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

Hutting in Scotland

Norwegian huts

This is an article that I wrote that appeared in the latest issue (No. 36) of AHSS – The Magazine of the Architectural Heritage of Scotland. I was asked to write an article that covered the history and architecture of hutting presumably in the wake of the recent change in planning laws to define a ‘hut’. I am afraid that I found it hard to stick to the geographic confines of Scotland and ventured across the North Sea to my fatherland Norway for a bit.

Hutting in Scotland

From my childhood holidays in Norway I have fond memories of “hytter”, and wonder why Scotland does not have a similar culture? One week would be spent in a “hytte” in the mountains  and one in a “hytte” by the sea. Sometimes we stayed on my godfather’s island in Hardanger fjord where we ate what we caught in the sea or, if there was a celebration to be had, would kill one of the sheep to roast over a large bonfire. It was a back to nature existence with little distraction except what the land had to offer. The worst were the nighttime trips to the outside (double seater, sing-if-you-want-to-be-left-alone) loo trying to avoid the hanging catfish and other cold, wet monsters that thwacked your face in the dark.

There are over 400,000 huts in Norway, or 1 to every 10 people. There were about 660 here (in 1999 according to ‘Huts’ and ‘Hutters’ in Scotland), or 1 to every 8,000 people. So what if anything can Scotland learn form the Norwegian experience where hutting is integral to the culture?

Do we even know what a ‘hut’ is? We all think we know what a bothy, shieling, or for that matter a chalet is. Well now there is an official definition to help. Last month the Scottish Planning Policy (SPP) supported, for the first time, the construction of huts in rural settings for recreational accommodation, under Section 79: Promoting Rural Development. According to the SPP definition a hut is:

A simple building used intermittently as recreational accommodation (ie. not a principal residence); having an internal floor area of no more than 30m2; constructed from low impact materials; generally not connected to mains water, electricity or sewerage; and built in such a way that it is removable with little or no trace at the end of its life. Huts may be built singly or in groups.

A bothy is a basic shelter traditionally built to temporarily house estate workers in remote rural locations, and now used by mountaineers and hillwalkers as refuges; a shieling is a seasonal dwelling for those living and working with animals; and a chalet tends to be a kit house associated with mobile home parks. There are inevitably grey areas between all these types. Everyone wants to call their rural idyll a bothy nowadays. It is, however, much more likely to be a hut, but no-one wants to call their retreat what, let’s face it, sounds like a garden shed.


There is scant remaining evidence of huts in Scotland. It is not clear when hutting first started but, according to the Scottish Executive’s paper ‘Huts’ and ‘Hutters’ in Scotland, ‘during and after the two World Wars, some Scottish landowners made land available on lease on which ex-servicemen and families from deprived inner city areas were allowed to erect dwellings at their own cost, primarily to enjoy the benefits of the countryside and fresh air for holidays and at weekends’. The earliest of these seems to have been in 1919.

In the inter-war years hutting become popular due, in part, to better transport links to the countryside, and increased awareness of health issues. They were mostly in clusters of between 3 and 50 huts, although a few were over 100 huts.

The numbers declined after WWII due to a combination of factors – loss of interest, changing use of land and occasional ‘clearances’ by landowners. There has been little change since 1950s largely due to the lack of provision in Scottish planning.

The initial supposition that huts and hutting emerged as way of providing a means of weekend  and holiday escape into the country for poorer people from overcrowded urban conditions may have been correct. Certainly nowadays hutting involves a mode of living that, is simpler, closer to nature and uses less energy, space and materials than conventional urban lifestyles. While the catchment areas remain broadly similar today, mostly within easy reach of the larger conurbations, hutters are, from a much more diverse in their background.

The original landowners of hutting sites were a mix of small farmers, people running rural businesses, and a few owners of larger estates. Overall there has been a strong degree of continuity of ownership.

Scotland’s earliest and largest hutting community is in Carbeth, Stirlingshire, which came to widespread attention in 1999 as a result of a dispute between the hutters and their landlord. There had been virtually no political or policy focus on hutting aside from a brief period in the early years of the first session of the Scottish Parliament when evictions at Carbeth forced the Scottish Parliament to take note of the inadequate legal arrangements surrounding tenure for hutters. Unfortunately his led to no change in legislation, but the Carbeth community has now bought the land in 2013 in order to protect itself. There are many other smaller sites around Scotland that are under threat of eviction.

There are several other surviving hutting communities that have been converted to different uses. The huts at Seton Sandsare now a caravan site and Soonhope a mix of huts and holiday ‘chalets’.

In 2011 members of Reforesting Scotland established a campaign group, A Thousand Huts, to champion and revive hutting as a way of life, spear headed by one of its directors, Ninian Stuart, Director of Falkland Centre for Stewardship. Advisors include Andy Wightman, the land reform activist, and broadcaster and journalist, Lesley Riddoch. It aims to nurture and encourage the growth of a Scottish hutting culture similar to that in Scandinavia, enabling people to build low-impact retreats away from the stresses of modern day living. Where it differs from the Scandinavian model is it wants to foster a long-term relationship between private individuals and a particular place by private ownership, rather than one-off hut usage, although this distinction does not apply to the new planning policy. It was the major force, backed by Friends of the Earth Scotland, behind the change in SPP guidelines.

The next goal of the Thousand Huts Campaign is for the adoption of the guidance into local authority development plans and the creation of a clear set of Building Standards designed for simple structures such as huts. These would be less onerous than those applying to most building types.


There are a wide range of styles and sizes of huts in Scotland, but they are typically small and of a vernacular style. Most huts have more than one room. They are all temporary structures sitting lightly on the ground, rather than digging into it, on supports such as old railway sleepers. They are largely built by amateurs at low cost, of whatever materials are readily available such as timber, corrugated metal or, in the early days, old bus-bodies and converted railway carriages, such as those at Carbeth.

More recently, prefabricated panels have been used or even complete prefabricated huts. Roofing material is mostly tarred or mineral felt, over wooden boarding. Most huts have some form of toilet – compost or chemical. These may be in the main hut or in an out-hut.

The Bothy Project is one of the few developers designing huts in a contemporary style. It develops small studio spaces for artist residencies. They have recently completed two stylish huts (or bothies as their owners prefer to call them) that are prototypes for more to be built across rural Scotland. They are prefabricated off-site by a team of volunteer builders, transported by truck and tractor to their rural sites, where they are reassembled. The Inshriach Bothy was built in 2011 in the Cairngorms National Park followed by Sweeney’s Bothy on the Isle of Eigg. They are constructed of corrugated metal, wood cladding and other reclaimed materials, including the windows. Their sustainable features include sheep’s wool insulation, wood-burning stove, rainwater harvesting system, outdoor suspended bag shower heated by stove, composting toilet and solar panel power.

Even amongst campaign groups the choice of materials is a contentious issue. If recycled materials are to be encouraged then the choice is almost limitless, including modern, processed materials. There are precedents of ultra- modern huts using shiny metal cladding, particularly on the continent, but is it too out of keeping in the Scottish landscape?

The space occupied by hut sites is also very variable. Some are compact and tucked away, others much more spread out. Often the huts themselves occupy indeterminate patches of land with no clear boundaries as in the Scandinavian model. Fencing in a garden is not encouraged except around areas for growing fruit and vegetables.

I fear the 30m2 size restriction in the new policy may limit larger families and groups and I hope that in the future there will be a broadening of the policy to include larger huts, with possible restrictions on grouping together. The Norwegians have a tradition of larger huts, owned by bodies as varied as The Royal Norwegian Air Force and, more recently, Statoil. If you do not own your own hut then you might have the use of one owned by your employer. Alternatively the Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT) owns 460 huts throughout Norway and is an ideal model of shared hutting. This is a hugely popular organisation in Norway with over 240,000 members. With a model like this there is less need to own your own hut.

Thousand Huts Campaign must be applauded for its success so far. For the first time in nearly a century the new policy will allow both private individuals and families to build their own huts and landowners to build huts to rent. As for initiatives on the ground – Reforesting Scotland is working to establish a Federation of Scottish Hutters.

There is every reason to believe such a movement will have a revival now. There is a trend towards more domestic holidays, a growing demand for ‘wilder’ and adventure holidays and concerns about mental wellbeing, physical health and sustainability. However people are busier than ever and do not necessarily want the responsibilities of owning a hut. Organisations such as Scottish Waterways Trust have already expressed an interest in building huts to rent. The Forestry Commission’s first proposed pilot scheme of 10 huts on a site in Saline, Fife, is currently undergoing a community consultation. Farmers and landowners are looking for ways to diversify – welcoming hutting communities could be another source of revenue for them. Let’s hope that soon more Scots will be taking to the hills in a way that benefits all without detriment to biodiversity or intrusion into unspoilt areas of wilderness.

Community Hub – works start

Work has started on the new £2m Community Hub in Gorebridge, Midlothian!

After six years of brain storming, planning, consultations and negotiations with all the stakeholders we have finally arrived. There have been many set backs along the way mainly due to timing. We embarked on our, possibly over ambitious, project early in 2008 when funders were queuing up at the door, and we all know what happened in Autumn 2008.

Gorebridge is a fairly deprived ex-mining town in the heart of Midlothian. At its centre is an attractive Georgian high street that is being eroded by the steady conversion of non-profitable shops into housing and neglect.

The impetus for Gorebridge Community Development Trust, of which I am now the chairman, was the closure of Greenhall, the old high school and only community building in Gorebridge. This was just before Midlothian Council announced that a further 5,000 homes were to be built in Gorebridge. Despite the doubling of its population, no new facilities were planned.

I joined the Trust to act as architectural advisor. We secured a grant from the Big Lottery to carry out a feasibility study. At this stage we had already decided that the new building should be further up the high street next to the parish church, a primary school, the library and leisure centre. We envisage the four buildings working together, and becoming the new heart of the town.

The Hub will include a large hall that can be divided into three smaller ones, a cafe, soft play and 5 offices as well as the Trust’s office. The offices will be let to social enterprises, charities or start-up businesses at reduced rates. The hall is immediately adjacent to the church and I imagine will be a popular venue for wedding parties.

I have just returned from a two day SEDA (Scottish Ecological Design Association) conference about communities and realise both how much we have achieved and the enormous task still ahead of us. In a sense, getting the building to this stage and built is the easy part (although it’s hard to recognise that now). Even a new, state-of-the-art building does not guarantee footfall through the door once opened. The fantastic conversion of Birks Cinema in Aberfeldy is an extremely good renovation of the 1930s cinema but after one year they have already changed manager once and chefs three times. Hopefully now things are beginning to turn around for them, but they are not unique. There are plenty of models of community buildings that have been built but are not achieving their potential.

Luckily in our Trust we are ably assisted by some dedicated staff and board members who will be addressing the realisation of our business plan over the next year. It is no small task and they are beginning with some imaginative forms of consultation including film making and away day trips, making me realise how inadequate our original community consultations now were, although thorough and broad.

I am confident that we will be successful. That Gorebridge Community Hub will become the much needed, thriving new centre of the town. I have learnt that we are not the only ones doing this and the more we speak to and learn from others the more likely we are to succeed.

We hope to open for business in June 2015!

‘Upside-Down House’ Studio


Some of you may be familiar with the work of renowned Scottish modernists Morris and Steedman. We were contacted by the new owners of their 1959 Sillitto House in Charterhall Road, Edinburgh, dubbed the ‘Upside-Down House’ because the bedrooms were placed on the ground floor and the living accommodation on the first floor to take advantage of the views and avoid the risk of being overshadowed by the hill behind. They asked us to build an office, library and guest suite.

We tried various ways of extending the existing house in both a bold, modernist style at the front of the house and a more sensitive, discreet way at the back of the house. Neither was acceptable to the planners.

We then suggested building a separate building right at the back of the steeply sloping and wooded garden that appealed to the client as he liked the idea of being from the mayhem of life with three teenage daughters.

It was still a struggle to get the design of the ‘Studio’ approved by the planners but we finally managed it with a pared down and significantly reduced version of the original proposal.

The client wanted the building to be sustainable so we decided to build it to passive house standards as a test case and monitor its energy consumption over the next two years. Unfortunately it cannot meet the exacting standards of ‘Passivhaus’  (a German standard for energy efficiency in building that results in buildings that require very little energy to heat or cool) as the building is North facing – a matter in which we had no choice due to the planners, although it is built to the standards in every other respect. It uses sheep’s wool insulation, a heat recovery unit that takes the heat from the bathroom extraction and recirculates it back into the Studio and a very high specification of draught-proofing.

Studio 1The original ‘Upside-Down House’ is a simple rectangular “box” divided into regular glazing bays on a monolithic plinth (harled concrete block). The new studio has similar clean, modern lines. It is built entirely of wood and sits on steel legs so that it has minimal impact on the ground. The garden is extremely steep and full of the roots of mature larch trees. A conventional foundation would have involved a massive amount of tampering with existing levels and probably killed the surrounding trees.

A lot of economy of space was required with the reduced floor plan. The corridor doubles up as a library with a large square oak window seat overlooking the original house and hills beyond. The office is separated from the corridor by folding red doors so that the two spaces can be united.

The Studio will be featuring in Homes & Interiors Scotland soon. The ground was covered in snow in the photos I sent them, taken in March! So unless I send some more ‘Spring’ like shots you may not see it until next Winter!

Spring in Scotland – Wooploft


It is Spring, or so we are told. I have had the best skiing in Scotland for a long time. Who needs the Alps.

I have just returned from visiting Wooploft with two of my children to see how it fared in the Winter. Wooploft is the ‘den’ that we made with my son’s primary school class, cantilevered over the banks of Allan Water at Wooplaw Wood. It is overdue a blog.

Pupils from Tynewater Primary School’s P7 class designed and built the structure last year under the auspices of International Year of the Forest, and with a grant from the Forestry Commission. The aims included to teach the children about the properties of wood, its use in buildings and an understanding of how it responds to local environmental, climatic and cultural conditions. The choice of building, materials and location was largely left to the children.

The original intention was to build the structure in the playground of their school at Pathhead. However in the end bureaucracy and health and safety regulations got the better of us and we instead chose to build the structure 17 miles away at Wooplaw Community Woodland in the Scottish Borders, between Lauder and Galashiels.

In fact the term ‘Hut’ misrepresents the complexities and challenges we encountered. The full history and background of this project can be found on my Projects Page.

With the benefit of hindsight,  the design was perhaps too ambitious (it was an amalgamation of the children’s own designs) but once we decided to go with it, we were not to be dissuaded. The sense of excitement felt along the way and achievement by the end of all the pupils, who played an active part throughout the construction process in Spring/Summer of 2012, was both humbling and rewarding. The name, evocative of the building’s location and lofty position overlooking the Allan valley, was chosen following a competition among the P7 pupils.

Would I do it again? Yes . But this would not have been possible without the backing of teachers like the form teacher, Mrs Fiona Kenny, the head teacher, the committee of Wooplaw Wood and all the help from the community, both in the donation of time and materials.

You can visit Wooploft any time, in the beautiful grounds of the first community wood in Britain – Wooplaw. There is a Wooplore APP which can be downloaded free that describes the wood including an interview with my son, one the pupils, describing the making of Wooploft.

Welcome to my new blog!

One of the highlights of last year for me was working with P7 pupils from Tynewater Primary School on a community project to build a wooden ‘hut’ which cantilevers over the banks of Allan Water at Wooplaw Wood.  More about this in a later blog.

Another event worthy of celebration was completing the funding package for the Gorebidge Community Hub. As a director of Gorebridge Community Development Trust I have been heavily involved with this project for the past five years. Securing the funding in the current economic climate has been quite a challenge but we finally have a contractor on board and ready to start on site early this year. Again I will fill you in in a later blog.

There’s no denying that these are still difficult times for architects and even some of the best Edinburgh practices are suffering.  Despite that Halvorsen Architects has managed to complete some wonderful extensions. Some should be featured quite soon – I’ll keep you posted.

I look forward to more challenging work in 2013 and we’re doing our first project in England for some years – a radical attic extension in Bristol.