The plot was a dumping ground but the views were fabulous: how one architect focused on what really mattered
It might seem as if every new Highland holiday home sits on a lush piece of farmland that is as beautiful as the surrounding views, but this one, Faire Chaolais (pronounced Fara Chulish, like Ballachulish), started life with a rather less promising site. Yes, it does have a spectacular outlook over the Silver Sands of Morar to Rum and Eigg beyond, but the ground was little more that a heap of leftover aggregate that had been used in the upgrading of the Fort William-to-Mallaig Road to the Isles. To make matters worse, the plot is sandwiched between the road and the West Highland railway line.
Such an unpromising situation wouldn’t have suited everyone, but the owners of Faire Chaolais were undeterred. “We have a long association with this area; in fact, our family have been coming here since the 1920s,” they say. “And in 2009 we were fortunate enough to acquire this plot.” The couple bought the plot from their neighbour, who had been negotiating planning permission with the local council for the previous 15 years – the main contention being road access for an additional house off the main road. In 2009, to the delight of the owners, permission was finally granted.
They then had to find an architect willing to take on the site’s considerable challenges. “We had seen several projects by Dualchas in Homes and Interiors Scotland and we really admired the simplicity of their designs and their respect for the traditional Highland building style,” the owners explain. “We gave them a very broad brief; in fact, all we asked for was that the building should complement the environment and make the most of the spectacular view. Daniel Bär’s brilliant design was radical and uncompromising but we felt it was exactly right for the site.”
The ingenuity of the architect’s design is that the road and the railway line that flank the house are all but invisible once you’re inside. It’s all about the big sky and sea views. “The site was tricky,” admits Daniel, “but I find difficult sites fascinating because of the design challenge they present.”
His solution to the problems posed by the location was to design an upside-down house, entered from a low-key glass door at the back. Once you are inside, however, the impact of the living area, which is cantilevered over the lower level, is both immediate and immense, culminating as it does in huge glazed sliding doors and windows that reach out towards the sea views.
There are no windows on the sides of the larch-clad house, but you would barely notice this, as the interior receives plenty of light from above via a series of strategically placed roof-lights. “The idea was that the building is a bit like a telescope, or a horse’s blinkers, so the view is concentrated on the sea-facing gable and the uninteresting surrounding terrain is blocked out.”
The three bedrooms and bathroom hunker down beneath the living area, creating privacy. Yet this lower level isn’t without drama, particularly when it’s raining – a not uncommon event on the West Coast. “The rainwater just runs down the larch rainscreen [which is back ventilated]. With no side windows on the upper level, it just runs off the building and creates a waterfall effect,” says Daniel. “The rainwater doesn’t drip onto the downstairs windows as these are recessed. The water then filters into the ground via a field drain. It is controlled water management. I wanted to avoid gutters and down-pipes, which often get blown off in these exposed areas.”
The owners are converts to this ‘waterfall’ feature. “The original idea was to clad the building in Corten steel, which rusts to a natural brown colour, but we were unable to source it, so we settled for traditional Scottish larch instead. It sounds strange but we really enjoy sitting downstairs and watching the way the rain falls from the cladding.”
In contrast to the closed ‘telescopic’ effect of the upper floor, the lower level is fully glazed. “The surrounding landscape will become completely overgrown, and I wanted to embrace this,” says Daniel. As a result, now that this ‘re-wilding’ has begun following the building’s completion last summer, the large lower-level windows look like a series of landscape paintings.
Distilling the views is central to the design, and had an effect on the interior finishes. “It is quite spartan – just polished concrete floors and white-painted plasterboard – but this allows the focus to be on the views and the light,” he says. “The light is very varied in this building. You have a different feeling wherever you are. You are instinctively drawn to the glazed gable with the views. But the roof-lights on the first floor also reflect the day’s changing light, with deep shadows created when the sun goes down.”
This simplicity is a boon for a building that was designed as a low-maintenance holiday home, as the owners explain. “The roof-lights work brilliantly as a source of both light and heat from the sun, complementing the recessed strip lighting, and on a clear evening we look up to the stars in the night sky,” say the owners. “The polished concrete floors are very practical, and surprisingly attractive too.”
The building is remarkably energy efficient, they add. “The heat-recovery ventilation unit retains the warmth generated within the building. Even in the depths of winter we hardly use the underfloor heating. There is always a plentiful supply of hot water from the air-source heat pump, and it’s lovely lying in the south-facing bath in the evening sun.”
Despite its ambitious form – it’s hardly reverential to the traditional Scottish vernacular cottage forms of the area – Faire Chaolais sailed through planning. “Highland Council planners are extremely forward-thinking,” says Daniel. “They support modern design of outstanding quality. In other regions, it might have been impossible to build this house.”
The high-spec build, by main contractor AN Fraser Joinery, was also straight-forward, involving a timber frame structure with some steel bracing at the cantilever. Thermally, the building works very well, thanks to foam insulation sprayed into the walls. This means that any heat from solar gain – and there’s a lot – is kept in the building.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest challenge of the whole project was the groundworks. “When we excavated, the site report found an underground river that was backfilled when the road was built. So we had to move the building slightly and redirect the river. Until you excavate you don’t know what you’re going to find. The knock-on effect was that we had to be resourceful with the interior finishes, to keep the building within its very modest budget,” concludes Daniel. “But this pared-down approach is perfect for a holiday home, which is very different from building a full-time home. When you go on holiday you want to experience something else to the life you usually live. This is a place to come and clear your head, where less is more. And then you can go back to your usual life refreshed.”