Scotland’s Housing Expo

Learn about an expo whose aim was to stimulate and showcase imaginative new approaches to 21st-century housing.

Two homes look over a village green on an overcast day. People are milling about the edge of the green and an older person in the foreground is sitting down reading.
Published: 02/07/2013

Scotland’s Housing Expo in 2010 was the first of its kind in the UK. It demonstrates a creative response to the desire for innovation and encouraged the exploration of new housing standards for sustainable design, innovative construction, energy efficiency and the use of low-carbon and renewable systems and technologies.

Case study: Scotland’s Housing Expo

Download this case study to take away key learning and project information from Scotland’s Housing Expo.


Prompted by the Scottish Government’s desire to bring the Finnish model of a housing expo to Scotland, Highland Council initiated the project. It did so with the active support of:

  • Scottish Government
  • Sust., the government’s sustainability in architecture programme
  • Forestry Commission Scotland
  • Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS)
  • Highlands and Islands Enterprise
  • Highland Birchwoods
  • Homes for Scotland
  • Inverness Architectural Association

Highland Housing Alliance (HHA) was responsible for the implementation with Cadell2 (now known as AREA) as its appointed masterplanners.

Inverness is one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe, but in the rush to accommodate rapid expansion, ideas such as creating a strong sense of place and community have been sadly neglected. The four-hectare site at Balvonie, Braes is located next to a planned new local centre in Milton of Leys. The expo is the first phase of 55 homes on the site, with 45 further houses scheduled in a second phase on the same site.


Aim of the expo

The expo’s aim was to stimulate and showcase imaginative new approaches to 21st-century housing. And it was to allow a comparison between the standard house builders’ product, as is evident within the immediate area, and housing with properly planned community infrastructure. Cadell2 established an urban design proposal that set a strong spatial vision and placemaking agenda for the site. A broad range of house sizes, formats and tenures was set to create a diverse community.

Design competition

Cadell2’s (now known as AREA) urban design framework contained a design code that formed the brief for an RIAS design competition held in 2007. Intense interest in the competition inspired participation by leading architects in Scotland. Each of the successful architects was asked to form a plot development team with a developer or a housing association, purchase a plot, and finance construction. But this financial model did not survive the economic downturn and the Highland Housing Association had to step up as developer.

Inspiration: local landscape

The distinctive design of the masterplan is inspired by the character of the immediate landscape: the moor and forest edge, the elevated shelf of 18th-century pasture, and the wooded dens and burns cutting through the steep slopes below. This has led to sheltering buildings, bridges and causeways leading to them, new water channels, and newly planted tree lines.

All of this reflects an analysis of the wider landscape structures and patterns. Elements of the existing landscape are carefully preserved: a walled drinking trough, drystane dykes, surviving fragments of moorland, and native forest. Inspired by settlements in the rugged landscapes of the Highlands, the housing layout of the expo makes sheltered streets by using buildings as a buffer against the wet and windy local climate.

Inspiration: sociable qualities of Highland settlements

The streets and housing layout are inspired by the sociable qualities of settlements in the Highlands. For example, crofting communities with their nearby common grazing areas where farming work was shared in wintertime. Or Hirta, St Kilda, where an island parliament was held outdoors on the streets.

Innovative urban design strategies

A series of innovative urban design strategies have been used in the expo. They are geared towards a more social, healthy and sustainable lifestyle, and a safer, sheltered and inspiring residential environment. It seeks to create a sense of community, designed by collaboration between the masterplanners and the plot architects.

A house overlooking a street and neighbourhood green, with about ten people in the street.
Image credit: AREA


The whole process of creating this ambitious project for the first time in the UK involved a significant learning curve for everyone, including the architects. The result was the creation of 52 diverse, unique and visionary interpretations of future living, all set in an overall vision for community living.

The key objective of the expo was to showcase innovative, sustainable housing and placemaking to a wide audience to help change attitudes towards house and place design. Since the event, several studies and reviews have commenced with a view to collecting both anecdotal and formal feedback on the impact that the research has had in this respect.

In use

At the start of 2011, people were beginning to move into the houses, turning Scotland’s first housing expo into the Braes of Balvonie, a community in what Wayne Hemmingway has described as the best housing development in the UK.

“We have established what it means to deliver an Expo and the level of interest amongst the general public exceeded expectation.”

Susan Torrance, Chief Executive, HHA

Key lessons

The expo successfully opened to the public in August 2010 attracting over 34,000 visitors in one month. Feedback confirmed that there is an appetite among the public and the industry to explore and advance innovation in placemaking, streetscape design and sustainable housing.

The urban design objectives of the masterplan have been largely realised in the expo. Some elements of the planned public realm and architecture were missing or omitted in the run-up to August 2010 due to time constraints. But the majority of these elements were completed after the public event.

The expo has demonstrated aspirations for creating well-designed, energy-efficient and sustainable communities by building a permanent community in Inverness. The completed first phase allows a direct comparison with the standard house builders’ product, evident in the surrounding area.

Locally sourced materials were incorporated in the streetscape including:

  • natural Caithness paving
  • reclaimed granite setts
  • Nairn gravel retained in Bodpave
  • reclaimed hardwood railway sleepers
  • Scottish glacial boulders and Scottish larch in the walls
  • boardwalks
  • reclaimed granite streetscape seating
  • swale storm barriers

The HHA has 24 private houses to sell in order to repay the bank and release the Scottish Government guarantee: no small feat in the financial climate of 2011. A post-expo focus group review highlighted some of the key lessons learned from the expo:

Encourage the use of local materials

We need to find ways to fund innovation and encourage the use of local materials. These may be more expensive, but local manufacturers also need to undertake product development to compete with continental imports.

Promote the use of Scottish timber

The same message is true for the promotion and use of Scottish timber. This is a cause that in some ways prompted the expo, but which needs concentrated research and development work.

Fix the financial equation

The financial equation does not add up at the moment. Developers are being asked to fund higher than current building regulation requirements with no added value for a post-2010 Building Standard Regulations house.

Find a champion

One point raised in relation to the success or otherwise of such an event is the need for a true champion to promote it.

Building Performance Evaluation report

Scotland's Housing Expo project was completed in 2010 and comprises 26 individually designed low energy homes. The Building Performance Evaluation study was undertaken from August 2012 – October 2014 and the final report submitted to the funding body TSB (now Innovate UK) in December 2014 and approved by them in February 2015.

The study examines the relationships between design intentions and predictions, impacts of the procurement process, users’ experiences and perceptions of the design, and metered environmental and energy performance. Occupant engagement, in the form of diaries, and the testing of improved occupant guidance were included as part of the project.

Building performance evaluation - Scotland's Housing Expo 2010

Download to read the full evaluation report here.

Header image credit: AREA

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Our website includes a web-based resource that showcases sustainable, traditional, innovative, recycled and low carbon building materials. If you are looking for inspiration or information on different types of materials to consider for your project, visit our materials library. 

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