A thoroughly modern eco mix

An Aberdeenshire couple chose an array of innovative building methods – including ICF construction – to create an eco-friendly modernist gem that still manages to blend in with its surroundings


Chatting with Ryan Urquhart about the home he has designed and built for his young family, you have to admire both his determination to ‘do something different,’ and to complete so much of the work himself.

In Aberdeenshire, where of course granite is the traditional construction material, Ryan chose to get to grips with 21st-century alternatives to create a very modern-looking house.

Even he admits he was “pretty nervous” when he applied for planning permission to build on what was part of a farmyard near the village of Mintlaw: “The design I put forward was quite bold,” he says. 

He needn’t have worried – not only did he get the thumbs-up from the local planning authority, but, according to Ryan: “They loved the design, the uniqueness of it and planning went through without a hitch.”

The home he now shares with wife Jemma and three-year-old daughter Miley is laid out in a roughly T-shaped way at ground level with three bedrooms on the east side, a carport and utility room to the west.

Running north to south along the open-plan spine are the kitchen, dining area and the family living space, which benefits from countryside views. An external west-facing canopy allows the family to enjoy the afternoon and evening sun.

The smaller first-floor section of the house is where you find the master bedroom with ensuite dressing room and bathroom, plus more south-facing views through big windows.

Of course, it’s the view of this modernist house itself from its surroundings that has attracted the most attention locally. The design is a collection of interlocking square and rectangular boxes, topped by flat roofs that at first-floor level feature an overhang to protect rooms from getting too hot in the summer sun.

As a qualified architectural technician, Ryan already had some of the relevant know-how to embark on this self-build project, but it was probably the example of his father that first planted the seed of the idea. “My dad, a carpenter by trade, built the house where I grew up, so I’d say that watching him do that was absolutely an inspiration.”

He continues: “I always knew in my head that I wanted to do a self-build at some point and I knew I wanted something modernist – I like straight edges and flat roofs. I wanted to do something different and special but something that still suited the location.”

However, deciding the final layout and look of the self-build was no easy task. Ryan reveals: “A lot of it was considered with views and sunlight in mind. I must have gone through a dozen sketch pads, sketching and resketching, working my way through so many different ideas.

“Eventually, Jemma and I were on a train journey somewhere – I started sketching again, did the layout, a bit of a perspective elevation and we just went, yeah, that’s it! We’ve got it.”

Finding a site for the project was also a challenging endeavour. After looking at close to 30 plots of land, the plot Ryan and Jemma finally bought in 2018 for £60,000 is just 300 yards from the house where Ryan grew up and where his parents still live.

The proximity of family, and their help, has been a huge bonus in their self-build. “As well as my dad being nearby, my younger brother is an electrician, while Jemma’s dad and brothers are all carpenters,” says Ryan. “We also lived with Jemma’s parents nearby while the new place was being built. We knew we would need family support and we’re very grateful to have got it.”

With Ryan both the architect and project manager on the self-build, work on foundations began in the autumn of 2019, just weeks after Miley’s birth in August. However, Ryan’s commitment to the build became even more hands-on once the construction of walls got underway. 

He explains: “To keep heating bills and carbon emissions low, I decided we’d build using insulated concrete formwork (ICF). I also thought this was probably something I could do myself.”

Walls are created using this technique with a polystyrene sandwich plus a poured concrete filling, providing a ‘pre-insulated’ structure. The concrete core should also hold some heat through the day and slowly release it back throughout the house at night, again reducing heating bills.

The ICF work was carried out in three stages and finished in February 2020 with the completion of the first-floor walls. Ryan comments: “This was mostly done by me with help from friends and family, and two or three guys from the building contractor between their other jobs.

“Don’t get me wrong, it was a learning experience for us all, and the ICF supplier did have one of their experts check on us from time to time, but it was actually so straightforward that we couldn’t quite believe it and we were always expecting there would be a catch.”

The first Covid-19 lockdown caused some disruption, but work carried on – both outside and indoors – through 2020, 2021 and 2022 with Ryan continuing to do as much as he could himself, but always with help and guidance from family and friends. 

Looking back, he accepts the biggest challenge of the self-build was the “time management side of things.” He adds: “I’m a director at the company I work for and we’re very busy so some weeks I didn’t get to the build at all. I also had a new daughter and, of course, at points I stayed home to spend time with her.”

During 2022, the white ICF structure of the Urquharts’ new home was transformed with the application of its final exterior cladding, putting an end, says Ryan, to local comments about the ‘big igloo’ that was being built in the neighbourhood. “Before the cladding was on, you could see this bright white ICF box for miles around!”

Again, he opted for a modern, sustainable cladding product, called Rockpanel, which is manufactured using highly compressed  stone wool fibres made from basalt (volcanic rock). Stone wool is created by spinning molten rock and minerals with slag (a byproduct of steel manufacture), to create a cotton-candy-like wool product that is bound together using thermosetting resin. This is
then pressed into panels that are finished with a decorative coating. 

“It’s highly fire-resistant and has good durability,” says Ryan “and it comes in a variety of stone and wood effects ranges.” He explains how the “muted tones of the cladding have blended in so well with the surroundings, such as the trees, the neighbouring granite steading and even the nearby electricity substation.”

The one area where Rockpanel isn’t used is a feature stone wall around the front door that is a nod to the granite stonework that’s so familiar in the region. However, even here there’s a twist as Ryan’s builder helped source an unusual darker granite from the bottom of a local quarry that isn’t often used in construction.

Doing it differently may have been one aim for this self-build but low carbon was the other central ambition. It certainly has excellent ‘green’ credentials with an air source heat pump, underfloor heating on the groundfloor and a mechanical ventilation and heat recovery system. The couple also have plans to install solar panels on the roof at some point in the future.

A home control system automatically takes care of this impressive array of eco-friendly tech, but the couple can intervene should they want to using an app on their mobile phones. 

When it comes to the interior of the Urquharts’ new home, most would agree that the premium-quality Rotpunkt kitchen is the star of the show. It’s part of an overall design theme of industrial chic that includes eye-catching heat and scratch-resistant Dekton Trilium worktop surfaces.

Various shades of stone-inspired greys are counterbalanced by metallic bronze colours and a unique rust-spotted steel latticework down the side of the stairs that’s been cut to resemble a New York skyline. Says Ryan: “A lot of people would opt for oak or glass balustrades, which is contemporary, but we wanted something that would let in light but also be a feature in itself,” says Ryan.

The family have lived in their new home for some months now and their self-build is pretty much complete – apart from landscaping works that will include some tree-planting to soften the impact of the prevailing south-west winds.

“We are being as sustainable as possible in terms of upcycling, the site was formerly part of a farmyard and there is a lot of old ‘junk’ lying around that we intend to use for dividing up garden spaces and as features like planters.” 

The cost of the land plus a total of £360,000 spent on the build has been funded by savings, proceeds from the sale of the Urquharts’ previous home and a mortgage but, more importantly, the couple are delighted with the results of all that investment.

Jemma says: “I couldn’t be happier with the result. The dream was a unique home for what started off as the two of us, but soon became the three of us.” They wanted a space where they could relax and enjoy spending time with family and friends. Somewhere with no wasted space, high ceilings and a kitchen at the heart of everything – which is what they’ve achieved.

“I played a minimal part with my paintbrush,” says Jemma, “but I look around and see the work Ryan and our family and friends did to help us. I’m so proud of Ryan for designing and building a beautiful home that we get to enjoy every single day.”  

Ryan agrees: “I’m happy with how everything’s turned out. I just wanted something that we would like – I wasn’t too worried about what other people think. But quite a lot of people stop to have a look and, if I’m outside working, they tell me they love the house. There’s bound to be some that don’t love it, but you can’t please everyone!”

The icing on the cake is probably that the man who first inspired Ryan’s self-build dream, his dad, is also a fan: “He was very unsure to start with, his approach is more traditional and he was sceptical to say the least about the shape, style and the ICF. Like myself he was constantly looking for the ‘catch’ with ICF, he couldn’t believe how easy it is to build. But now it’s finished I think he admires what we’ve built and appreciates how well it sits in the landscape compared to a house with a standard pitched roof.”