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International Perspective

Irish Arts Review, Autum 2003

The International Style in Ireland as exemplified by Desmond Fitzgerald’s elegant terminal building at Dublin Airport (1936), is more usually associated with the great public buildings of the early 20th century than with contemporary housing.

With notable exceptions, such as Michael Scott’s Geragh House (1938) in Sandycove, Co Dublin, such domestic architecture has not been widely practised.  Considering our ability to embrace innovative design elsewhere, we have strangely old-fashioned expectations of how a house should look and are conservative about housing to the extent that flat roofs and cubic forms are exceptional within the rural landscape.

Aughey O’Flaherty Architects have stepped away from the norm of pitched roofs and dormer windows to design a house on the edge of Galway City that has its architectural roots in the International Style and owes much of the inspiration for its interior to the traditions of public building.

There is nothing superfluous in the design: the house is composed of two contrasting volumes, the upper part is the larger and sits on a lower recessed base.  Flat roofed and rectilinear, the upper level houses the living and bedroom areas.

The front entrance is located slightly to one side of the upper storey, dividing it into bedroom areas on one side, while on the other side the living area is contained in a block that projects forward.  The separation and expression of the functions within the house is a major theme in the design; the kitchen on the south side of the building is a separate element to the main volume, while the lower level houses the utilities, leaving the upper level removed from the details of modern living.  Unusually, the house is north facing.  The topography and the remarkable view over Lough Corrib to the north gave the architect no option but to face into the darkness and the wild Galway weather.  Because the site was sloping and there was a planning requirement to keep the roofline low, the second storey was achieved by excavation and hence the lower level is dug deep into the hill.

The bathroom off the master bedroom to the east of the building is raised on stilts, creating a sheltered parking area and access to the back door.  The contrast between the two levels is emphasised by the selection of materials; the upper level is finished externally in white render, while the plinth below is finished in grey limestone random rubble.  The mortar between each stone is recessed from the face of the stone in imitation of the dry stone walls with which the surrounding landscape abounds.

The house carries a tremendous sense of permanence; it sits gracefully within the landscape and contains a subtle and expansive interior.  While it is clear that no expense has been spared, every penny has been spent with care.  Time, as well as money, has been lavished on a house that contains no frills but in which every detail has been executed to the highest standard.  In terms of performance over time this house was built for staying power; it gives the impression that it could withstand anything that either nature or the occupants might throw at it.  This endurance, however, comes at the expense of flexibility, and the design will not easily lend itself to the modern trend of makeovers.  The design of the interior is built into the fabric of the house and, almost literally, set in stone.  The attention to detail is not confined to colour scheme and furnishings, but more fundamentally linked to the moulding of durable floors and staircases, the customised fittings, and the construction of the great terrazzo bath.  None of these features can be chosen from a retail outfit, and all are witness to the skill and adaptability of the local craftspeople who worked on the house.  There are no rough edges in the interior; everything is custom-built to specific requirements and finished to the highest standards.

The kitchen to the south side of the house is sheltered by both the building itself and the hill behind.  Floor to ceiling windows and French doors to the east and west allow for natural light throughout the day.  All the windows in the house have powder coated aluminium frames and are double glazed and thermally broken thereby reducing heat loss and condensation.  The vertically sectioned blinds can be twisted and turned as the sun moves around the house, and the grey transparent fabric picks up the colour of the external stone.  Limestone and the colour of limestone are recurrent themes throughout the interior, and the terrazzo surface of the kitchen floor and central island is mixed with limestone and white marble chips.  As terrazzo is a material usually associated with hospitals and public swimming pools, its use here is a revelation.  Hard wearing to the point of permanency, terrazzo is highly functional and easy to keep clean, hence its application in public buildings where hygiene is important.  Visually it is fluid and surprisingly beautiful; it is flexible and malleable to apply as it can be poured and moulded like concrete, and then polished so that the chips of stone within the mix reflect the light.

The white terrazzo floor of the kitchen is divided into sections with fine stainless steel strips and white MDF units from Siematic hide a myriad of gadgets and devices.  The ceiling sections are built down to the top of the presses to give an impression of seamlessness.  The central island divides the cooking from the dining area which has a large glass-topped table by Rolf Benz with powder steel coated legs and eight high-backed chairs in dark suede, both formal and comfortable.  There is an identical table and chair set in the living room so that when the owner wants to serve dinner for sixteen she can move the two tables together, but if she is seating a smaller group she has a choice of rooms in which to eat.

There are sheltered patio spaces to both east and west of the kitchen, for morning and evening enjoyment respectively; the one on the east overlooking Lough Corrib.  Uplighters are set into the bush hammered limestone paviours and the external limestone walls have been sandblasted to simulate the aged and bleached effect of naturally weathered stone.

The kitchen leads to the living room by way of a solid ash door.  The doors throughout the house were designed to hide the change in ceiling heights, which vary in different areas of the house according to function.  Extra sections of ash above the moving part of the door combine so that the closed door appears to reach right up to the ceiling.  The living room floor, like all the wooden floors in the building, is of solid ash, glued and nailed so that there is no movement or echo.  The ash skirtings are recessed to finish flush with the wall stone.

The curtains, made of unlined alcantara in mid grey and hung on stainless steel tubular rails can be drawn right back from the magnificent six metre window.  Everything in the room is deliberately kept unobtrusive in deference to the view, and the sofas, although deeply luxurious, are putty coloured and do not draw attention to themselves.  The paintwork is white, as it is throughout the house – a deceptive simplicity – in practice painter David Coen has to use many different shades and finishes on the varying surfaces to give the final impression of uniform matt purity.  In keeping with the restraint of the interior, the living room walls are almost bare except for the Moon Piece by Randolf Repass of Crystallotus Studios, made of sections of coloured glass bolted together and fastened to the wall with steel bolts.  The full moon from which the piece takes its title is backlit and illuminates the room at night.  A further project for the main hall is in progress.  The floating glass shelves in the alcove on the eastern side of the room were designed by Brenda Mulvihill-Kelly of Ashby Interior Designs.  Although the toughened crystal glass is very strong, it slips seamlessly into slits in the timber wall panel to form almost invisible shelving.  The fireplace, set into a terrazzo section of the wall, is wrapped in brushed stainless steel and contains a CVO firebowl from Firevault that can be tuned to a variety of settings that range from blazing to sparkling.

 

A high and spacious hall with a sturdy terrazzo finished staircase divides the living and sleeping areas.  Terrazzo is not an expensive material, but its use in this context is palatial.  The extra width of the staircase and the amount of space allocated for the hall give an impression of luxury that has nothing to do with decorative details; it is the sheer lavishness of having space in a part of the house that is often restricted to the bare minimum.  Because there is plenty of storage elsewhere in the house, there is no need to clutter the entrance with shelves or coat hooks.  Neither is there a requirement for hidden storage, concealed cupboards, or rooms that have more than one function as all practical requirements have been catered for in the lower volume.  The hall contains plenty of space, and the indulgence of leaving it empty has been built into the design.

The front door is of solid ash painted steel grey and set into a wall of glass, while a south-facing window at the back of the hall allows for further natural light.  From the top of the staircase a passage links the bedrooms on the upper level, while a staircase on the south side of the house leads to the family room downstairs.  This area is lit by a spectacular narrow window, twenty feet long, which forms a visual link between upper and lower levels.

 

The bedrooms are arranged in a simple and repetitive manner along the front of the house; each bedroom has access to a sheltered balcony protected by stainless steel handrails with glass infill panels.  Colours within the bedrooms are kept neutral and soothing; the carpet in the guest bedroom is in limestone dark grey and the en suite is lined with blue grey glass mosaic tiles.  In a touch inspired by top of the range hotels, a little sitting room complete with fridge adjoins the guest bedroom, providing a private area for visitors to relax in private.

The master bedroom has a soft grey carpet and MDF units built by joiner Tony O’Rourke of Ballinasloe.  The units are sprayed white, with narrow drawers fronted with frosted glass, and little steel legs that match the magnificent steel bed.  Sliderobes with sensor lights not only store clothes but hide the TV that emerges on a swivelling shelf and a Rolf Benz asymmetrical glass table rounds off the theme of transparency.  The en suite contains a double sized bath with Jacuzzi jets.  The bath was painstakingly created by Colm and Pat Ryan, who hand-moulded it in concrete before overlaying it with terrazzo.

A family room downstairs repeats the use of terrazzo along the walls, while Mulvihill-Kelly’s shelving unit of two asymmetrically intersecting boxes was custom-designed according to the brief that her work must be unique to this house alone.  A large, sectioned couch in powder blue surrounds the fire place; despite the emphasis on simplicity, the owner rejects the concept of Spartan minimalism.  The beautifully designed Nestor Martin fire is concealed behind a convex glass front reminiscent of a giant TV screen.  The slow burning fire retains 80% of the heat, which is conducted through stainless steel ducts at the back of the fireplace to heat the rest of the house.  With double glazing throughout, and double insulation in the roof, this is a naturally warm house and testimony to the wisdom that money spent on insulation will be returned over time in low heating bills.