As an architect, Jane Burnside has created many stunning contemporary homes. However, also taking on the role of project manager and interior designer – and even cook – on her own self-build on the Isle of Mull required a whole new skillset
TEXT NIK HUNTER IMAGES DANIEL WILCOX PHOTOGRAPHY
Childhood sailing trips up Scotland’s west coast had instilled a love of the Isle of Mull in Jane Burnside. So, when she and her husband David Page came across a property for sale on the island in 2014, they jumped at the chance to buy.
Both award-winning architects and experts in their field, Jane hails from Northern Ireland where she has her own practice, Jane Burnside Architects and David is an artist and founder member of Page\Park Architects in Glasgow.
When the couple happened across the two-storey property in Tobermory on Mull, it had already seen some renovation, as Jane recalls: “The building had been split into flats in the 50s, but the previous owners had managed to purchase both flats and had restored it back to one property. As the previous owner was also a haulier, he had built an enormous, two-storey shed in the back yard which offered some potential too.”
For five years, The Art House – as they named it – was the couple’s well-loved home but in 2019, they turned it into a holiday let and moved in, after managing to realise the site’s full potential.
“We had been looking for a plot to build on in Tobermory which is almost impossible in the middle of a conservation area except that we had a huge two-storey shed in our garden.” Hoping to develop what was classified as a brownfield site, Jane applied for planning permission to build a bold, contemporary, two storey home. “I had written a book, Contemporary Design Secrets, about how to design contemporary houses in both landscape and conservation settings. I showed the planners the kind of work I did, and they were very supportive.”
Also in Jane’s favour was another small, modern intervention which had been built at the end of the lane and the planners agreed that they would complement each other. So much so, that Jane’s permission came through in six weeks.
Jane and David’s wish list was straightforward – the main living space and bedroom upstairs to take advantage of the views, a light-filled studio space for both of them downstairs, outside living space upstairs, and a small garden.
Building in a conservation area, Jane was keen to minimise the impact the build would have on its surroundings. “Tobermory has many buildings with big stone gables and large chimneys. The Art House has these, and we wanted to reflect that in Origami Studio by building a solid masonry gable to face onto the lane.” Another obvious solution to help the building blend in was to retain the walls of the old shed to use as a boundary wall. “We cut them down into a stepping shape that broke down the mass of the existing walls. It got rid of any overlooking issues and gave the neighbours privacy.”
Jane explains how she applied the same principle inside: “There’s a lot of glazing, but we made sure we had strategically placed solid walls, so we weren’t looking onto other people’s gardens.”
When it came to the actual structure, Jane perhaps surprisingly did not opt for a timber frame. “I think it’s the wrong thing to do in a country that’s so wet. Also, with houses that have a lot of large, glazed areas if it’s a lightweight building there’s nowhere for the heat to go. I prefer heavyweight construction with double-skin blockwork walls which are plastered which gives tremendous air-tightness. When the temperature rises inside you have concrete walls and floors which absorb that excess heat, and it takes out the peaks and troughs creating an even temperature.”
It’s Jane’s tried and tested method, and she hasn’t been persuaded by timber frame yet. “There’s not much of a saving in time as you have to allow such a long lead-in to order a timber frame kit and then get it delivered and erected – it works out about the same.”
Jane’s choice was for an 80 mm steel frame hidden within the double-skin blockwork walls. “It’s a tiny, skinny steel frame and that sets out all the angles. It’s all designed on a computer cutting machine, it’s like a Meccano set – digital perfection.” Building off the existing concrete slab from the original haulage yard slab, no new foundations were required just some adjustments in the steel frame so that each leg of the steel was slightly longer to account for the slope on the slab.
The steel came from Smyth Steel in Northern Ireland who also provided the steelwork for Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium. “The only problem was that we discovered on the last day of erection that the longest ridge beam was missing. I think it didn’t fit into the galvanising tank with the other pieces. However, within 24 hours of realising it was missing it arrived in Tobermory, the company were incredible.”
The glazing was also sourced from Ireland with glass from the Republic of Ireland and the aluminium framing from Northern Ireland. “It was cheaper to get it all done there and for them to come over and fit it than to use a Scottish company. We hired a manitou from a local haulier to lift it into place. I had a lot of tradesmen for dinner that night! It kept me fit as I was constantly running up and down to the shop for more food, which is at the bottom of the second steepest street in Scotland!”
This is where another of Jane’s roles came into play – chief cook! Her team of tradesmen stayed in The Art House during the build, and she cooked dinner for them every night. “It was a small team, and we did the build in three, two-month blocks. The guys would work for two months, go off island for two months and then back for another two and so on.”
In actual building time, the project took 6 months, but in real time it was 10 months. For Jane it was the ideal solution as it gave her time to plan, order materials and keep her business going. “It also worked with settling and drying out time. I’m an architect. I don’t usually worry about ordering materials or have to deal with shortages and delays, that’s usually someone else’s problem but in this instance, it was mine!”
Fortunately, there was only one real hold up. “We needed a specific weight of Spanish slate, and a particular setting out for the nail holes, as we’re in a high wind area. We had to special order them from Spain and they took forever to come.”
As well as the wind, the building needed to stand up to the rain. “You have to take account of the climate here – horizontal rain, 60 mph driving wind. I call them submarine days; it’s just like being underwater and you can’t stick your head out.” Fortunately, Jane found a product – Illbruck Tape – to keep her building watertight. “It’s like a strip of wetsuit material which you glue onto the window frame and then glues onto the masonry walls and plaster it in so you can’t actually see it. We’ve been here two years and not a leak.”
Other problems that were posed by island building were things that Jane completely took for granted on the mainland. “Bringing a crane onto the island for a day would have been prohibitively expensive so instead of the big precast flooring unit I usually use, we had to use concrete T-beams and blocks that could be lifted and laid by hand – albeit many hands.” There was no concrete pump on the island either and the screeds were mixed onsite by hand, loaded into metal buckets and raised to the first floor using a pulley system. The screeds were then levelled by hand, the old fashioned way. “The heavyweight floors were an important part of the build not only for thermal mass and soundproofing between floors, but their weight loaded onto the steel frame makes the whole structure stronger.”
There was another challenge when it came to the blown-in insulation; the supplier went bust, and Jane had to quickly find a replacement. “My neighbour in Ireland remembered he had it done and looked out his contact.” The company in Ireland phoned their contact in Glasgow who rang her, “and he arranged to do the job exactly when I needed it.” She was “pretty much ready to pay anything” at this point, but he asked how much deposit I had lost, what was the total cost and then asked for the difference. “I couldn’t believe it. The kindness of people is just staggering sometimes. They came when they said they would, and I have never been so relieved to see a lorry turn up.”
Once the dirty work was finally complete, Jane’s phase as an interior designer began. “You have to be careful with an open plan living space as you don’t want it to look like you have a kitchen in the corner.” Working with a supplier she’d previously used in Northern Ireland Jane chose to go part bespoke and part off the shelf. “I asked them what was new? The concrete effect on the doors and island was a new feature which I really liked and it worked with the black composite work surfaces.”
The concrete finish also complements the fire surround, something that Jane designed with her builders. Made from leftover flooring, Jane took some back to Ireland and had it sandblasted to expose the grain. It was then made into shuttering and backfilled with concrete. “When we took the boards off we were left with the lines of the sandblasted boarding. It’s a great effect and we did the same for the hearth. It really sets off the stove which I love. It looks like a big ladle, but it’s called The Rocal Drop.”
Adjacent to the open plan living/kitchen/ dining space is the couple’s bedroom which surprisingly isn’t as large as one would expect. “My family used to sail, and I was used to sleeping in very compact little cabins – everything stowed away, and nothing left out. That’s the look I wanted to recreate. I put the timber up the walls, there’s a small cabin-like window which overlooks the church and a compact wood burner which we’ve never even lit; the house is too warm.”
The bedroom is reached by a large sliding door, an idea that first surfaced in The Art House. “The doors are two MDF doors sandwiched together to get the right width and being MDF they won’t warp. The ironmongery came from Hafele Sliding Gear.”
Another nod to family life on the waves is the rope handrail on the staircase. “I think metal ones are too office-like. I used a company called Rope & Splice for The Art House and they were really helpful, so I went back to them, and they helped me design and measure what I needed. It arrives in a box, and you simply screw it into the wall.”
Throughout this project Jane has had her eye on every minute detail but how did she honestly find the experience of tackling several diverse roles on her build? She says that it helped her have a better idea of the ‘big picture’: “Moving from being an architect to a project manager, I now appreciate when a contractor says to me there’s been a delay on something. You see everything more in the round, and that was good, but you also realise how much you don’t know.”
Jane adds: “I can design a window head, but I rely on the builder to properly fit the damp proof courses and extend them the right distance into the wall cavity. When you have someone asking you that question you need to do your research to give them the right answer. I’m a huge fan of YouTube!”
Jane concludes: “Building your own house is an apprenticeship in everything and I would recommend every architect to do it at some point and the earlier in their career the better. The whole process has been, I imagine, a bit like skydiving – I found it thrilling when I was in the middle of it, but would I really want to do it again?”