Architect John Kinsley puts together a little project that addresses so many of the problems we face in our cities.
We have so many housing crises these days; there is an affordability crisis, a carbon crisis, an energy crisis (they are different things), and a rapidly approaching aging population crisis. We even have a density crisis, where cities prohibit multi-family housing in residential areas. Among architects, we have a commitment crisis; that's why six out of ten American architecture firms are ignoring the 2030 challenge.
That is why the 26BS project in the Portobello district of Edinburgh is so interesting. It's a brilliant response to all of these challenges, starting with perhaps the most important: the architect's commitment and initiative. Edinburgh architect John Kinsley put the entire project together, starting with finding the land. He tells Judy Diamond of Homes and Interiors Scotland: “I used to walk past this vacant lot every day around the corner from my house, and I’d always think what a great site it would make...The site already had permission for a four-storey residential building, so that was our starting point.”
He then put together a Baugruppe, or building group; this is a form of cooperative we have admired before on TreeHugger and MNN that is very common in Germany and other parts of Europe. Basically, people get together to build themselves a building, often with architects taking the initiative. Unlike co-housing they do not have big common areas, and it doesn't involve so much personal commitment; it's really just a method of developing a building. (Learn more about Baugruppen from Mike Eliason here.) According to the Sunday Times,
“I think there’s a perception of a community build being a hippy thing, but it’s important to understand that it’s not co-housing,” says Kinsley’s wife, Jenny, a sculptor and garden designer. “Although ownership is still communal just now, the idea is that the flats will transfer into individual ownership as soon as possible. So if someone had to sell up, it would be just like selling any other flat.”
The big benefit to Baugruppen is that the owners are the developers, so there is no profit margin and important decisions are made by the end users, so you might get good windows instead of the granite countertops that developers use to entice buyers. As Kinsley notes:
People deserve beautifully designed and carefully built homes and neighbourhoods which promote social well-being, economic resilience and environmental sustainability. The conventional mass housebuilder form of procurement unfortunately prioritises over all these aspirations the delivery of a profit to the developer.
The downside is that there is no profit margin, so if there are cost overruns the members of the baugruppen have to eat them. In this case, the owners had to dine on Brexit-driven currency changes (they bought German windows priced in Euros) and foundation problems.
Addressing Density and design
The site, a former movie theatre, was squished between an existing tenement and a single family house, so was designed to provide a sophisticated transition between height and front plane. The owners really wanted to fit in: "Three of the four families involved are current Portobello residents and feel strongly about the building contributing to the local sense of place in Bath Street."
The building is constructed from Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT), one of our favourite materials because it sequesters carbon; Kinsley writes on his website that "the growth of timber for the frame absorbed 114 tonnes of carbon emissions – an average UK resident’s emissions for approximately 12 years." There are other benefits- it goes together really quickly (the basic structure was assembled by three joiners in nine days) and just looks so much better than gypsum board inside.
It's built to Passivhaus standard of energy efficiency, with high-quality triple glazed windows and lots of insulation, so there is no central heating required. "All remaining electricity will either be generated via photovoltaic panels on site or procured from 100% renewable energy – the building will be completely fossil fuel free."
The basic plan is common in Edinburgh: a classic "tenement" form with a single central stair. Each unit was delivered as a shell; according to the Times,
The superior strength and spanning capability of the CLT panels meant that, aside from the internal central stairwell (the ‘core’), there was no need for internal load-bearing walls, allowing each family to design their own personalised layout with stud walls and different combinations of rooms. This clever design essentially future-proofed the flats, as the layout can be easily changed later. Each flat was finished to an empty shell, families bought their own kitchens and floor finishes and paid the builder for installation.
Kinsley's own unit is a demonstration of the flexibility of the plan- his sons occupy two bedrooms and a bath that have their own access to the stairwell, and could, in fact, be subdivided into a separate apartment. “It’s the same on all four levels. We’re here for the long haul but it gives us flexibility to change things in the years to come.”
There is so much to admire here. I love the idea of architects taking the initiative to put something like this together; the idea of people working together to get exactly what they want and need instead of having to take what some developer gives them; the use of our favourite building material; and of course, the Passivhaus standard of energy efficiency. Imagine what people could do if this kind of thing was legal in Seattle or Toronto, what a difference it could make in peoples' lives.
Because in the end, we don't need fancy technologies and moonshots to solve our problems; just people working together, building carbon and energy efficient buildings in walkable communities. John Kinsley shows how it's done.
Read more about how you can organize what Kinsley calls "Collective Custom Build", "a totally different procurement model where the future residents, alongside a professional design and construction team, jointly act as developer themselves."