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A world away: House No 7 by Denizen Works

What do you get if you mix urban design with the local vernacular and a ruined crofter’s cottage on the isle of Tiree? Denizen Work’s House No 7 finds Rory Olcayto. Photography by David Barbour

A couple of years ago Denizen Works made the AJ Small Projects Awards shortlist with its mobile sauna; a timber hut-cum-sledge with a glass door and cute chimney. It was designed by studio founder Murray Kerr for a client in Finland who had failed - after 12 years of trying - to convince local planners that her disused boat shed would be more useful as a steam room. Kerr soon discovered the planners were fine with mobile structures, so he proposed a large-scale sledge that could be hauled onto the frozen waters that surround his client’s house during the winter months. The planners said ‘fine’, so Kerr and a few pals set about building it with local timber, completing it in nine days. What’s more it proved light enough for a horse to tow around. Job done.

AJ Small Projects is a good testing ground for an architect’s potential: budgets are tight and, more often than not, constraints are pretty tough. The best small projects, then, are usually done by architects with great promise. That has proven to be the case with Denizen Works. In January this year, it was one of 20 firms shortlisted for housing association Peabody’s (coincidentally named) Small Projects Panel and, though it failed to be named as one of the six winning firms, it came away with a high commendation.

Which brings us to this: Denizen Works’ House No 7 on Tiree, a cluster of stubby, functional-looking blobs huddled together on the tiny island’s southern coast, and another strange, clever building by this curious, off-kilter studio.

Tiree is clearly part of the British Isles, but the flat, windswept island is a world away from London. Surprised? Didn’t think so. But it’s a world away from Glasgow, too, where I boarded my plane to Tiree. And if that is still a rather obvious point to make, let’s go a step further and say Tiree is also a world away from Oban, the main ferry port that serves this outermost of the Inner Hebrides. There’s nothing anywhere else in the UK quite like Tiree. Compared even to its sister Atlantic outcrops off the west coast of Scotland, Tiree is still a world away. Billy Connolly used to tell a gag about the sentimental bullshit Scottish folk singers get away with, citing a song called The Misty Blue Hills of Tiree, and taking issue with this view he thunders: ‘If you’ve ever actually been on Tiree, you’ll know it’s like a bloody billiard table.’

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Which also helps make it one of the windiest place in Britain - there are no trees to smother gales into something resembling a breeze and looking westwards, the next lump in the water you’ll come across is Canada.

Locals - and John Craven’s Countryfile (to the ire of message board obsessives arguing in favour of their own towns, usually on the south coast of England) - will also tell you it’s also the sunniest place in Britain. I was there in mid January. And guess what: it was sunny. It was raining too, and there were frequent lovely rainbows set against formidable grey-black skies one minute and what looked like computer-generated cyan-blue skies the next. But there was something strange about the rain: it didn’t touch the ground. Instead, the wind blew it across the island into a hovering band of watery mist that was actually quite pleasant to walk through when Kerr took me on a tour of the local sites.

There are other, quite specific elements that make Tiree special. Machair, the rare habitat local to the Hebrides, is one and its almost luminescent yellow, white and purple flowers are pretty in the extreme. Machair is a type of coastal dune pasture with a high shell content that provides a fertile agricultural base. And it’s everywhere you look.

Tiree’s population is another defining factor. It was around 4,500 people in 1830, but only 700 today with a mix of second-home Glaswegians and assorted west-coasters, and locals - mostly descended from crofters - some of whom continue that tradition today. The numbers swell during the surfing seasons too, which means that there are lots of holiday homes that are empty for long stretches at a time.

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These were the conditions Kerr had to contend with, coupled with the island’s surprising heritage as one of the few places outside London to have a building shortlisted for the Stirling Prize (Sutherland Hussey’s An Turas ‘folly) when he set about designing House No 7.

Kerr was commissioned by his parents to design the new house after plans to restore a traditional blackhouse with another architect fell through. It turned out the listed ruin was unstable and had to be demolished. And when Kerr saw what his parents were thinking of doing with their chosen architect (a kind of Grand Designs showstopper that had little to do with Tiree), he stepped in and proposed an alternative. It would mean delisting the ruin (a painful process that Historic Scotland eventually agreed to), rebuilding it in part and creating a different kind of home altogether. One that would see distinct forms - one housing a family home, the other a guest house - united by a central atrium and made sense of through the application of an approach more akin to urban design than the kind rural house design we have come to associate with the Scottish scene (whether Dualchas, Studio KAP or Richard Murphy Architects).

A word about traditional Tiree blackhouses: they’re amazing. Here’s Frank Walker from the Pevsner series Buildings of Scotland in the Argyll and Bute edition: ‘Croft-houses on Tiree are at once comparably rugged and attractive. Some are white, gabled cottages, thatched, slated or roofed (and sometimes walled) in corrugated iron. Some have black upper storeys - bitumen-tarred timber tents set up on the older rubble wall heads.’ Now, take a look at Kerr’s new building. From the outside, it resembles a mash-up of all of the kind of crofts Walker describes in the Pevsner guide.

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Do I need to describe in detail what you are looking at? I don’t think so. David Barbour’s photos do that very well. But if you think that there is something awkward about how the masses cohere, from the outside, you would be right. It is like that in the flesh too. It is not the drawback a static photo suggests it might be however - mainly because this is a building that really works as I have already suggested as a kind of private townscape. Each distinct element of it overlooks, or looks up to, another part (it has Tiree’s first basement, apparently) and I would guess this approach stems from Kerr’s time at BDP where he was protégé to the former chairman Tony McGuirk, who specialised in this kind of ‘atomised cluster that is really one building’ approach.

The building’s real success is the home it creates within its ever-so-slightly overworked shell. Once you enter through the front door, you alight onto the concrete floor of the ‘hall’. It’s more like a kind of street corner or crossroads; with steps down to the master bedroom, steps up to the barrel-vaulted kitchen (the heart of this family home) and views up to the chimney though a generous glazed roof and also into the studio-style painting room (with a table that turns into a bed - it’s a big family).

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Kerr has used a startling array of materials - reclaimed pitched pine beams for steps, oiled oak floorboards, white-painted rubble walls, polished concrete, corrugated iron, steel fins - but they don’t overwhelm or feel mismatched. The hall in particular could be a void carved from a solid, rather than a spatial composition of building blocks, which hints at the influence of Kathryn Findlay (whose thatched roofs also seem linked to the ink-black cottage roof used for the cottage rebuild) and its sculpted edges (if you squint your eyes) relate to Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau. The use of reclaimed materials confirms this heritage: ‘collage’ is the key word here.

There is plenty of room. You will not bang your bones on table edges or corners into rooms. It’s warm. Friendly. And, dare I say it: cosy. The plan has been carefully thought through. I know it works because of one simple test: I stayed overnight, and managed to find my way down from the first floor guest house, across the hall, up the steps to the kitchen and pour myself a glass of water without switching the lights on. It was pitch black. How about that? It was simply a matter of familiarity, despite the spatial complexity that comes together to make this the place it is.

Full disclosure? Murray Kerr is a friend. Well he is now anyway, now I know he has a house on Tiree, a world away, but cosy and familiar, just like home.

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