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Howan House, Egilsay, Orkney Islands

Howan House, Egilsay, Orkney Islands

Conservation, repair and alterations to 17th Century Laird's House


This case study relates to a category B-listed property, from the 1600’s, located at Howan on the east shore of Egilsay, an hour’s ferry journey from Orkney’s mainland.

The work involved included conservation, repair and alterations. The property had been derelict since the early 1900’s, and was last used as a byre. Despite this, when the property was surveyed in 2010, it was extraordinarily intact. The aim of the work was to repair the building and make it suitable for modern living, while retaining the building’s character.

The property was originally a Laird’s house, with two full stories and a loft floor above. The house appears to be of typical example of Scots-Orcadian architecture of the 17th Century, however much of the surviving joinery suggests that extensive remodelling occurred in the late 18th Century. It is rubble built, with a steeply pitched roof. The roof, though greatly decayed, was sarked in normal Scottish fashion and covered with slates.

The objectives of the project were:

  • To prevent the building from falling further into disrepair
  • To repair the structure and make it wind and water tight
  • To conserve original features where possible
  • To reuse original materials
  • To use local contractors and skills
  • To create a comfortable modern home with sustainability credentials.


A best practice conservation approach was taken, retaining as much of the original building materials as possible in the restoration. Conservation architects Rachel Mayhew and Simpson and Brown Architects were employed, along with local contractors to complete the work, which was carried out from 2010 to 2014, over three phases. In addition, Addyman Archaeology were commissioned to carry out a Historic Building Appraisal and further archaeological investigation. Ramboll Structural Engineers were also commissioned to carry out a structural condition survey to provide the architects with an idea of the structural repairs that would be required.

Work included:

  • Phase 1: a holding phase where the property was made wind and water tight to prevent further damage
  • Phase 2: essential structural work to make the building safe
  • Phase 3: fitting out, including joinery, heating and electrical installations, insulation and interior and exterior finishings.


The careful choice of appropriate materials and techniques has demonstrated how historic character can be retained while creating a modern home. A decision was made to keep the ground floor layout as an open plan space which was a change from the original layout. Due to this, the ground floor had to comply more strictly with modern building standards. The upper floors which retained the original layout did not.

The ground floor walls had to be insulated and lined as far as possible. The external walls at attic level were also framed out and insulated to improve the energy performance. Shutters were installed on the windows to help keep heat in.

When the project began, the only services on site were a BT cable running to a caravan, and a water borehole with a broken pump. There was no mains electricity and therefore no wiring or service voids in the house. When a mains electricity connection was made, a 6.5kW wind turbine was installed, which feeds into the grid.

Materials were reused where possible. When building elements had to be repaired, e.g. the roof, slates were removed and recorded. They were then replaced and supplemented with reclaimed slates.


To install cables for mains electricity required permissions from a local landowner and a wayleave to be granted. This legal process to a considerable time, meaning the contractors had to use a generator for much of their work, adding to the cost and environmental impact of the project.

Upon installation, the wind turbine was quickly found to be generating much more electricity than would be accepted by the grid, so two electric radiators were installed to act as a heat dump into the house, and to help maintain internal temperatures.

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