“Shortly after we completed the house,” recounts Alan Dickson, “150-mile-an-hour storms hit the island. A few days later, when we bumped into our neighbours in the local Co-op, they were genuinely surprised to see us and learn that the house was still standing. I think they were under the assumption that a wooden house on Skye was going to blow away!”
Alan and wife Gill’s decision to design a detached wooden home on an exposed, wind-lashed site on the north-west coast of Skye might have had its local detractors and disbelievers. Yet, the success of ‘Wooden House’ – which still remains firmly rooted to its site – reveals far more method than madness.
“We had always envisaged living in a wooden house, and originally I also intended to build a large part of it myself, so the idea of ease of assembly was important. I liked the idea of a ‘Meccano’-type timber kit rather than building with blockwork,” says Alan of the couple’s first self-build project. In the event, Alan relinquished building duties to a local contractor, but remains convinced of the merits of Wooden House. “We deliberately intended giving the house a simple, rustic character. It’s not a fussy context, so why build a fussy house? It’s set into a direct rural landscape and we wanted to reflect this in the form of the house.”
The idea of Wooden House emerged four years ago, when Alan and Gill were still living in a cramped flat in Glasgow’s West End. “Initially we thought about building a house on the outskirts of Glasgow – until we saw the plot prices! Since we had both spent a lot of time on Skye during holidays, we had the idea of building there,” explains Alan. Following a search, the couple eventually found a plot that ticked all their boxes, namely: “Space and openness; a connection with the sea; and something remote but with amenities not too far away.” As soon as the couple saw the plot they knew that it was the one for them. Admittedly the site had its challenges. “Although it’s a five-acre site, there’s not much of it that’s buildable,” says Alan. “There’s a 45-degree slope that nobody would be mad enough to build on! But there was capacity for development.”
Ascertaining that the site had water and power, Alan and Gill then set about forming a design. “We started with a simple shape and roof form – something that would be relatively easy to build and cost-effective. Once we decided how big a building we could afford, we squeezed as much out of it as possible,” says Alan. “We actually got planning for a slightly bigger house. But then we realised that we had far too much space, so we tightened it up and redesigned it.”
The result is a striking two storey, five bedroom house which enjoys spectacular sea views. The bespoke timber frame construction features Norwegian spruce cladding with untreated larch detailing. The roof is agricultural sheeting, in profiled fibre cement, reflecting the agricultural building tradition on the island. “The real benefit of this roofing system is that you end up with a thicker construction – so we got much more insulation than a normal roof would have,” says Alan. Completing the exterior picture is an arrangement of bespoke NorDan windows.
The post and beam timber frame has allowed Alan to play with internal volumes in the house. “Instead of it being massive timbers it’s more conventional cross sections of timber bolted together to make larger sections. Some have steel inside them to help hold up the house. Using this technique allows us to use the whole volume of the house without having to use roof trusses,” explains Alan. Indeed, the house cleverly combines a sucession of open plan and double-height spaces with a series of niches and nooks. There is only one internal door in the house: to the main bathroom.
The interiors continue the simple, rustic raison d’être of the building with Douglas fir finishes, Norwegian spruce ceilings and pine floors. The walls are painted plasterboard. Details throughout are no-fuss, therefore skirting and traditional facings have been dispensed with, in favour of clean lines and simple surfaces.
The underfloor heating powered by an LPG gas tank is one element of the build that the couple might have changed. “We did an experiment last winter where we switched off the heating and tried to heat the house with the Scan stove. With the house being open plan the heat can percolate – and it worked well.”
Another change that Alan and Gill would have made in retrospect is the creation of a utility area. “The fatal flaw in our plans was the lack of a utility room,” says Alan. “Having the big volume in the house means there’s no attic to dump stuff in, either.”
During construction, which took five months from laying the foundations to moving in, the family stayed nearby in different holiday homes – a decision that Alan admits cost the family “a fortune”. Yet this also meant that he could supervise the build as an architect.
Indeed, Alan and Gill are delighted with all aspects of their new home. “For us the whole thing has worked out really well,” says Alan. “However, raising a mortgage midway through the build was a lot harder than we had expected – mortgage companies don’t like wooden houses. I think that there’s still quite a prevailing bricks and mortar mentality when it comes to housebuilding in this country.
“But we’ve put all that behind us now, and we’re very happy to have gone down the self-build route, even with our original budget – which I would call naïve,” concludes Alan. “The whole self-build exercise wasn’t about making money but about where we want to live for the rest of our lives.