Architectural refurbishment projects in Edinburgh

In a previous article about architecture at risk in Edinburgh, we discussed buildings that are still waiting for their second (or third!) chance. Here we review a few notable successful architectural refurbishment projects in Edinburgh. Let's take a look at what happens when existing buildings no longer fit our modern needs.

French architect Frederic Druot, who published “Not tearing down is a strategy”, has been a lead advocate against any building demolition. He argues refurbishment is “not to protect, freeze, mummify, but rather, so that life can continue, and because it forces us to be intelligent and prevents harmful generalisations”. 

The Scottish capital has such a rich history; it would be a shame not to work with what is already there. The task for the architects is to creatively transform and adapt existing buildings. So you can readily explore this subject, we have made a selection of the most interesting architectural refurbishment projects in Edinburgh that are all walkable distance from one another.

Quartermile (Image: Foster+Partners)

Foster+Partners, Quartermile Development

Originally Edinburgh Royal Infirmary campus, the site was redeveloped to a masterplan by architecture giants Foster+Partners, appointed in 2001. The nine listed hospital buildings that opened in 1879 were designed by Edinburgh’s prolific architect David Brice, who was influenced by Florence Nightingale’s ideas on the spread of diseases. Hence the Royal Infirmary campus was conceived as many separate pavilions to keep contagious patients isolated. Upon removal of later additions which rendered the area impenetrable, this layout facilitated the conversion of the site into a mixed-use scheme bringing together residential, commercial, and office spaces. Some necessary demolitions and generous spacing of the hospital pavilions allowed for new interventions amongst historical architecture. 

The existing and the added buildings live adjacently with a clear distinction between the two. The form, material and even colour create a strong visual contrast. The outside of the existing buildings looks almost untouched (apart from new glass balustrade balconies on the south facades) because they were listed. An architectural conversation between the two eras was created by clearly contrasted rhythmic street elevation, with the new always following the old. The result is a very dynamic architectural composition viewed from within the site itself or from the Meadows. On the urban scale, the scheme is successful thanks to new pedestrian routes created to open up the site and linking it to the rest of the city. 

The last chapter of the Quartermile Development is currently in progress with the conversion of the Surgical Hospital into a state of the art Future’s Institute for Edinburgh University by a local Edinburgh architecture studio Bennets Associates, due in 2022.

New Waverley Arches _Staran architects_Architectural Projects in Edinburgh_Walking Tour
New Waverley Arches on East Market Street

Staran Architects, New Waverley vaults

The New Waverley arches, situated underneath Jeffrey’s Street, are part of a £150m masterplan designed by Allan Murray Architects to redevelop the former Caltongate area in the Old Town. The vaults were originally built in 1875 as part of the railway terminus but remained unfinished. They were used as storage for the railway and closed to the public. 

Staran Architects designed new glass frontages with contemporary lighting in order to welcome bars, restaurants and small retailers. The inside spaces feel modern and lively, and the exposed original stone ceiling gives it authenticity and character. The vaulted chambers go from being a one level space to a three-storey space capped by a roof terrace. 

Contemporary finishes and details help modernise the space without changing the original layout. It is nice to see such a big part of the city previously unused finally open up to the public. Here, the old and the new work alongside each other to enhance the space.

The largest chambers are still vacant, but there are plans to extend them and accommodate a new Edinburgh Gin distillery, although it has yet to convince the architectural society in Edinburgh.

Dynamic Earth_Michael Hopkins _Architectural Projects in Edinburgh_Walking Tour
Back view of Dynamic Earth showing the existing brewery and the new canopy

Hopkins Architects, Dynamic Earth

When Sir Michael Hopkins was appointed to refurbish an old Victorian Brewery into a museum back in the 90s, the ambition was to create a statement piece of architecture that would represent Edinburgh like the Sydney Opera House now represents Australia. Unfortunately, it was eclipsed by the Scottish parliament, but it certainly paved the way for the redevelopment of Holyrood. 

The design is composed of two contrasting elements, the old sandstone building and the new white floating tensile roof. The clash in style, colour, and weight furthermore highlight the contrast between what was existing and what was added.  

The change of style is a symbol for a change of programme. The old brewery hosts a closed-off exhibition space whilst the white canopy shapes a public entrance hall with an outdoor feel.

Dovecot Viewing Balcony_Architectural Projects in Edinburgh_Walking Tour
Former public bath, now inside the Dovecot studios. View from the viewing balcony

Malcolm Fraser Architects, Dovecot studios

In 1887, public baths were common in Scotland to help the population practice a healthy hygiene. The former baths on the infirmary street were transformed in 2007 by Malcolm Fraser Architects (now Fraser/Livingstone) into a centre for excellence in tapestry making. 

Inside, the plan of the rectangular swimming pool was kept as well as the original galleries, serving as a space for the public to visit the studio. The conversion simply closed the pool but retained the old iron structure and period features. It is on the outside that zinc boxes with large glazing extend the old building upwards. Malcolm Fraser is successful in having the new programme fit in the building and inviting the public into the world of tapestry making. 

You can visit the viewing balcony Mon-Fri 12pm-3pm, and 10am-5pm on Saturdays. 

In such a historic city such as Edinburgh, the transformation of buildings allows us to meet modern demand whilst preserving the city’s heritage. From the use of modern materials to highlight the historic features by contrast, to more conservative interventions blending in the old fabric, architects have different techniques to respect a building’s tradition while giving it a second life. 

After all, we recycle everything else, so why not recycle buildings? 

To hear more about architectural refurbishment projects in Edinburgh, get in touch for a custom private tour. View our group services here to see how we can help you with your professional study trip in Scotland.


We’ve done architectural tours in a number of cities and this ranks among the top!” 

Lynn, Edinburgh

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