WHEN Julie and George Nicolson commissioned interior designer Sam Booth to design a toilet block they got a lot more than they bargained for.
The Nicolsons live on a 190-acre sheep farm near Kirkpatrick Durham in Dumfries & Galloway. Concerned that they had all their eggs (or sheep) in one basket, they decided to diversify by adding a holiday let to the farm portfolio.
“We were looking at a project to spread the financial risk and the idea of a holiday let had been a few years in the talking stage,” says Julie. “Initially we approached Sam because we were considering building a shepherd’s hut, but then we realised there’s no room for a toilet in a shepherd’s hut so we spoke to Sam about constructing a toilet/shower block.”
Sam continues: “My view was that it would cost more to build the toilet block and the separate shepherd’s hut than to build and design something that already had a toilet in it. I had an idea that I’ve always wanted to put into practice and that was a little modular off-grid building. I suggested the idea to Julie and George and said that I would be willing to take on the financial overspend if it went over budget. I used them ruthlessly to exploit my idea, and bizarrely they agreed to go with it.”
“I didn’t see it as a massive risk,” says Julie. “We had a little pot of money (£30,000) which we knew if we didn’t use now it would get eaten up on other things. Sam had a slot in his schedule, we’ve seen what he does and we were quite confident it would work. Sam came along with these very cute little models of the pods and we just decided to go for it.”
Sam’s concept was to create a series of modular pods which can be configured in any number of ways. Each pod is 3 metres by 3 metres because this is the maximum width you can transport on a public road without requiring police permission. The pods are made up of spruce ply boxes stacked on top of each other and filled with sheep’s wool. Externally the pods can be clad in any number of materials but on this occasion, Julie and George opted for larch, which they felt would help the pods weather nicely into their field environment.
“I’ve always been interested in looking at ways of building and living sustainably,” says Sam. “The Holy Grail is to reduce the energy of the building if you can and make it zero carbon. There’s a sliding scale per square metre, but the other way is actually to reduce the square metreage of the building. These pods are partly trying to prove that you can build on a reasonable scale, a smaller house, which although compact you can live in comfortably.”
Julie and George chose a four-pod design that would sit atop one of their fields, gaining an impressive view of the surrounding countryside. In planning terms the pods are classed as caravans, the legal definition of which is that each structure is capable of being lifted to site in no more that two pieces. So the four-module layout was created as two halves, each of two modules, that could then be linked together on site. The result is a square building incorporating an L-shaped kitchen/diner/living area with patio doors leading to a small deck. At the rear of the pod is a double bedroom and a shower room.
There’s no denying that this is not a large building, but it does have everything one needs. The double bedroom is more spacious than most budget hotels and the kitchen has a gas hob, oven and fridge which are fuelled by two solar panels. There’s a wood burning stove to keep the place toasty and a gas boiler to heat the water. The L-shaped design ensures that the living areas feel spacious and the views outside only add to this ambience.
The décor has been kept simple so as not to detract from the pod’s structure, which is part of its appeal. The skylights and the pitched roof create light and the illusion of space and, of course, allow guests to enjoy what the region is now famous for – its dark skies.
“Asides from the design, the concept appealed because the impact on the environment is minimal,” says Julie. “It’s built on little concrete pads so you don’t need massive concrete foundations; it’s not fenced off so the sheep will just wander around it. Our plan was that it simply sat in the field and blended in, and it’s doing that already.”
For Sam, his prototype has been a success. His clients are happy and although there are a few modifications he’d like to make, in essence his idea has worked. “It took me approximately a week to cut everything out in the workshop and start assembling. However, then we had this ludicrous week when it all ground to a halt because of the weather. Due to filming commitments we brought it to the field half-built, which wasn’t my intention.” (The project appeared on George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces on Channel 4 last month and filming dictated the timescale.)
“Up here you’re so aware of the weather and we spent a lot of time putting the tarpaulin on and then taking it off again half an hour later. It took far longer than it should have, partly because it was only me doing the work, although Julie and George’s children Archie (10) and Maisie (8) were my slave labour and a great help.
“I like the form and the scale of the pods but they don’t work as something you build in a field with a hammer. The next step is to look at the process with a manufacturer and adapt it to see what you could do in a factory to make it easier. With regards to budget George and Julie spent just under £32,000 so I wasn’t too far off on my costings, either.”
For the Nicolsons, who have planning permission for a further three modules, they’re already excited about the next design. “You can configure them differently, clad them differently, paint them differently,” says Sam. Julie continues: “Maybe our next one will be a six pod or a two. It will definitely be a different configuration. We don’t want to create a holiday park, we just want to make enough money to continue to live here and enjoy it. One thing’s for sure, doing this has been far more interesting than commissioning a toilet block.”
• Brockloch Bothy is available to let through Canopy & Stars from £550 per week or £86 per night. Short breaks are also available, tel: 01275 395 447, or visit www.canopyandstars.co.uk. You can contact Sam Booth through Echo, tel: 01556 510025, visit www.echomodular.co.uk