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Basic instinct

Newhouse of Auchengree, by Ann Nisbet Studio, is unmistakably new but its form is as old as the hills that surround it

The Newhouse: traditional vernacular translated into a new guise.
The Newhouse: traditional vernacular translated into a new guise. Credit: David Barbour

Newhouse of Auchengree owes a debt to the planning guidance for new single homes in the North Ayrshire countryside. The guidance includes a requirement, stringently enforced, for ‘exceptional’ design. This clause gave license to the architect to push for an innovate, bold and committed design.

Ann Nisbet had spent eight years at Dual­chas, eventually running its Glasgow office before setting up her own studio in 2013. Dualchas can take much credit for improving the design quality of houses in rural Scotland. This mini-renaissance was deliberate and political; it draws on the ‘blackhouses’ of the Western Isles in a move towards a new Scottish vernacular based on simple forms, narrow plans and steep pitched roofs. 

Like several highland practices, Dualchas has a spinoff kit-house business which supplies on-brand, simple and affordable homes. The client for Newhouse of Auchengree originally approached this business to procure an off-the-shelf house, but Nisbet demonstrated that a kit house wouldn’t do this site justice. When she set up her own practice they commissioned her as their architect.

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The clients, a retired GP and a pharmacist, had modest ambitions for a practical house: with the main functions located on the ground floor to ensure that the dwelling would meet their needs as they grow older.

The architect describes the result as ‘a contemporary farmhouse, which draws on the inherent characteristics of North Ayrshire’s unique rural vernacular to create a building that reflects the identity of the area’.

It is easy to be sceptical about the well versed idea of a rural vernacular; how was it actually used to drive the design beyond aesthetic considerations? But there is a convincing explanation of how the form follows that of North Ayrshire farms. These are typically arranged as a two storey main house with distant views, surrounded by a collection of single storey lower and subservient outbuildings which provide shelter from the weather. 

On the way to site Nisbet points out a neighbouring farm following this arrangement and on arrival at Auchengree the pattern is clear. The two storey house contains the main living spaces, a linear single storey building contains the master bedroom and an annex with an outbuilding completes the cluster. The annex is particularly unusual because the two bedrooms and shared bathroom are entirely separate from the main house, you access them from outside. The architectural result is clear, consistent and strong.

  • The annex, right, is independent of the main house. The separating access porte cochère (pend) gives an agricultural, yet grand, sense of arrival.
    The annex, right, is independent of the main house. The separating access porte cochère (pend) gives an agricultural, yet grand, sense of arrival. Credit: David Barbour
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This typology of a collection of buildings has several advantages. For a start, it reduces the visual impact of one big building, which is favourable in planning terms. The ­architect was keen to avoid large areas of expensive circulation and in this the house excels. The form maintains the intimacy of the house while the clients are on their own but it is large enough to accommodate visitors. 

It seems increasingly common for houses with seemingly free sites to manifest into a collection of buildings, think houses in Dungeness by Nord et al. Here the architect set out and built in a vernacular style that favours small concise buildings rather than a big volumetric statement: ‘bold without being showy’ is how the architect describes it.

The access pend, or passage, is key to the success of the house – an unusual architectural decision that works well. The experience of driving towards and passing through this space on arrival is beautiful and hypnotic.

The use of zinc as the dominant material is generally well handled and makes the house shimmer, pale blue/grey in the weak Scottish sunshine. A glimpse of the sky framed by an opening in the main elevation further strengthens the move. The architect says this was one of her first design ideas, sketched out in early thinking and retained as a key driver of the project.

  • Zinc reflects the drama of the Scottish skies.
    Zinc reflects the drama of the Scottish skies. Credit: David Barbour
  • Simplicity and crisp detailing pervade, both outside and in.
    Simplicity and crisp detailing pervade, both outside and in. Credit: David Barbour
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y contrast, black-painted Douglas fir shutters and outbuilding offer a relief to the zinc and an interesting up-close textural detail with knots in the wood crossing lines between the varied board widths.

To argue the case for the ad-hoc informality of this house one can contrast the project with Baron House by John Pawson in Sweden. That house offers some similarity; set in a similar rural landscape, viewed in the round, with a courtyard and a pend. However with a deeper plan and hence a more massive roof it takes on a monolithic form. Its formal courtyard and classical organisation might be seen as Swedish while Auchengree’s collection of informal buildings are distinctly Scottish.

One could argue that the contrast is one of confidence. Interestingly, Nisbet says this is the first opportunity she has had to build a two storey house, Scottish planners being fixated on the ‘storey and half’. 

If there were a complaint it is that although the long front elevation is incredibly successful the short gabled elevations have less presence. This seems churlish however because the house is a pleasure to experience, it is admirable in its confident abstraction and honest practicality.

Credits

Architect Ann Nisbet Architects

Client Michael and Sally Law

Structural engineer Peter Brett Associates

Main contractor 3B Construction

Planning authority North Ayrshire Council