Community Self Build Diary

Architect John Kinsley reveals what lay behind his desire to create a community-led custom build project in Edinburgh
by John Kinsley
30th August 2016

In the summer of 2013 architect John Kinsley decided that an infill site near to his home in Portobello, Edinburgh, would make a good location for a community self build. Three years later, the project is now getting underway on site – containing a number of flats in a traditional Scottish tenement type four-storey building.

Build It will follow the project over the course of its build, between now and spring 2017, through a series of blogs written by John, starting with how the project came to be…

Setting up the project

The site was the starting point. I’d walked past it many times as it was in the street next to where I lived. I’d also helped out a local community organisation that had looked at buying the land a couple of years previously, but their interest stopped when their lottery bid for funding was unsuccessful. As a consequence, I was therefore at the advantage of already knowing the owner of the land and how much he would sell for.

My curiosity was also fuelled by some topical articles in the architectural press about collective self build. They woke an old ambition that I’d had for this kind of project ever since working on a Walter Segal project at the Centre of Alternative Technology in Wales some years earlier.

I approached a builder friend to test the idea out. The site already had planning approval for a pastiche residential project, so it was relatively straightforward to decide what would work in terms of the accommodation. I then put some initial thoughts together on cost and programme.

We posted a note on the Portobello community website inviting anyone interested to come along to an evening meeting in a local café, where I gave a small presentation.

infill site

Testing the waters

On 27th August 2013 a group of around 18 people gathered to listen to our ideas and we talked about what the site could accommodate. I produced a set of simple plans showing how a range of flat sizes from one bedroom to four bedrooms could work within a traditional Scottish tenement type format, four storeys high with a central shared staircase (see image below).

We also discussed character and quality, particularly our aspirations for a sustainable build. We saw the scheme working similarly to a ‘shell and core’ type office development, with the exterior and shared interior circulation spaces being completed as part of the build, but the interior flat spaces being left as bare shells so that the owners could fit them out exactly as they wanted them.

Cost was also on the agenda – we went over the programme and how we could form a group to facilitate borrowing and from whom we might seek funds. It was a very encouraging start. By the end of the evening we had a couple of people who were very keen to take things further.

Over the course of the next few months the conversation extended to include other interested parties. A verbal agreement was made with the existing landowner for a sale price, subject to us achieving planning permission.

diagram of flat layouts

Image showing how the flats will be divided

Financing a community self-build

We then talked to funding organisations about borrowing, as well as meeting lawyers to discuss establishing a ‘devco’ organisation that would act as the client for all involved. We also got the ball rolling on deciding between the different models for flat ownership, as well as reaching out to the planners about what would be acceptable for the site.

By the spring of 2014 our group had coalesced into four participants. My wife and I were keen on the top floor space, which worked well as a three-bedroom flat for us and our two boys. On the second floor, my builder colleague wanted to take a two-bedroom flat. A couple of young families snapped up a two bedroom space on the first floor and a duplex three-bedroom flat on ground floor and first storey.

That still left us with a one-bedroom-flat to fill on the second floor but by this stage we were confident that there was sufficient interest in what we were doing that we could bring someone else into the project in due course. So on 1st September 2014 we finally took the plunge and made our planning application.

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