WHEN scenery builder Stuart Nairn struggled to find reliable premises in Edinburgh, he spotted a gap in the market for a new business.

Instead of downsizing his own company’s workshop, the 45-year-old took the plunge and rented a much larger space, in a warehouse in Leith, with the aim of providing facilities for other self-employed people experiencing similar difficulties, adamant that the venture should be a community resource.

A year after opening, Edinburgh Open Workshop provides an ever-increasing number of tradespeople, artisans and artists with a flexible space to make, create, share tools and collaborate, often on a pay-as-you-go basis.

It’s a model that is already popular in Europe and the US, and with the economy in Scotland moving towards more self-employment, Mr Nairn believes it has the potential to grow and flourish.

“As well as fully-equipped wood and metal workshops, we have a painting area, a craft room and a number of studios,” he explains. “We already have a really diverse range of residents, and also members who use us on a flexible basis, including furniture makers, joiners, knife-makers, props makers, visual artists and sound designers.

“We’re already seeing some interesting collaborations. One of our furniture makers creates beautiful presentation boxes for one of the knife-makers,” he says. “The warehouse is a creative hub where people share expertise as well as space. We’re also looking into setting up courses and workshops to give people more confidence in using the facilities.”

Mr Nairn, who is originally from Dumfries, was quick to recognise the changing realities and priorities of the economy.

“The idea of spending your working life with the same company is very outdated,” he says. “More people than ever are working for themselves, whether through choice or not. We can help people, often younger people, to find their niche. People can’t afford to buy all the tools they need to set up in things like furniture-making. By using the workshop they can carry on doing the thing they love, while hopefully creating an income stream.

“Self-employed people don’t want to pay high overheads. They’re looking for flexibility, which is where the pay-as-you-go element comes in. People can join for a year then pay for space as they need it.”

Edinburgh-based Mr Nairn and his two co-directors, Nicola Milazzo and Natasha Lee-Walsh, set the business up as social enterprise with the help of a £25,000 loan from government-backed Transmit Start-Ups. In the years to come, they hope to expand to other sites.

“I think we may have struggled to find this level of finance from a bank, and this has allowed us to invest in marketing, signage and a new dust extraction system,” he explains.

“Hopefully we’ll double use of then facilities over the next year, then we’ll take stock and decide what to focus on. Everyone who comes through the door wants something different – we’re trying to find a middle ground where lots of different interests and practices can work in the same environment. And if we can make it work here, we can hopefully roll the same model out to other cities.”

And with the social enterprise sector currently growing by 10 per cent a year – there are estimated to be around 5,600 in Scotland - what advice would he offer others looking to set up in the sector?

“More people than ever before are interested in things that are going to engage them in the wider community,” he says. “That sort of thing used to be seen as part of ‘hippy’ culture, but it’s much more mainstream now.

“There’s much more of an acceptance that we all need to contribute. What you need to do is find and focus upon the thing that people need to get out of the social enterprise. It should help people contribute to the community.”