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Return of the pariah

The Sunday Times, April 2004

The bungalow, usually derided as the environmentalist’s worst nightmare, is being reinvented by architects who want to combine style with practicality.

The bungalow may loom large in the history of Irish architecture, but it could never be accused of being chic, stylish or easy on the eye.  And few people would support the building of even more of them.

But thanks to the work of a number of imaginative Irish architects, some much-needed glitz has been injected into the humdrum bungalow.  In the process they have reinvented the heritage environment’s worst nightmare.

Bungalows are not usually associated with fine architecture.  But here, at the stroke of the draughtsman’s pencil, the detested symbol of the destruction of rural Ireland is undergoing a mini-renaissance – and picking up a few architectural awards in the process.

Today’s designer bungalows owe little to the signature buildings of rural Ireland of the past 30 years or so.  Gone are the dark central hallways, to be replaced by brightly lit, open-plan interiors.  Consigned to the skip are the dreaded dry-dash finishes, hacienda-style arches, PVC-windows and tiled roofs.  These have been replaced by shapes more in keeping with their surroundings and constructed with locally sourced materials, giving more natural finishes.

O’Briain Beary Architects, a Dublin-based practice, designed Helvick House in Co Waterford, a typical example of how we might rethink the bungalow before marching it to the gallows.

Situated on a slope overlooking Helvick harbour and beyond to Dungarvan Bay, an environmentally and visually sensitive area, the house is built into a number of terraces cut into its site.

“There were two reasons for the low, flat roof.  It had to be kept low so it wouldn’t block the views of neighbours and there were already a number of flat-roofed buildings in the area, such as the ice house,” says Esmonde O’Briain.

Helvick House has a number of things in common with the traditional bungalow apart from the obvious appearance of the exterior.  It even retains the internal corridor, but the roof of the corridor is glass.  To take advantage of the views, the house had to be built facing north.  Bringing in light required clever use of windows.  The property has four bedrooms, a living room and an open-plan kitchen-dining area.  Outside, the front is finished in a white render.

The main living area to the front is at a lower level and its wall is almost entirely glass, which takes advantage of the views across the bay.  The front door is set under an overhanging canopy at the top of concrete steps.

The “gallery” is a one-sided corridor leading to the bedrooms and this brings midday sun into the living area. The “missing” wall into the living room has been replaced by a waist-height glazed rail.

The kitchen and utility area is on the higher level and there are steps down to the dining area.  Three of the four bedrooms have separate outside access to a back patio.

The bungalow was constructed with a steel grid to give the large open span and conventional cavity block.  In the finish, painted plaster interior walls and red deal floors were used, all sourced locally.

O’Briain says the 1,600-sq-ft property was “very economical”, with the overall cost about 20% higher than a standard bungalow despite higher than average insulation and heating specifications.

Another Dublin-based practice, Aughey O’Flaherty Architects, picked up a gong in last year’s RIAI awards in the “western: under €300,000” category, for a bungalow solution to the problem of a similar, sloping site.

The institute’s citation didn’t mention the dreaded “b” word, but this property, which sits on the shores of Lough Corrib in the suburbs of Galway City, is in essence a bungalow.

Again it was north-facing and, again, the design had to take advantage of the views over the lake.

Max O’Flaherty says: “The maximum size of the house was set, though the client wanted a two-storey house.  In the end, half the plan was two-storey.”

The architect came up with the idea for the stone-faced lower level covering about half the area of the ground level and giving the impression it is part of the ground itself.  To this end, the bottom level is finished with grey limestone random rubble, while the upper level is finished white render, with powder coated aluminium windows and stainless steel handrails.

As the front of the house was north-facing, the openings on that side could not be too large.  The front of the building has a large box window lighting the main living room.  To the other side of the hall is a glass fronted balcony.

Inside, almost everything is rectangular and straight-edged.  The kitchen, situated in the lower level, has terrazzo floors and worktops and a terrazzo covered central island.

The hallways also have terrazzo flooring, as does the bathroom.  By contrast, the living room and the bedrooms have ash flooring.

Architect-designed bungalows used to be a rarity because of the design costs and the price of the building materials.  Although costs have now come down, these days only the confident practitioner would want to put their name to drawings for a bungalow.

“Architects’ fees are cheaper now than they were in the 1970s,” says Finola Deavy, an Athlone-based practitioner, who is working on several one-off new-builds in the midlands.

“This is why they turned to plans from catalogue-style books and partially the reason for the proliferation of the bungalow.”

Technology also had something to do with it.  “The bungalow format had a lot to do with roof trusses, which permitted lower pitched roofs and a deeper area, allowing the corridor.  Whereas before, the tradition was that room led to room,” says O’Briain.

And technology has also contributed to the feasibility of bringing in the architect now, due to the reduced cost of building materials such as steel and glass.

Of course most bungalows still being built have little creative input from architects.  Some are still straight out of Jack Fitzsimons’s book of house plans, Bungalow Bliss, which was first published in 1971 and reprinted 10 times.  Effectively a DIY construction manual, it explained the minutiae of everything involved in building a bungalow, from planning laws to how to put in a septic tank.

With planning regulations being tightened in most regions, observers are now predicting the passing of one of the architectural whipping boys of the liberal press since the late 1980s.  The 10th reprint of Fitzsimons’s book was supposed to be his last.

Meanwhile, a new publication on rural house design, Building a New House in the Countryside, was launched this February by Cork county council.

The book tends towards the vernacular Irish style of building and encourages “more design input” in one-off rural house building.  Some 4,000 copies have sold since its publication.  It even acknowledges newer trends such as grass roofs.

But rumours of the demise of the bungalow may be somewhat exaggerated.  In the UK for example, a recent survey suggested that more home buyers professed a desire to live in a bungalow than any other house type.