Inspired by Skye’s simple, rustic agricultural sheds, Mary Arnold-Forster has built a low-key contemporary long house, aptly named ‘The Shed’, oriented to the sun and packed with sustainable features — including one of the country’s first exhaust-air heat pumps.
The starting point for Mary’s second self-build – and first as main contractor – was “the idea of marrying the humble agricultural shed with modern technology to make a place where lots of people want to come and stay”. And true to her aim, Mary’s new home, ‘The Shed’, situated on a spectacular plot on Skye’s Sleat Peninsula, is a clever combination of humble and hi-tech — and is attracting plenty of willing visitors, too.
- Name: Mary Arnold-Forster
- Build Cost: £180,000 (£1000/m²)
- Build Time: 11 Months
- Build Route: Self Managed
- Region: Skye
“I saw this site, with its amazing views, ten years ago,” says Mary, a Principal in successful Skye-based architectural practice Dualchas Building Design. “I spoke to the crofter who owned the land, but she was more concerned with selling a nearby site, so I bought the other site and built my first house there. “Five years later, the crofter asked if I knew anyone who’d be interested in the original site, and I said, ‘Yes, me!’”
Mary admits that she had to sit on the quarter-acre site for several years in order to save up enough money; however, this also presented an opportunity to work on The Shed’s design. Eventually, she took the plunge and made arrangements to sell her previous home in order to release the capital that she needed to go ahead with the build.
In the event Mary – and a Polish build team – went on site with construction of The Shed in 2006. The house took around a year to build and during this period Mary admits that she was effectively a full-time lodger. “I was also working full-time so I couldn’t work on the house over a concentrated period,” she explains. “I had to fit the build around my job and life. But the Polish build team that I employed worked really hard, and when they went away for a few weeks, I could catch my breath and get another trade in, and order materials. I think you need quite a bit of technical skill to be a contractor, but doing it this way saved me a lot of money. It also meant that I got to experiment with my ideas — something I don’t quite have the nerve to do with other clients.”
The “experimental” Shed turned out to be not only a testing ground for new ideas, but has also ended up as an extremely attractive and efficient home. In terms of its construction, The Shed is essentially a steel frame structure, which Mary says allowed her to create a layered effect to the walls. “The whole depth of the walls is around two feet, which is much more like a stone building. Starting from the inside out, there are built-in bookshelves in the interior walls; then sliding doors; then a midge screen; and finally external shutters. I’ve also fitted the gable window flush with the external wall, which is unusual for a new building.”
The Shed’s homage to the ‘humble agricultural sheds’ of the region is reflected in the extensive use of corrugated steel sheeting on the roof and cladding. “It’s maintenance-free and cheap — and I like the aesthetic,” says Mary. The wild storms of 2005 precipitated Mary’s decision to incorporate the rain screen and external storm shutters of locally sourced Scottish larch. The latter can be slid into place on a track in front of the large area of glazing to bring a sense of protection to the house.
“There are three shutters altogether – two storm shutters on the front and a storage shutter on the back – and they are all hung off a steel frame,” explains Mary. “They’re great — they really help with the wind-chill factor. It now feels much cosier than my last house that had this wall of glass, which was a bit overwhelming at times. The steel frame also allows me to hang a solar shade over the sheets of glass on the south, which filters the sun in the summer.”
The Shed also edges Mary’s old house in terms of its energy efficiency. This has been achieved by means of the first grant-aided exhaust-air heat pump in Scotland, provided by the Scottish Community and Householder Renewables Initiative (SCHRI).
The system was supplied and installed by Ecoliving, a specialist distributor of renewable energy systems. Due to the size and insulation levels of the house, Ecoliving recommended the NIBE Fighter 360, and installation was completed within three days.
“The exhaust-air heat pump takes the hot air from the shower room, bathroom and kitchen and runs it through the heat exchanger, which in turn fuels my underfloor heating,” explains Mary. “It’s much cheaper than a ground-source heat pump and isn’t noisy like an extractor fan. Efficiency wise, it’s costing me around £600 a year on bills — this includes my power, lighting and heating. As long as you over-insulate your house, use your stove and understand how to control the heating, it’s a very efficient heating system.”
The clever use of concrete in the interiors further augments the energy-efficient credentials of The Shed. “Polished concrete’s not everyone’s cup of tea but I love it,” says Mary. “I’ve tried concrete before on a floor but it failed – it cracked – which is why I’ve used the ceramic floor tiles. But the fireplace is poured concrete, which the Polish build team constructed. They brought their own stainless steel shuttering from Poland and did a fantastic job. When I needed a non-combustible material behind the woodburning stove, I had the choice of stone, which is expensive, or rendered block. But I decided instead to use the shuttered concrete, and this has become the baluster of the stair. The concrete also acts as a heat store, and since the upstairs living area is open to the staircase, it benefits from the heat, as does my landing study.”
The poured concrete fireplace, featuring the simple woodburning stove, occupies the heart of The Shed, which is arranged over two levels. The central area of the ground floor comprises an open plan kitchen/dining/living space, with a bedroom and bathroom located to the east with two further bedrooms to the west. The upper level extends into the roof space thanks to the spatial possibilities offered by the steel portal frame — which dispenses with the need for any ceiling straps or ties. A living area is situated in the west gable, with a master en suite bedroom to the east. Mary has created a small landing office space in between, “because I didn’t want my laptop on my dining room table any more. It’s small and on the landing, but it makes the best use of this space, as I wanted to avoid corridors and halls and unusable space,” she explains.
The simple rustic aesthetic of the exterior is echoed in the interior palette. “Inside, I’ve used only a few materials: oak which has been slightly bleached; and slate-grey ceramic tiles, which look like concrete, and concrete itself,” says Mary. “The oak touches lift the interiors.” The Shed’s beautiful solid oak features are by Skye-based furniture maker Stuart Shone, who created the H frame for the serving island; the table; the sliding larder door in the kitchen; and the book – shelves. A smattering of classic design pieces in the living area, including Louis Poulsen pendant lights and elegant Basil Spence-designed chairs around the kitchen table, add a personal bespoke charm.
The Shed is proving to be a great success overall. “It is a joy to come home to,” enthuses Mary. “I could have spent more money on more items, but selfbuilding is deciding what is false economy and what isn’t. I spent money on areas such as the windows which are high-spec sheets of low-E glass with argonfilled cavities, but they will need repainting as I didn’t go for the aluminium facings, which were more expensive. It’s difficult to know where to stop.
“But all in all it works really well, and the quality of light in the house is also a constant surprise to me. I spend hours looking out and have become a bit of a tracker of the day. I know where the sun rises and sets at any time of the year as I can track it in the house. There are also glimpses of views – of sky or sea or waterfalls – that I am constantly discovering and that define the experience of the house.”
Weathering the Storm
In response to the cottage’s exposed coastal location, Mary has included huge concealed storm shutters to block out violent wind and rain, which she can simply slide across in place when bad weather is approaching. When open (top), the shutters appear to be part of the house’s larch cladding, and when pulled closed (bottom), they reveal steel corrugated cladding on either side.