EVERY architect dreams of building a home of their own, so when Gareth Roberts and Andrea Wise came back to Glasgow after working in Moscow for 18 months, they were thinking of finding a plot of land and building themselves a house.
After several years of looking, and distracted by their jobs and the arrival of their daughter, Izzie, Andrea and Gareth finally came across a plot of land 45 minutes out of Glasgow, up an awkward hill on the side of a loch.
“We were happily living in Glasgow when we went to visit a friend who lived in a hamlet overlooking Loch Long. Her house was halfway up a very steep hill on the loch side, and the view out over the water and the hills beyond was stunning. We could literally see for miles and, being so high up, the light was fantastic,” says Andrea.
Loving the view as well as the little hamlet community, Andrea asked around about plots for sale and immediately booked an appointment to see one.
“It was just a few metres away from our friend’s house and I thought it would be perfect, but the problem was persuading Gareth. Although we had always wanted to build our own house, Gareth was not sure about living so far out of town. We both enjoyed our jobs and our daughter Izzie was still very little so we didn’t want to be miles away from her during the day in case there was a problem. Committing to buying the plot was essentially agreeing to changing our lives,” says Andrea.
The plot had been on the market for five years as several different builders had decided it was too awkward a site to develop. Situated on a very wet, steep hill covered in rhododendrons, brambles and mature trees, there was no access and it was difficult to see where a house would sit. Added to that, the track to the hamlet was often cut off from the main road in winter. Not surprisingly then, it took the couple a few months to make up their minds.
“It was only our optimism and our thought that as architects we should be able to think outside the traditional house box and rise to the challenges of the landscape that made us consider it. Plus because of the inherent difficulties, it was cheap, which was of huge appeal,” says Andrea.
Once the decision had been made to buy it, nothing happened in a hurry. The purchase alone took a year and every weekend of the following 12 months was spent clearing rhododendrons and trees, and creating access to the site. There is now an eight metre-long timber bridge which serves the rear of the house.
While preparing the ground, Andrea and Gareth had time to survey the plot and find the perfect site for building. Most of the hillside was either rock or bog, so their choices were fairly limited.
They eventually settled on a platform of rock three quarters of the way up the plot near the road. It was close for access, rock rather than bog and high enough to offer a stunning view.
Andrea and Gareth worked on a design of six split levels connected by five staircases with a kitchen at the top, living room on the next floor and the bedrooms below. The floor levels stepped down while the roof remained level, allowing the ceilings throughout the house to vary from the very low snug by the front door to the double-height living room.
Built from a timber kit with a three-storey front glass gable and covered in cedar cladding which mellows with age, the plan was for the house to tier up against the hillside.
“Most architects and builders want houses to look imposing from the road. We wanted the opposite. We wanted it to look like a small bungalow from the back and look impressive from the loch,’ says Andrea.
“It was more important to us to get the build right so we spent three years saving hard before we moved on to the next stage. We were determined to remain within our budget so if one thing cost more than expected, we had to compromise on something else,” says Andrea.
There were certain things on which the Roberts did not want to compromise: the high quality timber frame, insulation, cedar cladding and a zinc roof. All the internal fixtures and fittings could be upgraded at a later stage but the integral structure of the building could not.
“Both Andrea and I are architects specialising in energy-efficient buildings and have experience working for the Living Village Trust, which create villages of new eco houses where the emphasis is on the living space. The houses are energy efficient but more importantly have open, flowing spaces.
“When we were designing our house we wanted to take advantage of the stunning view with large double-height windows yet still have small, snug rooms where we could feel cosy and safe in a winter storm,” says Gareth.
The idea works beautifully inside. The five-metre high windows in the living room offer fantastic views of Loch Long and capture the sun’s heat. The living space is connected to the garden by the cedar balcony. A small wood-burning stove in the centre of the open-plan living room, hall and staircase keeps the core of the house warm, and fuel bills down.
The kitchen runs the length of the house and the windows on three sides make it a sun trap. The simple Ikea fittings are livened up with a slimline Smeg hob and Artemis lights. The table came from Habitat, while the pew was rescued from a local church.
The snug’s sliding wall is made from three door blanks side by side, framed and covered in a veneer. The result is a sliding door that opens the house up for entertaining or shuts the snug up to be warm and cosy on a winter’s evening.
In Izzie’s bedroom, an Ikea net curtain keeps her bed and playroom separate. From a tradition that started when she was a baby, Gareth and Andrea give her a light every Christmas and the one seen here is by Tom Dixon.
The house is an ongoing project that has taught them a huge amount, not least about the difficulties of building on a tricky piece of land. However it has also brought greater insight into being the client, essential since they have set up their own practice, Organic Architects, in nearby Helensburgh.
“We have been in business for three years and specialise in energy-efficient buildings and passive houses. We have recently completed a new-build which has no heating. The only source of heat is through the large, triple-glazed windows, the heat of the residents and one wood-burning stove with a heat distribution system. We would like to build a house like that for ourselves, but we don’t want to leave somewhere that we love so much. It was a project that changed our lives. And all for the better,” says Andrea.k
Organic Architects (01436 670 922, www.organicarchitects.co.uk)