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  • Writer's pictureNíall Hedderman

Breathing New Life

Working with historic buildings makes it necessary to have a clear philosophy on how to alter them. My view is that an extension should not try to copy the existing building. Just as each historic era is distinct, an alteration to an older building should be easily distinguished. Anyone looking at the building 100 years from now should be able to tell the original from the alteration. The trick is making the extension look distinct, while simultaneously like it belongs. 

Wouldn’t it be easier if we just copied the original, wouldn’t that ’fit in’ better? No, it wouldn’t and you can tell that from the number of alterations that are carried out to older buildings. Edinburgh New Town was originally built for people with servants, the basements full of sculleries, larders, small windows, tight winding stairs and damp. They are usually large enough for a family but not laid out for modern life. It isn’t just the lack of facilities, it’s the relative size of the spaces which are hard to work around. Kitchens are much larger and more open these days. We have high expectation for bathrooms. We need bedrooms to be located away from living areas. We want to show off our gardens, a great luxury in the city centre. Life has changed in the past 200 years and our old buildings need to adapt or people will abandon them. 

This New Town property had been an office, six floors from the sub-basement to the attic. The property was bought by a developer who sub-divided the above ground floors into luxury flats and sold off the two storey basement as a single large property. My client bought the basement, which had been used for storage, complete with a walk-in safe. The developers had gained planning and building warrant for the sub-division, including an extension in the rear garden. The new owner had seen my work on Facebook and wanted to re-design the layout and the extension to suit his own needs. The new design was so extensive it required fresh planning, listed building and warrant applications.  

Unlike the majority of my clients, the new owner had done this type of project before. He had a clear idea of what he wanted and provided detailed input at every stage. Great projects require great clients and this was no exception.

The new design works with the existing levels, the floor drops from the hall to the kitchen and again from the kitchen to the extension. The rear garden slopes steeply and by lowering the floor, one can access the garden more easily. This also maximises the floor-to-ceiling height in the extension. The garden room extension has the maximum allowable glazing, with a large skylight in the roof and three part sliding patio doors. We cantilevered the roof to provide shelter and privacy, as there are dozens of flats overlooking the property. The roof detail has been made a thin as possible, to minimise its visual impact. The choice of zinc allows these kind of thin details while also looking good next to the existing stone. 

The sub-basement had flag stone floors which were lifted in order to accommodate new drains and insulation. We carefully stored these stones and reused them in the rear landscaping, they look great and compliment the design perfectly. 

The new kitchen and dining space flows seamlessly into the garden on sunny days. Despite being deep inside the basement, the large amount of glazing ensures it is well lit. 

The two basement levels are connected by a half-spiral stairs which was pretty grim. We created a more modern and intimate space by adding a recessed handrail and elegant swooping ceiling which follows the spiral. 

The property has five bedrooms in total, three are ensuite. 

There is also a small library, with its own access to the rear garden. 

The project was long and complex, requiring several negotiations with the planners and neighbours over the internal layout, extension and landscaping proposals. 

The redesign was substantial and required an extensive package of detailed drawings and specifications. I also inspected the site once per week for the seven months it was under construction, carrying out contract administration duties. This was a large, complex and detailed project but the property is now an exceptional home in the heart of Edinburgh New Town. 


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