Timber and the new Highlands regionalism

Over the last half-dozen years Scotland’s far north has witnessed the emergence of a new Highland’s regionalist architecture in tandam with the growing use of timber in construction. Here, we look at the contrasting ways four of the key practices in this Highland’s resurgence are applying timber to their work: Neil Sutherland’s Organic Buildings, Dualchas Building Design, Gokay Devici Architects, and the partnership of Northwoods Design and Locate Architects.

Up in the Northerly Highland rim of the country an under-reported scattering of small in number, admittedly, but definitely identifiable, youngish architectural practices, has over the last decade co-elesced into Scotland’s own home grown regional architecture culture. These architects are producing examples of domestic homes, commercial and public buildings, using materials sourced from the region, both timber and stone within a varied and loose ecological aesthetic, while extending aspects of traditional, vernacular and regional architecture. Also, a significant strand is energised by the potential to use indigenous timber, in part the architectural and building wing of the reforestation community. Four of the practices caught up with this new regionalist wave (and are represented in the Lighthouse’s 2008 regionalist exhibition, Building Biographies.) It’s debatable whether this is a movement, although at least one of the practices, Isle of Skye based Dualchas Building Design’s Alasdair Stephen acknowledges the idea of a new highland architecture. The prehistory is vague, but an immediate historic starting point could be Neil Sutherland’s early ninety practice, when with Andy McIvoy (who now runs Bl@ast Architects in Glasgow) they began pushing a manifesto-like strap-line of putting architecture and design ‘back on the rural agend’. Years later this is still being maintained despite the early internal split between Sutherland and McIvoy. Sutherland started his current practice, Neil Sutherland Architects, based a few miles from Inverness, providing a whole system design and build service, complete with sawmill and wood products.

Also on the Isle of Skye is Rural Design, smaller than Dualchas but again involved in Highland and Island vernacular, even if some of the design is imported from the new world, with buildings based on Nova Scotian traditions. In Edinburgh, ex Gaia-Architects Chris Morgan is using his Locate Architects as one node in a network of collaborators; and although based in the lowlands, often collaborates with Bernard Planterose. Planterose, a founder of the grassroots Reforesting Scotland Charity and magazine, is currently running his timber design and build business, North Woods Design, from the far north-west, near Ullapool. Across the other side of the country, at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University, Gokay Deveci continues to produce a series of interesting buildings, including the Lotte Glob House right up north in Sutherland. He is less committed to the timber enthusiasms of Sutherland, Planterose and Morgan, arguing for a broader interpretation of sustainability, than being their primary focus on wood. His award winning seven-storey zero heating block of flats in Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute, aptly expresses this philosophy. All of these practises are young, consisting of thirty and early forty somethings, and their emergence may well be related to the energies released by the spirit of a new quasi-independent Scotland. As far as the renewed receptivity to using timber is concerned there’s a mix of viewpoints, although the weighting appears increasingly optimistic. Some are keenly enthusiastic, others of the view that incremental though slower change is happening and yet others who are plain sceptical. ˜You can see the lights going on in a few politicians heads” as one observer put it. Other major projects further to the south are also impacting on the perception of the use of timber, including the large-scale green timber frame Page\Park completed in 2008 for the Loch Lomond & Trossochs Park Authority HQ.

Gareth Hoskins Architects use of local larch on  the National Trust of Scotland’s Culloden visitor centre, also highlights the potential for using a local material though this time for a building with clear modernist intent, a thought provoking move for some across the highlands architectural community.

Similarly, the first significant massive wood (using Vorarlberg sourced Sohm Bretttstapel) building in Scotland, Acharacle School by Gaia Architects is stirring a good deal of talk, both for kick-starting this well known building material in Scotland, as well as distracting from what David Page describes as ˜Scotland’s nascent indigenous timber industry’. These issues, while not being at the heart of the highlands regionalist wave, overlap and seem to be influencing its emerging direction.

This crossover is most clearly evident in contributor Bernard Planterose’s radical vision of a future forestry joined at the hip to architecture and building culture. Unusually for the construction industry Planterose was originally, trained as an ecologist, which brings with it a different and focused perspective. Planterose expands on this ‘future forest design’ in greater detail elsewhere, and he believes that a Scottish wood culture with genuine vision needs to be looking to a future, that is, fifty to a hundred years hence. Such ‘future forest design’, would focus on growing species which both provide material in oncoming decades for a range of required building and other material requirements, and work to support and strengthen ecosystems and biodiversity of the region. ˜From an ecological viewpoint it’s good to design a woodland that meets biodiversity and soil restoration imperatives. But best of all”, he adds, ˜for tackling the issues holistically and model a kind of optimal compromise future forest (on a regional basis), that might provide construction and energy needs at the same time as the ecological ones.” Planterose suggests long term and ecologically joined-up design and planning seems to be just about beginning to be considered on policy and strategy tables, although the starting point of incentives for planting and growing, ie grants, are currently in abeyance.

Arachale school – before completion – Photo Gaia Architects

Neil Sutherland also suggests that such future forest-design approach is beginning to catch on. The way Sutherland sees it the future forests meme has been in the air for the past few years; with people pursuing similar lines independently, unaware of each other, although now that isolation has gone, with a network is emerging which is just beginning to throw these ideas around. Some in this ad hoc network are also beginning to advise the Highland Forestry Agency, with Sutherland going as far as to call this ˜the new forestry. If the language of added value to forests and woodland products he uses contrasts with those of Planterose, the aim, he proposes, is the same. He says that there needs to be an acceptance regarding the species of ˜what we’ve got,” ie exotic species as opposed to native, and to begin to manage with the long term in mind. He argues, like Planterose, that whatever changes in climate, such as higher winds and rainfall, the main species being used as construction timber must be ‘pretty resilient’. If others are more sceptical or cautious in their language, Sutherland seems confident that change is underway. While visiting Sutherland (admittedly some time ago) he also talked about a new wave of re-ruralisation as underway, with families and individuals moving back from city and urban life into parts of the country. In this context his original manifesto of putting architecture and design back on the rural agenda, is underlined by his commitment to architecture being, as he puts it, ‘an expression of the aspirations of the people.’

Sutherland’s optimism comes from a personal commitment to and passion for rural futures, and to forests as the source of materials, which, he believes, are the building backbone of such futures, dating back to the early nineties, when he completed post-graduate research on the use of local timber in regional buildings. ‘Very little was known about it’ he says of that time. In the intervening years the technical knowledge base has grown, with the likes of TRADA, Centre for Timber Engineering (CTE) and others, gradually extending the range and reach of research along with its dissemination. Sutherland’s company are organised around providing both timberbuild expertise in the form of post and beam frame construction, as well as owning a sawmill. This means they can supply their own woods although they also work with both the two main Scottish companies, James Jones and BSW. Sutherland points out the degree of economic deprivation across rural Scotland, ‘the big issue’ is about owning their own home. Given this, Sutherland’s practice provide a service to people who are self-building, assisting with the design and helping build a part of, though not necessarily all, the construction. They also provide various specialist timber parts for domestic and also some larger projects.

The houses Neil Sutherland and his team are building, are both localist and regional, “a construction type of its time” Sutherland calls it. He is not alone in this belief that a new regionalism is beginning to make its presence felt. Out on the west coast’s Isle of Skye, the young practice Dualchas, founded by brothers Neil and Alasdair Stephen in 1996, have established a reputation and presence for a contemporary regionalist aesthetic based on elements of Highland tradition. With a further office now in Glasgow, Dualchas, (Gaelic for cultural inheritance), are perhaps more closely connected to the Scottish nationalist tradition running through the sustainability movement, than the other practices. Practically, this has meant an architecture developed from the Highlands, and particularly the Gaelic west coasts indigenous architectural and cultural inheritance. As they said in a 2006 talk, ˜if we cherish the music and language of the Gaidhealtachd, why not the architecture?¹” Their response to this question was to develop a modern longhouse based around the traditional highland ‘Blackhouse’ form. The first of these was built with a Rural Home Ownership Grant for £35,000 in 1997. The building was characterised by its simple form, narrow, but with high volumes and extensive window space. Although these first versions used white render and slate, a commitment to green technologies and designing in energy efficiency, has meant a move towards timber clad versions including an updated Hebridean Contemporary Homes kit building. Some of this work has been with rural housing associations to up the design values of their housing.

Alasdair Stephens readily acknowledges the increase in interest in using timber, ˜an encouraging phenomenon”, some of which he attributes to a new found acceptance in planning departments for the material, though also pointing to Edinburgh’s Parliamentary directive Planning Advice Notice 72, which emphasises timber as a credible sustainable building material, as having helped significantly. He also acknowledges that clients are becoming more interested in timber; although the contrast with Sutherland and Planterose is plain when he says that if Siberian larch, (for instance) were specified because of cost advantages, quality and availability, it isn’t up to him to try and change this. That said, Dualchas are specifying significantly more native larch, most recently and ambitiously for their Raasay Islands community hall. The problem is that new stands of larch are not being planted. The real challenge, they feel, is to develop uses for Sitka Spruce, given there is so much growing. Generally, for Stephen, such use of local materials adds to his perception of a new Highland architecture; one where sustainability is a part of this identifiable regionalist sensibility.

Considerably askance from these other Highland architects, Gokay Deveci, who teaches at RGU and runs a practice out of Aberdeen, may nevertheless be seen as another element in the patchwork of emerging regionalist Highlands architecture. Again Deveci’s starting point has been the Scottish vernacular, but without the arguable bias of timber advocacy, he is also interested in stone and brick houses. He believes that timber doesn’t always age that well, while stone not only ages beautifully, but it’s thermal massing reduces insulation as an issue. Only ten years ago, Deveci points out, timber was hardly a popular material. He interprets sustainability differently again, stating buildings have to encompass the cultural, economic and social dimensions along with narrower definitions. To add to this, with temperatures rising in Scotland, as elsewhere, timber and insulation on its own doesn’t necessarily provide the adequate thermal mass required and is leading to well insulated houses overheating². Within Deveci’s sustainability terms social affordability is more central, one which he’s addressed through developing a series of zero heating buildings “ with his award winning, seven storey A’ Chrannag block of flats in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute being the best known. Some of his critique is aimed at use of wood in urban contexts, where it occurs, he feels is primarily fashion inflected. For rural environments, Deveci is happy to use timber where it is in sympathy with context, making it an appropriate material. “ somewhere around here The Lotte Glob House, for the Danish potter Glob, in Northern Sutherland is one instance of this, where Deveci felt timber fitted well with the particular remote Scottish landscape. Built for £75,000, the green oak cladding justified itself. A minimal impact build, dismantable lightweight structure, from photographs it does indeed give the impression of sitting peaceably within the surrounding landscape. Scotland’s far north and north-west may not have received the attention of the larger, well placed architects’ producing timber buildings further south, and the more radical whole systems future forest thinking isn’t part of the mainstream agenda just quite yet. Even so, this disparate band and their associates is compelling evidence that small as it is, a distinctive and new regional architecture and building culture can be identified across the Highlands and Islands.


1. Lecture by Neil Stephen and Mary Arnold Foster at the Rural Housing Service Annual Conference, March 2006, Dunkeld (Gaidhealtachd is the Gaelic term for the cultural reach of Gaelic Scotland.)

2. I am grateful to Fionn Stevenson of Dundee University Architecture school for pointing this emerging issue out to me.

A version of this piece originally appeared in Building For a Future, vol 16, no 4 Spring 2007