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Winners that offer a feast of pizzazz

The Sunday Times, June 2005

Mark Keenan applauds a new wave of Irish architects who are achieving recognition for their fresh design ideas, even among the traditional and established critics.

Compare the world of Irish architecture to international film-making and it’s clear that the Architectural Association of Ireland’s merit list, which emerges each spring, is the equivalent of the Cannes film awards: jaunty, avant-garde, fashionable and an indicator of future trends.

On the other hand, the more mature – some would say fustier – Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland hands out its own gongs each summer.  These might be more akin to the Oscars: established, mainstream and a reflection of where things are now.

But whether the young turks are getting older, or the established campaigners are getting trendier, or a bit of both, this summer’s RIAI awards have followed the AAI strongly with a selection of winners that resonate freshness and, dare we say, excitement.

There is plenty of pizzazz in all areas, not least among the one-off homes that featured strongly among the 23 finalists.

This year, two single homes were among the seven special award-winners, territory normally reserved for multi-million-euro public libraries, mammoth local authority productions and hospital outpatient departments.  Importantly, both were designs for rural homes, an area which has long been overlooked in favour of city mews and infill architecture.

There was excitement, too, for the owners of crusty old period homes, particularly in city areas where for so many years owners have felt preservation and protection orders have condemned them to live in dark, fading surroundings.

Working deftly within such restrictions, a number of this year’s winners show how intelligent design can preserve necessary period character and integrity while also letting the light flood in.

The RIAI President Tony Reddy is pleased with the overall standard of entries. “Without doing them any injustice, the award-winners of a decade ago simply would not get to the exhibition section in this year’s awards,” he says.

“Standards have simply gone up and up.  It reflects an emerging freshness in one-off homes which is a delight to behold.

“The next step will be to take this to estate schemes.  We can’t simply keep on going with single-purpose cookie-cutter housing estates – the next challenge will be taking this excellence to mass-built homes.”

While there were examples of these among this year’s winners, it is the one-off-home winners that will interest self-builders in particular.

A new rural home at Roslea in Co Fermanagh scooped one of the two special awards for its designers, Aughey O’Flaherty Architects.

The site already had an 18th century cottage and an outhouse on it, and the new property was constructed parallel to the 200-year-old version.

Tommy and Joanne Callaghan were the clients.  Callaghan said: “We were in search of a home that was unique yet practical and functional.  We had a great site with some stunning views and felt we needed to build a house to capture these views.  The architects designed a house for us that has exceeded our dreams and much more.”

The RIAI jury was impressed with the subtlety of forms used which they said were redolent of the traditional buildings, yet wholly modern.

The architects opted for a building which was almost barn-like, softened by a unique barrel-vaulted ceiling made from copper.  There is a low porch-like element on the courtyard side that contains the main entrance to the house.

Inside, the roof is finished in painted strip boarding, the walls are in painted plaster and the floors are of Iroko hardwood.  Callaghan added: “The house has an open-plan kitchen, living and dining area with a high curved ceiling.  This, along with ample windows, providing plenty of space and natural light, gives the house an amazing feeling of space.”