Haven’t we come Full-circle?

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This is the sketch that accompanied the tender document from the architects in November 2011.

The story of the design for the House at Cuil started with a little sketch that Matt, the architect, drew as part of the tender document for the job. It had a main roof-line north-south, harled, and a wood-clad gable extending west, making it an L-shape. There was a deck in the enclosed corner facing south and west.

I liked this sketch when I saw it and, in fact, it was one of the reasons that I chose John Gilbert Architects, and specifically Matt Bridgestock, to do the job. However, until recently, I hadn’t thought much about that little sketch.

It’s been a long time since Autumn 2011 when we finally bought the plot and engaged the architect, and between then and now, the house has been through an eclectic assortment of different styles, none bearing much of a resemblance to that original idea in outward appearance. This may have been because the spec had changed at that point to a four bedroom house and so needed a different approach (we are now back to three bedrooms due to needing to keep a lid on costs) but I’m not entirely sure.

Despite my initial enthusiasm for the simple sketch’s design, I had forgotten all about it until we had a meeting with our planning officer to try and get the planning permission sorted for the house.

As the discussions with the planing officer progressed and we agreed changes to the design, Matt noticed that we were heading full-circle. We were heading back towards the design, that we had sent to planners in the pre-application and, frustratingly, we had altered at their suggestion. But it bore an even more striking resemblance to that original sketch. Both have a similar shape, orientation and materials for cladding. Even the interior is similar, except for the position of the stairs.

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After all the grand plans and changes and tweaks and headaches, we’ve come full-circle. Which leads me to ask why it has taken such a long journey to end up so close to where we started.

I’m thinking of it as akin to a refining process: you start with potential; something sparkly but not very useful, and via a long and tiring process, with many unrecognisable intermediate stages, you finish

with the refined gold. I think that this long process of designing the house has been useful, necessary even. The journey itself has added immeasurably to the final design.

I loved that original sketch and I love the final design even more. I am glad that, somehow, we found our way back there.

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house plan

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The Quest for Planning Permission

We actually do have planning permission now. A proper piece of paper arrived printed with the words, so it must be true. It’s been a long winter hibernation for the project and I had settled into a happy suspended animation with regard to the house as the weeks and months of waiting progressed. I am, at last, beginning to rewarm the cockles of house enthusiasm that I put on ice in October

The past few months have been busy in the other 99.9% of my life with a new job, the organisation of various community activities and general family busy-ness so it has been a good time to have a wee break. Now I hope I can make a little mental space during the summer to reanimate the project after its long hibernation.

I’m not sure what took the planning process so long. We were told that it would be eight weeks but it turned out to take more than eight months. That seems like a very long time to me but, no one I’ve spoken to about it seems surprised at the lengthy gestation.

In the lead up to planning in September, I wrote a letter to all the residents of Cuil Bay explaining our hopes for the project and introducing ourselves to the ones that didn’t already know us. Delivering the notes by hand gave a great opportunity for meeting people and I drank many cups of tea that morning doing the rounds of the little community.

This initial letter had the first thoughts on what the house might look like and we invited comments and feedback. We also had submitted a pre-application consultation, a process almost as formal as the full planning, to get comments to help us with the final design.

We combined all this, with comments from neighbours and my own thoughts, and came up with a rethink on the appearance of the house and in October, before we submitted planning I sent another note round to the community with an update.

We expected a swift response from planning after we were assured that there was an 8 week turn around for applications, not including any time they sent things back to us for work.

Things went rather quiet after that, for quite a long time. In January Matt and I set off for what turned out to be quite a road trip to visit the planning offices in Fort William. The weather was absolutely foul, with rain already turning to snow as we left Glasgow. The forecast was for worse and, as we crawled along the A82 in the settling snow, I began to doubt that I would make back in time to pick up the kids from after school club. There would certainly be no detour to the plot for a site visit.

We stopped at Tyndrum for coffee at around 11am, already about an hour and a half later than we expected and found, to our bitter disappointment, the wonderful Real Food Cafe closed. The discussion hinged around whether to go on over Rannoch moor and risk not being able to return if the snow continued, or whether we should postpone and return, beaten, to Glasgow. In the end it was the motivation to sort out planning that overcame the worries and we set our faces to the driving snow and pushed onward.

The driving conditions improved markedly past Tyndrum and we arrived in Fort William only 2 hours late for the meeting. The aim of the trip was to establish our planning officer’s general feeling about the plans and what, if anything, we needed to change.

Matt talked us through the theory and philosophy around the design for the house, expanding somewhat on the arc-waffle contained within the design statement. He appeared to be doing a passable impression of the Jedi mind trick and the planning officer nodded in agreement through an intoxicating wave of architectural technicalities.

The officer was very happy with the design: it was well suited to the area, it was sympathetic to the vernacular while demonstrating good sustainable design principles and it was great we’d already had contact with the neighbours about our plans. But then the spell started to waver: the neighbouring plot had planning permission for a modern version of the Highland two-up two-down and our house needed to reflect that design.

Matt wasn’t put off his stride, he extended his argument to the, as yet unbuilt, house next door. Our house could be considered a steading to the house next door, our ridge height would be lower than the house next door, the wood of their planned garage reflected the wood construction of our house.

After a bit of really useful and productive discussion we came up with a happy way forward – we would switch from a T shape (main roof line east-west to an L shape (main roof line north-south) and harl the main north-south section and wood-clad the other gable (rather than wood cladding the major part).

This change required some minor fiddling and actually resulted in a more satisfactory interior layout with space in the centre of the house for a masonry stove. Both the architects and myself feel that we now have a better house after the discussions.

Within a week Matt had the revised plans back with the planner and then things went silent again. By March the architects were regularly emailing and calling the planners to check on progress. I felt like I was waiting for a bus that would never come. Perhaps someone had set up a diversion that I didn’t know about.

Then, all of a sudden on 9th May the status of the application on the council website changed. We had planning permission.

We are actually going to build a house.

I think we might have planning permission

I am just finishing a tentative celebratory tipple to toast our new-found planning permission.

Ten minutes ago I found an email from the architect saying he had checked the planners’ website and it says that permission has been granted for our house.

We haven’t had any official confirmation or contact from the planners, hence the tentative celebration, but hope is renewed.

Here’s the page where the magic words ‘permission granted’ are written. Ive saved it here for posterity (click here for link)

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OK, I’ll settle for a shed

I woke up in the night with a brainwave. What I need is a shed. We’ve got one in the plans: a bike/canoe/ski/wetsuit and general kit-storage shed. But I had, for some reason, envisaged it going up at the end of the building process, almost as an afterthought.

It is now glaringly obvious that I need a shed right now.

We can use it to put things in, and when we actually start on the long-awaited build I can lay a sleeping bag in it as if sheltering in a sturdy wooden tent.

My friend from across Loch Linnhe, Jake of Sound Wood, has built himself a beautiful, inspiring workshop all from wood cut at his sawmill.

Now imagine that in mini-size as my shed. I’m going to find out whether he could build me one at Cuil Bay.

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Planning documents go live

It’s taken a few days for Highland Council to get all the relevant documents up onto their planning website. But now all the documents related to the house at Cuil Bay are now live.  If you want to see them then click on the photo below and it will take you there.  If it doesn’t work go to the Highland Planning website and type in the code 12/03817/FUL or click here

Now there is a period of consultation where comments are welcomed …. waiting with baited breath!

I will be maintaining radio silence on issues related to the planning application until the process is complete, however expect more time for blogs on things I like to do near Cuil.

We’re going to planning!

The final dots are going on the ‘i’s and crosses on the ‘t’s and our house is nearly ready to go to planning.

After a monumental amount of work from our devoted architects (55north/John Gilberts) we are at this stage at last.  There appears to be a huge number of documents associated with planning and these will all be up on the public website soon.  When they are on the web I will link to them here.

One of the many documents is a design statement where many of the surrounding houses have a starring role.  Its a bit of blurb all about vernacular, character, building form, prevailing textures and the like.  It’s classic architect-speak.  My favourite phrase ….

‘The interior style of the house is reflected in a confident modern exterior style rather than a pastiche’

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