The Blackhouse of the Highlands
The Name 'Blackhouse'
The Walls and Roof
Response to the Environment
Lessons Applied to the Modern Longhouse
Dualchas wanted to develop a modern longhouse with a simple objective; to offer an affordable alternative to the brochure kit-house. The kit-house is the most common form of building in the Highlands, yet its alien form is despoiling the Highland landscape - thus threatening an economy which is highly dependent on tourism. We therefore wanted a house which was unmistakably Highland, yet modern; a house that could be seen as part of the cultural regeneration of the Highlands. To do this we sought inspiration from the true vernacular of the Highlands - the blackhouse.
Architecture is as important to the culture of a community as language and music. Great strides have been made in recent years to invigorate the Gaelic language and song - however, very little has been done for the culture of the built-form. The use of the American-inspired kit-house demonstrates that Highlanders, as well as Highland architects, still lack confidence in their own architectural heritage. The blackhouse is still seen by many as a symbol of backwardness and poverty - little more than a shelter. To us it is a marvel of purpose building in appalling economic and social conditions and an inspiration for a modern Highland house design.
Learning from the blackhouse meant discarding old materials for new, and bringing in the modern. It meant retaining some of the basic principles of the old design - but not the sentimentalities of the old construction such as thatch and stone. It meant affordability was paramount.
Our most challenging houses had to be able to qualify for the Scottish Rural Home Ownership grant. This meant they could be no bigger than 70m2, and have a construction cost in keeping with grant parameters. However, this did not mean building the cheapest house available. It meant maximising the grant and building the most spacious houses we could, within the budget and size limits.
It was decided that timber frame was the most suitable form of construction, as it is cheap, simple to build and can be erected quickly - essential in the Highland's capricious weather. The linear form of the blackhouse can be applied to today's buildings, meaning that the walls of the house can be easily spanned, cutting down on the timber required in the trusses. A concrete-slab floor ties the house into the ground and allows them to be built on site, with no factory involvement, thus ensuring more work and money for local joiners - not the kit-house companies.
The form also allows the house to slot into the hillside effectively with the main glazing orientated to make use of passive solar gain. The siting of the house in the landscape also shields the house from the prevailing south westerly winds, greatly reducing heat loss from wind action.
Energy efficiency is addressed not only in the siting and orientation of the house, but also through the use of a 150mm stud wall, allowing for the insertion of additional insulation. Combined with a 100mm-wide cavity, this design permits a wall to be thicker than that used in standard timber frame detailing. The design also gives a solidity that is essential - and traditional - in Scottish architecture.
Internally the house can reflect the spacious, open-plan nature of the blackhouse. Superfluous spaces to Highland living, such as a formal reception hall and a separate dining room, can be eliminated. The kitchen becomes central - the heart of the Highland home; and a central fire can act as the focal point to the living area. As with the blackhouse, the main space can be open to the apex of the roof, which adds drama, something usually sadly lacking in a kit-house. A house should also be planned so that it can is readily adapted, for example by converting the loft space, or adding an extension.
While this may be simple architecture, at Dualchas we feel that this simplicity could well be the answer to the scourge of the alien kit-house. The Highlands needs more affordable housing if its young people are to remain here and the economy and culture of this superb locale are to develop. The challenge is, how can we acheive this without ruining the majestic beauty of the area in the process.
May 17, 2013
Iona house completed
Dualchas's first house on the island of Iona has been completed. The five bedroom timber-clad house has split levels to allow it to fit neatly in to the landscape and make the most of the be...