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  • Writer's pictureNíall Hedderman

Saving an Old Building by Changing its Use

I live in a small village in Fife and although the majority of my work is in Edinburgh, I also do work closer to home. This is one of my favourite projects, its one I am genuinely proud of because it helped save a prominent old building from going to ruin, right at the entrance to our village.

Re-developing an old building in Falkland, Fife
This old building was saved by re-development as mixed use

The building is in Falkland and dates from the late 19th century. It was originally a temperance hotel. Apparently these were popular across Scotland at the time because traveler's wanted to stay where other guests wouldn't be carousing late into the night.

During the 20th century sobriety went out of fashion and the building became a masonic lodge. They had a fully stocked bar and function room on the first floor. Most recently the building was used by a builder as an office and a store for materials.

Old buildings fall into ruin if they are not used
The building had not been maintained because nobody used it regularly

The pattern of use over time involved fewer people in the building, the heating was run less often, the doors and windows would be shut for long periods and damage to the fabric was not repaired so damp took hold.

old buildings need to be ventilated
Rather than replace broken glass, the windows had been boarded up. This prevented ventilation, which in turn caused damp and rot

The stonework needed re-pointing, the roof needed attention, the gutters had to be replaced, part of the ground floor had rotten away to reveal the solum, the windows were past the point of saving.

The entrance hallway did have a very fine hardwood stair and that feature was refurbished and kept in the new development.

The hardwood stair was still in good condition

Could we knock the building and start again?

The client for this project was the local pharmacy. Their original premises in the village was cramped and didn't have convenient parking for staff or customers. The old building had several advantages; It could be accessed directly off the main road, it had a large area of ground ideal for parking and the building itself had more space than the pharmacy required. This is where the brain storming began.

After a short feasibility study process, the client and I arrived at the plan to have two commercial spaces on the ground floor, one being the pharmacy, and the first floor and the roof could be converted into three flats.

The building wasn't listed and it was outside the Falkland Conservation Area (the oldest conservation area in Scotland) so it had no special legal protection. It probably would have been possible to demolish this building and develop the site more intensively.

Leaving aside the cost, which would be significant, and the local reaction, which would have been strongly against. Demolishing an old building is not something I take lightly. In my view the most sustainable building is the one that has already been built. I've spent my career adapting, refurbishing and extending older properties to ensure they continue to be used and don't have to be torn down and replaced.

How did the new design work?

I developed a design that did as little as possible to the existing fabric of the building. There was a badly built, 20th century fire escape on the south side of the building which we did not need for accessing the flats upstairs, this was removed.

The fire escape structure was not original

To access the pharmacy we cut down an existing double window at the North side of the building and created a doorway. The original front door was kept to access the hall and the original stair.

The original stairs was in good condition

We were very lucky that the original roof was large and tall enough to accommodate a habitable space. An entire two bedrooms flat fits in there.

I had to create one new window on the East side of the first floor, to ensure a bedroom could have natural light. I also had to create new drainage running up thought the building to serve the new bathrooms.

The proposed ground floor layout. All new walls are shown in yellow.
The proposed first floor layout

The proposed top floor flat

Getting planning permission was a challenge

Even thought the building isn't listed and is not in a conservation area, getting planning permission from Fife Council posed an unexpected challenge. There was a small lawnmower repair workshop next door, which had permission for light industrial use. That meant any owner or tenant of the workshop could engage in noisy work, which might disturb the future occupants of the flats we intended to build.

The planning officers main concern seemed to be that occupants of the flats would complain to environment health, thus taking up valuable time and resources at the council. Of course the occupants own comfort also played a role in this. Exposing them to excessive noise levels was not something we wanted to do either.

To address this I engaged RMP, and acoustic consultant from Edinburgh whom I have worked with previously. They tested the noise levels from the workshop and produced a report on the likely decibel rating occupants would experience in the flats. To reduce the noise, RMP recommended we specify thicker acoustic rated windows. Crucially, these windows could not have trickle vents.

This meant that the requirement to have background ventilation in the flats would need to be met some other way. To achieve this I specified a mechanical air intake and extraction system in each flat. This draws in fresh air from the East side, facing away from the workshop, and then draws stale air out again. The occupants could now safely live in the flats, with the windows shut, and not be affected by the noise and still have fresh air to breathe.

We also briefly considered building an "acoustic wall" along the boundary with the workshop. This would have been a three meter tall fence, filled with dense material to absorb sound, but that was a non-starter. The planners accepted the proposal for acoustic rated windows and we got planning approval on that basis.

Is the finished building a success

Construction work took place over 2020 and 2021, it was significantly affected by Covid and Lockdown but the pharmacy opened for business in 2021 and is now an important part of the community in Falkland.

The finished building

The building may not be an architectural masterpiece but I am genuinely proud that I could use my training and experience to help keep it from falling into ruin. Unlike the majority of the projects I work on in Edinburgh, I see this building almost every day. You can see more photos of the finished building here.

I know the local community value having a pharmacy in the village and they are glad the building has been given an new life. Tellingly, there were no objections to the planning application.

If you have an old building that has seen better days and you want to know what is possible, get in touch. I have an office in Edinburgh and I also work from home in Falkland, so I can cover a lot of ground.

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