Architect: Rural Design Architects
Project Team: Gill Smith, Alan Dickson
Project: Black House
Location: Fiscavaig, Portnalong, Isle of Skye, Scotland
Photography: copyright Rural Design/Nigel Rigden
Pursuing a dream to build a family home on the Isle of Skye, our clients came to us with a need to self-build, on a very tight budget. Our response to their brief, which included 3 bedrooms, an artists studio and a study, had to be spatially efficient, simple and easy to build. Their site, a triangular hollow set between two small drumlins and exposed to the often hostile climate of the west coast of Skye required a unique design. Just above the base of the hollow, to the north-west, the view to Loch Bracadale opened up. With an ambition to touch the ground lightly the plan form and stepped section of the Black House was devised and the potential of the site unlocked.
The house evolved into a single storey, mono-pitched form. It nestles into the triangular hollow, hunkering down to the south, and the strongest winds, and rising up to the north-west to embrace the view of the Loch and the summer sunsets.
Its form and its cladding take inspiration from the ad-hoc buildings that are such an important part of the rural landscape, the black corrugated cladding identifying firmly with the agricultural vernacular. It is a durable and efficient house with no unnecessary junctions or complexity. The two recesses at the entrance and the open ended north-west elevation provide shelter during the transition between outside and inside. The remaining envelope is well insulated and crisply detailed to withstand the elements.
The bedroom, studio and washroom spaces hug the edges of the lowest part of the plan and the entrance, circulation and main living areas, screened from each other by low walls, infill the rest of the split-level plan. This creates a fluid, open space, the deepest part of which is illuminated by pools of light. The threshold between the lower and upper levels is defined by a composition of elements; stair, blockwork wall, timber column and laminated “kerto” beam.
The concrete block of the wall, a material often hidden, is here celebrated: its rough, solid texture sitting in contrast to the warm linearity of the timber and the smooth coolness of the cement render floor finish. The blockwork wall envelops the fireplace, the primary heat source, which is placed traditionally at the centre of the house with the metallic line of the flue rising up through the space. The unfinished concrete stair, the final screeding of which proved to be too much of a challenge for the clients, becoming an enduring result of the hand-made, self-build process.
A simple, utilitarian aesthetic is continued in the approach to the ductwork of the whole-house ventilation system – the metallic lines floating above the low storage wall at the entrance.
The house is truly a “Black House”, not only by its colour but by its very spirit. It draws parallels to the can-do attitude of the original occupants of “blackhouses”, heroically self-built using basic materials and skills to create a shelter for the family.
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