Riversdale Road is, on the face of it, another sleepy little inter-war suburban Edinburgh street, of neat little bungalows and well-trimmed hedges. You can see streets like these all over Edinburgh. I’ve cycled down it hundreds of times, probably over a thousand, and never paid it much attention. If I had, I might have found out that this is no ordinary street.
You 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 more surprised than me to find out that Riversdale Road is its inter-war equivalent!
Edinburgh Corporation had acquired the Saughton Hall Estate in 1905, to provide a new public park and land for suburban expansion. Riversdale Road, at the eastern end of the estate where the Water of Leith approaches Roseburn was so-named at a meeting of the Streets and Buildings Committee in 1913, to some consternation from one member who felt it sounded too English:
Judge Macfarlane took exception to the name as ridiculous for a Scottish town. It seemed to him to come from Putney. (Laughter.) A title in keeping with the City of Edinburgh should be found. (A Member: “Macfarlane Avenue!” and laughter.) Mr Fraser defended the name on the ground that the road ran alongside that beautiful river the Water of Leith – (Laughter) – and along a dell.Edinburgh Evening News, 28th October 1913
Nothing further progressed along this road at that time due to the onset of World War I, however afterwards it was earmarked for Council Housing under the “Addison Act” (The Housing, Town Planning etc. Act) of 1919. Again this came to nothing as the scale of that act was drastically cut back and only around two out of every five homes planned were built. The Housing Act of 1924 once again made public money available to councils to construct houses and things finally began to move. Some of Riversdale Road would be built with the sorts of private-built bungalows for the burgeoning middle class that came to dominate much of suburban Edinburgh at this time, but the Corporation used some of the 1924 funding to create a “demonstration scheme” here to experiment with the latest non-standard construction techniques. And most of these houses are still there!
This scheme attracted a variety of novel construction methods and materials – what we would call “non-standard construction”. The government was willing to pay a futher £40 subsidy (about 10% of the cost of building a house) on top of other finance for approved houses built using “non standard” methods, so there was financial incentive to explore these options. This meant that none of the houses at Riversdale were (entirely) built from the traditional materials of brick, stone, wood, slate and tile. The scheme also spilled into adjacent streets in the next few years, with further examples of the most popular or successful houses being built. The others remained as one-or-two-off curios.
I have identified 8 definite types of houses at the Riversdale Demonstration Scheme, with references in passing to 3 or 4 more types, which were either never built or have been subsequently demolished (as is frequently the case of non-standard construction, it is not mortgageable, so will often be demolished and rebuilt, that house can then be re-mortgaged). The below map is in no particular order.
1. Reith Steel Houses. Leith shipbuilders John Cran & Somerville were a traditional heavy industry looking to diversify in the post-WW1 economic downturn. They erected four Reith Steel Houses here in early 1926, which were all-steel houses walled and roofed from the same sort of steel sheet as used in shipbuilding. They were to the design of Robert Buchanan Reith, who took his inspiration from ships deckhouses. Reith claimed his was the first all-steel house design in the country (it predates the Lochend Steel Houses by a few months) and it was first demonstrated at The Edinburgh Housing and Building Exhibition in February that year, when Cran & Somerville exhibited a quarter of a house, open to the sides to be seen by the public. That same year the Clyde shipbuilders, Alexander Stephen & Sons of Govan, also demonstrated a model of it at The Building Exhibition. The designer’s brother – John Charles Walsham Reith – is probably familiar to you as Lord Reith, the “father” of the BBC and. put in a good word for his brother, declaring these houses were “the finest… for wireless reception [I have] come across“.
Two pairs of semi-detached houses were built at Riversdale, one of which remained until last year (2022), when half of it was demolished to be replaced by a new-build (the demolished houses are hatched out on the map). A contemporary journalist described them: “there is the most perfectly equipped kitchenette I have yet seen and it is that house which goes one better in the matter of hot water, with an ingenious portable boiler which heats the water for the bath in summer“. This new market was not enough to save Cran & Somerville however and they went out of business the next year. Fifty Reith houses were apparently built by Stephens at Harthill the following year at a cost of £425 per house.
I am obliged to the present householder of the remaining Reith Steel House for taking the time to have an enthusiastic chat about her unique property and the time to show us a very heavy section of 3/16″ shipyard steel that was cut from the house during renovations. She informed us that the house is hot-riveted together in typical shipyard manner and that these can be seen inside the garage.
2. Glasgow Steel Roofing Co. Duracrete Houses. These houses look really like your standard, inter-war, suburban, Edinburgh bungalows. You would never tell that all is not quite what it seems with them.
But if you were to look really closely, and I mean really closely at one house and its neighbour, you will realise that the “masonry” texture on each house is exactly the same. Because it isn’t masonry at all, it’s pre-cast panels of a material called “Duracrete”, hung off of a steel frame. These houses were built by the Glasgow Steel Roofing Co. and cost £425 each.
3. Allied Builders Montrose Bungalows. These handsome bungalows were built by Allied Builders Ltd. of Montrose, and named after that town. Allied were a subsidiary of the Coaster Construction Company shipyard in Montrose, who had been formed by W. D. Mclaren and his business partner in 1919 to build ships to Mclaren’s designs that incorporated prefabrication and simple, standardised lines and components. The company found itself in the same post-war slump as the rest of the shipbuilding industry, which was suffering from significant overcapacity, and like Cran & Somerville and Alex Stephens, they diversified.
The regular panel lines, distinctive channel markings and curious rounded corners arouse curiosity that these aren’t particularly traditional despite appearances. Mclaren applied his interest in standardised components and prefabrication to housebuilding, and came up with an interlocking, pre-cast cement block that was pinned together with steel rods. This block system was relatively flexible and meant for easy reconfiguration to build different sizes of houses and rooms, and detached or semi-detached bungalows. They were lined on the inside with fibreboard – there being a shortage of skilled plasterers at the time, with the joins in the board covered in fillets of wood to give a traditional, panelled interior appearance like wainscotting.
As a publicity stunt, Allied built the prototype house in a then record 6 days outside the shipyard and invited the public to inspect it. The house is still there (along with another up the road to a different layout). Allied offered to build these at a rate of one per week for developments larger than 5 houses, after an initial few months of groundworks. Small developments of these houses were built by councils in Forfar and in Melrose. A big public order for Bongate in Jedburgh was cancelled when it was found that traditional methods were cheaper and resulted in larger house; this is the curse of employing a “building system” on a small scale, as it negates the economies when compared to traditional techniques.
Once again, the diversification into housing couldn’t keep the shipyard afloat and it too closed in 1927. McLaren emigrated to the west coast of Canada and was successful in the shipbuilding industry there, his prefabrication techniques and standardised designs finding favour with construction of barges and lighters. He and his son took the Allied Builders name and even logo and used it for a shipyard they later set up in Vancouver, and it’s still going as Allied Shipbuilders Ltd.
4. Cowieson Brieze Block Houses. A pair of these houses were built by F. D. Cowieson & Co., of St. Rollox, Glasgow. Cowiesons are better known as builders of bus and tramcar bodies, but had 20 years of experience building prefabricated steel agricultural buildings like barns and silos, and they also provided anything from huts to pavilions to cinemas. These houses were built of “Brieze” blocks (Breeze is the modern spelling), dense concrete blocks which used colliery waste as the aggregate component.
These two houses, in a semi-detached, two-storey block, were built on a wooden frame and used “Celotex” internal partitions, which was a brand new material made from the waste fibres of sugar-cane processing. This product was being pushed in Scotland by William Beardmore & Co., another heavy industrial concern desperately casting around for new markets – and another that was imminently about to go under. Its manufacturers stated that “IT IS ENDURING, SCIENTIFICALLY STERILISED, VERMIN-PROOFED AND WATER PROOFED”. The houses were harled on the outside and had brick chimneys. Cowiesons also offered a house with a timber frame and steel cladding, the Second Scottish National Housing Company (Housing Trust) would build 500 houses of this type, with around 50 being provided at Lochend in Edinburgh.
5. Rae Concrete Houses. A large number of these houses were built at Riversdale, and a 40-house estate of them later followed up around Baird Grove. These rather plain in appearance little bungalows were built to a system and method devised by Thomas L. Rae, who for 20 years had been the superintendent of the Clydebank and District Water Trust. In that capacity, he had gained huge practical and scientific experience with working concrete and had become familiar with the intricacies of how you made it waterproof (and on the flipside, breathable). He persuaded the water trust to build two prototypes, as workers houses, at the Cochno Water Filters. Convinced he was on to something, he resigned and set up his own company to build these houses.
Rae‘s method used a 3½” thick poured concrete wall reinforced with steel bars. He said that with one man erecting shuttering and ten pouring concrete, the walls of a house could be put up in a single day (so long as the foundations were prepared!) Hr gave his houses a 100 year life span. They’re now 98! You can find more of these houses in Edinburgh around Boswall Green in Wardie.
6. Nissen-Petren Steel & Concrete Houses. Eight pairs of these semi-detached houses were described as being planned, although only 4 appear to have been built. If you’ve been down this street, they are the incongruous-looking ones that look like Dutch Barns. Nissen was Colonel Peter Nissen, DSO, a military engineer of Nissen Hut fame. these distinctive semi-circular, corrugated steel-clad, prefabricated, temporary buildings became synonymous with British military encampments in the 20th century.
Post-war, Nissen attempted to apply his ideas about prefabricated structures to mass-produced housing. He was assisted by “Petren”; the architects John Petter and Percy J. Warren. The resulting houses used a similar framework of curved steel tubes to support a corrugated metal roof as used in the huts, but they were substantially larger, two-storeys and had pre-fabricated concrete block walls. The roofs were “asbestos-protected metal“, which was further coated in asphalt to weatherproof it. These houses had three bedrooms when built, a living room and a kitchenette when new. I am unsure if any more Nissen-Petren houses were built in Scotland. You can read more about Nissen-Petren houses at the Municipal Dreams site here.
The prototypes were built in Yeovil and have an elegant, curved roofline that flares out towards the bottom. Unfortunately, building prefabricated “system” housing on a small scale deployment inevitably pushes costs up as economies of scale cannot be realised. As a result these houses went well over budget – £350 per house became £510, a 45% increase. I assume the angular roofs employed at Riversdale are the result of a cost-cutting exercise.
7. Consteelwood Houses. The odd names of these houses is a portmanteau word which comes from their building system; Concrete, Steel and Wood. They were built on a wooden frame, infilled with poured concrete and clad in pressed steel panels by the Stelonite Company of London. These panels were interlocking and had the pattern lines of masonry set into them to give them a traditional appearance. The roofing was a traditional wooden frame covered in tiles.
A prototype house was erected in London at Tooting. The pair of houses at Riversdale, their steel panels with fake masonry lines hidden beneath a skin of harling, were (and thus are) probably the only houses of this type in Scotland.
A local furnishings company outfitted these houses when new and invited members of the public to come and see this “unique opportunity to inspect the latest in housing and furniture“.
8. Laurie Houses. The last type I have identified at Riversdale are named for their designer, Arthur Pillans Laurie. He was the Principal of Heriot-Watt College (as it was), a chemist who had made a name for himself pioneering the infra-red photography of Old Masters paintings to analyse them. He designed a neat little pair of cottages, externally they were traditional harled brick with a timer and tile roof, but internally they used no plasterwork (skilled plasterers were in short supply) and instead had an asbestos-cork-asbestos sandwich board for partitions. A single pair of houses were built – again these are unique. Laurie later turned to fascism.
These are the houses I have definitely identified. I have found written references that further types of houses were – or were intended to be – built here;
- An Atholl Steel House and clad house was apparently erected, it is certainly no longer here. Atholls were an attempt by the steel and shipbuilding company, William Beardmores – desperate for work post-war – to diversify into housing. Two estates of Atholl Houses were built by the Second Scottish National Housing Company in Edinburgh around this time; at Lochend and at Wardie. They are all still there, a precious few in near original external condition.
- Corolite No-Fines Houses – these are of in-situ poured “No-Fines” concrete, i.e a mixture with no “fine” material; sand or ash in the aggregate. This improves ventilation of the concrete. I can’t find any at Riversdale, but a small scheme of them were built at Restalrig.
- Laing Easiform Houses by John Laing & Son of Carlisle. Easiform refers to a proprietary system of shuttering into which the solid concrete walls were poured. According to newspaper reports, two 5-apartment houses at £509 each and two 3-apartment houses at £400 each were built here. I can find no trace of them (yet!). These are non-standard houses but not declared defective, so can be mortgaged, so are less likely to have been demolished to rebuild.
- A Weir Steel House was meant to be built, but a 1925 newspaper report says that it was suspended owning to a dispute over wages (the Weir houses were thought to be too cheap to put up in labour terms, and builders refused to work on them as it didn’t pay enough)
- Jones Timber House. It was noted that consideration was being given to building a wooden house by Jones & Sons, timber merchants of Larbert. Some of these houses still exist in that town.
The houses of the Riversdale Demonstration Scheme were all of types approved by the Scottish Department of Health, meaning they were eligible for Government subsidy. These subsidies could be drawn down by Councils (e.g. the Corporation of Edinburgh), by government backed housing bodies like the Second Scottish National Housing Company, by private developers or by groups of individuals.
This latter group was a scheme known as Utility Societies, which were “building clubs” of five or more interested housebuilders who had got together. The Council provided them with land it had set aside for housing and they could borrow money through a public assistance scheme or get a government grant (or both) to build an approved type of house. The builders of those houses would erect them on site on behalf of the Society. These (in theory) cheap, prefabricated, “off the shelf” designs of non-standard construction houses were aimed to suit their needs. A group of Tramway Department employees were noted in a 1925 article in the Scotsman of organising such a society, which I believe are of the Rae type and located around Boswall Green.
The houses at Riversdale are are remarkable collection of 1920s housing innovation and ideas. They are probably the most remarkable collection of such houses anywhere in Scotland – one common feature shared by most of this variety bag of houses has is the great efforts the designers went to to make the most modern and cutting edge houses look traditional and unremarkable. Have a closer look next time you are passing!
If you have found this useful, informative or amusing and would like to help contribute towards the running costs of this site (including keeping it ad-free) or to the book-buying budget, why not consider supporting me on ko-fi.
These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur
[…] 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 … […]
[…] 5. Cowieson Terraced House. F. D. Cowieson had trained as an architect, but found success in prefabricated wood and iron buildings, with the company based in St. Rollox in Glasgow. Initially these were simple agricultural structures such as barns and sheds, but soon the company was offering halls and huts, pavilions and even cinemas. During WW1 the company turned to building bus and lorry bodies – particularly ambulances – and they would later become much better known for this side of the business. They also experimented with “brieze block” houses, a single pair of which were trialled in Edinburgh at the Riversdale Demonstration Site. […]
[…] day. Following on from the thread about the Riversdale Demonstration Houses, here’s another bunch of inconspicuous-looking municipal houses in Edinburgh which once again […]