Independent and collaborative architect who won awards for her environmental and regeneration work in her adopted home of Scotland
Bernadette Nora Anne Balfe, architect, mountaineer and environmentalist was born in Dublin in 1962 and raised in County Waterford. She took an honours degree course in architecture at University College Dublin, and during a year out she worked for Mattel in Los Angeles as a toy designer. Fellow students admired her as 'one of a kind…small in stature but big in personality…very much her own woman'. After graduating in 1985, she moved to London, where she studied for her professional practice qualifications and met Nigel, her future husband, a landscape architect with a ruined house – the remains of the gatehouse to the former Bermondsey Abbey. Together they set about restoring it. Meanwhile Bern got a job with the in-house architecture department of the BBC, where she built up expertise in the alteration of old buildings, in space planning, acoustics, and project management. She was the project architect for a new circular office below the rotunda courtyard in Television Centre that included a complex radial glass roof light, 200m² in area. She designed this to represent a wave, in collaboration with specialist glass engineers, and inserted it around an existing sculpture of Helios by TB Huxley-Jones. Users of the offices expressed their delight in their new accommodation; this was to influence Bern in her later career.
In 1994 she moved to Edinburgh, and was project architect on the alteration of a grade A listed building by James Gillespie Graham and A W Pugin, at the top of the Royal Mile, with brief to create the headquarters of the Edinburgh International Festival. This achieved Scottish Design and Edinburgh Architectural Association (EAA) Regeneration/ Conservation Awards.
'One of a kind… small in stature but big in personality… very much her own woman'
In 2001 Bern started her own practice in Edinburgh and focused on small projects with budgets less than £250,000. She noted on her website that: ‘One of the advantages of this scale of work is that the procurement process can be more easily managed so that it doesn’t get in the way of good design and craftsmanship.’
Over the next 16 years she established a very successful and respected practice. She also worked in the voluntary sector: as architect in the house for Shelter, in the Planning Advice Service (PAS), and supported her local community over the controversial Caltongate proposals.
Her approach was highly collaborative. She believed the synergy between client, builder and architect was essential: ‘Working with an architect should be based on trust. The client needs to be open about its ambitions, personal values and budget. The architect adds creative design skills, knowledge of materials, the building process and sustainability in use to turn an aspiration into reality.’
‘One of the advantages of this scale of work is that the procurement process can be more easily managed so that it doesn’t get in the way of good design and craftsmanship.’
With an interest in low energy use and sustainability, she studied at the Passive House Institute in Darmstadt and in 2012 she obtained a Certified Passivhaus Designer Qualification. Afterwards she wrote: ‘There is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation around the subject of sustainable design for low energy use and it can be confusing. The Passivhaus standard is one that I trust, because it is based on building physics. It only attempts to control what can be measured and it has a long and well proven track-record to show that there is almost no gap between theoretical and actual performance of a Passivhaus designed building.’
She sketched beautifully and had a strong 3D imagination, and brought a gentle intelligence to her work. She gave delight through her creative use of light, colour and space: ‘Sometimes simply adding a window to a room or altering the connections between rooms can transform an uncomfortable house into an uplifting home.’
She liked this quote from George Bernard Shaw, which perhaps best sums up her collaborative approach: ‘If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I still have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.’
She was diagnosed with cancer in 2016 and died at home in Edinburgh on 17th August 2017.