New house in Caithness has simplicity at its heart

Anew-build home, known affectionately to its owners as the Shack, recently emerged on a wind-lashed promontory in the Pentland firth, on one of the most northerly tips of mainland Scotland. It took an almighty effort to get it there, and it might never have happened at all had Tim Crocker and Kathy Csorogi not caught a chance glimpse of architect Mary Arnold-Forster on television.

The couple, from Australia, had been looking for some time for a permanent base to call home, and their journey to Thurso took a few twists and turns along the way. “We left Western Australia in 2007, spending all our frequent-flyer points on a pair of one-way business-class tickets to London,” recalls Kathy. “We then went to visit my dad, who at the time was living in Alness, in the Highlands. That was when Tim spotted a road sign for Thurso. It was a name he’d first heard many years before, when a friend and fellow surfer in Australia had mentioned that it was a great surf spot with amazing waves. So we decided to take a detour to go and see Thurso, and it stayed in our minds for a long time afterwards.”

Kathy and Tim liked Scotland so much they decided to settle there. They worked for a spell in Perthshire before being drawn back to Thurso in 2009, where they rented a house. It was around this time that they saw Mary Arnold-Forster of Dualchas Architects (she has since set up a new practice under her own name) discussing the building her own house on TV. “We thought that if we were ever to build a house of our own, we’d get her to do it,” says Kathy. “We loved the simplicity and materials of the Shed [the architect’s house on Skye] and the way it sits in the landscape – it seemed so natural.”

“At this time we were talking about getting some land, looking at a few plots but ruling out anything that was too remote, both for Kathy to be here alone while I was at work, and for getting to an airport,” continues Tim, an oil rig driller, who travels frequently and works all over the world. “We found the plot by chance – Kathy drove past it and saw a painted For Sale sign with a phone number. The deal was done and the land was ours in October 2009. Mary made her first site visit the following month.”

Unsurprisingly, the couple’s starting point for the design was to take advantage of the panoramic views over a huge expanse of sea and sky. They were also keen to have open-plan living spaces, with as few doors as possible, and bedroom areas kept to a minimum. They liked the idea of an internal garage space. “We wanted a place where Tim could come in with his surfboard and change out of his wetsuit, without us worrying about it being tidy,” says Kathy.

“Basically, we wanted a small house – there are only two of us,” she adds. “We wanted somewhere that we could come in and out of easily. And we’d lived in a cold damp house for so long, we were keen on a cosy place – I didn’t want to be layered up in tons of gear in winter.”

A big part of the project was to build an energy-efficient house using renewable energy. “Tim and I did a lot of research and we installed Warmcel insulation (where waste paper has been converted into high-performance cellulose fibre insulation), solar panels and a pellet boiler that fuels all our water and underfloor heating. Our first bill was for £78 over a six-month period! It just feels so healthy living here.”

Mary Arnold-Forster’s initial design ideas for the Shack were very different from what finally emerged in the summer of 2014. “Caithness is full of old farm buildings built entirely from the local stone, and I was very struck by this when I visited,” she explains. “It’s everywhere – they use stone like timber here. I fell for the idea of creating a modern take on the traditional farm buildings using stone for the whole house, pushing the material as far as it would go. But even though it’s readily available here, the cost of transporting stone is the most expensive aspect of building with this material and it just proved to be too expensive.”

So the Shack was constructed using a timber frame with larch cladding and an aluminium roof. A ‘wall’ of glazing channels southern light into the main living area, continuing right through the building via north-facing windows looking out over the Pentland firth. Rooflights have been carefully positioned to bring in maximum light and views while still offering privacy from neighbouring properties.

According to the architect, the width of the house has trans-formed the interior. “It’s wider than normal,” she explains. “Many kit houses are around 6m wide, but we took the 7m width of the neighbouring 1960s kit house, and that tiny bit extra makes such a difference to the volume. The living space is a big roomy area, which works really well as Tim is a tall guy; it’s more proportionate.”

This tailoring of the spaces to the couple’s needs has been key to the building’s success, says Kathy. “We made sure that everything, such as the sinks in the kitchen and bathroom, is at the right height so Tim is not bending down all the time.”

Tim was prepared to take on the construction work himself, which wasn’t terribly practicable since he was offshore so often. “But once we felt we could trust the team, we were quite happy to hand over the build,” says Kathy. “But the minute Tim was back on land he was also on the case!”

They sourced many of the fixtures and fittings themselves. “We kept things simple, with just a few luxuries – we’ve got a wok burner and indoor barbecue, and an instant hot water tap.”

Indeed, the only thing they’d change would be to have had their excellent build team construct the whole house, including subcontracted elements such as the timber frame and the kitchen. “Our builder, who is a joiner by trade (JOG Joiners of Caithness), could have built the most amazing kitchen for a fraction of the cost of the one we have,” says Tim. “And being in such a remote site meant that getting stuff to us was costly. Every time I went on the internet I lost money! But we learned a lot along the way, and would do it again if we had enough money.” 

For the time being, though, they are happy to enjoy the chilled-out charm of the Shack. “The light is constantly changing, as is the swell and the big, big sky,” says Kathy. “You feel you’re part of the landscape. It’s nothing complicated, it’s just really simple stuff.”


What An energy efficient timber-framed house
Where Thurso, Caithness
Architect Dualchas
Photography David Barbour
Words Caroline Ednie