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Crown Estate Conservation Award Newhailes House, Musselburgh

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Stirling Prize 2003

Newhailes is a national treasure and deserves to be treated with the same care as would a painting or piece of sculpture. As such, it was the subject of a detailed study into the nature of its beauty before any work began or damage was done. The resulting conservation plan carried out by LDN Architects for the National Trust for Scotland placed any changes in the context of the whole rather than treating any element in isolation. The £4.8 million project consisted of work to the house (including external repairs, the improvement of access and the updating of services), work to the stables (including the provision of visitor facilities and staff offices), and works on the estate (including restoration of the gardens and a new car park).

The judges said: 'The contribution by Law & Dunbar-Naismith to the minimalist preservation of the Grade A-listed 17th-century Newhailes House lies at the cutting edge of building conservation theory. The house was acquired in 1995 by the National Trust for Scotland with its fabric, decorations, fittings and contents dating back to all the periods of its four-century existence. After extensive research, the trust decided to preserve the house as found, with all its mellow ageing, rather than heavily restore it to some selected date in the past. Unsafe balustrades were re-fixed, but their peeling paintwork was left untouched pending redecorating at some later date. Bowed floors were checked for structural integrity and further movement simply inhibited. This policy of conservation rather than restoration has shocked some visitors, more used to the brightness of conventional restoration.

Much of the key conservation work is all but invisible, such as the installation of electrics, heating, disabled access, fire detectors and sprinklers. The use of radio telemetry helps reduce the amount of wiring in the principal rooms and enables the fire brigade to pinpoint a fire source with uncanny accuracy.

(The use of such equipment elsewhere alerted the brigade to smoke so they were on the scene the instant the first flame appeared. ) But backstage, these services are exposed, following the routes of Victorian plumbing and gas pipes.

'The family regarded themselves as stewards rather than owners of Newhailes, declining creature comforts such as central heating because of the damage such changes would cause. The National Trust for Scotland continues to take the same line: that to replace anything is to take away from the past. They are to be commended for this exemplary approach to conservation.'

Elliott & Company was the engineer and Linford-Bridgeman was the contractor.

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