designs, which will enhance the lives of the children and families who use our setting for many years to come.”

PastedGraphic-1IMG_5310The new buildings will be built predominantly of natural materials, such as wood-fibre insulation, sandstone rain screen, timber rain screen and lime plaster. These breathable materials will regulate the humidity, reduce condensation and improve the internal air quality. It has been proven that the healthy environment created using natural materials makes children more relaxed and improves their concentration levels (School without stress). Rainwater will be harvested in butts for the children to use for watering plants.

Midlothian Council gave the new building planning and listed building consent on December 2015 and construction is expected to start in late spring. “We are eager and enthusiastic to finalise the design stage and embark upon the build!“ said Walters.



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


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 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.


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.