Derek Trowell is a Wirksworth architect who embraced sustainable design and building techniques many years ago. He tells us about an unusual low-key retrofitting project he has undertaken of a croft on the Isle of Jura, Scotland.
As a family, we stayed in this croft for at least 25 years from the 1980s. It was owned by Callum, a fierce Scottish Nationalist, who invited us to stay in his croft on one of our early visits to the island. The house was damp, drafty, with no heating save an open fire, and a very basic bathroom with a shower that occasionally worked. We had to go outside every morning to get from the bedrooms to the bathroom and living area. It was however a fantastic place to stay, with views to the Paps of Jura, Lowlandmans Bay and Small Isles Bay, and a standing stone within touching distance.
When Callum died several years ago, he left instructions with his family that we should still be able to stay. They didn’t share his passion for the house and stopped visiting. It was sold to someone on the island, which didn’t work out, and the house was abandoned and became uninhabitable.
Looking at it two summers ago, we felt sad at the thought it would probably end up being demolished and become a building plot. In the pub that night, two island friends suggested we should buy it. With no real thoughts on what we would do with it, or money to do anything, we stuffed a note through the owner’s door on the way to the ferry the next morning.
To cut a long story short, we now own it. It had no insulation, no damp proofing and was open to the elements and to the occasional sheep. We decided to make the building sustainable but in a low-key way. We did not aim to make it highly energy efficient, comfortable year-round, or with all mod-cons. We wanted to make it an example of how similar seemingly “beyond repair” vernacular buildings like this, of which there are many, can be saved.
So far, we have carried out some of the following:
* A new galvanised sheet roof with as much insulation (not much!) as would fit without raising the eaves and spoiling the proportions.
* Four sash windows “beyond repair” have been replaced to match but with thin double-glazing to improve performance wittout increasing the size of the glazing bars.
*The lean-to and the sort-of-bathroom have been re-built.
* The previous owner had removed most of the internal walls to the main house to create an open space. We might not have done that but since it was done, we can heat the entire living area and kitchen with a single stove with a back boiler and three radiators. It was never built with central heating in mind.
* Insulating and damp proofing the floors and insulating the walls would be prohibitively expensive and would also take away the charm of the original. But the stove and radiators will take advantage of a leaky envelope to draw air into the house and keep it dry by “letting it breathe”. Nothing will touch the walls – no fitted kitchen or cupboards – so nowhere to create damp. The floors will be a mix of ceramic tiles which will breathe or just masonry paint.
* The wiring will be surface fixed in galvanised trunking to avoid cutting into the historic stonework.
We could do more (heat pump etc.) but we cannot afford it and we are also keen to carry out the work within a budget that means it will not have cost more than it will be worth. Otherwise, it becomes a pointless exercise.
Work is in hand, but progress has been slower than we had hoped mainly due to Covid. It is now nearly habitable, and any sheep are outside.