BOTHIES - BUILDING SMALL, THINKING BIG4th December 2023
We’re quite often asked by clients to create unique little spaces for those quiet moments they seek in their lives. The idea of a bothy – some kind of rural-feeling room in the wild, or cabin-style office at the bottom of the garden, or hideaway up a hill or in the woods – holds romance. It’s the idea of a secret place, where we can run away to and forget our everyday stresses. In fact, even when we’ve built grand homes, it’s sometimes the additional bothy-type space that becomes a client’s favourite spot.
However, contrary to popular belief, these bothies can pose quite a design challenge. They often require a great deal of care and attention to get right. The good news is: we love a challenge.
The first issue is location. It’s important that the bothy style fits the location and whatever purpose our clients’ want to use it for. But it’s also important that it retains an element of simplicity – otherwise it just becomes a house. Weighing up these options can be tricky.
These small buildings usually require ingenious space planning, because if they’re being created from existing stone buildings their existing core dimensions can be too small for modern living.
They’re also often desired in very sensitive places – wide open countryside or in the grounds of listed buildings. This can present design and planning problems. And off-grid specifications can be a request that adds another layer of complexity in ensuring they’re fit for purpose and completely sustainable.
Sometimes too, as requests build up, the unique small spaces become bigger than when first commissioned. This can often be at the point when clients realise that they want to share the newfound raw feel of the bothy experience with family or guests. This is where the challenge of keeping it petite becomes a problem.
However, on the bright side, a successful bothy is a thing of beauty. The best examples look just right in their space and are also useful.
The example below is a project set in rolling countryside among mature trees. It is a long way from an off-the-shelf garden room that can be dropped into place (those ones rarely look like they fit well in situ). It has an element of luxury while retaining the simplicity of the bothy ideal. The angular form gives it a striking appearance, yet the timber framing and position among the trees sings simplicity.
Size matters: How big should a bothy be?
The term bothy is from the Gaelic ‘bothan’ meaning a hut. In the past, bothies were shelters or small cottages built for farm workers. But as hill farming faded the buildings began to be used as overnight or storm shelter for hikers. They might contain a single room and a fireplace at one end. Beds would usually be on a mat or fluffy sheepskin on the floor. These days, however, some have been redeveloped or built from scratch as little luxury properties for rent.
One such traditional stone single-storey shelter on the land of an estate seemed ripe for regeneration. However, particularly in national parks, these buildings can be listed, even in a state of considerable disrepair. Our client for this particular bothy conversion had a brief that started growing, so rather than a snug bothy for two it has become a more capacious bothy for four, at which point it really becomes a cottage.
This meant that it had to go through a challenging planning process. The footprint of the existing building was just too tight to use on its own so adding to it was not only operationally essential but also commercially essential. The fact that this bothy was in the grounds of an existing building and that the footprint had been enlarged were the areas of concern for the planning department.
Another bothy project that we worked on is very traditional in style. While it looks like an ancient building, it is in fact newly built. The idea was to create a very typical hillside bothy set in the beauty of the rugged landscape on the client’s estate. We achieved a particularly successful outcome for our client, and this Highland bothy’s basic feel, with bare stone walls and floor, and minimal furnishings are the aspects that the owner most loves about it. It’s the perfect spot to stop for a hearty fireside lunch while on the hill, accompanied by a dram or two of good whisky.