The site of a new project at the Ridge, Dunbar

Community, Craft Skills and a Sustainable Approach at Black Bull Close, Dunbar

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When it comes to old buildings, sustainability is about so much more than energy-efficiency. We explore how the 'Building 4 Black Bull Close' project in Dunbar, winner of the 2022 Sustainable Heritage Award, combined local materials, craft skills and community to incredible effect.

Building 4 Black Bull Close, in Dunbar, Scotland is an 18th-century vernacular house that was in a sorry state of repair just a few years ago. The building has now been transformed from roofless ruin to a beautiful, functional and warm space for community use for the Ridge SCIO.

A sustainable approach to repair

When Kate Darrah had a vision to repair the building and revitalise the surrounding alleyway, or ‘Backlands’, she knew she wanted it to benefit the local community in more ways than one. A key part of the project involved giving local people, who might otherwise struggle to access or sustain apprenticeships, the opportunity to train in traditional skills like lime work, stonemasonry and joinery.

Another key focus was environmental stability. The team set out to create an authentic low-carbon and mostly plastic free re-build – reusing existing materials, replicating traditional methods based on evidence found on site, and sourcing new materials as locally as possible.  

Building 4, Black Bull Close

Building 4, Black Bull Close © Historic Environment Scotland

As well as being as eco-friendly as possible, the team also considered how the building would perform in a changing climate. Examination of the walls showed a flush point of lime with evidence of multiple layers of limewash surviving in sheltered areas. This flush point was replicated on all rebuilt and repaired areas, and three coats of limewash were applied on the external elevations. This was not only for reasons of authenticity, but to provide a resilient finish to meet the demands of climate change and increased rainfall. 

The team is now taking what they learned through the project to repair two other buildings on the close, employing apprentices and semi-skilled laboureres who began their training on Building 4.

Scholars visit the site

Our Scholars, four architecture professionals on our nine-month Scholarship programme, recently visited The Ridge in Dunbar to see this award-winning project for themselves. Accompanied by Simon Montgomery from Historic Environment Scotland, they met Kate Darrah, who started the project, and Andy Stockdale, the on-site contractor who oversees training. 

Scholars visiting a building site at Black Bull Close

Scholars visiting a new site at Black Bull close © Sarika Jhawar

“It was heartwarming to see experienced craftspeople imparting their knowledge to young apprentices, fostering pride in the community,” says 2024 Scholar Sarika Jhawar. “What stood out to us was the project’s positive social impact. It not only creates peaceful and productive gardens for the community to enjoy but also provides employment opportunities for the town’s youth – a perfect blend of economic, social, and environmental benefits. The project demonstrates that with the right intent and approach, a simple project can bring far-reaching and long-term benefits to a community.” 

Winning the Sustainable Heritage Award 2022  

In 2022, we launched the Sustainable Heritage Award to celebrate the people repairing and upgrading existing buildings and bringing neglected historic buildings back into use. After all, what could be more sustainable than reusing and recycling the buildings we already have? For us, this project was a clear winner.

The team receiving the Sustainable Heritage Award with Kevin McCloud

The team receiving the Sustainable Heritage Award with Kevin McCloud © Ralph Hodgson

The SPAB judging panel found the Black Bull Close project inspiring for the careful technical approach to the building fabric, the important messages that were demonstrated on building repair and upgrade, and for the wider societal factors that were at the heart of the project: community cohesion and empowerment, urban regeneration, development and training and the principles of the circular economy.  It is a project which resonates on every level.

Do you know of a conservation project that has made an old building more energy efficient while keeping its historic fabric and character? Entries are now open for our SPAB Heritage Awards 2024, sponsored by Keymer Tiles. Enter or nominate a project for the Sustainable Heritage Award by Wednesday 14 August 2024.

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