Saturday 27 May 2017

Home truths: Speed dating week for Irish architects

Pictured at RIAI Simon Open Door launch in recent years were architect Dermot Bannon and Jessica Walsh
Pictured at RIAI Simon Open Door launch in recent years were architect Dermot Bannon and Jessica Walsh
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

Ireland's potential home builders, expanders and extenders this week came cheek by jowl with the lesser spotted architect - a profession which normally keeps itself well out of Joe Public's way, except for those of us who go and seek them out.

Today marks the last day in a week of cut-price consultations under the popular RIAI Simon Open Door. This week-long event allows punters a consultation for a donation of €90 towards homelessness. It's 13th year saw more than €122,000 raised by 191 architects nationwide, who put in 1,341 private consultations. Each €90 will provide meals and a bed for one person in a shelter for 10 nights at a time when there are 7,421 people in emergency accommodation countrywide, up 28pc on last year's tally.

Open Door has become an annual exercise that educates both public and profession. So as this year's event comes to a close, I asked two long-participating architects - one city and one rural based - what exactly they've learned about the Irish public and its attitude to architecture.

German born Zeno Winkens has lived and worked in rural Wexford since 1979. It's his 10th year doing the event and he has consulted with more than 40 people in that time. "What's great about Open Door is that you get people coming in who wouldn't generally go to see an architect. I definitely get the impression Irish people are still somewhat intimidated by the profession. This perhaps comes from tv programmes in which they see architects dictating what goes on rather than taking a more consultative approach.

"The reality is that I sit down with people, I ask them what they want. I offer my opinion and I suggest solutions. But, of course, the client is always the boss, unlike on the tv.

"In the early years, it was all very laid back. You'd have a chat and a cup of tea and then you'd eventually get to their consultation matter. These days, people are much more serious about it - they're coming in with iPads full of pictures and folders. Before you've even sat down, they launch straight into it.

"We also seem to be finally letting go of the concept that 'bigger is better' in rural builds and extensions," says Winkens, who specialises in building energy efficient homes. He has two of Ireland's handful of A1-rated passive houses under his belt.

"Not so long ago, people were looking for five bedrooms and five bathrooms. I can recall in the boom years a client coming to me with a 1,100 sq ft house and he wanted a 5,000 sq ft extension! This year, I had a couple who came to me with a four-bedroom house looking for an extension. I said: "What do you use all these bedrooms for?" And they replied: "Nothing." So I suggested they could reconfigure the disused accommodation rather than spend on extending the house overall. People are realising they don't need all the space they think they do and that heating it can be very expensive. So more people are asking for energy saving technologies now and there is evidence that Irish houses are starting to get smaller again."

But Winkens notes that some things never change. "The traditional perception is that the women are the boss when it comes to the house and this is definitely apparent from my Open Door consultations. With couples, she knows exactly what she wants and he's happy to go along with it as long as she's happy. So women are definitely in the driving seat when it comes to specifying rural builds, renovations and extensions."

Dublin-based Robin Mandal and his colleagues from his Blackrock-based practice are also long timers with Open Door.

But unlike rural based Winkens he sees a change taking place in Dublin in who wears the trousers on consultations. "It used to be the woman always. But this year especially, I've noticed the men are far more engaged and couples are coming to us as a unit, both very interested in what's going on.

"I find it really educational to meet people who likely wouldn't normally come to an architect. And it's quite frantic. I think I have dealt with 20 consultations so far this year. It's a bit like speed dating for architects! One thing I've learned through Open Door is that a good many people don't actually realise what an architect does. I think they think we're here to do really nice things to the houses of really wealthy people. They don't seem to know that we do ordinary stuff for ordinary people really well."

On top of this, Mandal finds people coming with ideas that "they think they want but not what they need". He too cites the peculiarly Irish need to extend homes which are plenty big enough already. "This year, I had a lady who came to see me looking for an extension to her upper floor to provide an ensuite for her bedroom. I said: "Why do you need to extend? You have a whole upper floor not being used. Why not just open it out and make yourself a bedroom apartment instead?"

Some enterprising punters really cash in on the event. Mandal adds: "In all the years, I think I only got one job out of it (Zeno hasn't had any!) and it turned out to be from a client who had paid for a Simon consultation with us and three other participating practices. They picked us after using the event as a tender process!" So get in early for next year - book an architect now for cheap and make them work for the homeless and for you. Sign up now on simonopendoor.ie.

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