Retreating to
the city


For many self-builders, the big goal is moving from the city to the country, but a couple from the Scottish Highlands had the opposite aim in building their ‘secret garden’ home in Aberdeen


Russel Davies and Wendy Wilkie were living in a village in the Scottish Highlands when they made the decision to move into suburban Aberdeen. Their grown-up children had flown the nest and they were now looking for the facilities that a large town could provide.

However, their search proved that finding a plot of land in the city is more difficult than finding one in the country, and it took a while to find a site that was suitable. “The clients had approached us previously with a plot they had seen, but after some discussion we all agreed it wasn’t for them and it took a while to find another site,” remembers architect Andrew Brown of Brown & Brown Architects.

It took until 2018 for them to come back to Brown & Brown, but this time it was with a building and site that was well known to the architects. “I used to drive past the site most days when I lectured at the university, and I always thought it was a shame that nothing had been done with it,” Andrew recalls.

Now, Brown & Brown had the chance to rectify this. The site, which consisted of a dilapidated coach house set in its own grounds already had planning permission to be converted and extended. “The permission had been there for a long time, but there was a reason no-one had developed the site, as it would never remotely stack up to the spend and to what the final result was worth,” explains Andrew. This was due in no small part to the actual condition of the coach house – which was now in a terrible state. All that was salvageable was the stone, and it would need to be entirely rebuilt in an appropriate way.

Brown & Brown started by looking at some retention plans, so they could figure out the best way forward and find a solution which was viable; one which would achieve the most from Russel and Wendy’s budget. However, in the end, knocking the majority of the building down and starting again was the most sensible option.

Russel and Wendy’s wish list was relatively straightforward, and their brief to Brown & Brown was to design a house that was predominantly for them, but was one that their family could come back to. Also having been used to living in a rural location, they wanted privacy from the busy road that ran down one side of the site.

“There were a couple of our designs that they had already seen, so we had a snapshot of what they liked. Beyond that, they wanted something that they wouldn’t think of designing themselves,” says Andrew.”

The first consideration for Brown & Brown was what to keep and what to get rid of, and where to site the house on the plot to maximise the clients’ privacy. “We wanted to create a barrier between the road and the house, and to site the house further east into the plot so that it would get the evening light.”

This set Brown & Brown on the path to situate the build centrally in the garden rather than along its edge. Their vision was to build a house that was ‘in’ a garden rather than a house next to a garden. And while for some architects, the proximity to the busy road would have been a difficult challenge, for Brown & Brown it was one that they were keen to take on, as Andrew explains: “It’s good to have a site where as an architect you have something to respond to, and for us it prompted us to think about a ‘secret garden house.’ The further you progress through the house, the more privacy you get.”

To create the couple’s home, the majority of the coach house was carefully dismantled, and the masonry reused to create a boundary wall at street level which would mirror the other properties in the conservation area: all had stone boundary walls running the length of the gardens. “This boundary wall was something that this site didn’t previously have, and it was something that the planners suggested we could do to make a big difference in terms of how they viewed the design within the conservation area.”

While the planners had been very supportive of Brown & Brown’s plans in general, Historic Environment Scotland initially objected, not to the specific design, but to a new building in a conservation area in itself. “Fortunately, the planner we were liaising with had written the conservation area statement, and we were able to show her that what we intended to build
was better than what was there. In her view, creating this stone boundary wall would enhance the area and allow that plot to fit in with the others in the area.”


To marry the old and new in this location, the cantilevered design is arranged over two storeys and is tucked into the north corner of the plot to provide privacy and to capture the southern sunlight. One entire wall of the coach house was retained to create a modern colonnade, lit by the original window apertures of the coach house. The stonework that came down from the rest of the coach house was reused to build the stone elevations, the garage and the boundary walls at the side. Softening the austerity of the new build is a mature copse of trees in the garden. “The trees certainly make it feel like it’s not a house in the middle of a city. If the trees weren’t here, I think it would be a completely different design – they were certainly a blessing.” For Russel and Wendy, they bring a bit of ‘country’ as well as privacy: “Living in the countryside, you get accustomed to a level of privacy and tranquillity and this house gives us this in an urban setting.”

Internally, the layout is designed to be adapted for independent living later in life if so required, but also to serve two separate purposes on each of the two levels. “This property is designed so that Russel and Wendy could easily live on the ground floor and the
first floor would become only for guests. Presently the principal bedroom suite is upstairs, but the downstairs study could potentially become a bedroom.”

The bathrooms are all wetrooms, which futureproofs the house, but is equally pleasing on the aesthetic front. “Using the micro cement on the walls as well as the floor is also easier to keep clean and requires no maintenance as there’s no joins or grout.”

Upstairs the principal suite benefits from a luxurious corner glazed bathroom overlooking the treetops and the second and third bedrooms share a Jack & Jill bathroom. At present, the third bedroom is used permanently as a gym. The interior layout has focused more on having a smaller number of rooms while making them better. “There’s only Russel and Wendy living here and they don’t need six bedrooms. It’s about using the space for what you enjoy every day. Hence the gym, but if their children need to come home, it can be a bedroom again.”

Downstairs the layout is functional and eye-catching with Brown & Brown meeting the brief of “something the clients couldn’t design themselves”. Access to the house is intriguing. You enter through a door adjacent to the garage which leads into the colonnade to the front door. “You ‘turn your back’ on your car and the street, and you start to experience the courtyard and then the house,” explains Andrew.

At the front door are the practical areas with boot and coat storage, a utility room, a renewable heating plant room, and a shower room. This leads into a double height atrium which connects to the garden to the south and the treescape to the north. These large glass walls frame the heart of the home. Around the corner are the deliberately dark elements of the kitchen which was fitted by DK&I and contrasts dramatically with the light-filled atrium. Brown & Brown also switched the usual layout of dining, kitchen, and living areas to defined kitchen, dining and living spaces with the kitchen in the corner anchoring the space. From here you head to the three-sided, glass sitting room, which gives the feeling of having walked into
the garden.

Andrew says: “It was very important for us to ensure that the layouts and the spatial qualities met Russel and Wendy’s specific requirements, and that the home reflects them and how they want to live.”


The focal point of the ground floor is the stunning spiral staircase – which Brown & Brown had included in their sketches from the very start of the project. “The two-storey atrium has a level ceiling at the top and it needed something in the space that ensured it didn’t feel like a box,” says Andrew. The birch plywood staircase was designed by Brown & Brown in collaboration with local craftsmen; bespoke cabinet makers Angus+Mack. The timber treads were individually cut, and hand layered to create the parabolic curve, which took three weeks to assemble.

The cabinet makers also made the custom-fumed, oak front door and the divider in the open plan kitchen/dining/living space. “It’s an expansive space and Angus+Mack designed the divider with kitchen storage on one side, stereo storage on the other and a large planter along the top of it. I think it’s about 7 metres long.”

To ensure that the crisp clean lines of the open plan areas remain as such, Brown & Brown had a designers’ trick up their sleeves. “There’s a back kitchen behind the main kitchen that does all the heavy lifting; you can leave the toaster out and be messy! However, our clients are very disciplined, they’ve resisted the temptation to fill the spaces, yet it still feels lived in.”

In keeping with the practice’s approach to sustainability, Brown & Brown had to balance the expansive glazing with the energy systems they installed. “Every project we take on, we try to make as low energy as possible and the clients were open minded and interested in that.” As a result, the house has been insulated to levels in excess of Building Regulations. A ground source heating system has been installed and a mechanical heat ventilation recovery system recycles waste heat and brings fresh air in.

Perhaps surprisingly, the property is double glazed as opposed to triple glazed. However, as Andrew explains, “The house would have overheated. The amount of glass had to be balanced with the glazing to the north to allow the heat to escape. And we had to ensure that the heat pump and ventilation system worked in symbiosis with each other.”

Working with contractors Coldwells Building Company and Angus+Mack, the build was completed in July 2022. “We started on site in February 2021 and there were a few delays due to the pandemic affecting supply chains, but our contractors were excellent, and we were only about two months later than we expected”

Russel and Wendy moved into Arbor House in July 2022, and it has surpassed their expectations. They sum it up as follows: “The architects have delivered a house which takes our breath away every day, and we realise this is a wonderful place to live in. The house allows us to enjoy the lifestyle we’ve long wanted, as including easy access to the city, and plenty of green space.”