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.

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!