Nature versus nurture

There is much to be gained by ensuring a new house is part of the landscape


When Mhairi Grant looks at the results of her first architectural commission, a project that has also been her most personal job to date, she is still delighted with it – despite the fact that it took ten years for the house to be built.

The job was to re-imagine and extend the Old Farmhouse in Invergarry. Her dad had been born and brought up in the house, and when he and his wife Grace inherited it in 2003, they decided it would be a great place to retire. It was sorely in need of an overhaul, though, which is where Mhairi came in. “I became a chartered architect in 2004, which was also when we got the planning approval,” she says.

“When the house was built it had two wooden byre/barn buildings arranged around it in a U-shape. The cottage had 1950s brick-built bedroom extension, which itself had a lean-to kitchen attached both to it and to the adjoining barn. It was a real ramshackle arrangement.”

Knowing what a big task lay ahead, Ken and Grace bought a neighbouring property speci­fically as a base to manage the Old Farmhouse renovations. The detailed design for this and its new-build elements was completed by Paper Igloo, run by Mhairi and her husband Martin McCrae.

“Our brief was simple,” says Ken. “We wanted something that fitted within the landscape. Although we were down­sizing from a large house in Glasgow, we didn’t want it to be too pokey – we wanted some­thing comfortable. And it had to be modern, as we’d always lived in traditional houses.”

Paper Igloo took this fairly open-ended brief and got to work. “We were keen to return the cottage to the way it looked originally, without all its additions, so we put this at the heart of the scheme,” explains Mhairi. “But we wanted to create something contemporary to sit alongside it and offset the appearance of the traditional house. It’s in the nature of farm buildings that they keep getting added to over the years, so I designed a contemporary interpretation of a barn.”

The local planning officer liked the idea, so they went ahead with the arrangement of the old farmhouse with two flanking barn buildings. One of these contains the main family living area with an en-suite bedroom above, while the other has additional living spaces and guest bedrooms. “Glazed links tie the whole thing together but also show the separation between the three buildings,” says Mhairi.

We wanted something that fitted with the Landscape

The plan culminates in an agri-industrial tower which contains key circulation space. It is also, quite literally, a book tower, home to Ken and Grace’s extensive library – something they couldn’t bring themselves to streamline as they downsized.

The Corten steel cladding of the tower echoes the rusty agricultural feel that characterises so many Highland farms with their ancient machinery and dilapidated buildings. The vivid red hue also forms a dramatic counterpoint to the soft, subdued larch wall and roof cladding on the new-build ‘sheds’. Unique details, such as incorporating a century-old apple tree into the corner living area, give the project a very personal touch. “We had to dig massive foundations with piers to accommodate the roots,” explains Ken. “One worry was that we would get all these expensive foundations done and then the tree would die! It didn’t, and it’s a great feature.”

Only one tiny amendment was required by the planners, namely to lower the ridge line of the new barn by 180mm in order to maintain the integrity of the original cottage. Once consent and building warrants were issued, Ken took over the project and managed the entire build.


The first task was to dig up the ancient rocks on the site. Some, with an enormous iron content, were heavier than granite, and it took Ken and a friend two days to remove a single seven-ton stone when they were digging the underfloor heating trench. The rest of the rocks were recycled to create the drystone retaining wall.

It’s surprising, in light of the precision finishes, that Ken’s admitted approach was to “invent as you go along”. As well as doing most of the building work (including erecting the steelwork and the Corten cladding of the tower), he took charge of more prosaic aspects such as ferrying deliveries in from the bottom of the site (since the access was too narrow) using a makeshift bogey fashioned from an old lawnmower axel. A motorised lift bought on eBay was used to hoist the four Glulam beams in the new-build elements in place, as craning wasn’t possible. He also co-ordinated more than 70 suppliers.

He also had to deal with a lot of eco technology. The house has a ground-source heat pump, solar thermal panels, photovoltaics and a large quantity of south-facing glazing to minimise space heating and maximise views of the surrounding landscape.

The project is finally finished after ten years. “There was no timetable,” explains Grace. “We also had a two-year hiatus, trying to sell our old house just as the economic turndown hit. But in many ways the long process worked out well – it would have cost us a lot more if we’d stuck to a rigid timetable. And Ken really enjoyed doing it.”

Mhairi agrees. “The most challenging part was logistically working out each part of the build – I was recently qualified and inexperienced, and Dad had never done anything on this scale before. But we got there in the end!”

You can browse the full article with more stunning photography on pages 211-222, issue 100.

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Photography David Barbour
Words Caroline Ednie