House builder digs in to get SIC approval for unusual dwelling

It looks like a cross between the heavily-glazed bridge of a ship and an ancient broch. But this unusual looking house will be under con­stuction soon in a hillside in White­ness after councillors approved the design despite objections from the local community council.

Harold Massie applied to build the innovative house, which will be dug into an earth bank for warmth and shelter, be self-sufficient in power and may even produce more power than it uses. The radical dwel­ling, which will boast traditional dry stone walls, a turf roof and will use sheeps’ wool insulation, has been affectionately dubbed a “hobbit house” by some who admire its design.

But Tingwall, Whiteness and Weisdale community council lodged an objection on the grounds that the chosen site at South Ustaness would be on “good agricultural land” which is currently used for grazing. The community council also cited the possibility of “creeping develop­ment” in this area and expressed fears about the potential effect of such development on existing infrastructure.

However at last week’s meeting of the planning board it was clear the design captured their hearts and minds of councillors.

Chairman of the planning board Frank Robertson said it was “interesting and unusual”, and it was in a “good” location, near existing housing, not on good agricultural land and therefore there was “no departure from planning”.

Lerwick councillor Gary Robin­son admired the house’s “sustain­ability” and “low impact”, and councillor for the North Isles Laura Baisley enthused: “It’s really good, we should welcome such an inno­vative design, it’s brilliant – I would love one.”

Mr Robertson congratulated project architect Iain Malcolmson of Redman + Sutherland Architects on his work, which as well as being super-modern also harked back to the ancient: “It’s reminiscent of a heel-shaped cairn.”

Planning permission was un­animously granted.

Speaking after the decision, a delighted Mr Massie, who was born in Shetland and has returned to retire, said: “It was such a good reaction – I’m really pleased.”

He said the house, which will be mostly underground with only the entrance and circular living area protruding to the outside, will have two bedrooms (one en-suite), living, kitchen and dining areas, a main bathroom, utility space, workshop and garage.

A curved feature wall constructed from glass aggregate concrete panels to act as a storage heater will run down the spine of the building, connecting all these spaces.

A finer, sand-like glass aggregate will be used in the void under the floor to surround the under-floor heating pipes, and will itself heat up. Lighting for the back areas of the house will be from “sun pipes” – highly polished metal tubes with domed tops which collect the light.

The house’s heating and elec­tricity will be generated on site using evacuated glass tube solar collectors as photo-voltaic cells, with a con­nection to transfer excess electrical power back to the grid.

Architect Iain Malcolmson said: “It has been a pleasure and a chal­lenge working with a client as enlightened as Mr Massie. Make no mistake about it, this is a challenging project to undertake where the type of construction is at the cutting edge of current construction technology and thinking but his enthusiasm and determination to not settle for second best is inspirational.

“In a bizarre sort of way to go forward we have had to go back in time a couple of thousand years and examine how the late bronze and early iron age houses at Jarlshof and Scatness used the landscape to create shelter from the elements. Digging into the ground reduced the amount of heat lost from the buildings, there­fore a relatively small amount of heat would be required to achieve ‘comfortable’ living conditions. We have taken this principle and applied modern construction techniques to create a house probably ahead of its time.”

The philosophy adopted for this low energy house was, he said, to reduce the need for energy in the first place and then provide the small amount of energy required from renewable sources. To do this the building had to minimise the amount of heat lost through its fabric – building into the hillside will shelter it from the cold winter winds which can strip the heat out. The walls, floor and roof will be exceptionally airtight and super insulated, while controlling the amount of ventilation will avoid stuffiness. Careful specifi­cation of electrical appliances and lighting will reduce energy con­sumption to a minimum. Thereafter exceptionally efficient evacuated glass tube solar panels will capture heat during daylight hours, which will be stored long-term in a huge insulated water tank. Photo-voltaic cells will also generate electrical energy which is stored in a sophis­ticated battery system. Mr Malcolm­son said: “All in all we calculate that the building will produce more energy than it uses.”

Mr Massie said the cost of the project, if undertaken by a builder, could be as much as £300,000. However he intends to do much of the work himself and finish the job for half that sum, having already had experience of renovating a 300-year-old ex-pub building in Suffolk.


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.