Heart of stone: turning a remote Scottish barn into a stylish home

Sitting in a magical position upon a Dumfriesshire hillside, the ruins of a 19th-century barn and adjacent farmhouse formed part of Lily Jencks’s childhood. The ruins are not far from the family estate where Lily spent many of her school holidays and which is also the site of the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, created by her late father, the landscape designer and writer Charles Jencks.

The farmstead itself was bought many years ago by Lily’s mother, the artist and garden designer Maggie Keswick Jencks, who was captivated by the quiet beauty of the surroundings and the open vista across the Borders landscape.

“It was a place we used to walk to from our family house and go and sit and just admire the view,” says Lily today. “My mother bought the land as a place to build an artist’s studio, but she never got round to doing it. Every time we walked up, there was this idea we could have something here, because it is such a fantastic place to be where you can spend all your time watching the view like a television. It felt captivating every time I went. With that view, immediately all your troubles seem to be diminished and you feel grounded.”

It was only after Lily had set up her own architectural practice and married her husband, Roger Keeling, that she started thinking about building a fresh family retreat on the site of the ruins. She decided to concentrate initially on the ruined barn, which runs across the hillside and looks down into the valley below. Collaborating with her friend and fellow architect Nathanael Dorent, she developed ideas for a layered building that would make use of the remnants of the stone walls. Within this she created a building within a building, using a steel and timber frame finished in a black coat of waterproof rubber, known as EPDM, punctuated by large windows and skylights. Internally, Jencks then created a third layer using a curvaceous, internal tube made with a timber framework covered in glass-reinforced plastic.

“The design was really a result of the logic that we applied to the barn, in that the windows would go where there were existing window openings in the stone walls and then the interior curving tube would fit within that, also accommodating these openings and the thickness of the walls,” says Jencks. “We were very lucky that the logic worked well, but we also studied it a lot, building everything digitally on the computer and making lots of physical models, so there was time to review and finesse it.”

While the exterior of the house is dark and somewhat enigmatic, the interior is light, sculptural and fluid, with one space flowing gently into the next. Moving onwards from the entrance hall and lounge, the house opens up dramatically at the centre, where a generously sized multifunctional space holds the kitchen to one side and the dining area at the other, where ribbon windows frame those valley views. Beyond this, sinuous apertures lead through to the master bedroom and bathroom. A second bedroom sits at the opposite end of the house, complemented by another bathroom situated downstairs within a modestly sized lower ground level. Given the unusual and undulating shapes of the internal walls, much of the furniture is fitted and bespoke, allowing the spaces themselves to remain open and inviting.

“Because we modelled the interiors on the computer, we had a sense of the volumes and spaces,” she says. “But what you don’t get on a computer is how the light really changes depending on the time of day and the way that the curves in the house distort the light. Because it’s Scotland you get that long, low horizontal light, but in the morning it’s a very dramatic, blue light and then in the evening it’s very warm and amazing. Then you also have the panorama drama from the long windows.”

Another important consideration was the lack of standard services. The cost of trying to bring cabled electricity up from the nearest road was unaffordable, so Lily decided to go off-grid. The building itself is highly insulated, while the orientation helps to reduce the need for artificial lighting. Having taken all of this into account, Jencks then opted for a range of heat and energy solutions including two wood-burning stoves, plus a photovoltaic panel situated a short distance away from the house, complemented by battery storage. A backup generator running on portable gas tanks can also be called upon if needed.

“It is very satisfying to be off-grid,” Lily says. “There’s not one single solution but many different ways of making an off-the-grid lifestyle more attainable and enjoyable. We use very little electricity during the long summer evenings and hardly turn the lights on during the day, as the house is so light, and then in the winter we often use the fires and candles. Watching our electricity use and solar power can be quite addictive.”

While the house provides a good example of both off-the-grid living and imaginative recycling of the ruins of the existing building – with ideas for the remains of the farmhouse also under consideration – this is also a much-loved family home, now shared with two young children.

“It is a great house for the kids,” she says. “There are two gentle ramps in the house, so of course they love sliding down them and turning their coats into sledges. It is pretty exposed here and if there’s a storm, it can be blustery, but when you shut the door it’s silent and you can just watch the drama unfold outside. We feel very nested, safe and at home.”

The Iconic British House: Modern Architectural Masterworks Since 1900 by Dominic Bradbury and Richard Powers is published by Thames & Hudson, £50