OWhen John and Kate Cameron were looking to downsize their Victorian family home in an Edinburgh suburb after their children left home, they decided to go for a real change: a Brutalist-style brick house from the 1900s. 1980 in a suburb close to the city center.
The couple knew and loved the house – built in 1982 by Scottish architect Douglas Abrahams for his own family, and set in a walled garden in one of the city’s most picturesque suburbs – as the previous owners were members of the family who had lived there since the mid-80s. But for all its character and charm, it didn’t suit their way of life.
The layout, especially the living areas on the ground floor, was maze-like, with compartmentalized rooms (such as the dining room and kitchen, separated by a serving hatch), convoluted hallways and unusual drop-offs . And with a few windows to the south, the house seemed dark and smaller than it was. The bathrooms were also outdated and there was a long narrow veranda on the first floor which was not really used.
So they decided to radically transform it. “The main idea was to modernize and adapt it without losing the ambiance of the original house,” says Kate. “The proportions were designed around someone shorter than John, so we removed some of the unusual level changes and stair heights. And we wanted to maximize the light and the views over the garden.
They brought in Edinburgh architect Jens Bergmark, with whom they had worked on their former home. “The challenge was to ensure that the character of the house was preserved and refined while transforming it in a fairly radical way”, specifies Bergmark. “So rationalize the spaces, remove all the passages, corridors and cupboards, and improve the layout.
Bergmark’s solution was mainly to make the house more open, to create a smoother flow. It raises or lowers the floors in certain areas to make unevenness disappear and adds an extension with an open-plan dining/kitchen area: this overlooks and encloses part of the south-facing garden, forming a sheltered L-shaped courtyard with a patio in slabs, border plantings and a well-used pizza oven. On the first floor, the old veranda has been transformed into an en-suite bathroom and a dressing room for the master bedroom.
Inspiration for the interiors came from the original house, with an emphasis on exposed brickwork. The brick that fell during the demolition was reused to clad the new wooden frame garden extension.
Bergmark added light oak floors, replacing the old brick floor in the living room to soften the space, and moved original bespoke cabinetry and shelving to new areas of the house, primarily the dining room , to adapt to the new layout. Heirloom furniture, such as a set of Georgian dining chairs, combine happily with modern designer pieces, including a vintage Ikea table and light fixtures from Catalog Interiors. They also found space for recycled armchairs and dining chairs reupholstered by Kate.
One of the main features of the original house was a self-contained two-story apartment to the left of the main entrance. Although connected to the main house, the small one-bedroom block could function as a separate accommodation, with its own kitchen, living room and bathroom..
“His living room overlooked the main entrance to the house,” Kate explains. This created privacy issues, so Bergmark flipped the whole grandmother’s apartment upside down, with the kitchen and living room upstairs and the bedrooms downstairs, overlooking the house in the other direction, away from the main entrance. “There’s a lot more privacy now,” she says.
The apartment came in extremely handy during the pandemic when it became John’s office. “He can lock the door at the weekend and not be home until Monday,” Kate explains. “We also stayed here while work was being done on the main house.” Grandma’s apartment is now a self-catering accommodation for visitors.
As part of the renovation, the house’s energy efficiency has been significantly improved, with more insulation and triple-glazed windows. “Opening the house further south also increased its solar gain,” says Bergmark. “The house is so warm and efficient, light and bright,” adds Kate. “We’re sitting outside a lot more than we could have imagined.”
Not only is the house ideal for post-pandemic work, but it’s also a clever example of updating and renovation, ultimately preserving a charming architectural curiosity. “This project is a sweet touch,” says Bergmark. “It’s about changing what you have and not making a big statement. It’s not grand. If it looks seamless, that’s a compliment.