Timber Awards 2018: Falls of Shin Visitor Attraction

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The Best Use of Timber Awards 2018 exhibition showcases the winner and shortlisted entries to the annual RIAS Awards schemeForestry Commission Scotland and Wood for Good combined to sponsor this award. The exhibition, curated by Architecture and Design Scotland, will run at The Lighthouse in Glasgow and runs from 14th January 2019 till the 5th April 2019.

The Award is aimed at encouraging innovative and creative use of timber in new buildings in Scotland. The exhibition features the winning and shortlisted projects, demonstrated through photography and models.

At the Falls of Shin Visitor Centre by CH Architecture, timber was the key materials used in this woodland setting. A palette of natural materials give the interior a robust, durable and appropriate rural feel. We got in touch with the client and a building user to explore how the building met their needs and why timber was such an important feature of the project.

Client: Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust

By Valerie Houston, Contracts Manager at Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust.

Falls of Shin Visitor Attraction is located in Achany Glen, near Lairg in the heart of Sutherland in the Highlands. The Falls of Shin are famous for being one of the best places in Scotland to view salmon in their natural habitat.

The former Falls of Shin visitor centre, previously owned by Mohammed Al Fayed, nicknamed “Harrods of the North”, was destroyed by fire in May 2013. This left a huge hole in the local economy and as a leading employer a vast number of jobs were lost overnight.

Following this disastrous event, and after several months of stakeholder meetings, local charity – the Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust applied the Big Lottery Fund for project funding to rebuild the popular attraction.

The Trust then worked with the community, stakeholders, funders and design team (Catriona Hill of CH Architecture) to develop the project.  Falls of Shin, in its new form, was officially opened in May 2017 with a day of celebrations for the local community.

The unique building is based on the concept of a salmon, inspired by the fish regularly seen leaping at the falls.

Why timber? 

To reach Falls of Shin you must follow a winding single track road that follows the River Shin until it reaches a clearing in the ancient woodland. The rural forest location was the inspiration and was integral to the use of timber in the design by our fantastic architect Catriona Hill from CH Architecture.

Timber was chosen to create a connection between the outdoors and indoors, but it was also chosen for its environmental sustainability because it is thermally efficient.

It was also about engaging with one of our key stakeholders – the Forestry Commission who own the land that surrounds the site and who gifted us with an in-kind donation of Douglas Fir timber for our showpiece external walkway which represents the salmon’s body.  The surplus wood that was left over was also used to create the massive 8-metre long (16-seater) external tables that can now host outside parties. For this we have to praise the ingenuity of the joiners who did an amazing job of building them on site.

Timber was also used for practical reasons – because it is the most common method of construction in this part of the world – it’s a method that local contractors are comfortable with, so you tend to get best value for money.

What was your favourite part of the project process?

There were several fantastic moments in the project process – for example, when we took the 1:200 model out to the community consultations.  It was great to see how people could really engage with the 3D model and visualise what the finished building would look like.  Also, the first day of construction was pretty momentous – because so many members of the community came along for that. Obviously, the day that the keys were handed over by the contractors was an amazing moment, and of course the day that we officially opened to the public with a day of celebrations after all those years of closure was very special.

What is your favourite aspect of the finished project?

I just love the atmosphere of the interior – it feels cosy and comfortable – especially in winter when the wood burning stove is glowing.  Since reopening the attraction in May 2017, local people and tourists from across the globe have told us that they love the striking new building. People love the fact that the building is inspired by the salmon that leap up the falls, and I think they understand the connection that the building has with the natural environment that surrounds it.

Is there any advice you could pass onto other community groups?

If you are doing a building project, make sure that you start your consultation process with all the stakeholders and with the local community as early as possible. Engage with the community from the start so that they buy in to the project and get excited about it.  It is essential to get the design team on board early on. Our brief was that we wanted to create a sustainable community facility and Catriona Hill of CH Architecture completely understood what we wanted – we could not have asked for a better architect – so make sure that you and your architect have the same vision.

It is also essential to think about the end user from the outset – what will the visitor journey be, will the finished building be user friendly and easy for a community group to run and maintain?  How sustainable and flexible will the building be?

Can you say something about the commissioning/procurement process?

The commissioning/procurement process went out to tender through Public Contract Scotland on a design and build contract. The valuation was done on a 70/30 split – 70% on pricing and 30% on quality and the tenders were scored on this. We ended up with the most amazing, creative team with CH Architecture, WSD Inverness and WGC Scotland Ltd who bought into the idea that this was about creating a sustainable building for the community to use for years to come – that would bring in visitors and create employment opportunities to the rural local area.


Building User – Andy Waugh, Co-Founder of Mac & Wild – operators of the Falls of Shin restaurant. 

What is your favourite part of the building and why?

It changes depending on the time of year. But generally I love sitting in the dining room and looking out at the forest through the glass frontage. I also love the small window at the back of the restaurant. It is not a necessary window, but I love having a peak through to see what is going on outside.

Has the building brought the community together?

The Falls of Shin is a special place that pulls people in from all around the world. When I describe the location I mention that it is on a single track road, in the middle of a forest, in the middle of nowhere, beside a massive waterfall. The building has intrigue and beauty and the beautiful building sits firmly in the description of the place.

We host butchery classes, foraging walks, whisky tasting and cooking classes. All these classes are hosted by local people for local people.


The Best Use of Timber Awards 2018 Exhibition runs from January – March 2019 at The Lighthouse, Glasgow.

Images (detail) Ewan Weatherspoon, CH Architecture

You can download our Case Study on Falls of Shin here

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