No going back

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O NE OF THE most challenging of all self-build projects is the complete restoration and conversion of a historic listed building. It doesn’t just require money - it also calls for physical and mental strength, tenacity and vision, plus lots of support from friends and relatives. Architect Chris Duncan and his wife Susan know only too well the cost of taking on such a project, having spent a harrowing year turning a 150-year-old B-listed former horse mill on the outskirts of Edinburgh into a unique four-bedroom family home.

Five years ago, fuelled by Chris’s interest in old vernacular buildings and the desire to bring up their two children in the country, they began searching for an old property to renovate. A few months later, having lost out on two, they heard about the horse mill, which was for sale with existing planning for a residential dwelling. They went to see it and, despite its derelict condition, were captivated. You did not have to be an architect to recognise the potential in what was, essentially, three buildings: a hexagonal horse mill linked to a cavernous granary building and a large arched two-storey former cart shed.

The setting was equally attractive: a one-acre site with views to the front across open countryside to the Firth of Forth, with the Pentland Hills to the rear. This time their bid was successful, so on a cold, bleak January day in 1999, the couple determined to realise their dream and be in their new home by the end of the year.

The existing house plans were not to their liking, so - while the missives were being concluded - Chris went back to the drawing board and reworked the layout to suit their needs. "The initial plan was to create one huge house that would have been far too big for us," he explains. "Also, splitting it into lots of rooms would have destroyed the volume of space that characterises the barn. We wanted to maintain the feeling of space by converting the granary into a two-storey home - with the hexagonal horse mill as a large sitting-room - and turn the cart shed building into a garage/workshop with an artist’s studio upstairs."

Chris’s design was more sympathetic, dividing the space into a series of rooms off a central hall and extended hall corridor, with a study and fourth bedroom at one end leading past ancillary rooms and a dining-room to a large kitchen at the other end. Upstairs, off a gallery hall, are the master bedroom and en-suite bathroom, the children’s bedrooms and a second bathroom.

Where possible, the couple have used traditional materials and building methods. For instance, the flat roof lights in the upstairs rooms are a special conservation type at the planner’s request. The integrity of the building is maintained with exposed stone walls, hardwood floors, log-burning and multi-fuel stoves, and original Caithness flagstone floors with underfloor heating.

"To support the mill mechanism, the hexagonal sitting-room had a complex open-beam roof structure, which we wanted to leave exposed," adds Chris. "Elsewhere, we aimed for a traditional rural character." A talented furniture designer and maker, Chris also managed to find time to make some of the furniture for their new home. Like the house, his designs are vernacular in style - chunky tables, chairs and accessories hewn from solid hardwoods.

To finance the project, the Duncans sold their Edwardian house in Edinburgh and moved in with Chris’s brother. They budgeted 80,000 to complete the project, using equity from the sale and an increased mortgage. They also managed to get a small basic-amenities grant from Edinburgh City Council and, as it was a listed building, they knew they would not have to pay VAT.

With hindsight, Chris and Susan admit it was not easy, particularly as they both had full-time jobs - Susan is a physiotherapist - as well as two children, Holly and Finlay, aged eight and five respectively when it all started. Fortunately, in case they ever forget just how difficult it was, Chris kept a log that charted the progress month by month.

The initial period was fraught by long spells of inactivity while the couple waited for final planning and building permission. At this stage, the size of the challenge they had taken on really hit home. Working to a very tight budget meant it was crucial that they did not overspend, but Chris had real fears concerning the state of the hexagonal roof timbers. Fortunately, the farmer who sold the property had already put in electricity, drainage, boundary fences and ground preparation. Without these being in place, the cost would have been prohibitive.

Then came an unexpected setback. Severe winter gales hit the building and removed an entire section of roof from the horse mill. "I’d been so busy worrying about rotting timbers that I hadn’t figured on the weather adding to our problems," says Chris. Paperwork took up more time - in particular compiling the formal specifications document, a massive brief that details all the materials, suppliers etc to form the overall costs of the project. To save money, friends and family volunteered to muck in and help dig the floor out. "It’s at moments like this that you know who your friends are," Chris adds.

Restricted by the building’s listed status, Chris had to utilise the existing openings for doors and windows, and retain the original appearance of the mill as far as practically possible, with only one new window opening into the ground-floor study. Roof lights introduce daylight to the first-floor rooms and the stair hall - a space that is landlocked in the centre of the plan with no external walls in which to place windows.

Chris designed the amazing wood and steel staircase, while timber-framed walls were chosen for economy and speed. Old internal doors - donated by a builder friend with an Aladdin’s cave of salvaged paraphernalia - were professionally stripped. And someone else contributed an old cast-iron free-standing bath - albeit full of black water and dead pigeons - which Susan managed to have restored. Progress was punctuated by landmark events such as the heating being installed. Conventional water-filled radiators heat the smaller rooms, while underfloor heating on the ground floor makes the flagstone paving in the hall comfortable underfoot.

Once the beech kitchen units and worktops and the Belfast sink went in - the latter was salvaged from an old school - the house began to look more like a home.

Nature continued to throw the odd spanner in the works. When a swallow made a nest in the rafters outside the master bedroom, everyone had to down tools. Because it is illegal to tamper with nesting birds, work had to wait until nature had run its course.

Nine months after work started, the family moved in. "After living in the city for so long, the sense of peace and calm first thing in the morning was almost tangible," says Chris. But the peace was short-lived. The circular horse mill-cum-sitting-room had still to be started, and the masons were still repointing, using traditional lime mortar - a slow and messy procedure.

Still, it gave them time to decorate the children’s bedrooms: dark blue for Finlay, and green and purple for Holly, whose room incorporates a gallery-style opening overlooking the hall. Glass bricks in the dining-room wall allow borrowed light to filter through to the hall. The dining-room has a cosy log-burning fire, while a similar free-standing multi-fuel stove provides a focal point in the spacious sitting-room.

Having now had a few years to enjoy the fruits of their labours, the Duncans have no regrets. "People often ask if we would have taken on the mill house if we had known then what we know now," says Chris.

"And although there were times when we could have been tempted to say ‘no’, it wouldn’t be true. Creating your own home from scratch is immensely exciting, and every frustrating event is balanced by the rewards of progress. But you can’t do it half-heartedly. It’s hard work, physically and mentally, and the paperwork can be a nightmare. We’re just so grateful to friends and family for their help and support."

Would they ever consider doing it all again? "Never say never," laughs Chris. n

Chris Duncan can be contacted at Mill Architects (0131-449 7470,