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Invisible menders

In its conservation of Newhailes near Edinburgh for the National Trust of Scotland, LDN Architects has minimised disruption to the building fabric in a quest to preserve the distinctive 'mellowness' of the house and reflect all stages of its history From the moment you enter the grounds of Newhailes, it is apparent that this is a land that time forgot. Precisely when it was forgotten - just when the key to the secret garden that engulfs it was thrown away - is hard to determine. This detail would be important in a more conventional conservation project, where the aim was to restore the house and grounds back to a specific point in the past;

but that has not been the intention here.

Situated on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Newhailes was built in the late 17th century, and enlarged in the early 18th to become one of the most important houses of the Scottish Enlightenment. Owned from the early 18th century by the Dalrymple family, it has remained largely unaltered, both inside and out, since the late-19th century.

And that is the way its new owners, the National Trust for Scotland, want it to stay.

One might have expected the Trust to repair the fabric and return the house to its full 18th-century glory. But this is that rare thing - a conservation project done by the book, or in this case the international conservation charters.

If it is hard to tell what period Newhailes is being restored to, because it is not playing that game, it is harder still to know what to make of a conservation project which has so far cost £4.5 million and yet still leaves work to be done on the garden buildings and grounds. On the face of it, it is hard to see where the money has gone, as the house and grounds still look in such a sorry state, or as the Trust prefers to call it, 'mellow'.

Perhaps that is the tactic - your heart goes out to this sad, yet still grand, house which has clearly seen better days. As its first property manager, Piers de Salis, says: 'People will come here and wonder where on earth we managed to spend all that money.

But if they have to ask that question, we will know that we have done a good job.'

Key elements in the work of Edinburghbased LDN Architects (previously Law & Dunbar-Nasmith) have been security, fire suppression and environmental controls.

Given the importance of the fabric, when it came to the careful upgrading of services, only floorboards that had previously been lifted were allowed to be lifted again.

Deliberately presenting the house in such a fashion is obviously a risky strategy. But make no mistake, whether the public likes it or not, this is an exemplary conservation project, and one that reduces the gap between theory and practice to an almost imperceptible chink. But that, to some in the conservation fraternity, is rather too close.

It is a chink made all the harder to detect because the Trust's conservation philosophy at Newhailes even extends to the layers of dirt, and signs of wear, left on this Marie Celeste of a building. Free from the creative tension that is born out of the gap between theory and practice, Newhailes has been untouched by the ego of today and left for future generations essentially as it was.

Whitehill, as it was originally called, was designed in 1686 as a modest seven-bay, neoPalladian villa by James Smith for himself. By 1702 the architect had become bankrupt, and the house was then owned briefly by Lord Bellenden before being acquired by Sir David Dalrymple in 1707. It remained in his family's hands for almost three centuries, and was transformed by them into the house we see today. Seven bays became 15, the main stair was extended, and the intimacy of Smith's original rooms was complemented by larger, grander spaces.

Chief among these new spaces was the large double-height library completed in 1720.Allegedly described by no less a person than Dr Johnson as 'the most learned room in Europe', it was unique in Scotland and had few serious rivals outside.

The library is currently empty of its books, and has been since 1976, when the collection was given to the National Library of Scotland in lieu of tax. It has always been hoped that these books would return, but the National Library of Scotland demands strict assurances from the Trust concerning their future security. Following LDN's interventions, a fire suppression system, environmental controls and security measures are in place to facilitate future discussions with the library.

We still do not know who designed the extensions built in the early 18th century. The mason and wright for the library were James Crighton and John Young respectively, who may well have supplied the design, though some suggest it is the work of William Adam (the father of Robert and James), while others see the hand of another great Scottish architect, James Gibbs. Whoever was responsible, the most radical transformation during Sir David's time was to balance the library wing with a new wing to the west, and to reorientate the entire house to the south.

Originally Smith's villa had been entered from the north, where it enjoyed uninterrupted views across parkland out to the sea.

Sir David reversed the orientation and created a new entrance hall in Smith's villa, now reached via the enclosed garden front.

This building history also results in an interior which plays tricks of size and scale:

it is almost a Venturi-like aesthetic of complexity and contradiction, as visitors move from large to small and back again. The 18th-century painted and gilded surfaces encourage a hushed respect. Given the fairy tale analogy that the Trust is so fond of invoking at Newhailes, you might wonder if the briar roses will shrink back at any moment to reveal Sleeping Beauty.

The house and its contents were first offered to the Trust by the trustees of Sir Mark Dalrymple in 1995, and acquired with the aid of an endowment from the Heritage Lottery Fund and an appeal for the purchase of the collections. LDN made the initial conservation proposals, which had five principal aims:

to conserve the existing buildings and garden structures; upgrade the estate infrastructure;

upgrade environmental, plumbing, lighting, electrical, fire, and security systems in the house; provide visitor reception, presentation, and tour facilities; and finally, provide essential support and management accommodation for Trust staff.

The practice has a history of involvement in the house, dating from the 1970s when it refurbished the entrance hall - which ironically now seems garish compared to the other rooms, but must be seen as part of the property's history. The Trust appreciated that Newhailes' importance lay not only in its history and architecture but in its mellow condition, its silent testimony to the fortunes of the family.

'An all-pervasive mellowness' is how the Trust categorises it, and this is the impression that it has tried to maintain - the sense of a house which has settled into its character over 300 years. This approach has been carried out selectively before: the interiors at Brodsworth Hall in Yorkshire by English Heritage, for instance, and most notably the treatment of Chastleton in Oxfordshire by the National Trust, where, once again, a single family had maintained the original building over many generations.

Chastleton, then, is Newhailes' closest relative. It makes you wonder if there is some kind of Campaign for Real Conservation, begun by the National Trusts north and south of the border, to distance themselves from the statefunded urge towards restoration, as seen at the Great Hall of Stirling Castle (AJ 8.6.00) and the King's Chambers at Edinburgh.

Having determined that the significance of the building lay in its mellowness, the resulting philosophy of repair ensured that what should be done was 'as much as necessary but as little as possible' - that the only interventions which were justifiable were those which were required for health and safety or visitor and staff accommodation.

What was necessary were repairs to remedy structural defects (the 18th-century extensions had turned non-load bearing walls above the dining room into load-bearing ones, and primary beams were bending under pressure from floor joists); prevent water ingress (there was a serious problem in the abandoned basement kitchen); and arrest any further decay of the fabric (areas of external harling were loose and had been patched up with cement based mortars). Structural engineer Elliot and Co felt that some of the work in the roof must have been inspired by Heath Robinson.

Where this minimal philosophy has demanded the greatest amount of work has been in the 18th-century entrance front. Sir David Dalrymple created the new entrance with a porch sheltering the basement door, which in turn supported a double stair to the new principal door by opening up the central window.

New steelwork has replaced the corroded iron, and new stone introduced where necessary - and the whole thing repeated until it was good enough. As Una Richards, the Trust's senior buildings adviser says: 'This is the public's first point of contact with the house, so it's vitally important to get it right.'

Originally designed with numerous water traps in it, the ironwork was in a poor state of repair and potentially dangerous.

Although the local authority was prepared to consider a relaxation of normal building regulations in support of the Trust's vision, it was not prepared to compromise on safety where the public were concerned. However, as Newhailes will remain a house for the purpose of Use Classes, and visitors will be accompanied and their numbers limited, fire exits and escape routes have not been required to more conventional standards.

Additionally, by taking the philosophy of doing 'as much as is necessary but as little as possible', the Trust employed craftsman Chris Topp to repair sufficient sections of the iron balustrade to comply with safety, but did not repair, or even repaint, areas of rust. 'I've lost more sleep over this part of the project than any other, ' admits Richards on looking at the deftly repaired sections.

Though it may seem like a carefully considered response to a specific situation, 'as much as necessary but as little as possible' is actually chapter and verse from the current version of the ICOMOS Burra charter (1999), which states: 'Conservation is based on a respect for the existing fabric, use, associations, and meanings. It requires a cautious approach of changing as much as necessary but as little as possible.'

If not much can be seen for £4.5 million, much can be questioned. If this really is best practice, why is the Trust only taking this approach at Newhailes and not elsewhere?

Clearly something of an experiment, the reversibility of so much that has been done at Newhailes allows different measures in the future, when decay can no longer be arrested, and certain elements of the fabric do fail.

How often can the balustrade be repaired before nothing is left of the original?

Throughout the project, the Trust used a conservation planning process which was grant aided by the Heritage Lottery Fund and European Regional Development Fund, and which followed a rather unusual (for the Trust) course of commissioning experts to assess and advise, which included a watching brief while work was undertaken. But the clear intention from the beginning was to retain the essence of Newhailes, initially thought to be 'untouched' but, of course, not so in reality.

Given the care and attention necessary to safeguard the building during the project, the procurement method was identified as crucial from the outset by Mark Hopton at LDN. He argued that 'the conservation work at Newhailes requires to be carried out with exceptional care if we are not to destroy all that we are trying to preserve'. Early on, he told the Trust that 'value for money and quality must be demonstrated', and the management contractor employed at Chastleton - Linford Bridgeman of Lichfield - was duly appointed.

When the first small groups of visitors tour the house next month, they will have to wait in James Craig's substantial stable block of c. 1819. Only here, and only slightly, does the determination to maintain the mellowness of the estate fall down in favour of providing a tea room, shop, toilets, and staff accommodation on the upper floors. But while it might have been consistent for the Trust to commission a new building for these purposes, that was no doubt difficult to justify, given this existing, available space.

Newhailes opens to the public on 1 June. To book a ticket, telephone 0131 653 5599

Structure Research work and analysis demonstrated that Newhailes derives its unique cultural significance from a complex interaction of different elements, rather than the initial assumption that it was 'untouched'.

Together they create a rich sense of place - an all-pervasive mellowness - in which no one element dominates. For this reason, the conservation policy for the project was 'to carry out as much work as necessary, and as little as possible'. It was vital that this approach was followed through for all decisions - conservation work to the building fabric, interiors and collections had to all reflect the same philosophy.

External repairs to the house included overhauling the roof coverings and chimneys, improving the rainwater drainage and lightning protection, replacing structurally unsound external stonework, and patching the external render. Research indicated that elements of the render dated back to early 18th century, and the Trust tried to retain as much of the original as possible, only patching where it was missing or damaged. To renew the limewash coating (which was last done more than 150 years ago) would be one step further than was required - the mellowness would certainly be lost. However, the Trust accepts that limewashing is likely to be necessary in future to prolong the life of the render and repairs.

The windows on the principal floor were replaced as part of improvements in 1873. Although all of these were in varying degrees of decay, it was felt that the Victorian sashes, glazing bars, and internal alterations consistent with the Aesthetic Movement, should be left, with repairs and outside decoration to ensure their continued survival.All existing glass, including cracked panes, was retained wherever possible.

Works to the outside of the house also included stabilisation and repair to the main staircase, replacing missing structural elements only. Over the years, some decorative elements in the balusters have been lost, but these were only replaced where structurally necessary.We have not repainted the balustrades, because to do so in their present condition would exacerbate the deterioration of the ironwork, nor did we wish to strip off the historic paint layers.

The roof over the kitchen court to the west of the house was missing when the Trust took over the estate and there was no evidence of what it looked like. A simple glazed structure, preventing further deterioration of the area, has been inserted until new evidence emerges.

In the interior of the house, the majority of the work was to the services.

However, in addition to limited structural strengthening, alterations were necessary to provide accommodation in the attic floor for the house steward, an internal lift for disabled access, a disabled WC, and staff work areas and offices in the basement.

The rare survival of its early decoration is so significant to the history of the house that the Trust has striven to protect the existing surface textures throughout all the interior work.When installing the services, only the floorboards could be disturbed.Complete rewiring of the house had to be done by using existing wiring as draw wires; where sockets could not be wired without disturbing surface textures, they were left blank.

The Trust has installed 'conservation heating' throughout the house, not for human comfort but for the benefit of the building and its collections.Each room is monitored by radio telemetry, which records and controls the relative humidity by means of heating A full fire and security detection system was installed - again, the only routes for cabling being within the floor voids. And, in addition, for the first time in a Trust property, a fire suppression system has been installed, which will ensure that any fire outbreak should be confined to the room of ignition, preserving the rest of the house and collection.The sprinkler heads are virtually invisible.

Costs

The acquisition of the property and development of the project could not have been possible without funding from the following:

Heritage Lottery Fund - an endowment grant of £5 million and grant towards the project

European Regional Development Fund - a grant for project works lHistoric Scotland - a grant for project works The total of £12.7 milllion is broken down as follows:

£5 million endowment

£3.2 million purchase of collections and contents

£4.5 million conservation project costs (over three phases of work)

CREDITS CLIENT National Trust for Scotland ARCHITECT LDN Architects QUANTITY SURVEYOR John Dansken & Purdie MECHANICAL AND ELECTRICAL ENGINEER Irons Foulner Partnership STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Elliot & Co FIRE SUPPRESSION CONSULTANT Forbes Leslie Network LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Peter McGowan MANAGEMENT CONTRACTOR Linford Bridgeman CONSERVATORS, CONSULTANTS AND CONTRACTORS architectural paint research Papers and Paints; architect for historic buildings survey John Renshaw; archaeologists Addyman &Kay; specialist joinerywork Woodwork & Design; specialist ironwork Chris Topp & Co Wrought Ironworks; joinery and ongoing builder/joinerywork HM Raitt; masonry Ian Cumming; plasterer Plaster Restoration Company

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