When an architect creates their own home, every nuance of the brief is expertly articulated because they are effectively their own client – there is no communication gap to bridge.
Douglas Forrest has been practising architecture for over 35 years. So when he set out to renovate a ruined Dutch barn (a structure used solely for hay and straw) and convert it into a house for himself and his wife Carol, he had a very clear plan of action.
“I am interested in what I refer to as architectural archaeology,” says Douglas. “That is to say, I like a building to retain certain elements that reveal its history.
“My first professional job was with two architects who worked in the south of Spain. They were simply brilliant at re-using and re-working things with great flair and imagination. My experience of them has been extremely influential to me throughout my career.”
Douglas and Carol are no novices when it comes to breathing new life into buildings. They previously renovated a stable block, which is right next door to the barn, and they lived there happily for many years.
The Stables won two architectural awards from Aberdeenshire Council gaining distinction in both the conservation and change of use categories. However, Douglas has a medical condition that affects his mobility, so the decision was taken to build a new place that is easily accessible and has no stairs.
There were other key considerations. “Comfort in a house is a great quality, whether you live in an 18th century mansion or a 19th century urban dwelling,” says Douglas.
“The temperature of a building greatly impacts on how you feel. Equally important is how it looks out onto the landscape.” Douglas enjoys liaising with other architects, so for this project he worked closely with Louise Hunter who is employed in his firm.
The barn was actually quite a modern building having been erected in 1992. Its sturdy steel frame afforded capacity for a massive open plan span, and provides a simple square shape for the house.
Four original timber portal frames, running from east to west, provide a basic structure, and although these are hidden, exposed steel braces arc through the sleek minimalist interior, hinting at the building’s more utilitarian past.
The entire structure has been assembled from a rather industrial palette of materials. Corrugated steel cladding covers the outside of the house and is topped by a steel roof. Trespa cladding (a type of laminate) has been incorporated into the covering of the south-facing deck.
Finding a contractor was quite simple as the couple chose builders who they have worked with on several occasions.
“It is important to employ a contractor who really wants to do the job, and who you know and can trust,” says Douglas. “It is also a good idea to formalise things with a minor building works contract. However, I don’t believe in imposing time penalties because that can drive the price up.”
As things transpired, everything ran on time and there were no delays – the project took just eight months from start to finish.
“The contractor said it was a really easy job. For my part I was impressed with the meticulous way in which he organised all the stages of work and how carefully the entire process was thought through.”
Experience has taught Douglas the value of taking a hands-on approach to building projects. He made sure he was on site most days to see how things were progressing.
“It is in everybody’s interest to keep up the pace of work,” he says. “Contractors only make money by completing projects in good time and clients want their house finished so they can move in. Regular meetings are essential.”
However, the weather posed quite a few challenges. “It was a really wet winter. When we moved in at New Year there was still a lot to do,” says Carol. “It was incredibly muddy. Fortunately we had an excellent digger driver who moulded the earth in the garden into shape and kept the road clear for us.”
The Forrests’ previous house has a wind turbine, which is in close proximity to the new barn. “We did consider erecting a second turbine, but decided that to have two in close proximity would be too intrusive,” says Douglas.
“Instead, the house is extensively insulated, which keeps heating costs to a minimum. An oil fired boiler powers water filled pipes in the underfloor heating. We also have plans to install solar thermal (hot water) panels on the roof at some point at an estimated cost of £8,000.”
Inside there is a large living space, a master bedroom, two bathrooms, a utility room and two studies, which also serve as guest rooms. The contemporary, white kitchen has a partial glass screen affording some sound proofing. It also reflects images of the Forrests’ former home.
Carol has always been influenced by Scandinavian design and strives to keep the house clear of clutter. In her opinion there is only one way to do that.
“I like to have lots of storage space,” she says. “Basically most people have loads of stuff, which they don’t need, so if you strive to be minimalist it’s really a question of making sure there are places to keep things.”
Extensive alcove storage in the entrance hall is already straining under the weight of hardback books. This is the one feature which Douglas feels is not up to par. “We should have thought more carefully about the shelves and made them stronger,” he says.
All the doors within the house are painted bright red and slide open and shut. “I’ve always liked sliding doors. To me they are like Japanese screens; you can have them half open so you get a glimpse of a room without having an actual open door,” says Carol.
“Two glass alcoves stick out from the master bedroom. These provide a comfortable place to rest with pleasing views across fields. We have plans to plant a wildflower meadow as well as a more formal, stylised garden, to make the view even better.”
Another innovation has come from the somewhat unexpected inspiration of an airport. Redundant steel braces from an old airfield have been retained as pillars – one of these supports the television set and a storage box.
“When a property has extensive glazing, finding somewhere to put the entertainment system is a challenge,” says Douglas. “This solution came to me in an airport lounge while I was waiting for a flight.”
A further steel column provides a good spot to hang a painting. “We saw this technique used in a gallery in Germany. I feel it works really well in a domestic setting, too,” says Carol.
“We have used the structural steel columns to display photographs. I really like the way each picture can only be seen from particular angles. It adds extra interest.”
Further lengths of redundant braces have been cut into legs for a bespoke coffee table. One of these still bares the figures ‘2156’, relating to the order number for the original steel frame, which was constructed in Wales.
The incorporation of old materials can also be found in the front porch where old timber boards and wooden pegs have been taken from farm buildings on the estate. They are now used as a backdrop for hanging coats.
Discrete metal hooks have been placed under the wooden ones so that any weight can be safely borne without inflicting damage.
The Forrests plan to stay in this house long term, and are still making tweaks to ensure it remains the perfect home.
On the other side of the covered wooden walkway, at the entrance to the front door, are two rooms yet to be completed. One of these will serve as a storage facility while the other is being converted into a so called ‘endless pool’.
“We both love to swim and the plan is to install a kind of water treadmill that allows you to swim against a variable force,” says Carol. “We are designing it so it will look out onto the fields beyond.”
Of course, as with all new houses, there were some minor snagging issues to be resolved. However, there were no major difficulties to overcome throughout the entire build process.
This is, perhaps, testimony to the couple’s extensive professional and personal experience in architecture and construction.
The transition from a redundant agricultural structure to a modern state-of-the-art home has been successfully undertaken.
“It’s a really wonderful house to live in. We love it inside and out,” says Douglas. “I can sit here in pleasant surroundings looking out to the west with a wonderful view while I speak on the telephone or work on my computer.”