If location is everything, Moira and Alfred McKay are very fortunate in their beautiful rural home. Standing high above rolling farmland on the Aberdeenshire coast, the self build looks out to distant seas on three sides.

The couple inherited the third-of-an-acre site on which the house stands – together with a traditional granite cottage – from Alfred’s father. “We were living further up the coast at the time and we initially thought we would just sell the cottage,” says Moira. However, the house the couple were living in was not ideal, and they began to wonder whether they could alter the old building to accommodate their lifestyle.

Moira was chatting to their local church minister, who was organising renovation work on the church, when the project architect – who had a keen interest in conservation – came into conversation. Curiosity led Moira to arrange a visit.

On arrival, architect Gökay Deveci’s reaction was immediate: ‘Why not just knock the house down and start again?’ “At first we were shocked,” Moira laughs. “We had never considered knocking down the house.” However, Gökay could see that the granite used to build the house was of poor quality and that the house’s orientation on the site did not make good use of the stunning location. The more Moira and Alfred thought about it, the more it made sense. The old house wasn’t listed, so the decision was soon made: demolish it and start again.

This left a blank canvas for Moira and Alfred to create a low-maintenance house that would be easy to heat, while accommodating their needs. It was important that much of the living accommodation was on the ground floor, as Moira suffers from reduced mobility. In addition, they wanted a home that would be suitable into old age. Gökay has not disappointed on any count.

Project Details

  • Name: Moria and Alfred McKay
  • Build Cost: £350,000 (£1,842/m²)
  • Build Time: 8 Months
  • Build Route: Architect and main contractor
  • Region: Aberdeenshire

The most striking aspect of the new house is its contemporary glass frontage. Despite this, it sits comfortably within the rural Scottish landscape — perhaps because the overall long linear design harks back to the traditional Scottish longhouse.

The original house had very small windows: “In fact,” Moira smiles, “my father-in-law wanted them even smaller, as he believed [correctly] it would help to keep the house warm.” However, the vast windows are triple glazed and argon filled. Placing larger windows at the south and smaller windows at the north also means the house benefits from passive solar gain with minimal heat loss. The roof windows, which are a feature of both the front and rear elevation, break up the roof line as well as allowing natural light into the upper rooms and double-height spaces.

Architect Gökay and his assistant Gary Smollet oversaw the build process. They hired a local firm of builders, MacDougall and Masson, as the main contractor. Many aspects of the build were new to the builders, but they were keen to respond to the challenge of learning new approaches. The house is of innovative blockwork construction with 250mm cavity insulation. The external blockwork is 140mm plus 250mm water-resistant mineral wool insulation and 100mm internal insulation blockwork — all giving a U-value of 0.12. This means the walls are extraordinarily thick, like the walls of traditional granite buildings in Aberdeenshire.

As Moira and Alfred were living nearby, they could visit the site on a weekly basis to see the progress of the build. “I can remember the day it was all pegged out with string, thinking, will I ever really live there?” says Moira. There were, however, delays. Digging out the site for the foundations took longer than planned, due to how stony the area is. As Moira points out: “This is farming country. A house had been built on this site for a reason — namely because it was obviously not possible to farm.” A local farmer was paid to take some of the stone away — which now forms a grassy mound in a next-door field.

During the build, ideas also changed and developed. “I believe that design evolves,” comments Gökay. “What you see on a piece of paper and on site are very different things.” The original design had included a spiral staircase, but Moira decided against this. The space is now occupied by French doors which lead out to a small semicircular balcony on the upper floor. This looks out to the sea and gives the feeling of standing on the deck of a ship.

As well as delays, the evolving design process involved additional expense. Yet, the couple were happy to stretch their budget — it was essential to ensure they had the level of quality and the finishes they wanted. They remained confident the house would be worth it and quite different to anything that they could hope to buy ‘off the peg’. “We are not all meant to live in the same boxes,” Moira comments. “From the design stage I was able to walk about the house in my head and visualise it three-dimensionally. This meant I stayed positive throughout.”

The main living area has a vaulted cathedral ceiling, which creates a sense of space. Floor-to-ceiling glazing connects this room with the rural views — fortunately for Moira and Alfred, privacy is not something they have to worry about in this sparsely populated area. With the master bedroom suite on the ground floor, everything is very accessible. There are two further bedrooms and a living space upstairs — ideal for when the couple’s two children visit.

The interiors are streamlined, with features such as shadow gaps replacing traditional beadings and cornices. Located in the joins between the ceiling beams and skirting, these small indentations allow shadows to pool and create a sense of depth and texture in the large neutral spaces.

Although contemporary, this clean-lined house pays homage to Scottish design. “I would call this house a culturally sustainable building,” says Gökay. “It takes cues from the Scottish vernacular but it also accommodates today’s lifestyle, such as the need for open plan spaces for flexible living arrangements.” Moira believes this layout has changed the way she and Alfred live and interact with each other and their children: “The open plan nature of the house encourages us to interact as a family, as we are sharing a space rather than shutting ourselves off in separate rooms. The spaces flow, so I could be in the kitchen while Alfred is in the living room but we are still very much in touch with each other.”

The house is a testament to intelligent architecture that combines innovation with a traditional regard for craftsmanship and context. Sometimes it is good to cherish and restore old buildings, but not all houses are worth the time and money. The couple have no regrets about demolishing the granite cottage and starting from scratch: “I never dreamed I would ever live in a house like this,” Moira concludes.

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