RAMP IT UP
Accessible design meets the demands of a family home in Portobello
Determined to give their daughter independence, Ian and Thea McMillan designed and built The Ramp House, which has delivered much more than easy access for the whole family.
In 2009 the McMillans were living in Edinburgh’s Portobello with their two daughters Bea and Greta in a typical two up, two down property. Ian, an architect, and Thea, a designer, had already extended the house to its limits. To comfortably accomodate their daughter Greta, who has cerebral palsy, their next property had to deliver something special.
‘Going upstairs when Greta couldn’t follow us felt unfair,’ Thea recalls. ‘Our next house had to solve these issues and as we wanted to stay in the area, our only option was to design one ourselves. It was crucial to us that we remained in the centre of our community where Greta was born and building this house here has enabled her to remain a loved part of Portobello.’
Finding a plot wasn’t easy, but a chat with Arthur, the owner of a local garage tucked away in one of the many lanes that Porty is famous for, presented an opportunity. ‘I told Arthur that we were looking for a site to build on, as we’d just missed one up the road and another right beside it. He pointed to this area, which is where he parked his cars and had his shed, and said ‘I might sell you this’. I had a good look around and in the afternoon my mum and dad bought Greta down to see it. I don’t think Arthur was a hundred per cent sure about selling, but when he met Greta, I think that sealed the deal.’
The site was tight but Ian and Thea were inventive. ‘Nearly all the awards that we’ve
‘ It was important we all slept in the same part of the house’
won have mentioned that it’s amazing that we’ve managed to achieve so much space on an urban site. One of the things that was important to us was that we all slept in the same part of the house but we also realised we couldn’t get the space we required on one floor. We needed a way we could all get upstairs and the only way we could do that was with a ramp, as we didn’t like the idea of a lift. Firstly, because it’s an inequality for Greta and secondly lifts break down. I’d also read some research about learning and how it’s good for children to move through space as an important part of their learning experience. I didn’t want Greta to miss out on that.’
So a ramp it had to be. ‘Basically we designed the ramp and then created spaces off each of the different levels. Once we’d built the ramp it dictated where the circulation space was and what spaces were left over. We started building in January 2012 and the contractors left in November that year, but there was no kitchen at that point. We still had a lot to do.’
It’s hard to describe which room is on what level as the living spaces meander around the ramp. As a basic guide, at the start of the ramp there’s a kitchen and dining area which leads onto the main living area and study space. As you climb higher, you reach three bedrooms, a family bathroom and then up a small, almost
hidden, flight of stairs to Bea’s den space.
However, this isn’t the whole house because there are extra spaces that are also accessed off the ramp: a physio space, a light room, a play space and a chill zone. The whole house is a complex juxtaposition of separation and inclusion.
‘I like the connections,’ says Thea. ‘It allows us to have a really nice family life but with independence for everyone as well. Greta is now 12 and she has friends over and I don’t need to be beside her all the time but I’m close wherever I am in the house. Bea is 15 and she sleeps in a room with Greta but she also has her own room, so she has her space as well.’
As the family have adapted to the house, the house has also evolved. ‘The internal materials are really simple – a polished concrete floor and the reclaimed maple dance floor for the ramp and plain white walls. We wanted it to be about the spaces and how they connected rather than the materials, however, as you’ll see colour has now crept in.’
The car port has also been changed into the office for the couple’s architectural practice which was another spin-off from the build. ‘I don’t know if we would have set up Chambers McMillan if we hadn’t built this but it’s great to bring clients into the office and then show them this house as an example of accessible architecture.
‘We can do this for other people who need it. Sometimes if you’re a wheelchair user you can feel stuck in the space, a bit like cabin fever, but there are plenty of other ways to create space.’
Ian and Thea are nothing if not inventive. Another huge benefit to the house and to Greta is the way they’ve used the limited outdoor space. Like the house, it’s on different levels and accessed from different parts of the property but again it works brilliantly. There’s a hot tub and decking area on the lower level with a courtyard garden at the back of the study area and both are accessible from the ramp.
‘Everything really has worked out as it should and whilst Greta was always part of our lives now it’s easier for her to be fully involved and have her independence too.’ The Ramp House has delivered.
‘The whole house is a complex juxtaposition of separation and inclusion’
Image: Ian, watched by Thea, pushes daughter Greta up the ramp of the house.
Above left: All areas of the house are accessed from the ramp. Above right: The garden and hot tub.
Below left: Even the cat has its own space.
Top: Bold colours define the different parts of the house. Above right: Use of glass brings in more light. Above left: Ian, Greta and Thea.
Top: All the bedrooms are on the same level. Above: Family photographs adorn the walls.