BCCB 1 – Setting up a communal self build

self build plans

I’m delighted to say that Build It magazine is covering the progress of our collective custom build project in Portobello. Here’s the first blog:-

In the summer of 2013 architect John Kinsley had the idea that a gap site in the street next to where he lived in Portobello, Edinburgh, would make a good location for a communal self build comprising a number of flats in a traditional Scottish tenement type four storey building. 3 years later, the project is now starting on site. Build It magazine 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 It Up

The site was the starting point. I’d walked past it many times, it being in the street next to where I lived. I’d helped out a local community organisation who had looked at buying it a couple of years previously (their interest stopped when their lottery bid was unsuccessful) and as a consequence I knew who owned it and how much he would sell for. There had been some topical articles in the architectural press about collective self build and it had been an ambition of mine 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 very pastiche-y residential project so it was relatively straightforward to decide what would work accommodation-wise and from that 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 and I put together a small presentation.

On 27th August 2013 a group of around 18 people convened to listen to our ideas. We talked about what the site could accommodate – I produced a set of very diagrammatic 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 stair (see illustration 01). We talked about character and quality, and in particular our aspirations for a sustainable build. We talked about how we saw the building 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. We talked about cost, about programme and about how we could constitute ourselves as a group to facilitate borrowing and from whom we might seek such. By the end of the evening we had a couple of people who were very keen to take things further. A good start!

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. We talked to funding organisations about borrowing, we talked to lawyers about setting up a ‘devco’ organisation that would act as client. We talked about different models for flat ownership and we talked to the planners about what would be acceptable for the site.

By the spring of 2014 our group had coalesced into 4 participants. My wife and I were keen on the top floor space, which worked well as a three bedroom flat for ourselves and our two boys. On the second floor, my builder colleague wanted to take a two bedroom flat. 2 other young families wanted to take a two bedroom space on the first floor and a duplex 3 bedroom flat on ground and first. That still left us with a 1 bedroom flat sized hole 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 made our planning application.