Transforming one Victorian flat in Edinburgh took a lot of vision and ingenuity

It took vision, lots of hard graft and a good deal of ingenuity to turn this rot-ravaged wreck into a desirable family home

Fresh from a major renovation project (converting a former grain store and stables in rural Perthshire into a home), Martin and Louise McBride decided to relocate to Edinburgh to be closer to family. They made the move determined to take a break from self-building. Martin tries to explain just how all-consuming and rigorous the Perthshire experience had been: “To give you an analogy, I once ran a marathon, but I’ve since read a piece of advice in a running magazine that you should only run your next marathon when you’ve forgotten about the last one! That’s how I felt about taking on another big renovation.” 

But the couple’s hopes of having an easier ride with a new property were quickly dashed. “It was ten years ago, during the boom, and we kept missing out on the houses we liked,” says Louise, who, alongside Martin, has since founded the Edinburgh-based architectural practice Urban Creatures. Their lack of success in the market meant they found themselves considering more radical and less desirable options.

“When we first went to view this property, the windows were boarded up. Our hearts sank. It had clearly lain derelict for a few years,” continues Louise.

Investigating the interior did little to raise their spirits: “I think it had been owned by an equity release company, who had done nothing to it, and it had really deteriorated. It had dry and wet rot and vermin. Some of the ceilings had collapsed and there were holes in the floor. There was also a toilet sitting in the middle of the hall. It was horrific!”

Indeed, apart from being within walking distance of Louise’s mother’s home and not far from the city centre, the Victorian main-door flat seemed to have very little going for it – it wasn’t even the right size for the couple. “We didn’t want to buy it because we didn’t want a flat – we wanted a house for our young family. It was tiny!”

There was one faint glimmer of potential: “It had a front and back garden, and my family were keen for us to go for it, as they lived nearby,” says Louise. “So we bought it, thinking at the time that we’d develop it and move on really quickly. But here we are, ten years later.”

She and Martin approached the renovation project in stages, partly because both of them were working full-time. Anything they did had to be fitted into their spare time, and within a tight budget. It meant the development took place in two parts.

The first involved knocking the original bathroom, dining room and tiny kitchen into one room, to form a large dining-kitchen. A new internal bathroom was also formed. “One of my pet hates is walking into a house and not being able to see through to the garden at the back,” admits Louise.

If the couple thought they’d seen the worst of the house on their first viewing, they were mistaken. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its state of dilapidation, one or two unpleasant discoveries were made once work began. “The internal drainpipe had a massive split in it,” says Martin. “So every time it rained water poured in, causing rot. So we had to cut the pipe out and re-route it. The whole of the back wall had been affected – all the mortar had been washed away and the stone was disintegrating. The back being unsafe meant that we ended up doing more in the way of structural works, as we had to put in extra supports.”

This had an impact on phase two of the renovation. “Our original plan had been to put an extension on the other side of the kitchen,” says Louise, “but when we discovered the damage to the stone it made more sense to make the opening in this area instead and to remove all the damaged masonry here. It actually turned out well, as the kitchen was easier to plan.”

Phase two, which the couple embarked upon when they were expecting their second child, saw the creation of a third bedroom and the conversion of the existing bay-windowed lounge at the front of the house into a master bedroom. A cupboard here was turned into an en-suite.

The largest job, though, was building the aforementioned extension. As well as giving them more space, it also created a much-needed connection with the garden. “The best views at the back of the house are those looking diagonally across the garden,” says Louise. “We can’t see any other buildings, just garden after garden and lots of tall trees – you’d never know you were ten minutes from the centre of Edinburgh. We decided to design a large corner-to-corner window to take in these diagonal views.”

She and Martin wanted the extension to be “very minimal and simple, nothing too fussy”. And that is what they have ended up with, its honey-coloured cedar shingles blending in with the original sandstone. Handily, Martin was a carpenter before he became an architect, so he was able to take on not just the exterior cladding but also a lot of the interior joinery work – the plasterboarding, the laying of the walnut floors and the fitting of walnut framing around the extension window.

The couple had designed this window so that its actual frame is hidden behind walnut on the inside and behind stainless steel on the outside. A window manufacturer made it and a metal specialist did the exterior steel work. A steel gutter and downpipe were specially made to match the window frame. A joinery firm also helped with the heavier aspects of the installation, such as the (Sarnofil-covered) roof.

Louise and Martin were kept busy with other aspects of the project. “We did the landscaping ourselves,” says Louise. “We kept having to relay the grass as the ground was heavy clay. Eventually we gave up and went for the low-maintenance option of slabs and Astroturf. There are also ten planters (which I got years ago from a Habitat sale) that are exactly the size of the slate slabs – these have been positioned strategically around the garden.”

The corner glazing brought a lot of extra light into the house, but the couple wanted more. To that end, they incorporated a large roof light into the middle of the extension’s living area. “Roof lights give you 30% more daylight than a window,” says Louise. “And as the kitchen is internal, we wanted some top light to bounce into it. The glass is actually semi-opaque, which makes the light glow.” Boosting the light even further is a white-rendered boundary wall.

Internally, every nook and cranny of space has been utilised. “We’ve used every trick in the book to create space and open up the house,” says Louise. “Although it’s classed as a small Victorian flat, by opening up the back and creating open-plan spaces with direct access to the garden, it feels a lot bigger than it actually is. My only niggle is that there’s no utility room – I would love one. But there’s just no space. We’ve already maxxed out the potential of every corner. Even a cubby-hole under the staircase to the flat above is now a den for the boys.”

A mainly monochrome palette has been used for the interior finishes, with rich walnut flooring providing a warm contrast. “I’m a big fan of Habitat and the house includes lots of items I’ve purchased from it over the past 20 years,” says Louise. “One is the black wire and glass dining table – I’d stored it for years before having a kitchen with enough room for it.”

Apart from in the very earliest stages, when they moved in with Louise’s mum, the family lived in situ during the building works, which wasn’t always easy, as Louise admits. “One of the biggest problems was that we couldn’t get access to the garden when we were building at the back, which wasn’t ideal for the kids. But it was bearable.

“Ultimately, we’d like to build our own house one day, but the flat is working out surprisingly well as a family home, mainly thanks to the open-plan layout and having direct access to the garden,” she concludes. “And the location is fabulous, so it looks like we’ll be here for a while yet.”


What A reconfigured and extended Victorian flat
Where Edinburgh
Architect Urban Creatures
Photography David Barbour
Words Caroline Ednie