Friday, 1 April 2016

Studio Hardie Diaries - Building a timber frame farmhouse, Isle of Eigg, Scotland

Hamish Boden from Studio Hardie talks about the challenges of fabrication and installation of a Douglas Fir timber frame farmhouse in one of the remotest parts of the British Isles.

The house was designed by Cameron Scott and was a contemporary take on a traditional four bay farm house, using douglas fir and larch. The brief was to build something that was both eco friendly and robust (considering the regular storms gusting up to 80mph) whilst making the most of the epic landscape.

(This time lapse video has no soundtrack)

The main thing that attracted me to this build was the location.  Eigg is a remote island on the west coast of Scotland at just six miles long by four miles wide, with a population of fewer than 100.  Everything about this place is dramatic from its sweeping mountain-scape to its expansive views and often turbulent ferry crossing, all adding to the islands rich history.  Therefore it is only right that the farmhouse exude a similar kudos.

Another major attraction to this project is that my family live here.  My Father and Grandfather have both built houses on the island. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity, whether I liked it or not. Naturally my competitive side is to build something bigger and better so the Studio Hardie team and myself set off on the 600 mile journey to build the house of all houses.

We built the frame off site in our workshop.  It meant that we weren’t exposed to the elements during winter and could give the extra attention to detail that it deserved.  Logistically it was ambitious.  Transporting the timber to the island was the first major hurdle. The articulated lorry was full to the roof and it literally wouldn’t have taken another piece of timber. We had to use a specialist boat for carrying the freight and lastly a tractor and trailer for the last kilometer on the island. It was a relief to get the project to site.

 I’ve done a few small projects there previously. I started with building a little shepherds hut that taught me a lesson on being prepared. You have to be militant in planning and it helps to be resourceful.  The closest builders merchant is in Fort William so any materials take a week to arrive.  You can’t just nip out when you have forgotten a box of screws.  Problem solving is as important too. I know my tool kit better than I know the back of my hand and probably spent more time with it than I have my own family.

Like any project thinking through every process is key.  Knowing what happens next and what you will need in advance. I guess this is something that comes from experience, both good and bad. There’s nothing like getting something horribly wrong to teach you a lesson.  Its how you recover from that situation that really sets your principles.

Another challenge is the lack of and limitations on access to modern luxuries like a crane or access equipment.   We didn’t even have mains electricity so had to rely on generator. We resorted to the medieval technique of raising the building by hand. In some ways it’s the most pleasurable way to put up a building.  It’s slow but you can be methodical and finesse things as you go.

Eigg is one of the first communities in the UK to produce all of is electricity supply locally with renewable resources so building a house out of renewable timber seemed like the obvious thing to do.  For me timber framing is the essence of carpentry and teaches you so much about wood. I really think it’s a good starting point for any carpentry discipline. Being able to read a piece of timber to knowing what the grain will do over the years and how it will be affected by shrinkage.  You don’t get many second chances with green oak as its not like you can cover up a mistake with a bit of filler or paint.  One thing it also really helps with is getting good at using hand tools. The timber is often so large and difficult to move hand tools are the only option, You learn to use the circular saw in all directions and sometimes even cutting upside down.

I think the highlight of this project for me was seeing the frame slowly take shape. It took around 2 weeks to erect.  Each day you would see a little progress and begin to see how the house is going to sit in the landscape. It was every bit as fun, challenging and hard work as it looked.