Wednesday 26 October 2016

Home truths: How Irish homes became boring

Published 06/05/2016 | 02:30

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In a week that saw racist stereotypes debated courtesy of the Sinn Fein leader, it is worth noting that the standard racist slurs towards the Irish which are held abroad remain broadly and stubbornly the same.

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A trawl of the "national stereotype" websites out there (there are many) shows that on the bigot radar, we are still a fickle, superstitious, shower of alcoholics who like a good ruck - albeit with newfangled global tax snaffling skills thrown in.

Our stereotyping also suggests that if we have a job, we're most likely to be builders, brickies or chippies. It's is a perception I take grave exception to. Because as a nation of supposed builders and craftsmen, we have provided ourselves with some of the most globally uninspiring and badly crafted national housing stock there is.

In fact it's a matter which foreign workers brought here by the world's biggest firms often bemoan - among their other bog standard complaints about the Irish (our spud-eating cuisine and yes, the drinking).

Irish houses and apartments can be poorly built as we know from the pyrite and Priory Hall affairs. But with some notable exceptions, they are also boring beyond belief. And the sad fact is that the longer we have come from our separation with Britain, the blander, more homogenous and devoid of craft our newly built housing has become (again with some notable exceptions in more recent years).

In our cities we live in identikit cookie cutter semi-detached abodes and this has largely remained unchanged for a half century - except that they have become smaller. In rural areas through the same time frame we have embraced identikit bungalows for the most part - with the only difference of late being that they've gotten much bigger.

And the majority of city apartment blocks contain homes laid out to a meagre handful of basic plans. No storage, big artifical fireplace, tiny kitchens, no balconies to speak of. But pretty much the same rubbish, impractical and boring designs. They come mostly in one and two bed types. Craftless and boring, boring, boring.

If we go back far enough, we can see that our inspiration drain began with the deterioration of the craft ideals of the mass building sector which reached their pinnacle in the Edwardian era and which petered off in from the 1940s. It had a lot to do with the shortages of materials and the departure of tradesmen to the UK in the War and with the Fifties recession that followed. In rural parts, this was also the time of the death of meitheal building which saw communities come together and pool inherited skills to build homes for those who came of age and married. Meitheal meant different regions saw different and interesting variations in how homes were structured, designed and put together and in those materials put into use. But by the 1960s we were into the 'bungalow blitz' - flinging up inorganic block build and render homes thrown together from a half a dozen identikit designs from catalogues bought in the newsagents with your cigarettes and Tayto.

The 1980s recession killed (or at least mortally wounded) the time-honoured apprenticeship system under which candidates learned carpentry, joinery, plastering, plumbing and painting through university student terms - with no one let near a job alone until they were qualified.

This was immediately followed by a mass shedding of apprenticeship trained teams from full time employment by all big building outfits. It marked the rise of the sub contractor and the further plummeting of inspiration in finish and craft.

Many top craftsmen simply left the country altogether which meant that when the Tiger arrived, a skills shortage kicked in and the tables turned. The new era of the 'shyster' killed the last semblance of craft in Irish building - untrained opportunists got stuck into a decade long building frenzy in which any spanner with a chisel was a carpenter and any monkey with a wrench was a plumber. Paper thin walls, doors of compressed paper, skirts of composites, plasterwork that exposes edging tape were all characteristics of homes that couldn't be thrown up fast enough to meet demand. And with penny-pinching keeping the architects out, the layouts remained the same. In rural parts we got "McMansions" - render slapped monsters with eight bedrooms, eight bathrooms, no insulation, gauche dimensions and eagles on the gates.

Today we're on the brink of a whole new era - that of the factory built abode. Soon homes will be manufactured like toasters or even "printed" off site and delivered by trucks as flatpacks. It doesn't mean they won't be fine, functioning, comfortable and energy efficient places to live. It simply means that means that craft in mainstream Irish homebuilding is finally dead and gone. It's with Stringer and Strain in the grave. Now bring on the robots...

Indo Property

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