From the Visitor Book

We had a family from the USA to visit Sula recently and when I looked at the visitor book today I found the most wonderful account of their stay. I have transcribed it here as it has so much great information about things to do in the area (and much further afield – Americans must be used to long journeys as it wouldn’t have crossed my mind that Culloden would be a day-tip from Sula – but it turns out it is!)

 

– by Maureen Minard.

(The Vegetarian Salmon on Facebook)

 

We dragged a 7 year-old and a 4.5 year-old from the US for a week in the Highlands and could not have chosen a more perfect house for our home base. The kids loved the shared bedroom, the yard with the patio and wild-flowers, the sheep and the beach. The parents loved the view and the wood burning stove and the fire pit, the convenience of the kitchen, the view, and the location of Sula on Cuil Bay for day-trips.

 

Sunday we arrived later than expected, after a slow morning at the Edinburgh Hertz and some distracted driving on the way here – so much to see it’s hard not to stop here and there and why not stop for an early dinner at Oban Fish and Chips? But it was “Good Scottish Weather” the entire afternoon anyways, with grey skies and intermittent rain.

 

We were rewarded with a clear and sunny Monday, to explore Glencoe Village and ease the kids into hiking with a stroll round Glencoe lochan (the 4.5 year old shared his snack with the ducks, against the parental advice, and the entire pack of ducks soon knew of his generosity and stalked him around the entire lake).

 

Tuesday we ventured up to the Highland Folk Museum, which was a gorgeous drive and a wonderful reward for the kids to explore Scottish life at different points in time through experience rather than just seeing objects behind glass. Building the framing for a cottage and having a teacher grade cursive handwriting in a one-room schoolhouse were the biggest hits with the kids. We stayed later than expected so the kids had a late snack/early dinner from the museum café on the ride home and the parents had another lovely dinner at Sula after kids’ bedtime followed by a sit by the fire pit and a visit from one of the neighbour’s sheepdogs.

 

Wednesday we were blessed again with clear blue skies and we took advantage. You’re never going to get to a summit with small children, so instead we took a gondola ride up and then a short hike to a peak below Ben Nevis. Stunning views from the mountaintop of the surrounding area and we could see the top of Ben Nevis. There’s mountaineering and ropes courses for those with older children. In the afternoon, a trip back down to Oban for a distillery tour (highly recommended) and a few bottles of their excellent whisky. [not sure how you got back to Sula after a few bottles of whisky …Ed (!!)]

 

Thursday, poor planning on the part of the parents meant no available tickets on the Jacobite Stream train and one extremely disappointed 7 year old Harry Potter fan. So instead it was a drive out to Glenfinnan to at least see the viaduct and the monument to Bonnie Prince Charlie coming ashore for the ’45 (useful for the following day’s planned trip to Culloden). Then a long drive out to the abandoned castle of the seat of MacDonald Clanranald – Castle Tiorum on Loch Moidart. Well worth the trip, in spite of all the single-track road driving to get there. And we timed low tide perfectly so we were able to walk out to the island and explore. On the way back, with some luck and quick-thinking by the parents, we were rewarded with standing on a bridge west of Glenfinnan as the afternoon Jacobite train steamed by underneath – partial parental redemption.

 

Friday morning we packed up the car early – a pair of binoculars for each child – for the trip to Loch Ness and the search for Nessie, followed by a walk of Culloden battlefield. Stopped for lunch at a nice café in Drumnadrochit. Just past the ruins of Urquart Castle (car park was so full, so visit cancelled). Nessie remains unseen, despite the kids’ best efforts.  We got to discuss many mature topics about war, politics, religion, and the Highland charge, at least with the 7 year-old. The little one just wanted to be carried around the battlefield. A long drive back with naps by all but the driver and an unplanned dinner at the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe that was so good, plans were made for a return on Saturday.

 

Saturday included a deeper drive into Glencoe – to the end of the single–track road to Glen Etive made famous by its beauty and its appearance in “Skyfall” (four miles in at the bridge). We also dug up where Hagrid’s cottage had been built, by a tiny loch neat the Glencoe cottages as further penance to the 7 year-old Harry Potter fan. Lunch down in Oban with old friends who were also visiting Scotland this week. And then back to the Clachaig Inn for dinner. A post-dinner impromptu scramble up some rocks outside the Inn prompted the kids to announce they love climbing (after several complaints about “hiking” and even “walking”) So we’ll be passing through Glencoe again on our way out Sunday, weather permitting. Of course it’s not until the last day of being surrounded by some of the best hiking/climbing in the world that they finally break through.

 

Scattered throughout the week there were also trips to the beach (rocks and jellyfish and crab-shells) dramatic presentations by kings and queens from the pallet ‘thrones’ at the firepit, and communing with the nearby farm animals (games of guessing which field the cows would be grazing in, and chatting with the sheep each day as we left and returned – those with ‘spectacles’   (horns curling round their eyes) being the most popular, followed by any young lamb.

 

The kids loved the house and the parents did too. With only a week, and even with each day chock-full of activities, there is still so much to do and to explore. You have a wonderful location, a gorgeous house, and a design of the house that mould make anyone jealous.

 

We cant wait to be back to the area, and to Sula if possible Kat, you’ve built a wonderful home. We were extremely lucky with the weather this week, but we also juggled the activities each day to accommodate. There are some comfortable sofas, a nice fire, and a glass of whisky each night [writer’s own …Ed] to review the next day’s plans after the kids are asleep. Stocking up on food at the Ballachulish co-op saved us from eating out too much (we packed a lunch most days).

 

We had a life changing/life –fulfilling visit to Glencoe and the Highlands, and throughout it all Sula was our anchor. We hope everyone who stays here can have a similar experience.

 

July 2017

 

 

 

 

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What I’d do differently

You know how I said I’d never ever do something like this ever again?   And that building a house isn’t something that I’d wish on my worst enemy?

Well, I don’t feel like that any more, or at least not all the time.

I suppose the bad experiences fade and you just have the good stuff left. It’s like forgetting the hard slog, exhaustion, frozen extremities, fear and exposure, and the long slog down in the dark of a day winter mountaineering in Scotland.  Somehow, the next week when someone asks you if you want to go out to the hills, you only remember that moment when the sun burst through the mist of fog crystals on the summit, so that the air sparkled with delight, and not the hellish rest of it.

That’s not to say I’m about to build another house. No no. That is absolutely not going to happen, I’m just saying I don’t wake up in the night any more wondering why I started this thing. It’s probably a good moment to share some of the things that I would change if I were building the house again (gosh, imagine what a nightmare that would be? Being made to start all over again on a massive task that you’d only just survived the first time round…aaargghh)

So here we go, I don’t think this can be a definitive list, but here’s a selection.

Cladding

Over the winter I went through a phase of cringing when I saw the huge white gable of the house shining like a beacon across the bay.

I’d really wanted that whole main section of the house and gable to be clad in larch, which would fade to silver grey and blend with the hillside but the planners wanted the main part of the house to be harled in white. Going back further our plan was to have the whole house clad in larch, but it was clear from planning that a combination of wood and harling would be more acceptable. We ended up switching the harled and clad sections over, reducing the area of wood cladding to about a third of the area of the house.

Half way through building, when I was having that terrible nightmare finding a company to do the cladding and I found out that the harled cladding system was going to cost around twice the price of the wood cladding, I wished we had pressed the case for wood cladding harder. When the house was complete and the scaffolding came off, I wished it even more, especially with seeing how the wood section is starting to blend so beautifully with the surroundings.

Waiting months and months for the curtains for the huge windows downstairs and up didn’t help (and not having a ladder long enough to actually put them up). In the absence of other things to fret about, I worried about how my house shone like a beacon across the bay for hundreds of miles to the south.

However, now it’s summer and the trees are in full leaf, the house stands is screened from the bay and I’m starting to get used to the harling.

 

Being the proud owner of a stairwell atrium 

All the other things that annoyed me at various points in the build are getting less annoying. Even that enormous high 7.5 m stairwell which was such a pain to make airtight, plasterboard, decorate, and which I will never be able to clean the windows of, is actually quite picturesque and uplifting to live with. The omission of a light on the stairs (it really is crying out for one of those huge dangling spiral chandeliers to match the space) doesn’t bother me anymore either.

I actually noticed the lack of light early on, while we were plaster-boarding, but I was so caught in the nightmare of Phil (Builder#4) and contemplating how to sack him, that I couldn’t face the strain of liaising between him and the electrician to get it fixed.

Anyway, it’s all settling in. Though next time, in the interests of economy, I’d leave the atrium out of the house and use the space for something useful.

But don’t fear – I have a plan for that atrium. When the dust has settled and I feel I can countenance working with a builder again, I’ll build a giant shelf in the stairwell as a little tree-house/den for me. It will have a book-shelf and two bean bags, a ladder I can hoist up in case of emergency, and an amazing view through the massive window (which I would now actually be able to clean) up to the Ballachulish Horseshoe.

 

Technical blah blah: Heating system and Biodisk. 

There’s other annoying stuff like finding the heating system had two cylinders instead of one, thus taking up the space in the drying room allocated for boot racks and such.   And the biodisk septic tank having a white protuberance that sits in the middle of my garden and whirrs. Both of these irritations are down to me not asking enough questions at the start of the build and just letting things happen – the architects specified the type of biodisk, and Stuart, builder 1, recommended a local company for the heating system. I

 

I’m getting used to the low buzz of the heat pump but I still can’t work the really complicated user interface. I’m convinced someone should a have been able to invent something a bit easier to work.

Of course Stephen the builder had lots of say about how much better the heating system is in his house, as he does about almost everything else too. (For those who don’t know the whole story, Stephen came on the scene late on in the build and saved the whole caboodle from disaster – twice – however the payment from my side appears to be to have the piss taken for various bad decisions I made, and to hear how much better the house he built himself is. It’s really a small price to pay to be honest.)

I feel I was more involved in the whole MVHR and wood burning stove planning and installation and I’m much happier with how they work (despite the little hole-drilling mishap).

We moved the MVHR exit and intake from the roof to out the back and that works really well. It means you can’t see it and It’s also on the north side of the house so when it’s warm in the house, it provides quite an effective method of cooling (not as effective as opening the doors and windows of course….).

Shape and Space. 

It only occurred to me once the house was built that having a 1m x 2m sticky-out bit at the back of the house, that allows for the turn of the staircase, was a rather inefficient use of space. Given the extra difficulties of making the house the shape it is at the back, with a complex roof arrangement, it’s likely that it would actually have been cheaper to make the house an extra metre bigger all across the back, which would also mean I’d have a bigger hall to throw my muddy wellies around in.

And, if I’m feeling extra picky. I’d have left an extra 50cm at the front of the house. So I could walk all round the dining table without having to squeeeeze past the chairs. (but that’s being unreasonably picky, to be honest).

 

Paying attention

Another thing that happened because I wasn’t quite ‘on it’ at the start of the build was cold bridging under the doors. If I was building a house again I’d be far more with it from the very beginning. I seem to have two modes of operation: lassez faire, delegating and trusting people to do their job, and control freakery. To be honest, I think I’d have put in a bit more control freakery at the start of the build to make sure everything was going to plan. I would obsessively check things; I would print out the plans hundreds of time and distribute them to absolutely everyone, irritating them by pointing out things that were obvious to them already.

If I’d have done this then I wouldn’t have a 200mm section of breeze blocks right under the wood floor on the thresholds into the house. The architects had a plan that had the breeze block foundation dropping down where the patio doors were to allow for some insulation to prevent cold bridging. It wasn’t immediately clear to me from the diagrams and it was actually only when I felt the cold coming up from the floor by the patio doors, once the whole house was finished that I placed the cross sections side by side and worked out what was supposed to have happened.

 

It is a little frustrating that I did actually pay for one site visit for the architects after I took over project management and it was at the point the timber kit had gone up. There had been a hiatus in the work while I scrabbled about for a builder to do the cladding, having been let down by the framing company. Stephen had just taken on the job and had pointed out that the windows were in the wrong positions and would need taking out and refitting. He was on site that day to meet the architect, and I’d asked Matt whether there was anything else wrong that we should sort out. He was standing right by the patio doors when he’d said, the rest looked ok.

For the patio doors in the siting room, which I found I wasn’t using at all, Stephen and I decided to just put in some kingspan and an extra windowsill on the threshold and convert it from doors to a window. The other one, I’ll live with.

 

The Final Item in this list, decision making, is a biggie and I think I will leave it til the next blog.

Ending the Radio silence – I hope….

There has been a radio silence on the blog recently. Which happens to coincide with a few mishaps and problems (“yet more?!” I hear you cry). I didn’t want this blog to be a litany of disasters and moans, and retain the upbeat, good news and optimism-in-the-face-of-house-Armageddon attitude, but that has unfortunately resulted in zero material for the blog over the past couple of months. So here is a bit of honest-blogging. There isn’t a neat narrative and happy ending to this (yet).

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One of the problems I’ve been dealing with is the aforementioned missing piece of structural metalwork. Another has been waiting for the large numbers of  things to be fixed by the framers. It seems many were the fault of the timber frame company for not providing the right items at the right time and the framers have been doing extra work at the site to fix them (fortunately not at my expense).
But it is hard to work out why the wall dividing the kitchen-dining room from the utility room is still learning against the wall, happily warping in the damp air.
Those readers who have been paying attention will remember this wall and its mysterious imaginary  neighbour had already been causing some consternation and much to-and-froing between the various camps of engineers on the project while we were in the final stages of getting the house translated from the architects plans to the timber kit. (See blog)
And despite all the back and forth to persued the timber kit company that one of the walls they had made a structural wall (a racking panel to be precise – tying together the house to stop it flexing in the wind, rather than holding up any beams etc) was not a wall at all – only the diving line between open-plan kitchen and dining room – both walls had been delivered and were sitting there.

IMG_9940Just sitting there warping (but the good side of having an extra wall I didn’t need is that I can use the one that isn’t warped – but is too short- in place and add bits on…)
There is also the issue of the windows. They have been fitted in the wrong place. It really is just too wearisome to describe here. You’ll have to wait for a bit of good news on this front before I dare to draw out a blog on this one…

There’s also the small issue of not having anyone to do the cladding for the house. I may have, in my trusting nativity, put a bit too much faith in the word of the framing company that they would be able to do the cladding as well as the frame erection.  Anyway, when it came to it – the pressures of lots and lots of houses to put up – meant that they didn’t want to do the cladding in the end and I was left with scaffolding and a half built house and no prospect whatsoever of getting cladding on it anytime soon.

I started the search for a company to do the cladding. The brilliant builders who did the foundations are tied up with two or three builds and couldn’t manage within my timeframe (the time frame of “GETTITUP!!!-the-scaffolding-is costing-me-and-the-rain-is-pouring-in-bigtime”) and calls to umpteen companies and visits from a few resulted in zero companies who could start this calendar year.

Eventually a company from Oban have been up and looked at the work and pointed out a few problems I have (including the window problem) and have sent me a quote. I am readying myself with a stiff drink just in case before I dare open the document.

And to finish with, here’s a nice sunset (it really went all these colours) taken from the Holly Tree Inn where I have been buying more than my fair share of cappuccinos recently to escape wind and rain and lack of reception and low battery power. It’s to remind me that life is beautiful despite the tiny issue of a troublesome house build.

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The mystery of the missing metalwork

Have you ever spent all afternoon making a piece of ikea furniture and you sit back feeling rather pleased with yourself and, just as you set off to make yourself a well- deserved cup of tea, you see a large, essential and important element still  lying on the floor. ‘Where the hell is that supposed to go? You shout in exasperation.
Remember that feeling?
Now imagine that you have a fully erected house and you are just starting to think of what colour to paint the bathroom*, when you look down from gazing up at your wonderful edifice and see a large significant looking piece of metalwork sitting at your feet. The kind of bit of metalwork that would hold a couple of beams and take a very significant role in holding a house in an upright position.


A piece looking just like this.

This is exactly what happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I was showing long-suffering husband the wonders of a house upright when he pointed to the piece of metalwork on the ground in front of the house. (It hadn’t been there the las time I was at the house).
We had just finished wondering to ourselves ‘where the hell is THAT supposed to go’ and started to search about for the number of the contractor, when our neighbour, the farmer, popped over to  pass the time of day and ask whether we’d seen one of his free-ranging cows on her wanderings.

‘What’s that’ he asks, pointing at the metalwork

‘I was just asking myself the same thing’ I mumbled in reply.

‘Funny, we’ve got something a bit like that, but bigger, lying at the end of our track’

We headed over to his track and there lay an even larger piece of metalwork, one deigned to hook over one beam and take two more beams.


‘Oh dear, I think that must be ours.’
I could just about pick it up. With help I got it back to the house, took some pictures and emailed them to the contractor. I put the next stage on hold until we knew what was going on.
A week later I was back at the plot with the chap from the framing  company.

It turned out that the larger piece of metalwork was a shoe for the centre of the house to hook over a beam and hold up the beam that holds up the ridge beam.


It seemed to be rather a miracle that the house was able to stand up without it. The framers had bodged some hangers for the beams, which were holding it all together and which explained why the short beam at the top of the stairs was held in by nothing more than a few nails driven in at an angle.

IMG_9775Theres now a hanger on one side but the beam is still held up by nails on the other….
The other large piece of metal was a specially commissioned shoe to act as a retrofit to replace the original shoe which meant that it could be slipped over the existing beam, and under the other and bolted into place and wouldn’t necessitate the dismantling of most of the structure to put it in.


Well that was a relief (of sorts) the plan was OK-ed by our engineers, and fitted successfully. (with a little panic when I first saw it and thought it wasn’t installed in the right position – but it was, thank goodness). It could have been good to know about the issues in advance of coming across the pieces of metal scattered around the neighbourhood but it is, at least, one of the numerous issues sorted and dealt with.
And now I have a large piece of metal which I suppose I could sell on e-bay. Or have it as part of a very over-engineered bench at the front of the house. Something to remind me of the trials and tribulations, stresses and strains, hubris and horrors of building your own house.
* slight exaggeration

Autumnal Trees and Leaping Salmon at the Hermitage

I really can’t imagine a better place to be late afternoon on a bright October day. In fact, I don’t know why I haven’t seen this spectacle before.
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I’m standing on a balcony overhanging a plunge pool into which is falling a river of rushing water. The shape of the building around me seems to amplify the sound of the waterfall and the rush of water even drowns out the sound of my older daughter singing Katie Perry songs to herself.

Above and all around are trees turning auburn, golden and copper wearing densely moss-draped boughs. And to top it all, the most spectacularly enormous salmon are throwing themselves into the rushing torrent, falling back, and trying again.


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The Victorians really knew how to do things and The Hermitage must be one of the best. They took an already spectacular setting along the beautiful tumbling Braan and it’s fabulous falls and added some of the New world’s most spectacular tree species (although the creator of this landscape can only have imagined what it would look like in 2014), built an arching stone footbridge just below the falls for the perfect view.

IMG_7883.JPGAnd, to top off any Victorian’s to do list, added a Greek-themed grotto, to view the falls from their best angle. Ossian’s Hall, as it is called, is shaped to capture and amplify the sound and, when I first came to the Hermitage 16 years ago my (now) husband blind-folded me and led me through the building into the balcony, which was an incredible experience as it sounded like I was walking right into the midst of the waterfall. Unfortunately, in the interests of preserving the building, the National Trust for Scotland has now had to put a glass wall up between hall and balcony, which reduces the impact a little.

IMG_8006.JPGThe falls are an impassible barrier for the salmon, which are trying to get back to the site where they were released as parr by the Salmon fishery. This makes it both a fabulous place to see the spectacle of the salmon migration; and a poignant experience, knowing that these magnificent animals will never make it to the Shangri-La their genes and sense of smell is telling them exists just beyond the waterfall. It was the first time I had witnessed it and it left me utterly speechless.

IMG_7878.JPGAnd if you can drag yourself away from the falls, the woods are stacked full of moss, lichens and fungi and some of Britains tallest and most spectacular trees. Just past the waterfall is another uniquely Victirian conceit, a hermits cave. Built into a couple of huge shist boulders it has a stone bench set into the wall inside and two round windows. Perfect for hobbit make-believe. It’s hard to spot if you don’t know it’s there.

If you continue the walk up the Braan for a couple of miles it will take you to Rumbling Bridge where you can cross and walk back through the woods on the opposite side if you want a longer ramble.

I know I have been known to say this before but it is the perfect Autumn day out.

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We’re building!

Building has started at Cuil Bay. It seems a bit of a miracle (and this is just the first stage – the groundworks) but the digger actually made the first dig into the soil on 12 September. We might not have even submitted building control for the main bit of the building yet and have no view further than getting these foundations done while the weather is still dry. But we have STARTED BUILDING!!
20141006-151830-55110223.jpgthe ground conditions are apparently pretty ideal says Stuart our contractor from SECarmichael Building, the slate bedrock is about a meter below the surface in most parts of the plot. 20141006-152239-55359121.jpg It’s only in this south east corner that the bedrock is at depth and we’ll need to stick a load of concrete in.

Apparently the neighbouring plot which was all dry and level and perfect-looking before the digging started was all gravel and sand underneath and whole truck loads of concrete needed to go in to stabilize enough for the foundations. On the other hand, my plot, that seemed all boggy and wet and was wall-to-wall rush and puddle, is apparently the better site with bedrock right underneath.
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It’s certainly encouraging to know that all that bogginess was actually because the water had nowhere to drain to due to the bedrock.

I’m clinging to the good stuff especially with the long journey this has been and that it is, by no means, anywhere near the end.

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A tale of two cycles: Part 1 – Cuil Bay to Ballachullish

20140714-210834-76114055.jpgCycle Route 78 is entirely off road from Cuil Bay to Ballachulish and much of it is along the old Oban- Ballachulish branch line which shut in 1966. The plan is to extend the cycle way off road all the way to Oban but there seem to be some difficult negotiations with land owners along the way (see part 2 of the story) and so there are some bits that are still on the main road.

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However the route we took on day one of our family cycle adventures was one of the nicer routes I’ve done and perfect for a bike with the kids, about 7-8 miles each way.

We started at Cuil Bay and cycled along the minor road to a crossing with the main road which took us through fields and across a beautiful new wooden bridge curving elegantly over the river Duror.

Cycling past banks of foxgloves and meadowsweet, the path wove between fields and then onto the old railway, through cuttings and under a viaduct that must have once taken a road or another railway. In Duror a panel told of the connections of the area with the Appin murder the inspiration for Stephehson’s classic novel ‘Kidnapped’. A cycle up the glen would have taken us to the birthplace of James of the Glen, the subject of that most infamous miscarriage of justice.20140714-210827-76107787.jpg

Passing Duror campsite and some gypsy caravan glamping we were back on the disused railway again, following the contours of the vast shoulder of Beinn a Bheithir, the Ballachulish Horseshoe. The track leaves the railway to climb up for a splendid view of Loch Linnhe and the architectural copses of trees on the Ardsheal estate, before a, rather-too-steep decent takes you to the Holly Tree hotel (the perfect stop for lunch and a swim) and then back onto the old railway now running along the shoreline.20140714-210826-76106674.jpg

The views arcross to Ardgour and Morven were divine, and later there were views of the pap of Glencoe and hints of larger mountains behind in the cloud. We made a short detour up into the forest at Letir Mhor to see the monument at the spot where Colin Campbell was murdered.20140714-210825-76105023.jpg

While we stopped for water we were passed by two ladies on low-slung trikes. Each was holding an umbrella spray painted silver. Kit and provisions were piled on to the back of each bike and while one had a pack of warburtons sliced bread bungeed to the top, the other trailed some Tibetan prayer flags.

The final four miles of the route is alongside the road from South Balachulish to Glencoe. Amazing views of the mountains of Glencoe looming ahead was rather distracting given the very fast and busy road the track runs alongside. However, all in all it was a perfect family cycle ride. We rode back for a very deserved dinner and swim at the Holly Tree.20140714-210828-76108786.jpg

LINKS
Sustrans leaflet on cycle route 78 Oban to Fort William

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Inching our way towards the finish line?

Well when I say the finish line, I mean that the final decisions are being made and we may go out and engage a contractor at some point soonish….

The latest version of the 3D virtual model is looking lovely. We’ve widened the passage from stairs into living area and I think it looks rather pleasing now. Look at the two photos below. However I hope that the need to jiggle with the masonry stove won’t change the beautiful symmetry of this too much.

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Here’s the previous version

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Here’s the new one – doesn’t it look lovely?

Reducing Costs and a Recap

A little recap may be in order given the amount of time it has taken to get planning permission. After the quantity surveyor had costed the initial specification and it was way beyond miles over budget we have been looking at ways to get the cost down a bit.

Firstly we reduced the floor area. My original plans were for a generous area where you come in to shed wet, muddy clothes from various outdoor biking/climbing/skiing/marine adventures with a drying room, boot area and utility room. And also a fantasy pantry. With a bedroom above. This has shrunk to a small hall, with a much reduced utility/drying room. A bench at the bottom of the stairs gives a place to sit.

Although we managed to reduce the floor area by about 20msq, the lovely architects (did I mention they were lovely) managed that without losing much functional space. We lost a little storage space upstairs but with a bit of clever shenanigans around the stairs the third bedroom upstairs can still sleep two.

Secondly we discussed the specification. I know I chose Matt as an architect specifically for the ecological design aspect of his skills and interests, and he certainly demonstrated that on his initial specification for the build. However having ideals seems to come at a price and, once we had the QS report it was obvious that something had to give. Achieving top-notch eco credentials for energy performance, eco-friendly materials and low embodied energy just didn’t seem to be possible within our budget.

The best compromise that we came up with was to retain a high insulation and air-tightness – though short of passive house – and use cheaper materials for the build. Rather than the more natural materials of timber frame with warmcel insulation (or similar) and fibreboard, we moved towards foam insulation in a timber kit build. We have also thought about our use of windows, reducing the spec of some of the most expensive ones and examining how many we really need.

Oh and we lost the zinc roof too- which was quite a relief to me and probably for the planners too. More on the long road to Planning permission in the next blog….

A private pool with a view

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A perfect clear sky has coincided with a complete lack of child-ferrying commitments and enough daylight hours after work for an escape to the hills.

I’m the only person on the mountain and it’s still roasting hot at eight o’clock. I know that, almost at the summit of this hill, is a still, black and perfectly oval pool ringed with sphagnum moss and cotton grass.

And there I shall stay, looking out at the mountains of the Arrochar Alps, over to Ben Lomond and down the Firth of Clyde as far as Arran, until the midges, or the gathering darkness chase me back to civilization.

Postscript:
The imagined pool can never live up to the reality, especially when you are slogging up a mountain in the blazing heat. The pool tuned out to be shallow, and the black peaty bottom had heated the water to the temperature of a baby’s bath, so there was none of that refreshing tingle and gasp as I got in.

However the view from Ben Donich is one of the best, with a path that takes you past some fantastic rock formations, so the walk itself was very much worth it. And I might have not made it to the top if I hadn’t been thinking about plunging into that pool.

Links
Access and route information from WalkHighland website.*
Ben Donich is a perfect mountain for a short day or an evening as the start at Rest and be Thankful is already at 200m. And added to that is that, despite the ease of access from Glasgow and all the delights of the mountain you hardly ever meet anyone on it.

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* PPS: on any mountain come suitably prepared with footwear and waterproofs and always bring a map and compass and know how to use them

Walking through the House at Cuil

I got a chance to go into our new house for the first time this week.

No, there hasn’t been a sudden miracle and we have gone straight from planning to fully constructed house in a couple of weeks, I have just been walking through a 3D model of the house on my smartphone. I walked in the door, up the stairs and then straight out of the landing window and into mid-air.

Until now Scott and Matt, have been able to wander at will through a virtual House at Cuil Bay using their fancy architect software on their fancy architect computers in their fancy architect office, while I have been bending my head around pdfs of plans and stills from the software.

Given my 3D visualisation is probably far less developed than that of an architect, I am utterly delighted to now have this virtual walk-through House at Cuil Bay on my very own iphone. I can wander from bedroom to en-suite bathroom, then down to the kitchen/dining room to gaze, dewy-eyed at the view. I can even levitate onto the ceiling to see what a room looks like from above and then pass effortlessly through the floor and end up under the bed in the room above.

The architects (did I tell you they were wonderful?) have used Graphisoft BIMx software to do this and all it took was for me to download the app, save the file they sent me and set out on my virtual explore. It is totally gobsmackingly fantastic and even has a very gratifying thudding action as you walk up stairs.

Just as I was getting excited about the walk-through model, the children were getting excited about minecraft, a kids’ computer game where you mine for resources and create cities. They have built swimming pools and high rise blocks, one with a full farm on the roof of the 10th storey. And, not to let the architects get ahead, now they are building our house.

In contrast with many computer games minecraft has none of the CGI effects and smooth outlines, it is simply a land created from cubic blocks of various materials. These materials include diamond, ruby, quartz, wool, hedging, but not, apparently, harling, or slate. It turns out that minecraft wasn’t created with West coast of Scotland construction techniques in mind.

The priority appears to be making your house Zombie proof. Not something I am expecting to be an issue in Cuil Bay. I certainly didn’t put it in the spec. The lack of appropriate building materials didn’t, of course, put the children off their project, ‘Should I build the white walls from quartz or wool?’ they asked. I put this to Scott who recommended quartz on the basis that, according to the minecraft wiki, both were classed as blast proof but that quartz was less flammable.

The look might be rough and homemade but they have managed to create a walk-through model pretty similar to the professional one (if you ignore the rough edges and improvised fixtures and fittings – a furnace instead of a cooker, more quartz blocks for sofas). They have had trouble installing the stairs: you have to climb over the bottom step to reach the kitchen and they resorted to a ladder to get up the last bit, but I am rather impressed. I think that it might even have impressed the architects.

I’ve put a couple of screen grabs from the architects design (and from the rookie architects too) on the blog to give you a bit of an idea. However these can’t possibly communicate the full joy of this wonderful virtual house of mine. I keep wanting to wander about in it, spin round in bathrooms, and fly 100m into the air above and orbit the house like a planet. Now that’s something I wouldn’t be able to do with a real house.

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view from the south

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An entire minecraft forest was felled to make room for building the house

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There are no fitted kitchens in Minecraft. These units are made of quartz with a furnace in place of the oven

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The sofas are also made of quartz blocks and a picture hides a hidden corridor

Scotland’s ‘Big Five’

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Scotland’s ‘Big Five’ wildlife stars are, according to Scottish Natural Heritage, Red Squirrel, Seal, Golden Eagle, Otter and Red Deer. Today they launched a competition to ask ‘What’s your ‘Big Five?

Never being the type who shrinks from having an opinion I am entering a Cuil Bay big five.

Number 1: White tailed Eagle. These magnificent creatures, once extinct in Scotland, are making a remarkable comeback. Still rare, the best place to see them is on the Isle of Mull, just down Loch Linnhe. But sea eagles are regularly seen in the area and my best view was a juvenile flying low with a backdrop of the slopes of Garbh Bheinn as I walked around the peninsular.

Number 2. Golden Eagle. Am I allowed to have eagles for my top two? Of course! They are amazing and Cuil is sandwiched between two areas recently designated as special protection areas for Golden Eagles

Number 3. Otter. These beautiful, lithe, graceful and captivating animals can be seen right around the coast. Once when out in a Canadian canoe I saw one playing in the water not far from the boat. We stopped paddling and it dived, only to resurface on rocks a few metres from us. It then proceeded to eat a crab it had caught and we could hear every crunch and crack of the carapace.

Number 4. Gannet. I really wanted to just put ‘seabirds’ for this one but I don’t think it is within the spirit of the exercise. Scotland has the most wonderful diversity of seabirds nesting around its rugged coasts and you can’t sit for long at the shore at Cuil without seeing some. In summer and autumn huge rafts of auks: guillimots, puffins, razorbills, can be seen bobbing about in Loch Linnhe following the balls of sandeels. Mackerel are also in pursuit, and the graceful, ghostly gannets.

The gannets have come from Ailsa Craig, a hundred miles to the south, their isolated nesting rock off the Ayrshire Coast. They are perfect fishing machines, white with wingtips as if dipped in ink. They spot the fish from a height of 30m and then dive like an arrow, closing their wings to enter the water at speeds of 100km/hr

Number 5. Red Deer. It is a great experience to see a herd of red deer, especially when it is hard-won after a long mountain walk. I know that, due to the large number of deer in the highlands, they are causing great damage to trees and preventing regeneration of woodland. But I still love them. The best place to go and see red deer is to go up into the mountains anywhere nearby. Ensure you have the right equipment including a map and compass as the hills can be treacherous. Listen out for the roaring during the Autumn rut.

If you feel inspired to enter your own big five you can do it here.

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Winter Climbing: My Glencoe and Ben Nevis Top 5

Stob Coire nan Lochan

Glencoe and Ben Nevis is really the home of Scottish Winter Climbing. A veritable wonderland of ice, snow and frozen turf. The Atlantic climate gives very special climbing conditions that are particular to Scotland and draw thousands of people to its gullies, ridges and ice-rimed rock. Continue reading

Skiing at Glencoe

glencoe ski photoThe ski area at Glencoe must have one of the most stunning views of any winter sports venue.  Meall a’ Bhuiridh, the mountain on which the 19 runs and 7 lifts are set is right on the edge of Rannoch moor. The last soaring peak before the flat, wild expanse of peat bog, pools and open heather moor. Continue reading

Real Food Cafe: the perfect pit-stop

The Real Food cafe is the absolutely ‘must stop’ place to eat on the way to Cuil. The food is perfect, the welcome is warm, and the ambiance is buzzing with climbers refueling after a day in the hills, families with sleepy children on the way north, and West-Highland Wayers. Continue reading

The Evolution of the House at Cuil Bay

I said that I would do a blog on the various iterations that the house has gone through on the long road between twinkle in the eye in January to planning permission-ready this week.

So here I present a kind of ‘Decent of Man’ for the House at Cuil Bay.

We started with a veritable Cambrian Explosion of ideas and sketches. The single-story flat-roofer went extinct early on. But a couple of designs made it into the computer software.

The first was a barrel-roofed house reflecting the shape of the big red barn in the field by the plot…we ruled it out right away

At the same time we saw a pitched-roof, slit window house with one of the rooms a single story on the end.

Next came a set of three variations on a solar-gain design: First with a single pitch sloping room on the back…

Then with the roof on the back room sloped up to the back (not pictured). And lastly with both roofs single pitch

We preferred a conventional pitch and so the next design made the front more attractive

However, never satisfied I asked for a change in orientation and general look and the house became this… ..Now we really were getting somewhere. I liked this one a lot.

But the quantity surveyor told us it was way over budget so I asked Matt to look at making it smaller. The next was a bit smaller but rather odd looking – the turret had a raised battlement behind which the solar panels sit. It had lost the eves and reprised the box-extension theme.

Back to what we liked originally and a shrinkage in the ‘east wing’. What you can’t see from this picture is that it is looking a bit awkward around the side you can’t see. But still too expensive and a few things that didn’t work yet in terms of layout.

Now we are pretty much there. Smaller, and a lower roofline but a change in entrance configuration to allow for utility room.

And at last, on 2 October, this is the house that went to planning (I think). As far as I can see this house is pretty much identical to the last apart from the addition of the wood/bike shed (and an extra car!).

The Appin Murder

Just north of Cuil, close to the site of the old Ballachullish ferry are two memorials that tell the story of the Appin Murder.

The first memorial, on the old Ballachullish-Oban road through Lettermore wood, marks the spot where, on 14th May 1752, Colin Roy Campbell of Glenure, also known as the Red Fox, was murdered by a single musket shot.

Continue reading

The Yearly Review

It’s been nearly a year since we saw the plot at Cuil Bay on an Oban Estate Agent’s website. So it seems a good time for a look back at progress.

When we visited the site the weekend of the Glasgow September holiday last year, I imagined that we would be well into the build by now …. what wishful thinking that was! However, we now have a design of house that we really like. It is exactly what I was hoping for, despite being unable to articulate it. It is now on its 6th permutation and we think we may even be able to afford to build it – just.

I’ll get round to putting the various permutations of design on the site at some point: a kind of ‘descent of man’ for the house at Cuil Bay. Changes have been made as we move towards the house we yearn for, to bring the staggering cost down, but also in response to comments from our neighbours after I sent them a letter introducing ourselves with initial designs for the house.

Most recently we sent our designs to the planning department to get initial advice on the design. Since January, when I called them to discuss the application and they were happy to chat things through with me, they have changed policy and now only accept queries regarding the pre-application process in a format akin to that of a full planning application.  The sainted architects duly sent in the designs but these were returned a couple of weeks later with the comment that the extent of the plot was outlined in black, not in the required red.

Having submitted something very similar to full planning, we received comments, generally supportive, with the main issue being orientation of the house.

So, changes having been made (again) we are now almost ready to submit to planning permission.  The plot already has outline permission. We are only awaiting the results of a topographic survey which will enable Matt to place the house at the right height on the plot among the other houses and landscape, and also determine whether we will need a retaining wall behind the property.

We’ve also had an enginner and a digger and driver on site to dig the holes and look at the conditions of the ground.  The results were encouraging: the water table is very high (we already knew that) meaning that we can’t use a conventional septic tank, but the ground conditions are close to ideal with bedrock overlain by gravel which means that we will be able to use strip foundations and the excavations will be a bit cheaper than we had anticipated.

So, in short, we are ready to go….. well ready to go with the monumental planning effort, then building control, then builders, then…..perhaps it’s best if I just don’t think about it.

First Design Your House …

I suppose I’m just a wannabe architect.

I have images of what this house might look like bumping about in my head, morphing and circling.  I spend the moments between laying my head on the pillow, and my flight through sleep, trying to solve the problem of how to fit a bathroom between a door and a window. I spend stolen moments while children play at the park, or while peeling potatoes, trying to work out what happens when two sloping roofs meet (that one took a trip to the scrap paper drawer and a bit of origami.)

It’s nice to have an inner life again.  Welcome activity for the mind, displacing the constant rolling of to-do lists, and the buzzing of urgent tasks.  Reminiscent of the feeling in the run up to finals as facts and concepts birled around my mind trying to grab onto everything else and wrap it up in a theory of everything.   Or the challenge of trying to work out the way the international financial system works after a programme on Radio 4.

I have actually started to get quite opinionated about what this house should be like over the months of the design process.  I know exactly what I like when I see it, but can’t put my finger on exactly why or explain what I want in the abstract.  In short, I must be utterly infuriating for any architect to work with.

At the start of the process, our architect Matt asked me to send photos of houses to give him an idea of the kind of thing I liked.  I totally failed.  In all those years of looking for a plot secretly, I hadn’t felt that the project was concrete enough to actually venture into the real and start capturing images of what I wanted.  And then things started happening really really quickly.

Matt sent me some photos of houses he suggested I might like – all stunningly beautiful, all flat topped or barrel roofed and all utterly not me.

So what do you like, he asked. “Well I like…eves” – I couldn’t think of any other way of putting it.  I don’t know whether it is the product of being married to a Swiss, but I do like eves, and steep slopey roofs and the distant ring of cowbells on the alp…..  I couldn’t help notice that most of Matt’s house designs didn’t have eves, in fact they didn’t have many jutty out bits.

Matt soldiered on, with incredible efficiency and he and his colleague produced reams of beautiful drawings of potential homes for me.  They started with a trio: tall and barrel-roofed, reflecting the large red corrugated barn next to my plot; low slung, single story with a flat roof; and two-story steep pitched roof, with a flat cube to one side.  Nope; Nope; Nope; was my ungrateful response.  I took the liberty of having some ideas of my own, mulling indulgently through the possibilities, and sketched them out, trying to explain it to the architects.  It had a slopey roof and eves.

What I discovered was that things that are eminently possible in my head, often turn out to be completely impractical when it reaches the realms of the real world.  Stairs for example are strange things to get your head round, and it really matters where they are. Rooms need to have doors that can be opened and closed. Weight-bearing walls hold up the roof or floor. You need to be able to stand up while going to the toilet.

The next iteration of design bore no relation, to either the original three drawings, nor to my own. This time they called me in to give me the blurb before presenting me with the options.  Architects are good at blurb. I wonder whether they go to blurb classes at architect school.

They had me convinced: what I really wanted was a house of two stories, wood-clad, with a single-pitched metal roof and big windows across the front.  More or less as far as it was possible to get from the outline planning consent on the plot (one and a half story, harled and slated, 45 degree angle roof, windows predominantly vertical). The design progressed to incorporate a couple of my suggestions – it was part harled, part wood and returned to a conventional roof-shape.  They had also done a lot of work making the front of the house look lovely with large south-facing windows in all the main rooms and a balcony all across the front.

Whenever I spoke to them I was convinced it was right, but when I came home, I had niggling doubts that chased the plans and ideas from my head and kept me awake.

Feedback from neighbours following a letter I sent round the neighbourhood to introduce ourselves and our plans for the house, suggested that, in general, they thought the house not suited to the site so, with weight of neighbourly opinion behind me, I met Matt to discuss the project.  It was, of course no problem to change the designs and, in fact, a relatively small tweak: keeping the floor layout in the main, but changing the orientation by 90 degrees and changing the windows gave us something much closer to what I was looking for.

Since then we have had a couple of re-sketches, but we are moving incrementally to something I am beginning to get rather attached to.  The excitement has been rekindled and I have started to imagine what it would be like to live there…at least I had until we heard back from the Quantity Surveyor.

It was bad news: our plans massively outstripped our budget. And I mean MASSIVELY.  What a blow.  Yet another rethink looms.

Postscript.

A rethink on my wannabe-architect ambtions is probably also in order.  Setting aside the decade of retraining I’d need, and the question of intrinsic aptitude; if architects invest a fraction of this emotional energy in their projects (and I suspect they put in a great deal more) then they can keep their jobs.  I think I’ll stick to what I’m good at (while retaining the prerogative to be opinionated about my house!)

Photo: Garbh Bheinn in Ardgour taken during a walk from Cuil Bay