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Can 106 students renovate their own housing?

Edinburgh student housing



2015 - ongoing

Architectural Design & Facilitation


Edinburgh Student Housing Co-operative (ESHC) was set up by Edinburgh University students in 2014 in response to excessive rents in the private sector. Quickly gaining members, they moved into two unused 1990s halls of residence in the centre of Edinburgh. These buildings were set up for maximum student numbers rather than co-operative management, with numerous shared flats and no space for general meetings of all members, or room to socialise outside the flats. Our task was to update these buildings for co-operative use, turning the unneeded basement car parks into common rooms, improving laundry facilities and including a workshop, library and darkroom.


As the buildings are managed co-operatively, and many members hold strong views on the importance of sustainability it seemed obvious to try to run the project in a similar fashion. We started from the position that the work could be completed by the students, using reclaimed materials and low-tech methods, allowing members from wildly different backgrounds and academic courses to gain skills in tool use, construction and project management.


Co-designing the building’s programme and construction methods required discussion among the young co-op of how to manage responsibility and decision-making, without centralising power to the extent that other members felt excluded. Practical workshops on techniques and tool use, and research into low-impact materials informed the design process. Designing this process was at least as important as the physical outcome.


The sound-isolating, heat-exchanging windows are particularly exciting for us, as they are a test of a simple, low-tech alternative to the mechanical ventilation system proposed in a previous design for the buildings. Made from local air-dried timber, they consist of two separate glazed panels with opening casements inside and out. Cold, fresh air from outside has to be warmed by convection and rise between the panels before it enters the room, while sound from inside has to be deflected between the panels before it escapes, attenuating its power considerably. This promises ventilation and heat exchange without electricity, and sound isolation with the windows open.


The inner panels avoid pre-fabricated double-glazed panels, which use large amounts of energy in their manufacture, especially in the production of the noble gases used between the panes, and will eventually leak. Instead, two single panes of glass are mounted on wool felt. While slightly less thermally efficient, this approach takes more than that narrow view of effectiveness into account. If a pane is broken, it can be swiftly re-glazed by the students with materials from the local glaziers. All parts of the construction are comprehensible, locally available and repairable, with no need for specialist or expensive imported parts. Like the co-operative management of the buildings, power is returned to the users, who are entrusted with responsibility for their own surroundings.


In a similar manner, the flooring is made from reclaimed boards, laid on underfloor heating in Lithotherm recycled brick tiles – a novel method laid ‘dry’, meaning a large area could be laid by inexperienced student labour without the stress of levelling the more usual cast screed.


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