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Shetland Architects and Builders Excel

by Alastair Hamilton -

Shelter may be a basic need, but these days, we ask a lot more of our homes than ever before. That’s perhaps even more the case in Shetland than elsewhere in the UK because, in winter, our houses have to cope with storm force or even hurricane force winds.

So, they need to be cosy, well insulated and draughtproof, for comfort and fuel economy. They mustn’t leak, even when the rain is horizontal. At other times. they need to make the best use of sunshine, because at our latitude, and especially in spring and summer, solar gain can make a more useful contribution than it does in places farther south, where little or no heating may be needed at those times.

That’s not all, of course. People want their house to look appealing, inside and outside, and to fit well into the landscape. They want it to make the most of the opportunities the site offers, particularly the view. It needs to work well internally and offer all the spaces that the owner needs, within a budget. It must meet today’s exacting technical requirements, including low carbon emissions, airtightness and flat access.

As if that wasn’t enough, the house is also expected to express personality and personal taste and, yes, fulfil dreams.

we ask a lot more of our homes than ever before

We also ask a lot of the people that design and build our homes. It wasn’t always thus, of course. Shetland’s earliest houses may have been solidly built but in other respects were primitive by modern standards. Nevertheless, today’s designers may still be inspired by them; as we shall see, some modern Shetland homes are based on the dimensions of the Viking houses at Jarlshof.

When my house was originally built in 1888, the builders didn’t have to think about heat recovery systems or doing CO₂ calculations. By the time I renovated and adapted it in the late 1970s, some modern requirements were already in place, and the architect incorporated very useful solar gain. However, housing design has since become a highly technical exercise, far more demanding than it was even thirty or forty years ago.

Over that period, Shetland has seen lots of new housing and a significant change of approach, partly as a result of more complex regulations. The prosperity that came from fishing and, especially, oil-related development drew people to live in the islands. In the 1970s and 1980s, much of the new housing was built by the local authority and housing associations for the hundreds of new families connected with developments at the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal and Sumburgh Airport.

New private house-building accelerated, too, though developments by volume house-builders were rare, and that’s still the case today. Most private house-building in Shetland involves individuals specifying what they want and contracting a builder to do the work.

Shetland has seen lots of new housing and a significant change of approach

Until perhaps the early 2000s, virtually all the demand was met by standard, timber-frame kits, clad on-site with timber weatherboarding or rendered blockwork. Chosen from builders’ catalogues, they were often imported from Scotland or Scandinavia but sometimes produced locally.

That approach was convenient and economical but, by the early 2000s, some customers – perhaps influenced by television programmes such as Grand Designs – were beginning to wonder if standard kits were the best way to meet their aspirations. It might not, for example, make the best of the site, or the views: and with views as good as we have in Shetland, who’d want that?

Local architects began to become much more involved in the process and more prospective house-builders looked to them to come up with that dream home. The momentum increased with the publication of The Shetland House, which aimed to offer a complete guide to navigating the entire process, from choosing a site to snagging the completed house. It also argued for housing that was truer to Shetland’s traditions and used colour more imaginatively than had been the case in recent decades. For a time, it was the most popular download on the Council’s website and there’s no doubt that it has had a major influence.

Today, it’s a very different world; and the good news is that Shetland’s architects and builders are very much up for tackling the challenges. Over recent years, they’ve shown that they can design and construct houses – public and private - that are not only great to look at and live in but are superbly finished and can cheerfully shrug off the very worst that a Shetland winter can throw at them. A number of developments have won national recognition for their excellence; indeed I was partly prompted to pen this blog by picking up a copy of an inspiring little book, Home: Housing Scotland 2000-2020, published by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS); three Shetland developments feature among the 100 best and they’ve chosen one of them, in Lerwick, for the front cover. Clearly, our architects and builders are doing outstanding work.

our architects and builders are doing outstanding work

Recognition of one of those developments, Grodians, has spread far beyond Scotland, never mind Shetland. This Lerwick project for the Hjaltland Housing Association was one of twelve projects featured in the Scottish Exhibition for the 2016 Venice Biennale, and it also appeared in a European housing exhibition at Cité de l’ Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris. The Scottish Government has also chosen Grodians as an 'exemplar' in Inspirational Design.

The first impression is of a very colourful development that brightens residents’ lives, even on the dullest day. However, there’s much more to the design than that. It was the first in Shetland to adopt what’s known as a ‘Home Zone’ layout, which gives priority to pedestrians and controls traffic speeds through carefully-considered landscaping features. These also make the whole scheme much more appealing to live in and look at.

Another Hjaltland Housing Association development in Lerwick also finds its way into the RIAS book. Da Vadill was built between 2010 and 2012 on a challenging site, previously occupied by a fish processing factory, in the angle of two roads. The terrace that Richard Gibson Architects designed follows and emphasises the curve of the busy main road, but is elevated above the traffic. At the rear, the semi-enclosed space is used for sheltered, planted spaces and a barrier-free footpath that’s screened from car parking.

The houses at Da Vadill are finished in Siberian larch, a timber that has become popular in Shetland in recent years. It weathers to a dark, silvery-grey and, when wet, it appears black, producing a really attractive contrast with the white windows.

Many private houses have been commissioned locally in recent years and again, the skills of local architects and builders are evident. Grunnabreck, located in the rural area of South Nesting, is a good example. Designed by Malcolmson Architects (formerly Redman Sutherland Architects), it illustrates very well the benefits of designing a house specific to the site, rather than accepting the compromises that may arise with a standard kit design. In particular, it pays attention to orientation and takes full account of the site’s microclimate and topography.

Interestingly, the building’s dimensions are precisely those of the Viking longhouses that can be seen at Jarlshof in Shetland’s south mainland. The living areas are glazed on the south side, giving lots of light and capturing solar heat, which is absorbed and stored by slate floors. An exhaust air heat pump – a technology certainly not available to Vikings – keeps the building at a comfortable temperature in both summer and winter.

Similar benefits are evident at Balaskerry, a house on the edge of Lerwick that enjoys a spectacular sea view. In this case, the solution to the client’s needs was to create two buildings linked by a generous sun lounge and entrance. The main living portion of the house is a contemporary take on a croft house, with white harl, but again the living areas are fully glazed, an option that definitely wasn’t available to the builders of crofts.

The second building includes a garage, ancillary accommodation and a sleeping loft for grand-children – which sounds great fun. Its finish is quite different, being of bright red, painted timber.

Malcolmson Architects adopted a two-part solution at Foraness, in the West Mainland, where a priority was, again, the views, which stretch for around 20 miles to Fitful Head in the far south of Shetland and are framed by the large windows. A ‘longhouse’ approach was again adopted here, with a large, double-height kitchen and living room that’s the hub of the home.

Architects in Shetland are often called upon to extend or renovate older buildings. Redman Sutherland Architects created a discreet extension to a house in the Lerwick Lanes Outstanding Conservation Area, where design has to be considered with particular care. Passers-by are barely aware of what is a quite generously-proportioned addition to the old house. Again, it uses the south-facing orientation to maximise solar gain.

At Muckle Roe Chapel, in the North Mainland, something larger was required and here the solution was to add a second, linked building. This design by Richard Gibson Architects, also featured in the RIAS book, keeps the external integrity of the old chapel but it also creates a very appealing modern space in the extension, with good use of the exceptional views.

There are several architectural practices and many builders in Shetland and all of them have demonstrated, over the years, that they are well able to meet all the challenges of modern building design and construction. That their efforts are recognised as among the best, not only in Scotland but across Europe, is something to celebrate; and if you’re minded to move to Shetland and build a house, it’s clear that such a project can benefit from some exceptional talents.

their efforts are recognised as among the best, not only in Scotland but across Europe

Posted in: Creative Scene

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