News – Renovating a Cottage on the Isle of Skye

When Gareth and Lynn John decided to divide their time between their home in Oxford and the Isle of Skye, they bought a field on the island with the intention of building a new second home. So why are the couple now living in a renovated and extended 19th century croft? Well, the conclusion may be one that the couple did not anticipate, but one that they now admit was a masterstroke of fateful intervention.

“When we first came up to Skye for a holiday, we fell in love with the place,” explains Lynn. “We then decided that we’d like to build a home here. So we looked around the whole of the island to get a feel for where we’d like to settle; this took us a little while.” Eventually, the couple decided on the Waternish Peninsula on the north-west coast of the island and purchased a field in the hope that they would receive planning permission to build a house. However, having sensed a local discomfort with the idea of a new build, the Johns decided to change tack. Their decision to respect the consensus of local opinion paid off when people in the area alerted them to an existing property in Waternish that was due to come onto the market. The house, a traditional one-and-a-half storey whitehouse croft – that had been “messed around with over the years” as well as suffering quite dramatically from damp – may have been a long way from what Gareth and Lynn originally had in mind, but the couple saw its potential.

After purchasing ‘Tern House’, the Johns invited Mary Arnold-Forster of Skye-based architects Dualchas Building Design to assess the job. “When Mary saw the house, she said, ‘Put your sledgehammers down, what you need is a bulldozer,’” laughs Gareth. “We didn’t anticipate that it would entail so much work. We envisaged living in it and doing it up over a ten-year period. But Mary said that if we progressed in this way, in ten years time we’d still have water coming in everywhere. The damp is the result of the house’s age – it’s 120 years old – and the fact that it had been pushed back into the hill via a series of rear extensions.” Before working in London, Gareth had previously trained as an agricultural scientist, and therefore knew a thing or two about irrigation and drainage. As a result, he took on the task of digging ten feet of soil from the back of the house and redirecting the water to alleviate the damp.

In design terms it was decided that the house would be stripped back as far as possible. “Originally it was a three bedroom house with small bedrooms and a tiny shower room and toilet upstairs. Downstairs, the kitchen was part of an L-shaped extension that had been added in at a later date,” explains Gareth. “We wanted to respect the front of the house, as the windows had been moved around and positioned in different places — this spoiled the visual balance of the house and also made it structurally unsound. So when we stripped it back to the walls, we intended to leave the two end gables and the front wall, but what we were left with was two gables and half the front wall. The other half had to be pulled down because there was a gap you could put your arm through. The architects emailed pictures of this to a structural engineer and his advice was, ‘Get a very long rope, some hard hats and attach the rope to the top of the wall, stand back and pull gently!’ And so down it came.”

The front wall was rebuilt using breeze blocks laid on their side in order to match the three-feet thickness of the existing stone wall. At this stage, the windows were also repositioned to their original location. A glass extension was then built to the back of the building — which is hidden from the front view so as not to detract from the traditional façade.

Inside, Tern House has an open plan layout on the ground floor with the main living area located in the original house. The new kitchen – contained within the glass extension – and dining area forms a U-shape around an impressive new oak staircase. Contrastingly, a small, snug sitting room offers a single self-contained living area, which occasionally doubles up as a third bedroom.

“The initial design brief was to have the place as light and airy as possible,” explains Gareth. This has been achieved by removing the original back wall and placing a rigid steel joist along its length. This not only forms a bridge between the original house and the new east-facing glass extension, but also acts as a support to all the glass in the extension. “The RSJ meant that we released a three-feet thickness of wall, so we’ve created a lot of internal space,” says Gareth. The new timber frame glass extension was constructed on site and includes a series of NorDan windows, culminating in two huge sliding doors. The couple claim that they benefit substantially from solar gain as a result.

Tern House also contains underfloor heating on the ground floor and in the bathrooms, which means that “you have nice warm toes when you get out the bath,” says Gareth. “There are also supplemental heating panels above the ceilings — not that we need those because our house is so well insulated. The supplemental panels, which are thermostatically controlled, didn’t come on at all last year because the house was so cosy. The idea was to make it as energy efficient as we could get it.”

In terms of finishes, the couple have gone for a restricted palette with earthy tones predominating, but materially these finishes are exquisite, with Caithness slate on the floors and worktops, a bespoke kitchen, oak floors, handcrafted doors and a sculptural staircase, also in oak, built in-situ by a local joiner working with the project’s builder, Davie Kerr.

According to the Johns, the architects were also very good at sourcing a lot of deals online. “But for the baths themselves, we insisted on going to the store in Edinburgh and lying in them. You can’t buy a bath without lying in one. And you’ve got to sit on your loo seat, too,” laughs Gareth.

“We’re happy with the finishes, timescale and budget. It was a fixed-price contract and any of the overruns were on design changes that we had agreed,” says Gareth. The construction took 11 months, and this involved running a new cable into a hydro pole behind the house and renewing an existing water connection. It also involved the installation of an entirely new septic tank that serves the main house and its accompanying byre building. “And we have the biggest soakaway on God’s earth,” says Gareth. “It’s located under the lawn on the front of the house. I often wondered why houses up here seem to have a lawn that’s two feet higher than the actual lie of the land. Now I know why — because ours is an Olympic-size swimming pool of a hole that had to be dug out and filled with rocks. So you’ve got to put the soil somewhere, haven’t you?

“I’m very pleased with the end result — I think it’s exceeded what we all expected,” smiles Gareth. “We were so pleased with the way the house went we thought we’d complete the byre building as an annexe. We said to Dualchas, ‘Just do what you’ve already done but on a smaller scale, with the same finishes.’ It’s a mirror of the house except downsized. I’ve also been thinking that since the byre runs on the same axis, I’d like to build something to connect the byre to the house. That’s for another day, though.”