Angela and Brian Smith were looking for a small house in Edinburgh. Instead, they ended up buying a five-storey tower at Bridgeness on the Firth of Forth – and faced the challenge of turning this unusual round structure into a family home.
“When we saw Bridgeness Tower, we decided we could buy an Edinburgh bungalow at any time in our lives, and we should take the chance to live somewhere unusual,” says Brian.
The Tower, which is an easy 20-mile commute from Edinburgh, stands proud against the landscape.
It was originally a windmill used to grind corn in the 18th century. Later, it was used as a lookout tower to search for German bombers during the Second World War; in the Fifties, five families lived in it, one on each floor, before it was abandoned in the Sixties after lightning struck it. The Smiths bought the Grade B listed tower in 2007, after it was restored and then used as a private house.
Like others who have bought an old, round building, the question of how to turn it into a welcoming family home is a far trickier one than if it simply had straight walls.
“There was quite a lot of work needed,” says Angela, who works in IT. “All the doors had to be replaced, and the whole tower needed re-wiring, while squirrels lived in the attic.” The kitchen was too small for the house, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the Smiths were in a financial position to be able to extend it.
Curved buildings certainly have the wow factor, but they’re more labour-intensive and more expensive to construct. Architect Alistair Davidson came up with a design for a teardrop-shaped extension to fit on the land available, which also reflected the shape of the tower.
Storage and garage space is on the ground floor with the kitchen above, with windows all round bringing in light throughout the day. “We spoke to Falkirk planning department before putting in an application. They were very flexible so we got permission quite easily,” says Brian, an electrical fitter.
The architect found Haldane Construction through the Federation of Master Builders’ “Find a Builder” service. “We built the extension with standard bricks, but had to use half bricks at regular intervals to create the curve,” says the firm’s owner, Andrew Haldane.
“The bricklaying took two to three times longer than usual. The flashings on the roof had to be bent to fit the curved flat roof, and the plasterboard had to be damp so it could be bent to fit inside the walls.”
The first thing the Smiths asked when contacting kitchen suppliers was “Do you do curves?” The majority said no, apart from the very expensive top-end manufacturers. In the end, builders’ merchant MGM Timber took on the job. “It used flat cupboards but positioned them to follow the curve by having triangular voids between each unit, about 10cm wide at the wall end,” says Brian. Corian was used for the worktops because it can be moulded to any shape, unlike granite.
With a circular room, the centre becomes a focal point, which is where the Smiths have a magnificent kitchen island complete with curved corners and a cylindrical extractor fan above the hob. “The extractor cost more than the fridge, but we knew it had to look good right in the middle of the room,” says Brian.
The Smiths are delighted with the kitchen extension, which has transformed the tower into a great entertaining space. “The kitchen stuns everyone,” says Angela. “We both love living in the tower and just watching the sky change colour at sunset. We’re lucky to live in such a unique building, filled with history.”
Patrick O’Hagan faced a similar task in the Nineties, when he bought a lighthouse at Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset. The 110ft lighthouse, which has a large red stripe up the side, is famously one of three in the small town by the Bristol Channel. It was in good repair but hadn’t yet been converted, which O’Hagan and his then wife planned to do to create a family home.
They secured change of use within three months of buying it, but the project was held up for years as plans kept getting rejected due to fire risk concerns. “The lighthouse now has every fire prevention going, including a sprinkler system, alarm system, smoke detectors and emergency lighting,” says O’Hagan.
There’s a circular room on each of the eight floors, with the sitting room on the ground, followed by two bedrooms with en suite showers, then a bathroom with a roll-top bath, and a third bedroom.
Above this, two floors become one with a dining room and mezzanine kitchen above, created after O’Hagan removed part of the kitchen floor. He put in a round section of reinforced glass in the floor of the lantern room above, which has curved seating, allowing light to cascade down the tower. The kitchen, which has a specially made curved oak work surface, is at the top because of fire regulations.
“Curves are sensuous, so circular rooms feel comforting,” says O’Hagan. “The lantern room is an amazing place to watch a thunderstorm, and on a clear day you can see across the Bristol Channel beyond Cardiff Bay.” O’Hagan recently sold the lighthouse; by the time the conversion was finished, the children were settled at school elsewhere, so it was only used at weekends and as a holiday let.
These old, round buildings can provide an extraordinary blank canvas for self-builders. At Black Hall Barn near Hexham, Northumberland, the curved living area was once a gin gang, a wheelhouse used for crushing grain, with horses walking in circles to turn the mill. This 19th-century version has been converted into a huge kitchen, dining and family room, with the sun streaming in throughout the day.
“The gin gang is what made us buy this house,” says Robert Carter, who moved in nearly five years ago with wife Bethany, after the gin gang had been converted by previous owners. “It’s a huge room but it’s the curved shape and the high vaulted ceiling that makes it special.”
The room has a straight wall where it joins the rest of the house, which is where the kitchen units are. An extra quirk is the wavy stone wall separating the carpeted sitting area, which Carter says was put in because the floor slopes in that section.
The Carters are moving to Essex because of Robert’s work, so the five-bedroom house is on the market with Finest Properties at £745,000. “Because it’s so big, we don’t have to put furniture against curved walls,” he says. “We love the shape, and we tend to buy things that are round, like our huge kitchen clock. Because the space is circular, our children love whizzing round it on their scooters.”