SALT OF THE EARTH

Meena and Chris Watts left their Lon­don lives be­hind to build their own eco home over­look­ing Loch Bay on the Isle of Skye

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS - WORDS NICHOLA HUNTER IMAGES AN­GUS BLACK­BURN

The eco home on the Isle of Skye that in­spired a new busi­ness ven­ture

Alight­bulb mo­ment in Pa­pua New Guinea com­pletely changed the lives and ca­reers of Meena and Chris Watts. ‘We were at the other end of the world and re­alised we had never been to Scot­land,’ Meena re­calls. ‘Chris and I had been to so many dif­fer­ent coun­tries through our in­ter­na­tional devel­op­ment work but had never, ever been to Scot­land. Af­ter re­turn­ing to the UK a few years later we started vis­it­ing main­land Scot­land as we both love walk­ing. Then, af­ter another few years, we de­cided to ex­plore the is­lands and Skye was the first one we vis­ited.’

By pure luck the cou­ple ended up stay­ing in Rain­bow Cot­tage, which they even­tu­ally bought and now rent out. ‘It was be­ing run as a B&B back then,’ says Meena. ‘The cot­tage is in such a beau­ti­ful, spe­cial spot and we loved it and just kept com­ing back again and again, which isn’t some­thing we nor­mally did. Then the op­por­tu­nity arose to buy it and we de­cided to go for it. We had a great life in Lon­don but we knew we had enough ex­pe­ri­ence pro­fes­sion­ally to do what­ever we needed to do to earn a liv­ing some­where else.

‘I was ready to step away from devel­op­ment work af­ter 25 years, even though I was pas­sion­ate about it and had won an In­ter­na­tional Award for my work in Es­to­nia. I knew Skye wasn’t an easy place to com­mute from, so when we moved we tried not to be too fixed in our at­ti­tudes as we thought that could be a dis­ad­van­tage as well.’

Whilst the cou­ple were open to dif­fer­ent ways to earn a crust, they didn’t ar­rive on Skye with the in­ten­tion of build­ing their own home. How­ever, af­ter a year liv­ing in the cot­tage their ideas started to take shape. ‘We were for­tu­nate that our house in Lon­don was built by an ar­chi­tect for him and his fam­ily to live in,’ says Meena. ‘It was amaz­ing and it gave us an in­sight into the ad­van­tages of hav­ing a be­spoke house.

‘We had a bit of money left over from the house sale in Lon­don, so we thought ‘we’ll do it, we’ll build our own eco-home’. When we de­cided to go down that route we had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted be­cause of Chris’s ex­pe­ri­ence in sus­tain­able de­sign and eco hous­ing. Of course, it was sub­ject to bud­get and we found ex­cel­lent ar­chi­tects on Skye, Ru­ral De­sign, who worked with us to de­velop a de­sign that in­cor­po­rated much of our think­ing on so­lar gain, in­su­la­tion and eco ma­te­ri­als.’

New be­gin­nings

The one-bed­room, sin­gle storey prop­erty is found only a stone’s throw from Rain­bow Cot­tage, but the two are noth­ing alike. ‘The shape of the house was very much dic­tated by the el­e­ments,’ ex­plains Chris. ‘De­signed along sus­tain­abil­ity prin­ci­ples, it’s very highly in­su­lated with an air­tight mem­brane wrapped

‘We loved it, and just kept com­ing back again and again’

around the build­ing. This min­imises the need for heat­ing and the house also takes full ad­van­tage of so­lar gain so that even in win­ter when it’s zero de­grees out­side it can still get up to 24 de­grees in­side, just from the sun. The house faces north and north-west up the loch so to max­imise the views we have huge pic­ture win­dows. How­ever to get the so­lar gain, we had to bring light in from the side, hence the large amount of glaz­ing on the south-fac­ing side of the house to catch the sun.’

Let there be light

This has had the happy ef­fect of mak­ing the house very light all year round. ‘That was an im­por­tant part of our brief,’ says Meena. ‘Even on the cloud­i­est, dark­est day not only do we still have a view, we never get that claus­tro­pho­bia that some­times comes with win­try days. The other thing about liv­ing in such a well-lit house is that we are at one with na­ture 24/7 and we love that as­pect of it. It feels very spir­i­tual.’

The build took eight months from start to fin­ish and the only real sur­prise was the engi­neer’s re­port. ‘ The engi­neer in­sisted we in­stall a steel sub-frame to pro­tect against the very high wind speeds, which we hadn’t re­ally con­sid­ered,’ said Chris. ‘I thought the tim­ber frame would be suf­fi­cient but, now we’ve lived through the winds, it’s been a good idea. We’ve been in the house five years and it’s been tried and tested in many ways. We had a rare power cut soon af­ter mov­ing in,

‘ We are at one with na­ture 24/7 and we love that as­pect of it’

and the power was out for a few days but the house never lost its warmth.’

Once the build of their new home was com­plete, Chris and Meena moved in and trans­formed Rain­bow Cot­tage into a self-ca­ter­ing hol­i­day rental prop­erty, which has proved in­cred­i­bly pop­u­lar with re­turn­ing guests.

‘Chris car­ried on do­ing con­sul­tancy work to start with but once we had an in­come from the cot­tage we talked about what to do next and I’m glad we did that,’ Meena re­calls.

How­ever, the next step was a sur­pris­ing one. ‘We were hav­ing lunch with some friends and got talk­ing about how to make a liv­ing up here,’ says Chris. ‘One of the things we dis­cussed was salt. I got up the next day looked down the loch, had a eu­reka mo­ment, and thought ‘well, there’s plenty of raw ma­te­rial right here.’

Chris re­searched the mar­ket and looked into the many dif­fer­ent ways of mak­ing salt. With his back­ground in sus­tain­able de­sign, he in­ves­ti­gated how he could do it with just sun and wind. ‘We spent about a year tri­alling it with a small pond,’ he says. ‘Meena and I started in 2010 and by the end of 2013 we had gone into pro­duc­tion as the Isle of Skye Sea Salt Com­pany. It’s a very nat­u­ral, slow process, but we now have a multi-award win­ning prod­uct ac­claimed both for its taste and its en­vi­ron­men­tal at­tributes. And those friends we had lunch with… they’re now our busi­ness part­ners.’

‘We have been on Skye for ten years now and haven’t had a mo­ment of bore­dom, partly down to our very ad­ven­tur­ous out­look,’ says Meena. ‘ When we watched Grand De­signs on TV in Lon­don we used to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to live up on a hill over­look­ing the wa­ter in a con­tem­po­rary eco home?’ Not in a mil­lion years did we ever think it would hap­pen.’

‘ We have been on Skye for ten years now and haven’t had a mo­ment of bore­dom’

Im­age: Large pic­ture win­dows of­fer amaz­ing views over Loch Bay.

Left: Min­i­mal­ist fur­nish­ings com­ple­ment the open and light spa­ces. Above: The sin­gle storey prop­erty takes full ad­van­tage of so­lar gain.

Top: Light and warmth floods into the kitchen from large, south fac­ing win­dows. Right: Colour­ful ad­di­tions to the interiors bring the house to life.

Above: Meena and Chris founded the Skye Sea Salt Com­pany in 2010. Be­low: The over­all shape of the house was dic­tated by the el­e­ments and de­signed to max­imise sus­tain­abil­ity.

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