The story of inaugural self-builds can often read more as warts and all accounts rather than smooth experiences, but Roz and William Wordie’s first foray into homebuilding is definitely one of the cheerier chapters. That’s not to say that there weren’t the inevitable hitches and hiccups – there were – but a close collaboration with their designer and a more laid-back approach to delays and deadlines eventually yielded a peach of a project
The resulting house, Ceol Mara, is situated on three-and-a-half acres of loch-side land in Wester Ross, gifted to Roz and her brother Warwick by their parents 15 years ago. Having explored various schemes during this time, it was only when Roz and William began a family that they resolved to build a long-term family home, eventually buying Warwick’s share of the land. The site had previously housed a holiday cottage where Roz’s family used to spend their summer holidays. Roz admits that the old house “was a terrible wreck” prone to flooding, so it had to be demolished, but she was also determined to reflect this “happy place” in their new home. As a result, Ceol Mara similarly boasts timber construction and a steel roof.
Yet that’s where the similarities end, for Ceol Mara, unlike its traditional, modest predecessor, is an ambitious and boldly contemporary design, imagined by eco builder Bernard Planterose of Ullapool-based North Woods Construction. “The design Bernard presented to us was a surprise but it fitted our requirements, so we went with it,” says Roz. Much of the surprise lies in the fact that Ceol Mara is in effect two houses — a deliberate device largely dictated by the challenging steeply sloping site. “I thought that the house should be divided into two distinct buildings: a long horizontal living area and a separate, highly compact and vertical three storey bedroom wing joined by a link,” explains Bernard. “This way we could harness the two main views: one up towards the mountains; and one towards the loch.
“As an eco builder I was worried about the orientation, as the house backs into the hill, which is south facing. But by offsetting the house to the views, it faces the first blast of morning sunshine and, due to the mass of glazing on its main elevation, succeeds in heating the house throughout the day. The thick Thermafleece (sheep’s wool) insulation in the living areas and Actis (multifoil) in the basement help retain the heat. It’s an unlikely orientation for an energyefficient house but it seems to work.”
The challenging nature of the design is matched by the complex construction. “There’s a huge amount of reinforced concrete work in the basement and retaining wall,” explains Bernard. “The living area is built on an elevated steel sub-base with huge columns. Above, the superstructure incorporates timber frame structures, but in two distinct types, with post and beam in the living area and conventional stud framing in the bedroom wing. They’re even clad differently — the bedroom wing features the more sophisticated, fully machined and profiled horizontal cladding in Scottish larch, whereas the single storey living area is finished in rough vertical timbers. Finally, the roof is simple profiled steel.”
Construction of the 160m2 home began in early 2004 and was completed in time for Christmas 2005. This 22-month timescale was due in large part to a series of major logistical problems. For starters, there was no access road and the steep 1:7 gradient of the site meant that all of the building materials had to be unloaded at the top of the hill and offloaded onto trailers. Then everyone’s worst fears were confirmed when excavation began on the foundations to reveal bedrock.
As a result, the foundations had to be redesigned and re-engineered, which swallowed a £33,000 chunk of the total build cost. “When it came to the design,” says Roz, “we wanted an open plan living, dining and cooking area, as well as windows low enough so that we could see the views when sitting down. We also wanted a balcony, underfloor heating and wooden floors.”
One of the star features of Ceol Mara’s interiors is the exposed post and beam frame structure in the main living area, which lends a strong nautical feel. “The degree of precision to handle these fixtures required some expert help, so I enlisted the skills of a bridge builder,” says Bernard. “All the steelwork in the main living area was laser cut as we needed such a high degree of accuracy. The building is on a high, exposed site so it was necessary to take these steps.”
Another impressive feature is the Guttmann Lara glazing. “We were the first people in Scotland to use this German system,” claims Bernard. “We fixed the glazing straight to the timber frame; they’re dryglazed and unframed. It’s a very specialised system incorporating gaskets and aluminium profiles, and this meant that the timber frame couldn’t have much flex in it as it would affect the movement of the glass. There’s a hell of a lot of engineering in this building.”
“It’s such a warm and cosy house yet open and light, and the construction and finishes are fantastic,” smiles Roz. “And since it costs so little to run – we’re paying just £10 a month thanks to a ground-source heat pump – I feel like we’ve already paid for the house.”