A home sitting at the end of a famous Edinburgh terrace has undergone a contemporary sustainable transformation, seamlessly blending with the locality while exuding its own distinct allure


This self-build project sits on a well-known Edinburgh street, Circus Lane, that’s much photographed and documented not only in Scotland, but throughout the world. Therefore, attempting a renovation here was not a proposition to be taken lightly. However, in September 2021, architect Dugald Skene of DS Architecture was approached by a client who was keen to push the envelope, and had an interesting property for Dugald to look at.

Already an experienced developer, Dugald’s client had bought what was a one-bedroom flat and a garage in the street, with a wish to extend for his personal use. His brief was precise: “I wanted an attractive dwelling with three double bedrooms and a rear garden area, with the new build element providing a high-quality ‘bookend’ for the street.”

The existing property essentially faced in one direction, onto Circus Lane, and was accessed by an external staircase on the rear elevation. The entrance was at the back of the property and was completely independent of the three garages below it.

Although the client owned the garage on the ground floor with the flat above, it was in the middle of the row which didn’t provide Dugald with a lot of scope for design, as he recalls: “Every iteration we came up with didn’t justify the cost, and the layout didn’t flow particularly well either as the upper floor had to be split into two. We weren’t gaining much more than what was already there.”

Fortunately, the client was able to swap the middle garage for the one remaining end garage which, if planning permission was granted, would allow for the demolition of two garages and the construction of a new two-storey building which would provide the aforementioned bookend to the lane.

Now that the space the architects had to work with was established – 150 square metres – Dugald knew that realistically he could achieve the three bedrooms that the client had asked for. “I approach projects with quite a pragmatic, problem-solving route to design. Here, I had very clear parameters to work within, especially physical ones, I knew I had to optimise what I could but there was no possibility of extending the site or the gable.”

He started with the stairs: “When you’re dealing with multiple levels and tight spaces the first thing to work on is the stairs. Everything else is going to revolve around that.” There was also a small space to grow into at the rear of the existing property which had been a garden and was where the main access was located. 

As the ground floor garages had been created out of former coach houses, the garages were taller than average. “In terms of the new design we were working in a small, tight footprint, and to get the stairs to work we couldn’t make the first floor as high as the original flat was.”

It’s fair to say that the existing building informed a lot of what Dugald could and couldn’t do and it was also important that the new addition on the end was quite subservient. Adjacent to another Edinburgh landmark – St Vincent’s Chapel, nothing would ever be built beyond the end of the lane. “It was a unique challenge for a mews property as they’re normally linear in design,” explains Dugald. Adding “They face one direction and onto a lane. This property faces in two directions. And the big challenge was how do we soften the corner; how do we make two key elevations work together as one?”

His solution was to make the corner as transparent and as light as possible. By installing floor to ceiling glazing on both aspects a view has been created through the building to the neighbouring street and the chapel.

“My idea came from a pair of mews properties that I designed for a gap site in a nearby street. It was an exercise in trying to modernise the vernacular a little bit. What does a modern Edinburgh mews look like?” The other issues facing Dugald were privacy and the proximity to other buildings and this previous project had informed him what could be achieved at Circus Lane. 

However, while Dugald’s plans were sympathetic to the locality, there was still a worry that the design would be too bold for the locality, but clear communication goes a long way. “Engagement with the residents was huge,” he says, “and to be fair to the client, he really led the way. He contacted the resident’s committee and he discussed with them what we were planning to do. He showed them everything before we submitted it.” Surprisingly for such a prominent site, the plans were passed without a single objection.

“Early engagement with the resident’s committee was positive and helpful,” adds Dugald’s client. “The builders (Carlsson Properties) were also key as they communicated well with the residents and kept the site secure and tidy. The builders, Dugald, and Graham & Sibbald (the project managers) all communicated well throughout the build.”

As a result, work started on site in August 2022 and was completed by May 2023. The three-bedroom apartment follows the layout of the original flat in so far as there was a corridor that ran down the north side to link the rooms, but now there’s a change of level, with one bedroom on the left, a bathroom in the middle and a bedroom at the end. The new extension wraps around the back of the building which also allowed for a utility space. It is now a three-bedroom house with two bathrooms, a study, utility room and open plan living/kitchen/dining area, and an outdoor courtyard.

To maximise the interior floor space, the entrance has been relocated to the back corner of the building. The new extension incorporates a bedroom with a generous Jack & Jill ensuite which occupies most of the space of the right-hand garage below the original structure. “There were design challenges about how we approached this room externally. We didn’t want the exterior wall to look like a garage door that had been blocked up, but everyone locally knew it was a garage, and we didn’t want to hide that.” They aimed to dress it up and make it coherent with the rest of the building.

As Dugald was able to claim a bit more of the outdoor space in the design, there was also room for a garden room/study. As this could have had an impact in terms of shadowing the neighbouring properties at the rear, Dugald had to illustrate to planning that there wouldn’t be a hugely adverse effect by building a two-storey building up to the boundary. “I did several calculations and shadow diagrams to ensure this wasn’t the case,” he says. By building out further, he also created a small, enclosed courtyard, which is “very private and unusual to have in the centre of the city.”

The client had also decided that from the outset of the project that the gas boiler would be removed, and the gas supply disconnected. The electricity supply was upgraded to three-phase to allow for the addition of car charging points in the future, and an air source heat pump was installed to power the heating. “In terms of reducing the carbon footprint, the choice of a Mitsubishi Electric air source heat pump made sense, combined with new glazing throughout,” says the project’s client. 

Dugald continues: “While air source heat pumps are great in new builds, it’s slightly more complex when you’re retrofitting them to an existing building.” However, when the original part of the building was being renovated there was an opportunity to strip back and insulate. “This improved on what was there before and ensures that the air source heat pump can be as effective as possible by keeping the fabric of the building as efficient as possible.”

Underfloor heating was fitted on the ground floor, beneath a polished concrete screed floor. Dugald comments: “Underfloor made sense from an economical point of view, and with no radiators there’s more space too.” 

Upstairs there are still radiators and timber floors. However, with the solar gain in the living space, heating isn’t so much of an issue. “When you ascend the stairs you enter directly into the living/dining/kitchen space; there’s no hallway or door to the staircase. It’s a compact space but because it’s open plan, and facing south it feels bright and spacious.” 

The client sourced the kitchen from The KBB (Kitchen Bedroom Bathroom Company) in Musselburgh, and recalls: “I visited a number of suppliers, but wanted one that was able to design and install the kitchen and utility room using their own skilled tradesmen. KBB were straightforward to work with, and worked well with our chosen builder.”

As Dugald had shared computer generated images of the interiors, the client had a good idea of how the project would come together, however the finished result exceeded his expectations: “The kitchen/lounge space, once completed looked even more stunning than had been envisaged, as the outlook to the rear of Royal Circus is unobstructed and the light quality is great.”

In this open plan area, Dugald was extremely conscious of how the design worked with the natural light, solar gain and privacy. To ensure they all complemented each other, he added two opening windows, and timber louvres have been fitted to provide shade, and privacy and add external interest. The Accoya timber railings also mirror the metal ones on the Juliet balconies (made by J Jordan Steel) and create a visual relationship with the garage door infill. “The client’s priority was for minimal maintenance and being at ground level the timber will be subjected to weather, car pollution and sunlight, and the material we used is dense and stable.”

To find a match for the external stone Dugald and his client visited Dunedin Stone at Macmerry. “We had samples of the original stone and although the new stone is a bit lighter just now, it will weather.” However, it wasn’t only a case of matching the stone, it was also important to try and replicate the sizes and courses too. “The original mews is a real mix of sizes and with the odd red or black stone thrown in. Also, because there are few apertures on the ground floor to provide privacy, we wanted to ensure that the front elevation wasn’t bland.” He continues: “We added a little bit of relief with the stonework to mirror the elevation above and break up the wall visually by recessing the stone by 50 mm. The stonemasons weren’t that enthused with that idea, but I think it works!”

And the client agrees: “I would not say I was surprised at the end product having seen Dugald’s portfolio, but I was pleased with his imagination and creativity and the speed with which he communicated. I think I’m most pleased with the overall quality of the finished building and the oak staircase! Dugald has created a spectacular building with its own style, and which is not a pastiche.

Dugald continues: “I was asked to make what’s there better – a nice full stop to the lane. My client was clear about what he wanted, and it was a very effective working relationship between us but not at all restrictive.” He sums up his pleasure in completing this scheme: “Coming up with a design and it then being executed exactly as you designed it doesn’t always happen; it was a fantastic project to work on.”