Modern homes

[An article I wrote for the Home section of the Sunday Times back in February 2004. The publiched & edited version is archived here >>> ]

It's where the hearth is, or wherever you lay your hat. You implore Kathleen to take you there, or you leave it without saying goodbye. There's no place like it, or none like your own at least.
A home does different things for different people depending on their circumstances, lifestyle, aspirations and suchlike. Refuge, entertainment, family, work, storage, history, security, investment - priorities vary from person to person. Simply a roof over your head for some, but a special place to call your own for others.

If you were asked to describe your ideal home, without the usual considerations of money and location to fence you in, you would have to think about how it could be made to suit your life. Your pasttimes – whether gardening or sports, baking or butterfly collecting, making music or watching wide-screen television - would have to be accommodated. Different stages of your life and your family's lives would need to be considered – children, teenagers, adults and the elderly all have different needs. Aesthetic preferences – the straight line of Lloyd Wright or the cavernous mouldings of Gaudi - might even feature.

Of course, for most people life has to be worked around the house they can afford to live in, but for some the ideal home can become a reality, at least until it comes up against the planning process. Increased disposable income in recent times has meant more Irish people are getting the chance to try something different with their homes and employing architects to help them.

On the back of this, and in an attempt to broaden the debate as to what a home should be, the Architectural Association of Ireland is giving interested parties, architects and non-architects alike, the chance to express their opinions on the matter through design. The AAI is making “an open call to home owners and all budding designers to submit material on what they think a home is or should be.” The result will be an exhibition called HOME, to be held in March this year.

Through this and similar activities, AAI president, Gary Mongey, hopes to take architectural issues beyond the profession and show that modern design can improve on conventional house types. He says his personal aim in this role is to take some of the the aloofness out of architecture. “The way people buy the latest models of cars or go for new fashions in clothes is taken for granted. But when it comes to their house, more conservative attitudes prevail in Ireland. The idea is to get people to see the advantages in modern approaches to house design.”

With the AAI behind it, the exhibition in March and whatever debate it spawns is bound to centre on non-traditional designs: you won't find items from a snag list for a standard semi-detached units being picked through. Having a committee made up of mostly under-30s, the AAI is the architectural body pushing out the boundaries of design, making as much room as possible for creativity and the artistic aspect of architecture. But Mongey is keen not to leave the general public behind in this, and has settled on the theme of home design for the AAI programme right up to June 2005 as one that will relate to as many people as possible. “I'd like to get more people to see what's possible with architecture rather than just what's been done.”

Specifying what modern architecture can bring to a house, Mongey mentions tactics such as the orientation of houses towards the sun, the positioning of rooms to let the south light in, the opening out of the house into the garden simply by widening the patio door or the use of big, glass screens.

Two projects that exhibit such practices and indicate the type of house that emerges when artistic expression, rather than tradition or budget alone, determines how a unique home can accommodate a modern lifestyle.

Leitrim-based architect, Dominic Stevens points out that “Where we live, our home, has both a mundane, everyday influence on our lives, and a deep subconscious one.” The ultimate goal, in his opinion is, comfort: feeling comfortable. But getting comfortable is an on-going, ever-changing process, too complicated to accommodate in one go or in a simple design. “To be comfortable is to have the ability to adapt our situation, to wriggle,” Stevens believes. “Most people in Ireland are lucky enough to have somewhere that they call home, so we are discussing something that we all have and use every day. When something is so used it becomes commonplace, and often we forget to examine it. We take it for granted. Taking your house for granted is a missed opportunity; where we live affects us so much in so many little ways all the time, that it must surely warrant some careful thought.”

Trained careful thought is what you pay an architect for in the process of building or reshaping a home, but when you choose a designer that embraces modern ideas you can be sure that the end-product will be anything but safe and predictable.

Stevens' design for the In-Between House in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim was commisioned by a couple who, thanks to being able to work from home, decided to move from cental Dublin to a hillside overlooking a remote lake in County Leitrim. While abadoning the prescriptions of city life, Stevens has also helped his clients abandon many of the traditional rooms that make up a traditional home: instead of “from the garden you enter the hallway, off which are found the lounge and sitting room”, we get “hillside becomes entrance space becomes reading corner becomes gathering space.” He sought to avoid the rooms becoming particular in their use, taking inspiration from “in-between zones” like a forest clearing or a hilltop plateau rather than from traditional housing.

A very unusual house in the setting of Howth Head exhibits similar attempts to avoid conventional divisions of a home into rooms. Architects, O'Donnell + Tuomey, best known for larger-scale public and commercial projects, were very excited by the opportunity presented by this “more intimate scale”. Adjacent to a 19th-century villa-style house and more modern, pitched-roof houses, the owners of the site lived in the former but found themselves restricted by its old-fashioned arrangement of dining room and sitting room off a hall and so on. Their brief for more open-plan living and an easier relationship with the garden, have become, in O'Donnell – Tuomey's expression, “zones of family life” in an “inside-out” house.
In the context of Howth Head the design that O'Donnell + Tuomey came up with was unique for the area and the planners were uncomfortable with just how different the house looked and denied permission. On appeal to An Bord Pleanala the argument that the house was designed to be unobtrusive and thoroughly integrated with its steeply-sloping site to the point that it would be hard to pick out in the landscape, won the day and permission was granted, bravely, some might say, for the construction exactly as designed.

The house “faces” north to get the most of the view of Ireland's Eye, and the walls even curve towards that focal point as if the house is manoevering you towards it. This north-facing orientation is, as it were, lit from behind by glass screens front and back instead of concrete walls and the usual symetrical arrangement of windows. Solid walls on the east and west sides ensure that the house is not overlooking its neighbours. All internal walls crossing the houses are glazed to some extent or other to allow the natural light to get right through the house. Windows and doors swivel open to maximise the “inside-out” feeling.

But how much of an impact are designs such as these having on our built world?
President of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI), Tony Reddy, points out that even the proportion of one-off housing designed by architects in general has only become significant in the last ten years and is still relatively small. With the general tendancy for a more planned built environment, including creating more compact towns and villages, a greater need for architects to be involved has emerged, Reddy says, and more creativity in design solutions is evident. Through such activities as the RIAI's Regional Awards and the AAI awards a greater awareness is emerging of the potential of architecture, and in turn more opportunities are now there for architects to produce designs that explore the boundaries of how our housing is built.

Reddy agrees that the planning authorities are also coming around to the view that modern design practices can produce houses that are sympathetic to their surroundings, but he points out that there are still pockets of conservatism and that RIAI still gets reports of difficulties being experienced by architects in relation to modern design.

Another issue in relation to getting your ideal home built is that one-off housing - and all the pleasures it can bring to architects and to their clients who see their dream homes become reality - may well become a thing of the past. The increased planning restrictions needed to protect the landscape and environment should mean, Reddy says, that a greater proportion of our houses will be built in clusters and within urban zones.

Of course, there will always be a demand for one-off houses. Let's hope the designs for them come from enlightened clients briefing well-trained, creative architects, working with well-trained, creative planners.

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