Welcome to Treetops: a spectacular hillside site, an impressive contemporary design, and a build cost of just £140,000. Didn’t Colin and Iona Smith do well?

Twenty thousand pounds seems like a small price to pay for a plot of land on a beautiful wooded site amongst the peaks of Perthshire, but Colin and Iona Smith knowingly purchased a whole heap of trouble along with their bargain plot.

They were advised that it would be impossible to build on such a steep, thickly wooded strip of land, but the couple were prepared to take a risk — recognising that this could be their only hope of attaining a family home in the area for themselves and their daughters, Cara (nine) and Anya (eight).

The Smiths had relocated to Aberfeldy from northeast Scotland due to work commitments, leaving behind a beautiful three bedroom waterside house – dated 1726 – which they had renovated and sold for £46,000. However, property prices in the affluent Aberfeldy area prevented the family buying another home and they ended up renting for almost five years.

Project Details

  • Name: Colin and Iona Smith
  • Build Cost: £140,500 (£851/m²)
  • Build Time: 1 Year
  • Build Route: Self-managed subcontractors
  • Region: Perthshire

“We were living in a flat and desperately wanted more space and a garden for the girls,” says Iona. “Houses in our price range were quickly snapped up as second homes – sometimes for as much as £100,000 over the asking price – so we were effectively being squeezed out of the market.”

Keen to get back onto the property ladder as soon as possible, the couple were interested to hear about a disused piece of land nearby. “I’m a city boy and really didn’t want to live in the countryside,” says Colin, “but the land is right next door to some friends, and so when they told us about it we decided to take a look.”

Access to the woodland was along a narrow track, and with no services on site the Smiths knew it was less than ideal. Measuring 75 metres long by 15 metres wide, the steeply sloping, overgrown strip of land presented numerous challenges.

As an architect, Colin is accustomed to coping with such dilemmas, however, and was convinced that he could design a home which would overcome the difficulties whilst making the most of the elevated location and stunning views.

“We agreed to buy it for just £20,000, conditional upon getting planning permission,” he says. “Everyone else was very negative, but the planners themselves didn’t have a problem with the idea because the plot falls within the designated local plan for development.”

Inspired by traditional long houses and the organic, understated designs of Australian architect Glenn Murcutt – whose motto is ‘touch the earth lightly’ – Colin designed a long house in two distinct sections. Raised up on wooden stilts, the structure has a treehouse quality and is clad in larch weatherboarding with curved corrugated aluminium roofs.

The majority of accommodation is on one level, with an open plan living/dining room and kitchen leading out onto a deck at one end of the building and bedrooms positioned on the other. A mezzanine gallery contains his and hers offices to either side of the staircase, with a utility/boiler room housed on the ground floor.

“The design was entirely governed by the site and its orientation,” Colin explains. There are few openings to the north side of the building, where services and bathrooms have been positioned. Instead, the majority of glazing faces south, with large picture windows and sliding glass doors capturing the sun and stunning views.

“Projecting the dining area out means that it receives the sun all day and can enjoy views in two directions,” says Iona. “Our bedroom is to the east end of the house, which means that we can watch the sun rising through a long slot window, positioned so that we can see out while we’re lying in bed.”

Fixed windows and sliding glazed screens were made to order by friend and furniture maker Angus Ross, but the triple-glazed timber windows were purchased off the shelf. Brown aluminium cills have been replaced with pressed aluminium versions for a more contemporary finish.

Cara and Anya’s rooms are currently one large space, with built-in bunk beds acting as a central divide. In the future, this could easily be split into two bedrooms. A fourth bedroom has been left open plan to the hallway and doubles as a TV snug for the children and their friends.

“Everything was carefully detailed,” says Colin. “It might appear simple because we have white walls and oak flooring throughout, but only the snug is a conventional box-shaped room with a flat ceiling. Everywhere else there are curves, voids and varying ceiling heights, which meant that it wasn’t a particularly easy house to build.”

Once permission was finally forthcoming from a neighbouring farmer to bring services across his land, Colin and Iona worked together to purchase materials and manage their chosen team of subcontractors.

“We stayed living in our rented flat during the build and financed the project with an overdraft from the bank, which was converted into a mortgage once the house was finished,” explains Iona. “It was far more comfortable than living in a caravan, and we paid a constant amount for a 12-month period to cover the interest.”

Colin continued to work long days, weekends and evenings in order to fund this additional outlay — leaving little time for any hands-on involvement in his own project.

A retaining wall was taken down and a new driveway created to access the site, but deliveries could still only be made in small vehicles. The solution was to store everything in a friend’s shed three miles away and then transport these items in manageable loads.

The house was built by individual tradesmen rather than a single contractor . “It did take longer to go down this route — and there was a particularly long wait between the shell of the house going up and being completed,” remarks Colin.

But still, the build progressed relatively smoothly, and after 12 months the Smiths moved in on Colin’s birthday, in March 2006. Their biggest extravagance was the contemporary woodburning stove in the sitting room, but an unexpected windfall from a relative exactly covered this unanticipated expense.

“We also have a wood-pellet stove with a back boiler which runs the central heating and hot water,” says Iona. “It’s such a warm, comfortable house, and we love the fact that it feels so private and remote, when we’re actually part of a small village.”

“We had the house valued at £360,000 when it was completed,” says Colin, who spent £140,000 building the four bedroom property. “We couldn’t have afforded to live here if we hadn’t built it ourselves, and not only are we back on the property ladder but we’ve managed to jump up several rungs in the process. Now we wouldn’t consider going back to living in a town.”

Building Treetops

The steeply sloping nature of the site means that the building is raised on a series of stilts — timber columns that stand in steel shoes which were made and installed by a local metalworker. A joiner then erected the heavily insulated timber framed structure, with a single contractor responsible for electrics, heating and plumbing. Concrete pad foundations were completed by a groundworker, and a bricklayer was employed to construct the porch section of the house in blockwork — a necessary requirement due to the constraints of the site. Plasterboarding, the larch cladding and second fix carpentry were completed by a team of joiners who also tackled the corrugated aluminium roof — which was purchased direct from steelmaker Corus, pre-curved, for just £10/m².

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