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.

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