Clad in rusted metal, Gavin and Angelique Robb’s former oat mill is a strikingly modern, eco-conscious family home.

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Names Angelique and Gavin Robb
Location Aberdeenshire
Property Restored and expanded oat mill
Bedrooms 3 Bathrooms 2
Project started July 2008
Project finished July 2011
Size of house 205sqm
Build cost £400,000
Cost per sqm £1,951.

Skye Steading, an impressive contemporary eco home in rural Aberdeenshire, intriguingly fuses together two of Scotland’s traditional staples of industry – farming and shipbuilding.

‘We liked the look of some old cowsheds next to a pile of potato boxes,’ says Glasgow-based architect Andrew McAvoy as he recalls what sparked the design idea for the semi-derelict oat mill. Renovating the granite building and combining it with a new double-height living space within a Corten steel-clad agri-industrial wedge would fulfill the owners’ brief for ‘a joyful dwelling’.

Gavin and Angelique Robb admit that they fell in love with architect McAvoy’s ideas following their initial site meeting. McAvoy convinced the couple, after studying mid-nineteenth century plans of the original steading buildings, to follow the original U-shaped arrangement around a courtyard. The big idea was to construct two energy-efficient houses that would share the entrance courtyard, but have private aspects and gardens. The Robb’s new family home is phase one of the development. The second phase – building a mirror image of Skye Steading – is due to be completed this year.

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Yet this bold design and build, which involved an almost Herculean, three-year effort by owners Gavin and Angelique, nearly didn’t get off the ground. ‘The site had many issues,’ explains McAvoy. ‘The topography, large amounts of tricky demolition, requirements for on-site recycling, 150 years of adaptations; plus, the drainage and infrastructure needed to be dealt with up front to make the site accessible and workable. My gut feeling on the first site visit was to steer a young family away from this type of undertaking. But, when I brought up all these issues, Gavin and Angelique seemed unfazed, and despite the major works involved they said: “We can deal with that – in our industries we’re dealing with logistics all the time, this is nothing’’.’

Angelique, a landscape designer and former drilling engineer and Gavin, a construction consultant in the oil industry, were not really looking to build a home at the time they spotted the old farm buildings. ‘We were living in a flat in the centre of Aberdeen and had never talked about moving or buying anywhere,’ explains Angelique, who is originally from Lafayette, Louisiana. ‘However, one day I was reading a local newspaper and spotted an advert for land with planning permission for a house with four/five bedrooms. I said: “We have to look at this”. It was snowing at the time. There was asbestos in the roofs of both buildings; not a great start. We then asked Gavin’s brother, who is a quantity surveyor, to have a look and when he and his wife visited they got very excited. I believe in fate and everything seemed to fall into place.’

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The ambitious design wasn’t without its challenges. ‘We were in the planning stage for two years,’ says Gavin. ‘One snag was that we wanted the addition to be two storeys, but we weren’t allowed to go above the height of the original steading, so we had to sink the triangle of the new-build element. Andy McAvoy presented a scale model of both houses to the council meeting at which the planners approved the design.’ The build was not for the faint-hearted. ‘For three years, from going on-site to completion, we lived in a caravan that we bought on eBay,’ says Angelique. ‘The builder was just one man. We were going for quality rather than getting it up fast. It also helped us to afford it, as we were earning money while we were building. We actually had a great time in the caravan. But being in the house now, I don’t know how we did it!’

The result is a cleverly constructed combination of retained and rebuilt granite farm building – roof slates and stonework were numbered during demolition and reinstated – and a contemporary extension, connected internally by a reinforced glass floor.

The renovated steading now contains three bedrooms (including a master with en-suite bathroom), a family bathroom, and an office, which is large enough to be used as an additional bedroom if needed. ‘I think what’s really nice is that all the bedrooms are in the steading, which doesn’t have as many windows, so the rooms are darker and smaller. That was intentional and it’s worked out perfectly,’ says Angelique.

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The one-and-a-half storey open-plan extension features a kitchen, dining and living area with an additional living space above. Clad in Corten steel – the result of a close collaboration with Ferguson Marine on the River Clyde, one of the last remaining non-military shipyards capable of this bespoke engineering – the wedge-shaped section projects forward to face the main view, via huge windows, while the thin end of the addition slopes towards the ground, sheltering from the harsh north-easterly winds.

Honest, good-quality materials were central to both the internal and external design. Traditional green oak purlins, rafters and floor joists have been combined with a marine grade structural steel frame, manufactured at the Ferguson shipyard, to form the skeleton of the new building. ‘We started off with all oak framing in mind, but making it entirely from green oak would have cost us an additional £40,000. Now I couldn’t imagine having just a timber frame; it wouldn’t be contemporary enough for us,’ admits Gavin. ‘We love the industrial aesthetic created by the wood and steel.’

Sheep’s wool insulation and a sedum roof help to maintain a cosy indoor climate. Additionally, the thick polished-concrete floors store warmth from the underfloor heating, which is powered by a ground source heat pump. A granite wall facing the courtyard has been made into a Trombe wall. This is a passive solar design in which a glazed corridor alongside the wall draws in winter sun, whose heat is then stored in the stone and radiated into the building. Unsurprisingly, the couple’s energy bills are considerably less than their previous flat, which was half the size of their current home.

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‘The house is always the perfect temperature. The only way you get cold in this house is if you’re ill – it’ll be your own internal thermostat,’ says Angelique

‘Overall, our aim was to have a low-maintenance house,’ concludes Gavin. ‘But in terms of the interior finishes and the systems we have installed, such as the impact-proof, polyurea roof membrane, passive heating and particularly the Corten steel cladding, which we will never have to replace, we’ve actually ended up with a zero-maintenance house!’

Words: Caroline Ednie, Photography: Nigel Rigden

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