An award-winning custom self-build project

IT is relatively commonplace in countries such as Germany, the idea of a group of friends coming together, with the intention of building their own homes. But it is rare in Scotland.

However, in one Edinburgh street – Bath Street, in the city’s Portobello district – that is exactly what has happened, four families each occupying a floor in an apartment block that, among its many qualities, costs almost nothing to keep warm during the winter.

No. 26 is the site of a former cinema. The plot was on the market for £250,000 – prompting local architect, John Kinsley, to put the word out, seeking to recruit three other families.

For three of the quartet, including Kinsley, there was a certain leap of faith required: they had to first sell their homes before there was any chance of the project going ahead.

Their reward are homes of exquisite beauty: simple, minimal and highly energy-efficient, with exceptionally robust environmental credentials, in terms of both the materials used in the block’s construction – mainly cross-laminated timber (CLT) – and a determination (achieved) to be fossil fuel-free.

It’s a building that fits sympathetically between its immediate neighbours – a Georgian villa on one side and a much taller Edwardian tenement block on the other, boasting a facade that is a combination of so-called Reglit cast glass (translucent green), red sandstone (picking up on the red sandstone of the neighbouring tenement block) and zinc.

It has won several awards, including in 2018 from both the Royal Incorporation of Scottish Architects and the Saltire Society. Local people seem to love it too.

There’s a small front garden, a little car parking at the back, and a roof garden, accessible from a central stairwell similar to that which you would find in any Scottish tenement block.

It’s a stairwell that is braced by the inherent strength of the CLT, the whole block comprising a pack of CLT panels craned into position, the panels cut to such a fine grain that they form the finished walls of each of the apartments.

CLT is lauded for several things, as well as its strength – derived from its manufacture: sheets of wood (in this case, Radiata Pine from Spain) bonded together at right angles to each other. As well as being a renewable material, CLT offers high levels of acoustic and heat insulation, plus a basic resistance to fire (it chars rather than flames). 

“We agreed a price for the land, subject to planning,” begins Kinsley. “And, fortunately, the guy who was selling the land was happy to do that. And, by then, the group of us had consolidated a bit more; it always requires a bit of work to convince a group of people to commit to a project like this.

“We formed a limited company, after speaking to lots of different people – lawyers, etc – about the different options, such as becoming a co-operative. The limited company meant we were a single entity, rather than a loose group of individuals – funders are going to be more comfortable with that. Therefore, it was the limited company that bought the land, after we had secured planning permission.

“As it is, a funder is never going to give you 100 per cent of what you need, so you need to find the difference from somewhere, which is why three of us had to sell our own properties first and move into temporary accommodation.”

They were finally supported by the Ecology Building Society.

And so, a crane was required, and permission was secured to block off the road. But, by two weeks, the whole superstructure was up, in contrast to the several weeks had another build system – such as steel and block – been used instead.

There was no UK manufacturer of CLT to source the timber from.

“The CLT frame went up very quickly. We had to pile the foundations quite deep, because the land was quite loose – from the demolition of the previous building – and is also quite sandy. We then put in a concrete slab and placed the CLT frame on top of it. One of the reasons why you save so much time is that you’re replacing several different trades – steel frame installation, floor slabs, maybe block work, then plastering and also fireproofing – with just a couple.

“So, while the CLT can be quite expensive, in itself, you save on other costs, had it been a more conventional build. For instance, not having to plaster the internal walls saved us a chunk of money.”

There is no need for central heating. A high level of insulation – including triple-glazed windows – means the building operates to so-called ‘Passivhaus’ standards. Its air-tightness also means no draughts, but therefore a need to remove any stale air and replace it with fresh (warmed by using a mechanical ventilation heat recovery system).

The running of electric appliances and the provision of hot water (again electric) is done from a High Street provider of renewable energy.

The only compromise on impeccable green credentials was in the choice of insulation: a plastics-based material was picked because natural alternatives would have required much thicker walls and therefore reduced the floor space (since the footprint of the overall building was pretty tightly fixed, by the plot size).

The final bill was £900,000, plus the cost of the land, aided by the CLT contract being agreed in GBP rather than Euros, just as the pound was about to fall in value, in the wake of the 2016 EU referendum. Being a new-build, there was no VAT to pay. And since there was no developer profit, it means the price per household was the cost.

The maths is circa an average £288,000 per flat, although the reality is that the prices differed, on the basis of floorspace, given that the block comprises one, two-bedroom flat, plus two, three-bedroom flats and one, four-bedroom flat.

At the time of writing, a couple of other plots in the city are being explored for a similar exercise.

Continues Kinsley: “There is no reason why this model cannot be the basis of genuine, affordable housing, adopted by both local and central government to help meet their affordable housing targets.

“I’m convinced that ‘collective custom-build’ is a model that can work, here in the UK. It’s mainstream in other parts of the world, where it works incredibly well. We just don’t do it here because we are not familiar with it. We need to do more projects like this, so people do become more familiar with it and it is less of a possibly scary thing.

“It might make good television, when a house-build is beset with challenges. But what we need are projects like this being built on time, and to budget, without any hitches. Very straightforward, for people to feel able to take them on.”

Mike Wilson is a member of the editorial team

Further reading: From page 16 of ‘Using offsite construction for housing delivery in Scotland’, here.

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