Wednesday 26 April 2017

A boy's own adventure

The lounging area upstairs, photo by Tony Gavin
The lounging area upstairs, photo by Tony Gavin
Neil Burke-Kennedy in the main living section of the open-plan downstairs area, photo by Tony Gavin

Mary O’Sullivan

When architect Neil Burke-Kennedy chose the site of his holiday home, one criterion outstripped all others: it had to be somewhere he and his boys could catch the big waves, he tells Mary O'Sullivan.

There aren't many who can say that the weather during the recent miserable summer suited them just fine. But award-winning architect Neil Burke-Kennedy can. His satisfaction with the weather has, however, nothing to do with architecture, and everything to do with his passion for surfing and the sea. According to the boyish forty-something, there was hardly a day this summer when he couldn't do a bit of surfing or, indeed, more adventurous still, some kitesurfing .

It's a passion that saw Neil channel his considerable architectural talents into designing the perfect holiday home for himself and his family in an idyllic location on the Sligo coast. And once the school holidays begin he, his wife Dervila and his three gorgeous boys relocate to Yeats Country.

There, Neil says, he can surf by day and work by night, successfully combining his practice with his passion, thanks to the usual modern aids of internet, computer and mobile phone.

He is, of course, keenly aware too of the other benefits of the relocation -- the chance to spend time with Paul, eight, Ed, five, and Matthew, three.

"I suddenly realised: 'they're dossing around, while you're at work', so I took the decision to take the summer off," he says.

It's obvious Neil takes as much pleasure in his children as they do in having him around; enjoying their individual personalities and the way the boys interact with each other, and sharing his skills with them.

"This fellow," Neil says, proudly indicating Paul, "caught a three-pound cod on his own."

As is evidenced by the many rods hanging on the white walls of the seaside house, Neil, too, is a keen fisherman. And it turns out his passion for all things maritime goes way back, as far as his school days.

"I wanted to be a marine biologist, but I left school in 1980 and at that time there were no jobs for marine biologists," Neil recalls.

Neil's career could have followed one of several paths -- he's a talented painter and a skilled cartoonist, in addition to having a way with words any professional salesman would envy, but he opted to become an architect like his father, Paul Burke-Kennedy. "We have the double-barrelled name because my great-grandfather took his wife's maiden name, to be posher," Neil laughs.

Unlike many who are groomed to follow in their father's footsteps, Neil never felt any pressure.

"He never said anything until I was 16: then, he brought me into his office, gave me a big drawing board and said: 'Draw something'. After that, he brought me to a building site."

Once he qualified, Neil worked for six years with his dad, before setting up on his own in 1992, and then almost immediately landing prestigious jobs designing houses in Dalkey and in Killiney. It all started with a high-profile commission from the late Paul Newman.

"Paul Newman's best friend was a man called Tony Pilaro of Duty Free International. Paul Newman wanted an architect for some work in Barretstown [the fun camp for sick children]; Tony asked some architects to come down, to bring designs and drawings and I was one of them. I didn't bring any drawings: instead, I brought cartoons." Neil is such an accomplished cartoonist that he was able to support himself through college by doing cartoons for newspapers -- 17 quid per cartoon, a sizeable fee in the Eighties. These days he enjoys giving a beginner's guide to cartooning in local schools when he has a chance, so it comes as no surprise that the Barretstown people were impressed.

"My girlfriend at the time had done child psychology, and she gave me the idea. They gave me the job. It was very embarrassing, they didn't even interview the other two."

Other high-profile clients have included the late Tony Ryan and, while people of that calibre can be demanding, Neil found the commissions both challenging and rewarding.

"I was doing big-budget stuff. But it's very important for an architect not to need big budgets to do good design," he says, adding that, "architecture is an amazing career. You're building things, designing things, you're changing the environment." Neil has also gone into property development, forming KBK Properties with Dominic Kelly.

"We combine his financial skills and my architectural skills," says Neil. Current projects include the redevelopment of Smith's Pub in Dun Laoghaire, and a block of 12 apartments -- an €8m euro project in total.

As can be seen from the Neil Burke- Kennedy practice website, good, cutting-edge design is the hallmark of Neil's work, be it for the design of restaurants such as the newly opened Carluccio's, commercial spaces such as the Heaven and Earth Spa in Dun Laoghaire, office buildings or for the many edgy houses they've undertaken.

"I love residential: the houses are very rewarding -- I often go back and see the kids playing. I often design houses around kids, with features such as mezzanines, ladders and holes in walls for kids to go through. I don't like to follow the format of a house. This house has a bit of that."

The location of the holiday home -- their Dublin home is in Booterstown -- was decided almost purely on the basis of the surfing. Sligo is the surf capital of Ireland: it's here the big Atlantic swells hit the reef, and enthusiasts come from far and wide to ride the waves.

Neil's love affair with surfing began abroad. He did a good bit of travelling in his 20s and early 30s before he met his wife of 10 years, Dervila.

"I travelled in India, Indonesia and south Asia, staying in beach huts with my surf board stuck in a hedge. When I came back there were six people surfing in the west of Ireland. Now everyone's out surfing all day." Neil says, adding that, "at 21, I was a late starter. Paul is only eight and I have to call him back from the big waves."

Neil and Dervila bought a run-down cottage at the end of 2003 and, once they got planning permission, they razed it to the ground and built the new house in its place. The experience has convinced him that there is no coherent philosophy behind the building of houses in the Irish countryside. Neil rails against the fact that no proper vernacular housing has been developed and that planners seem to think two-storey housing, by its nature, is not aesthetically pleasing.

"Planners have an obsession with height, forcing everyone to build dormer bungalows. But no-one wants to have their bedroom in the attic. Architects want to improve people's standards of living, yet a lot of planning pertaining to apartments and houses doesn't enhance the quality of people's lives," Neil explains.

Neil himself managed to get around the planning restrictions by lowering the site, and he has created a two-storey house which is obviously a joy to live in.

He was very hands-on throughout the whole process -- not only did he design the house, he also got stuck into the hard labour, commenting "I did a fair bit of the stonework myself."

The house itself is quite big -- it's approximately 2,800sq ft, which is bigger than Dervila had wanted. She had expressly said that she didn't want a big house.

"I lied to Dervila," Neil confesses, adding: " If you make a bigger house, the price of things doesn't change. You can design a bigger house cleverly and make the budget go further."

Spread over two floors, the house is essentially open-plan on both.

"Dervila wanted it easy for entertaining [they seem to have visitors every weekend] and I wanted it exciting for the kids."

The ground floor consists mainly of one large room incorporating the kitchen, a dining space with an oval table and built-in banquettes, and a relaxation space with sofas, which has a fireplace in which they burn turf.

"Look at my handprints on the wall above the fire -- they're there since I removed a nest from the chimney," laughs Neil, letting it be known just how hands-on he actually is.

Everywhere there are expanses of glass, both large and small, providing lots of light, and magnificent views of the surrounding countryside and the sea beyond. The background is stark -- white walls, oak flooring from the House of Wood designed to be used in conjunction with geothermal underfloor heating -- and a minimum of furniture, but lots of colour is provided by the many paintings by friends, and by Neil himself dotted around the walls. Pieces of sculpture by people such as local artist Anthony Scott, and fossils collected by the three boys provide pools of colour and contrast.

There are some small rooms on the ground floor -- a guest bedroom, a study, and a bathroom floored in marmoleum -- and masses of storage in the form of built-in units to hold all the wet gear, surfing equipment and fishing rods that haven't made it onto the walls.

"I overdid the storage," Neil admits, while young Paul adds: "He likes things neat." Neil laughs and confesses that indeed he does. This boy knows his dad well. Upstairs, there are four bedrooms, a bathroom and two particularly bright spaces, one at either end, which are linked by a corridor, both taking maximum advantage of the sun's rising and setting. These are flexible spaces which can be used as office space, or a play area, depending on the demands of the moment.

"Because of the planning restrictions, the upstairs was boring. I had to work to get it nice," says Neil. Devices he used include the style and shape of the windows installed, and his deft use of awkward, low-ceilinged spaces, which he's transformed by furnishing them with built-in furniture.

Though the house is completely new, it fits into the surrounding landscape with ease. Olive trees from the south of Italy, along with fig trees, bring the romance of the Mediterranean to the harsher landscape created by the pounding Atlantic. A wall built of stone salvaged from the old cottage softens the hard edges of the new build. The same stone was used to build two pools, one above the other, where rainwater collects and provides water for the house.

It's a home where the best of modern technology is combined with traditions of old which have stood the test of time -- outside, the piping for the geothermal heating is only metres away from mounds of turf piled high for cold summer nights.

And there are, of course, some marvellous places to enjoy the sun, elusive as it can be: at the end of the garden, high up on a specially built platform, can be found what Neil calls his "gin and tonic lounge".

"From here, you can see all sorts of things, dolphins and shoals of fish," says Neil. Not to mind the sight of surfers as they ride those waves.

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