It might look like many other quiet, leafy, post-war suburban streets in Edinburgh, or anywhere at all really, but there’s something very special about Sighthill Neuk and its surrounding streets. If you were to wander around, most of the houses would feel familiar to you. You’ve probably seen them – or ones very like them – before. You’ve probably been seeing them all your life. But look again. No two blocks of houses here are the same. Every single one is different. In fact, some of them are totally unique.
That is because this just isn’t any old street, this is the Sighthill Demonstration Site; a testing ground and living laboratory for post-war public housing experiments for Scotland. Between 1944 and 1965, 69 houses were built to 20 different designs and construction methods in a scheme supervised by the Scottish Special Housing Association, the SSHA. This public agency was formed in Edinburgh in 1937 to provide good quality public housing in Scotland to supplement that constructed by Local Authorities.
At Sighthill, they tested out the latest innovations in building materials, construction techniques, internal configurations, plumbing, heating and more, with the intention of building better and cheaper municipal housing. These houses were demonstrated to local authorities, their architects and contractors, who would go on to build many thousands of houses of the sorts trialled at Sighthill. SSHA staff lived in the houses and reported back on how they performed and what they were like to live in. Most of the houses were later sold on to the SSHA staff who lived in them, and who by accounts were very pleased with them; indeed all but one of the demonstration houses survive to this day and all are very well kept.
However, such was the crash-building nature of the post-war public housing construction boom, unfortunately many mistakes were made before the lessons from Sighthill had been learned. For instance, the Scottish prototype of the Orlit System framed house was built here in 1946 and many thousands were built all over Scotland by the time it became apparent in 1950 that it was a flawed system that produced defective houses. This thread explores each type of house in the Demonstration Site and what makes each special.
20. Weir Paragon House
We start with number 20 because this was the first house built at the Sighthill Demonstration Site. It was also the first post-war prefabricated house built in Scotland (in fact it was completed before the end of the war!) and is the only one which has been demolished – although it was intended to be a permanent structure.
The Weir Paragon House was a prefabricated house with a steel frame, walls and roof. It was a single-storey, detached, modernist cottage coated externally with a weatherproof layer of harling and paint. It was of an E-shape plan, with one “wing” of the house containing the bedrooms and the other the living room, kitchen and a utility room. The first and second prototypes were erected within G. & J. Weir’s factory in Glasgow, the third was sent to Sighthill as its opening showpiece. It was ready to be opened to the public by Viscount Weir on July 21st 1944, just 45 days after Allied forces had landed on the Normandy Beaches. 100 of these houses were built during wartime, for use in rural and mining areas of Scotland to ease a housing crisis in those districts.
The heating worked off a solid-fuel boiler that produced hot water for radiators. All the pipe-work was exposed as a utility measure so that it did not need to be buried within walls. The doors were sliding instead of hinged, to reduce the space needed to open a door. A feature of the house, to reduce unnecessary waste, was there were no internal door locks and a novel system of push-button door handles. Viscount Weir reasoned that “there must be 80 million locks and handles on room doors in Scottish houses” and that that locks were never used and the handles had too many moving parts.
The second house, known as Kendeugh, had been built in the grounds of the Weir Sports Fields next to their Holm Foundry factory in Cathcart. It survived in good condition as a private residence until mid-2022 in Glasgow, at which point it was unceremoniously demolished.
1. Department of Health for Scotland Timber Economy Houses
These houses weren’t built from timber, rather they were built to try and economise the use of softwood timber as there was a fear that due to the UK’s economic conditions, building timber would be too expensive to import. There were built for the Department of Health for Scotland by the SSHA. Each of the four houses in the terrace used a different proportion of timber compared to a standard British house of the same size; 0% standard timber use, 25%, 67% and 92%. These houses were modified from a design prepared in England and one of the space-saving features was an “aggregate ground floor living space“; the living room, kitchen and dining room were open plan. These were the first mass-market first houses in Scotland to feature this.
The structural walls were of standard brick and block construction, but internal partitions were pre-cast plaster or concrete panels or blocks. The roofs used either hardwood or steel frames rather than softwood. The floor structures were pre-cast concrete beams, in-filled with concrete on the ground floor. The first floor differed from house to house.
2. Ministry of Works / Ministry of Housing & Local Government Timber Economy Houses
These houses were built for the same reasons as the DHfS Timber Economy Houses, but were sponsored by the Ministry of Works and the Ministry of Housing & Local Government. They were based on designs for the new towns of Cwmbran, Harlow and Peterlee, modified to suit Scottish standards. They were of traditional construction but used a variety of non-traditional roofing, flooring and internal partitions (pre-cast concrete, plasterboard, hardwood and even plastic tile flooring) to reduce softwood requirements. Eight houses in total were built; a semi-detached house, a 4-in-a-block terrace and a detached upper/lower flat were built.
3. Department of Health for Scotland Space Saving Flats
The “Space Saving” houses aimed to reduce the costs of housing construction by reducing aspects of the internal sizing and configuration, but particularly the amount of space devoted to the actual supporting structure of the building. This block of flats was inspired by the visit of a Minister of the Scottish Office to Holland in 1951, which impressed upon them features of Dutch housing that were more economical than traditional Scottish practices. This 3-storey block had 3 stairs, each with 6 flats, for 18 houses. The main novelty was the use of stronger bricks that were thinner bricks and resulted in a lighter structure; the traditional 16 inch thick walls used for flats in Scotland was reduced by 1/3 to 11 inches. This meant each flat required 13,700 bricks, compared to 17-21,000 for similar flats of traditional construction and the press reported the unveiling of these flats under the headline “Thinner Walls for Cheaper Flats!”.
Further economies were gained by reducing the sizes of the bedrooms was reduced and in a third of the houses there was no internal hallway; bedrooms and bathrooms lead off the living room. To reduce softwood use, the roofing structure was as light as was permitted and all joists were no longer than 8″ thick timber would allow. A final innovation was to combine the soil (toilet) and waste (sink) drains together, one of the first times this had been tried in Scotland.
4. Department of Health for Scotland Space Saving Cottages
Like the DHfS Space Saving Flats, these cottages reduced the internal space and the volume of building materials required for traditional construction to demonstrate the principals to Local Authorities. They dispensed with the traditional “pend” that gave access to back gardens through a terrace as this was otherwise unused space and replaced it with an utility room, giving through access internally. Hallways were kept as small as possible to maximise the internal space devoted to living space. Bedrooms were reduced in size and no built-in cupboards or recesses were included in them; this space was reallocated to the kitchen and living room. A controversial change was reducing the 8 foot standard ceiling height by 3 inches on the ground floor and 6 inches upstairs. These houses were 90 square feet (8.3m2) smaller than the equivalent houses of the time, for no loss of living space.
5. Weir Timber Houses
Weirs had been interested in prefabricated housing since Lord Weir’s “Steel Houses” of which 500 were built in Scotland after WW1. Weir Housing Corporation produced the prototype Paragon Steel House at Sighthill in 1944 and in 1951 won an SSHA competition to design a new standard, prefabricated timber house. The prototype was erected here to demonstrate it before 3,000 were supplied from Weir’s factory in Coatbridge for use by the SSHA across Scotland. The first production houses were a scheme of 18 in Kirkintilloch, the first of which was ready in December 1952 after taking only 6 weeks to complete. Due to restrictions on timber imports, 3,000 was the limit of the number of houses that could be built.
6. SSHA Bellrock House & 7. Orlit Bellrock House
Houses 6 and 7 were two semi-detached, two-storey houses built to trial the use of Bellrock load-bearing gypsum wall panels for the internal partitions. One was built to an SSHA design, the other to the Orlit System of prefabricated concrete frames and interlocking cladding blocks. It was unusual for an Orlit house in that the roof was gabled and not hipped (the sides are straight, when viewed from the front, with the external wall meeting the peak of the roof at the top). The SSHA house had an unusual construction method, with the gypsum panels going up first and acting as shuttering, with reinforced concrete being poured between them to form the load-bearing structure. It is a one-of-a-kind prototype and the SSHA built no more of them.
8, 9 & 10. Ministry of Fuel & Power Heating Demonstration Houses
These three semi-detached houses were built in 1949-50 to demonstrate three different new space-heating systems for the Ministry of Fuel and Power. They were supervised and monitored by the Fuel Research Station in East Kilbride. Two used coal-fired boilers; one a hot air system and the other a low-pressure water system with conventional radiators. The third used a gas-fired, warm air system with outlets in all rooms.
The houses themselves were identical inside (to allow comparison between the three systems) and were of traditional construction to the designs of the SSHA as contractor to the Department.
11. Miller-O’Sullivan House
The Miller-O’Sullivan House was a collaboration between James Miller – an Edinburgh-based volume housebuilder who had specialised in small, semi-detached, middle class housing infill sites in the interwar period – and Edward O’ Sullivan, a building contractor to London County Council who specialised in concrete block houses. Both companies had developed their own non-standard construction housing designs. This house used a special machine on-site to pour concrete into moulds to form the components, with a steel spine beam tying it together internally. The outside was roughcast.
12. Atholl Steel House
The Atholl House was named after its builders the Atholl Steel House Company of Mossend in Lanarkshire (named after the Duke of Atholl, one of the company’s founders). The company had built prefabricated steel houses in the inter-war period for public housing schemes; 550 of which were erected in Scotland. An updated steel house design, based on their 1926 model, had already been put into production for England in 1945 and was modified for construction in Scotland. A prototype semi-detached house of the Scottish variant was built at Sighthill in 1946 for the SSHA and DhFS. These houses are a steel frame, covered in harled and painted steel panels with a corrugated steel roof. Steel house production was suspended in 1948 after 1,500 Atholl Houses had been completed due to the post-war economic crisis and a crash in the domestic supply of steel in the country.
13. Holland, Hannen & Cubitts Foamslag Block House
This semi-detached house was built in 1944 by one of England’s principal engineering contractors who were a specialist in concrete construction. The technique was traditional, being built of blockwork, but the materials were not. Foamslag was a lightweight concrete building block that had been developed in 1938 by the Department of Housing Research Section using the by-product of steel manufacturing.
14. Canadian Timber House
The last demonstration houses to be built at Sighthill by the SSHA, these were one of three sites sponsored in the UK by the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation of Ottawa, Canada. They were the result of a 1963 visit to Canada by British housing officials to investigate Canadian pre-fabricated housing techniques. The timber components were imported from Canada. They could clad with brick, timber or render on metal lath; one of the Sighthill houses has a Fyfestone synthetic stone block finish.
15. Holland, Hannen & Cubitts Poured Foamslag House
This was a version of the other Holland, Hannen & Cubitts house at Sighthill, but instead of being built from blocks it was poured in-situ into prefabricated shuttering. Very few of these houses were ever built.
16. Orlit Frameless House
This was the prototype of the Orlit Frameless House which was developed when it became apparent that the pre-cast, reinforced concrete (PRC) frames of the Orlit System houses were a major structural weakness when they began to suffer corrosion. Orlit set up the Scottish Construction Company to built these houses as the Scotcon Orlit and many thousands were erected by the SSHA and Scottish local authorities in the 1950s. They do not suffer from the same deficiencies as the Orlit System houses. You can read more about the different Orlit houses in the thread about Post-War, Prefabricated, Permanent housing in Edinburgh.
17. Orlit Framed House
This was the prototype in Scotland of the Orlit Framed House, built to the Orlit System of the Czech architect Edwin Katona. This used a system of PRC frames and columns which were infilled with special interlocking concrete blocks. The houses at Sighthill were finished with brick porches and a pitched roof, most Orlit System houses were much more utilitarian in appearance and had a flat roof. Many thousand of these houses were built by the SSHA and local authorities in Scotland prior to 1950, before it became clear that the system suffered from structural weaknesses when the PRC began to corrode prematurely at the joints. Designated as defective, many of these houses have since been demolished but you can still find them around Edinburgh. You can read more about the different Orlit houses in the thread about Post-War, Prefabricated, Permanent housing in Edinburgh.
18. Keyhouse Unibuilt House
This is the only house of this type that was built in Scotland. It is a steel house, with a steel frame and cladding and glasswool and plasterboard internal lining. Like other steel houses, construction was curtailed by the government in 1948 due to a severe shortages of domestic steel and few of these were ever built. They were built for the Ministry of Works by a consortium of J. Brockhouse & Co., engineers; Joseph Sankey & Sons, sheet metal stampers; and Gyproc Products, plasterboard manufacturers.
19. SSHA No-Fines House
This was a prototype of a No-Fines house for the SSHA, built in 1946. No-Fines refers to concrete produced with no sand component (the fine material of the aggregate); just gravel and cement. With no sand to fully fill in the gaps between the gravel, it is a breathable material. It began being used for public housing in the inter-war period and interest arose again post-war as it did not require the specialist skill of bricklaying. Local authorities in Scotland and the SSHA built extensively in No-Fines into the 1970s. It was poured in-situ between wooden shuttering on a brick base. The floors were of wooden joists, and the roof was traditional timber frame covered in tiles.
If you enjoyed this post, you may be pleased to learn that I stumbled upon an inter-war version of it nearby at the Riversdale Housing Demonstration Scheme in Roseburn.
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Absolutely fascinating. Hadn’t been aware of Sighthill Neuk although I had an aunt that lived in the Sighthill prefabs. I also remember working with a girl who lived in what we called ‘the steel houses’ in Sleigh Drive. Do you know if they were the same as the Sighthill houses?
Hi Janie – no the “Steel houses” around Lochend (which were of two types, an earlier Weir type and an earlier Atholl type) were built in the 1920s and were not by the Council but buy a special post-war housing association (the Second Scottish National Housing Company – the houses known as the “Findlays” took their name from its chairman). I do intend to do a write-up of these houses at some point as they were some of Edinburgh’s first non-standard / prefab houses, and were visited by the King and Queen of the time.
[…] may recall the other week I wrote about the “Sighthill Demonstration Site”, the post-war living laboratory for municipal housing experiments in Scotland. Well, nobody was […]
Speaking of mid-20th-century experimental house building, at the end of Broombank Terrace (a street of MacTaggart & Mickel “four-in-a-block” villa flats built around the 1930s/40s, I believe), there is one block that seems to have been built to an unusual wood-free design: flat concrete roof, concrete floors, steel doors and frames, and no skirting boards. Seems to be quite unique amongst the M&M developments of the period. Always wondered what the story was with that one…
Good spot! I had never noticed that and afraid I can’t shed any more light in it beyond what you have observed. Perhaps a company experiment, as a technology demonstrator? perhaps they got funding? All I can see is that this house is on a copy of the estate plans drawn up for drainage, so was built concurrently with the others.
[…] was better to make it accessible for repairs, so was simply clipped along the inner partitions. The Weir Paragon House of 1944 inherited this design […]