The mountains, sun and aspect of the garden actually designed the building,” says architect Andrew McAvoy of the barn he has converted and extended for parents James and Sandra, in deepest rural Aberdeenshire. Taking this impressive trio as the metaphorical cornerstones of the project’s design has paid off, certainly in terms of recognition, for it achieved a double whammy at the Aberdeenshire Council Design Awards Scheme — walking away with Most Innovative New Building and Most Sustainable New Building.
The house – ‘Mill O’Braco’ – is a welcome sight after travelling along a network of narrow, minor roads. The impressive glass and timber wing is a striking yet cosy addition to a group of late 19th century farm buildings, set into a valley overlooking the distant but nonetheless imposing Bennachie mountain range. Nor are they just any old mountains, as Andrew – of Glasgow-based Bl@st Architects – explains: “My parents spent a lot of time looking for a place that inspired them, and the mountains that they now see from the house are where they spent a lot of time walking. They had a real attachment with the place.”
Yet, finding a site like that of Mill O’Braco’s was not an easy task. “There was a law that precludes people buying their own house sites unless they are tied via employment to the land — luckily we identified this early on,” says Andrew. “One of the ways to get round this was to find a redundant building, so for two years we scouted around the countryside looking for rundown structures.”
Still, the McAvoys really couldn’t have stumbled upon a better site in terms of views, aspect and garden — all of which were at the top of their wishlist. However, with the site came a long barn that the family would have to use as the basis for their new home. Its size meant that Andrew not only had a conversion job on his hands, but a design brief to extend this building to provide the space his parents needed. Consequently, he would also have the local planning committee to overcome.
“The problem was to do with percentage for extension. We were running contrary to local planning policy, meaning we had to go to a planning committee. We were told that we were allowed a 50 per cent extension, but we were arguing for 110 per cent!” explains Andrew. The McAvoys sat tight and in the end a resolution was reached. “When it went to committee, they could see that with the limited proportions of the existing building it would be difficult to create a three to four bedroom house.
Our main argument was that moving out with a new wing was a means of generating light and energy for the building, and it dealt with the required privacy of where to put the living rooms. My parents felt the living rooms should be related to their garden, but because the building is part of a courtyard group, none of the rooms could fit comfortably in the existing steading. “In the end, the local planning committee were very supportive and fair, and when we got to the point of standing on the site and explaining what we were going to do, they were very receptive.” So what was Andrew going to do with the site he had been given a free hand with?
Well, the original east/west-facing two storey barn would house the kitchen, a bedroom and bathroom (complete with sauna) on the ground level. Stairs would lead up to a further two bedrooms and bathroom on the first floor, under the coomb of the barn roof. The new wing would then run perpendicular with the barn – or “flow into the old” – with a large south-facing living and dining area, and cosy gallery space above. “The levels and dimension of the extension were really determined by the presence of the existing building,” adds Andrew. “We thought, given that it was a strong farm group, we shouldn’t overplay the extension. If anything we should work with the proportions of the original building so as not to contest with its presence.
The design became entirely site specific. “Given that the extension would have a southfacing aspect and that we wanted to pull as much light into the old building as possible, we knew we were looking at a predominantly glazed frontage. This meant that we could set the architecture up on a frame system and insert glazed panels — and this is where the idea for an oak frame kicked in.” The extensive glazing would also enable the McAvoys to maximise passive solar gain — light and heat gained from the sun.
With the help of a crane to install the sections of oak frame from Carpenter Oak and Woodland Co, the contemporary extension was constructed. “My parents didn’t really understand what the whole oak frame thing was about. Until it landed on site, they couldn’t imagine how those spaces would look. So it was a shock – albeit a pleasant one – for them.” James is suitably impressed with the effect of the structure: “There are no nails, it’s all dovetail and mortise joints and pegs, and it should last a good 300 years.” A stepped roof tops the frame, where “the idea was to sneak views of the mountains from the gallery,” adds Andrew. “My parents live up there — the house revolves around the kitchen in the morning and in the evening they sit up on the gallery.”
The McAvoys are also rightly proud of the eco credentials of their home. The timber for the project was sourced and processed locally by Cromartie Timber. Warmcel insulation (recycled newspaper) has been packed into the walls and into 50 per cent of the roof. On the old barn’s roof, Tri-Iso insulation, a composite membrane, has been used. “If you look at the buildings round here, they are all robust stone with a lot of presence. The tech in this house is hidden.” This includes the highly effective and efficient underfloor heating which lies beneath stone tiles and wooden floors.
So, what of the actual building experience itself — for in effect the McAvoys co-ordinated around 40 per cent of the building work themselves. “Well, it took 18 months, and we had hoped it would take a year. But working with an old building adds expense and slows things down,” explains Andrew. “We couldn’t afford to pay a contractor to take this whole project on and deliver it, so together as a family we had to manage a series of trades. But by coordinating the project ourselves, we’ve managed to keep hold of various costs and keep the quality up.
“As a family, we even demolished the existing roof ourselves, and managed to reuse around 65 per cent of the original slates,” explains Andrew. Of the local contractors using predominantly local materials, James, the proud owner, adds that the experience was ultimately very rewarding: “We had excellent builders, stonemasons and joiners. They came in and did a great job”. “It’s surpassed all of our expectations,” concludes a very proud Andrew.