In a neighbourhood full of clever architectural experiments, this cool slice of modernism fits in perfectly
Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the new three-storey villa that has just emerged in Pentland Avenue, in one of Edinburgh’s most sought-after suburban neighbourhoods, is the fact that it’s practically invisible – at least from the street.
Currently home to David Taylor of Edinburgh-based Taylor Architecture Practice, whose firm designed it, the five-bedroom house actually started life as a speculative build, commissioned by friend and next-door neighbour Stewart Clark, who bought the plot in 2009. Back then, the site was occupied by a 1960s kit house, but it came with planning permission for a large neo-Victorian villa.
Asked to review the design of the consented scheme, David quickly realised that the mooted two storeys above street level and the poor connection to the garden would compromise both daylight and the privacy of Clark’s own property. The solution by TAP was to develop an alternative design.
“We were keen to follow the topography of the site and design a building that kept a low profile, with only the garage and entrance at street level and the rest of the accommodation below,” explains Neil Taylor, David’s son and the director of TAP. “We adopted a terraced form to both the house and the garden to give the interior level access to the external spaces on each floor. The cantilever provides some additional terrace space at the mid-level and some shelter and a sense of privacy to the garden-level bedrooms below.
“Along the south side of Pentland Avenue, the line of houses, garages and garden walls disguise the fact that you are in an elevated position at the top of the steep slopes down to Colinton Dell. The design of the house accentuates this with its entry sequence: you pass through the reinstated sandstone wall and courtyard, then the front door, before the full view to the Pentland hills and the drop to the river is revealed.”
In addition to designing something that would make the most of the outlook and setting, the architects also talked to several estate agents about how they could maximise the value of the house. “We planned the L-shaped living, kitchen and dining area around the central lightwell, which the agents agreed would be an ideal solution,” explains Neil. “Adding a cinema room, gym and sauna were seen as desirable to the market, as were the three en-suites for the five bedrooms.”
Getting the design approved by the planning department was straight–forward, considering the house is in a conservation area. Its low-key presence at street level would have helped – as would the fact that this area is already architecturally diverse, with bespoke houses having been built on a plot-by-plot basis in the various styles of their day.
In terms of the construction, the architects’ intention to effectively slot the house into the hillside threw up several challenges. “As two of the three storeys are below street level, a precast concrete retaining wall was installed behind the back edge of the pavement to support the public highway and provide the front wall of the house,” explains Neil. “All the street services had to be specially supported since a section of the existing roadway had to be removed and rebuilt after the retaining wall was constructed.”
A Newton Membrane water–proof system was installed inside this concrete structure to ensure that any tiny amounts of moisture that penetrated the concrete structure were channelled to a drainage point and carried away. This means that there is no risk of water reaching the internal construction of the house.
To build the foundations required the construction of a large temporary ramp – the only access into the site – to allow equipment and materials to be transported from street level down to the lowest level of the house.
“Keeping the house in close contact with the realigned topography left some spaces semi-underground,” says Neil. “These rooms are either lit by large roof lights or were used for spaces that didn’t need daylight, such as the gym, sauna, shower rooms/toilets and dressing rooms.”
One of the key features of this essentially timber-framed house is its central stairwell, which was also a fairly hefty logistical and costly undertaking. Designed by TAP and engineered by Gray & Dick Ltd of Glasgow, the design was based around a welded steel spine with tread supports cantilevered from either side. The steel support was fabricated as a single piece and craned into the house through the large roof light.
“Our idea was that the spine would appear as light-weight as possible – it’s essentially two steel flat plates and square sections, welded together,” says Neil. “As the spine was reduced to a minimal thickness, we anticipated there would be a certain amount of sideways sway in the three-storey stair structure. To counteract this, toughened glass balustrading and stainless-steel handrails were specified that would stiffen and brace the structure once the installation was completed.”
This proved to be the case: there is no sense of movement or bounce as you walk up and down the stairs.
Oak ‘sleeves’ matching the faceted profile of the cantilevered steel treads were slid over and fastened to the steel framework to complete the installation. LED lights and wiring are also incorporated into the steel spine.
Gray & Dick installed and assisted in the design of the roof lights over the lightwell and the sitting room/study where motorised roller blinds are concealed above all the windows to provide privacy and control daylight. Single-storey ladder access on to the flat roof from the side of the house also means that these roof lights can be cleaned safely.
The high quality of the interior finishes, such as Russwood oak flooring and floor and wall tiles supplied by Ora Ceramics, reflects the ambition of the design and build. The kitchen has granite worktops and Siemens appliances installed by Ocean Kitchens; and classic pieces of Scandinavian furniture – both new and vintage – can be found throughout the house.
In terms of performance, the new building also scores very highly in its energy efficiency. This is achieved via a heat-recovery ventilation system that draws warmed air from the top of the lightwell to heat incoming fresh air which is then is distributed around the house via low-velocity fans and ducts. If warm air is not required, the ventilation system switches to use the solar gain to heat water in a storage tank that feeds the boiler.
All in all, it’s quite a departure for David Taylor and his wife, who have lived in Victorian houses for the last 20 years (and in an old farmhouse before that). “It’s remarkably warm and quiet, thanks to the quality of the construction and high-performance insulation,” says David. “And no matter how many times you come through the front door of the house, finding yourself at the top of the lightwell and getting the impact of the view is always a moment of great pleasure.”
Words Caroline Ednie
Photography David Barbour