Creating a locally sensitive and historically contextual response at the University of Edinburgh


The Holyrood Project was developed to meet an unprecedented demand for postgraduate and overseas students travelling to study at the University of Edinburgh. This demand was conceived to be met through a unique, locally sensitive and historically contextual response that is of global significance.

Taking inspiration from the adjacent volcanic landscape of Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, the palette of materials, both underfoot and on buildings, is informed by both the immediate context and the desire to create this unique new urban landscape. The work of James Hutton, regarding the Salisbury Crags, a unifying concept of geology and geomorphology is played out across various public realm elements giving the site its own identity within the wider Old Town context. These linked elements include drainage, paving, seating and wall details. The historic boundary wall on Holyrood Road acts as the public face of this identity by reusing existing stone into a contemporary site boundary.



The Site / Local Context & International Significance
Within an UNESCO world heritage site, the old town of Edinburgh is an iconic city scape. Natural light is a valuable design component in such a dense urban environment. The relationship between light and dark through confined and open space within the old town is a key contributor to the spatial quality that the developed urban form draws on. The public realm in turn responds to this climate, aspect and colour through appropriate form, materiality and planting.

The light enhances the sense of anticipation, drawing people into spaces & down closes. This contrast of scale and unexpected light enlightens our experience of the old town and this development in equal measure. The constant reference of glimpse views between buildings towards familiar Edinburgh landmarks, the Crags or just the original
historic built form, provide constant reminders and comfort of context and orientation.



Creating Connections / Joining communities
The campus was a ‘brownfield’ site, an impenetrable city quarter that this project has punctuated by a multitude of routes, views and permeability from the Royal Mile to Holyrood Road. The steeply sloping site, dropping over 2 storeys across a city block demanded an intricate weave of spaces, pedestrian routes along with entry thresholds, delivery & maintenance access. The adjacent communities and ongoing development both north and south of the site now traverse through the completed high-quality public realm.

Cycles are a key consideration of this resident academic community and the wider city in equal measure. Early consultation with cycle groups influenced routes, crossings and detailing. The necessity of steps in the public realm is augmented by bike runners allowing users to wheel their bike across the frequent level changes.


Desegregation and slow-flow public realm
This characteristically tight grain and steeply stepped site of the old town did significantly challenge the external environments’ ability to deliver a modern student facility. The design solutions capitalised by delivering a slow-flow, shared surface, and public realm that maximises use and integrated facilities to reduce clutter. Furniture is kept to a minimum, and waste collection facilitated by subterranean or internal stores to prevent the street level proliferation of wheelie-bins.


Congregation and Discourse
The carpark that was Moray House Quad has been completely remodelled into a public park. For the first time in more than 150 years, this historically significant open space is providing an unparalleled opportunity in the old town. Framed by the existing 17th & 18th Century teaching accommodation staff, students, public and visitors alike are afforded the opportunity the relax, lunch, converse and perambulate in a park of lawns, planting and seating that follow the key concepts.



Surrounded by the core of the accommodation provision, and above the communal kitchens, are the Podium Gardens
A series of fractured plains of paved study pods, inclined lawns and herbaceous planting, all formed and contained by the corten seat walls that typify the concept. Affording both discrete and communal discourse, the spaces of the podium are at the heart of the social space for residents. The roof lights puncture the podium affording views up from the kitchens below to the planting that surrounds them. That relationship being inverted in the evenings when light from the kitchens turns them into glowing lanterns within the landscape.


Planting and Biodiversity
Our design ecologist was extensively consulted to ensure local biodiversity target species were effectively provided for to increase the ecological benefit to the urban context. Furthermore, the onward maintenance burden of the planted landscape is considered with a passive irrigation system allowing hard surface run-off to be captured in artificial aquifers to then reused by adjacent planting and soil volumes. These plantings are confined and not forced into areas that will have restricted light / rainfall. Extensive green roof systems integrate the habitat networks across the site, while also attenuating and controlling surface run-off and peak discharge volumes.


Life Cycle costing and Resource Conscious Design
Within the public realm and wider shared surface spaces, life-cycle costing was a critical influence on the robust detailing, pragmatic design solutions and material choices. The core concept has guided the material choices and detailing set to be tested by intensive use over a challenging terrain. The integrated design of large level changes has amplified the need for efficient use of resources, not just a concentration on ‘recycled products’. Where walls are needed, to facilitate level changes, they are programmed to include a seating element, where steps travers a route, they are appropriately scaled to support incidental seating and congregation, affording a sunny aspect or an inspiring glimpsed view through the urban form.

The re-use of site-won materials for the significant public realm walling need was a key consideration identified early in the scheme. The down takings where subsequently carefully removed from site and stored. Working with a local stone mason it re-purposed to provide the supporting context to the paving and other external elements and celebrated at the front of the site with the contemporary interpretation of the boundary walling to Holyrood Road.



Holyrood North

Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

Landscape Architect | HarrisonStevens
Design Team | Oberlanders Architects,JM Architects, Blyth and Blyth, RSP, Gleeds

Client | University of Edinburgh

Photography | ©Cadzow/HarrisonStevens

About Damian Holmes 3313 Articles
Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of World Landscape Architecture (WLA). He is a registered landscape architect (AILA) working in international design practice in Australia. Damian founded WLA in 2007 to provide a website for landscape architects written by landscape architects. Connect on Linkedin at