A SHORTAGE of housing on the Western Isles - and particularly of new builds – has contributed to what many see as a threat to the way of life on the islands.

Yet, while developers evidently see opportunity, architects have warned that the rush to build new housing need not compromise the unique landscape and history of the area.

“Over the years, a lot of people had been expanding their crofts on the Outer Hebrides,” said Stephen Proctor, architect and co-founding director of Proctor & Matthews Architects.

“There was a right for people to build a new house on the site of ancient crofts yet what was happening was this obsession with putting everything on one level.

“It’s about people future proofing their homes for if they have mobility issues as they get older.

“But some of these new crofts almost looked like they’d be more at home in Torremolinos.

The National: An illustration from the Outer Hebrides Design GuideAn illustration from the Outer Hebrides Design Guide (Image: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar)

“You ended up with these houses that were cranked up on enormous plinths and didn’t respond to the landscape or the heritage of small, modest crofts in the area.”

In a bid to ensure that the history of blackhouses and other historical aspects of Outer Hebrides architecture weren’t forgotten in a slew of ill-placed bungalows, Proctor & Matthews helped Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and the Scottish Government craft the Outer Hebrides Design Guide: a document which sets out the considerations housebuilders on the islands should be aware of and the architectural heritage they are stepping into.

However, simply laying out how houses should be built doesn’t make the same impact as actually building one – or, in Proctor & Matthews’ case, two.

“The next step after the code was to say, well, let’s actually work with a manufacturer and design a kit house,” said Proctor.

The National: One of the Kirrin Cottage holiday homes on Benbecula, which was designed by Proctor & MatthewsOne of the Kirrin Cottage holiday homes on Benbecula, which was designed by Proctor & Matthews (Image: Proctor & Matthews)

“Resources on the island are very limited, with a lot of the materials being shipped in. As such, a lot of the new build houses being built are kit houses anyway.”

“So, we worked with Scotframe to design a kit house that didn’t rain on people’s aspirations in terms of scale.”

The final kit breaks down the big mass of a bungalow into smaller pieces, which fit far neater into the landscape and tradition of the Outer Hebrides.

Following this the firm then helped with the design of two holiday cottages on Benbecula, with the final result looking like a contemporary take on a blackhouse croft which can be easily replicated for permanent homes on the islands.

The Kirrin Cottages are a low budget manifestation of what housebuilding on the islands could look like.

“This was really about trying to open up a debate about language,” said Proctor.

“Lots of people were choosing pattern book kit houses. But the houses on offer tended to be standard houses that weren’t related to the Outer Hebrides.

“We thought if we could develop kit houses that were more responsive to the unique climate, topography and landscape of the islands then that would go a long way to preventing the construction of inappropriately designed homes.”

A balance has to be struck between meeting the urgent demand for housing and regulating the desires of those wishing to build them.

However, having a ready-made kit house design means that buildings can spring up at speed and with sensitivity to their location – a savvy solution which could keep the Outer Hebrides looking a bit more like itself and little less like Torremolinos.