Case study: The Leaf Room

What is the history of the building, monument or area?

The Leaf Room lies within Ninewells Community Garden, which lies in the beautiful arboretum of Ninewells Hospital, Dundee. Before opening in 1974, Ninewells Hospital recognised the therapeutic value of external scenery to patients and staff. The intention was for wards to overlook quiet, landscaped gardens and the arboretum woodland.  Today, Ninewells Community Garden’s mission is to promote physical activity, wellbeing, rehabilitation, therapy and good health through gardening.

The garden is run by volunteers, with the support of a garden facilitator, and is open at all times for the public, patients, staff, community groups and garden volunteers. The space is used for picnics, walks and play as well as gardening and a range of other activities.

In 2015, the Community Garden ran a two-stage design competition for architectural practices working in Scotland to design and build a garden room. The winning design, The Leaf Room by Jonathan Reeve of Voigt Architects, includes a spacious indoor room, large glass doors that open fully onto a decking area and a wood-burning stove to keep cosy in the winter.

The Leaf Room is inspired by the natural form of a folded leaf. A green roof overhangs a rectangular-shaped timber box underneath which functions as a living room, garden retreat, community room and educational training facility. The building sits comfortably in the garden space it occupies, creating a strong link between building and the excellent community garden.

The building is extremely environmentally conscious, being constructed primarily in natural Scottish timber, and will be uniquely 100% off-grid with no mains service connections, no electricity requirements, a wood-burning stove and rainwater harvesting.

How did the project begin and what community need(s) was it seeking to address?

The mains aims of the project were to:

  • Develop a permanent structure overlooking the Ninewells Community Garden
  • Provide open and sheltered access to the garden for all patients, staff and visitors to the hospital grounds so that they can enjoy and gain therapeutic benefit from the garden and its surroundings
  • Include indoor space for use as a communal area, as well as open/sheltered space to allow more vulnerable visitors to look over and enjoy the garden
  • Be realised primarily in Scottish natural timber
  • Enhance the garden as an area for leisure and recreation for the local community, patients, staff and the wider public
How did you source funding and support for the project?

The Leaf Room has been made possible by generous funding from a number of charitable groups and organisations including NHS Tayside’s Community Innovation Fund, Forestry Commission Scotland, Alexander Moncur Trust, Welsh Family Trust, Leng Charitable Trust, Harold Merton Adams Charitable Trust and the Green Exercise Partnership comprising Scottish Natural Heritage, NHS Health Scotland, NHS National Services Scotland and Forestry Commission Scotland.

How did the project progress from inception to delivery? What obstacles did you overcome and what were the major milestones?

The project obtained Planning Permission in November 2015 and Building Warrant in March 2016. Ten local companies were invited to tender in December 2015 with tenders returned in January 2016, all of which were significantly over the initial budget.

Following this, a list of cost savings were identified and contractors were invited to complete a ‘cost savings spreadsheet’ containing items such as: reducing preliminaries, simplifying excavation and simplifying the roof/gutter detail.

The revised tenders were cheaper, but still over budget. Following additional input from the Forestry Commission in March 2016, the funding gap was met and the project could proceed.

The preferred tender from S&R Developments was accepted in March 2016 and work started on-site that month. There were a number of challenges experienced by the team during the construction phase:

  • Delivering a building that was completely off-grid
  • Removing huge tree stumps from the site – these stumps were underground and not picked up in initial survey, and were required to be removed for the proposed foundations
  • Experiencing delays for the timber delivery (main structure, cladding, decking)
  • Using complicated pre-fabrication construction carried out off-site, which was then rebuilt on site
  • Dealing with properties of natural timber
  • Receiving incorrect decking, requiring the timber supplier to take it back and resend the correct order
  • Dealing with practicalities of heavy components. For example, the main beam arrived in one section instead of three, almost shutting down the A&E helipad.
  • Creating a self-composting toilet, which was a critical element of the brief from the client. Weeks before it was due to be installed, Ninewells Hospital Infection Control deemed it to be unsuitable, and required us to remove it from the design and later install a fully-serviced toilet.

Following a massive team effort, Shona Robison opened the building on 11th November 2016 and was welcomed to the garden by NHS Tayside Chairman, Professor John Connell, Chief Executive Lesley McLay and garden facilitator, Sarah Griffiths, who introduced the Minister to staff, patients and children who use the garden and volunteers who look after the garden.

What has been the impact of the project on the community? 

The building and community garden have been embraced by local people, staff, patients and local groups who come to the garden and take part in the many varied activities. Here’s what a few of them had to say about their experiences:

  • “When you come here you forget what is going on in the world. It helps take your mind off it. You stand here, there’s no noise and you see families; it reminds you that there’s life outside COVID.” – Lorraine Law, community member
  • “This little corner of Dundee is very special and provides a sanctuary for all, wildlife and human, but in particular our amazing NHS staff who can avail themselves of its peace and tranquillity during these stressful times for them.” – Jim Smyth, community member

Since the onset of COVID, the garden has become more popular with local residents unable to enjoy indoor attractions and hospital guests restricted in the length of time they can see patients.

The community garden has also worked with the Dundee Green Health Partnership on activities such as craft and mosaics clubs, and establishing the first Green Book Library based at the Leaf Room.

What’s next for your project? 

We again are joining forces with Dundee Green Health Partnership to support health prescribers to offer nature-based interventions for people who may be isolated or unwell. Planned events include Meet the moths, which is hosted by David Lampard, county moth recorder and McManus Curator of Geology and Zoology.

We are also planning to expand outwith the garden to install a number of ‘Leaf Shelters’, inspired by the Leaf Room, around Ninewells Hospital.

To learn more about The Leaf Room and Community Garden