Lecture given to the Rural Housing Service Conference 2013 in Birnam, Perthshire

A number of years ago I received a phone call from a young academic from Stirling University.  She was involved in the Earthship project and saw striking similarities between these environmental American houses and the stone and turf built Hebridean blackhouse.  I quickly told her that I was not the person she needed to talk to.  It was Duncan ‘Stalker’ Matheson, a master thatcher and clachair from Kintail who was a renowned expert on the Highland building type.

A couple of weeks later I met her off the Skyeways bus at Eilean Donan Castle and drove her down past Loch Long to Camus Luinie to meet Duncan.  After she explained the ideas behind the earthship – how it was a made of local recycled material, including tin cans and tyres, Duncan pointed out the window.

‘Do you see those hills?  In the past the locals used to pull the heather to thatch the cottages.  It was a backbreaking job but the thatch was good.  Then the landowner stopped the practice because he wanted the heather for the grouse.  Then reeds were cut for the thatching.  But when straw was imported into the area that was used.  When they could afford slate thatching was discarded altogether’

The point Duncan was making was that people will always embrace technology if it makes their lives easier.  Just as we wouldn’t go back to washing our clothes in a twin tub machine or a river, we should not go backwards in house construction. It was a kind way of saying he didn’t see a link between the earthship and the old blackhouse.

That is not to say there wasn’t a lot to learn from the blackhouse. But the lessons to be learnt wasn’t using stone, sod and thatch.  Nor was it collecting human and animal waste for fertilizing the crops.

But having a long narrow plan that was hunkered down against the wind is important.  The open plan, open to the apex spaces can be inspiring and reserving the openings for the sunny side does make sense.  Most importantly, the central fire, never allowed to die, gave constant warmth, captured and stored in the floor and walls. It does not mean putting a composting toilet in your house.

Instead of developing into a modern home the blackhouse changed little in 1000 years of history.  That is because people had no security of tenure, did not own their land and therefore did not own their homes.  Improvement could also be rewarded with increased rents.

When land tenure did change the houses that were build to replace the blackhouses were pattern book whitehouses.  These pretty, classically proportioned buildings are common across the Highlands and are now seen as the typical west Highland house, despite being an imported farmhouse style.  Although an ‘improvement’ they were imposed and in terms of technology a step backwards.  From having a 90% efficient heating system with a central fire, these houses lost 90% of their heat through the gable walls and up the chimney.  My gran told me that it was said there was a death associated with the building of every one of these houses.  The labour involved was comparatively onerous with stones having to be lifted 6m rather than the shoulder height for a blackhouse.

The next phase in the development of housing in the Highlands was the introduction of the timber kit house.  Although certainly a warmer and more technologically advanced than the whitehouse it had gone backwards in one respect.  Its design was alien to the Highland landscape and way of life.  Often clumsily sited on platforms with no thought of wind or topography, these houses can jar in the landscape which can ultimately have detrimental consequences.  This can be seen in Ireland where a beautiful landscape has been desecrated by ten of thousands of these buildings.

          Blackhouse                                                      Whitehouse                                              Kithouse

Highland home Scotland - view from inside


While I was at university my colleague – whose mother was from Gedore in Donegal, and I – whose mother is from Skye – did a comparison between the housing condition between the two areas.  My most striking memory was not the rash of ugly houses in Ireland ( which by all accounts is ten times worse now) but speaking to a retired shepherd who lived in a caravan on Skye.  He explained how he kept his clothes in bin bags to keep them dry and often he found his cutlery frozen to the draining board in the morning.  The simple fact was that people were living in housing conditions far worse than the blackhouse, far worse than locals a thousand years before.  For some, housing technology was primative.

When myself and my brother Neil set up Dualchas Building design we were determined to develop the blackhouse as a housing type that could help deal with these social problems.  It was to be a truly vernacular building which means it has to be a response to the environment.  That is not just the physical environment but also the available technology that is understood by local builders and which is, most importantly, affordable for the prevailing economic conditions.  The result was several social houses that qualified for the Rural Home Ownership Grant.  They were small, timber frame houses which were directly influenced by the form of the blackhouse.

It is interesting to think that what we are now designing may have been how the blackhouse would have developed had the link had not been broken by history.  Our ultimate expression of the blackhouse – which is not built as social housing – is the house at Boreraig Skye.  The plan is almost an exact copy of the Hebridean blackhouse of the western isles.  In it’s detailing and use of technology – oak faced ply, heating system, lighting, touch panel hidden wall cupboards – it results in a dramatic space within an extremely simple low, land hugging form.

Likewise, the pretty, but cold and internally uninspiring – two up, two down, white house can be brought into 21st century.   We were presented with a house in Elgol which had a continuous dormer and the render removed to show off its stone work.  These are two not uncommon mistakes.  The original dormer windows were part of a carefully proportion classical fenestration. Change the windows and you are scarring a beautiful face.  The render was there to protect the stone against the driving rain.  The stone was never intended to be exposed and the build quality reflects this.

Fortunately our client found a photo of the house from the 1950s when it was used to advertise Snowcem – a type of external paint.  We decided to reinstate the elevation but to utterly transform the somewhat dismal internal rooms with extensions to the rear and side.  This allowed light to be brought into a new depth and volume to be combined with huge glazed area in a new living room.

What these two projects demonstrate is that modernity and technology can be combined with tradition and beauty.  I would argue that simplicity, modernity and beauty is what should be achieved with all architecture. This is what we should strive for with all housing.

The Highlanders who lived in blackhouses were very poor.  The houses they built, given their poverty and the extreme weather conditions, were a wonderful response to extremely challenging conditions.  Today, although poverty can in no way be compared to that of previous generations, there are still huge challenges facing the housing sector in rural Scotland.  Poor housing conditions and homelessness are still endemic.

There are two great forces at play that make these challenges difficult to overcome.  One is the recession, the failure of the banks to lend and the stagnant economy.  The other is the ever improving building standards, forcing houses to be environmentally friendly, low carbon and efficient.

This presents a problem for the building industry.  The response from Homes for Scotland, the body that represent private house builders in Scotland, is to argue that building regulations should be rolled back.  Likewise in England the view of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition appears to be to loosen regulation.

My view is that these forces should be thought of as a gauntlet that has been thrown down to the building industry.  A building industry that – when times were good – ruined countless Scottish villages and towns with their developer led ‘Brookside Close’ schemes that gave no respect to town planning, culture or communities. Their sole motivation appeared to be profit and free lending banks duly obliged.

The contractor developers that want to go back to those days are ultimately finished and that is good.  Progressive contractors such as CCG see the competing forces as an opportunity that will give them a competitive advantage. That is why they are investing millions in closed panel next generation kit systems.

Next year building regulations will be tightened.  By 20115/16 new houses will have to be close to Passive House standard.  That change cannot be understated.  It means that stick built timber frame will probably fail air tightness tests.  Those contractors that have not embraced technology as CCG have done may well go out of business.  The risk of having to start taking a house apart because it has failed an air tightness test is a risk that will make much current building techniques obsolete.  And this has to be done as incomes are being reduced and government spending is slashed.

Our response to these new challenges has been through HebHomes.  The initial idea of HebHomes was to have predesigned kits that were detailed, engineered and modelled that could save clients time and money in architect fees.  By being simple but well proportioned narrow houses they could easily slot into most sites and find favour with planners – many of whom were sick of trying to improve the terrible kit designs that landed on their laps every day.  We also embraced technology in the form of SIP panels.  This sandwich system gives a continuous envelope of insulation, eliminating cold bridging and providing superb air tightness.  It also allows extremely quick erection to wind and weathertight. Repetitive components reduce mistakes, waste and save money.  As building regulations change we will always look to stay ahead and improve our product and service.  That means developing houses that reflect the landscape, culture, embrace technology but are affordable within the prevailing economic circumstances. Houses that are truly vernacular.

There are others that are trying to square the circle in these austere times.  In London a company called Rational House has developed a panel system using reconstituted materials.  Their success though is simple design.  They have developed a house based on the proportion of the Georgian Terrace.  They can erect quickly, use advanced technology and can do it cheaply. But most importantly the houses are beautifully proportioned and generous.  3m high ceilings and large windows create elegant internal spaces.  The result is affordability but also high value.

This is inspirational and is how our industry should behave. It is also a lesson for the social housing sector.  There is nothing more dismal than the prospect of housing associations and councils trying to solve the problem of the two competing forces by squeezing space, building shoe boxes with solar panels on top.  Even Boris Johnstone has recognised the folly of this and has increased the space standards for London Homes.

The challenge of our times is therefore not just for the architects, engineers and contractors.  It is the same for the client bodies, especially in the social sector.  They have to lead by example.  Every person who lives in a house built by a local authority, housing association or subsided house should be able to experience the joy of good architecture.  It is where we spend a large part of our lives.  Delight should not be a preserve of the wealthy or middle classes.  And the users of these buildings are not just those who live in them.  It is also those who see and experience the houses.  We are privileged to live in a beautiful country with outstanding landscapes and glorious towns and cities.  Every building has an impact on the environment.  A basic rule is that each architectural intervention should improve our environment, not diminish it, not ruin it like the Irish have done.  The way to do that is to strive for beauty.  It need not cost more money but it will certainly add huge value, especially to people’s lives.  Beauty makes people happy.  It is also truly sustainable.

I remember being at a conference several years ago when an architect spoke about his environmentally friendly demountable building.  He explained that every piece of skirting could be unscrewed and very piece of plasterboard reused.  An engineer followed his presentation with images of Castle Sinclair in Sutherland.  He explained that each stone had been carried hundreds of feet from the bottom of the cliff to build the castle.  The embodied energy in the building was huge.  But, he pointed out, ‘It is standing after a thousand years.’

The point he was making is that if you do not achieve beauty in your building, in our built environment, then future generations will not preserve it.  It does not matter what the carbon footprint is or if you can unscrew a skirting if the house is razed within 30 years. But if efficiency is combined with good design the you will have truly sustainable buildings and good value.

Alex Salmond recently announced that he would like to see the right to a home embedded in a new constitution of an independent Scotland.  A right to a home should be self evident as shelter and warmth are two of the basic human needs.  I think we should be more ambitious.  I think everyone should have the right to a home with delight.  A home that will make them happier.  Homes that will be cherished for lifetimes and ultimatley be of great value to wellbeing, health and our country’s assets. It is something that we can deliver through vision and inventive progress.

This ambition will say a lot about the kind of country we want Scotland to be.  It is not a country where the disabled are forced out of homes or have benefits cut because they are judged to have a ‘spare room’.  Neither is it a country where school architecture has been reduced to a tick-box exercise where common space, light and volume are viewed as wasteful; where great, inspiring architecture is a preserve for the privately educated and the rich.

It is time to choose a different path.

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Homes + Interiors Scotland - Dec 2012