How I overcame planning restrictions to build my Dalkey dream house
When Maureen O'Brien bought an old bungalow in Dalkey, she knew there would be planning restrictions. But those limitations and the tricky site turned out to be the making of the house.
What do you do when you're faced with tight planning restrictions, an awkward sloping site but a stunning garden and good aspect? That was the challenge Maureen O'Brien faced when she bought a 1940s bungalow in Dalkey in 2011. Many a purchaser would have felt daunted but, as Ireland's first female Colonel, and the most senior ranking woman in the Defence Forces, Maureen is no stranger to a challenge.
"I wasn't too concerned about the house. I knew it wasn't going to be left the way it was. It was the aspect that I wanted and the huge garden."
She decided to demolish the original house completely and start again from scratch. It would have cost a substantial sum to refurbish and she would still have been limited as to what she could do in terms of size and orientation. She also called in the experts. "I have a good eye myself, I knew what I wanted in broad terms but I wanted the professionals who are very good at understanding why people like things - why one line is following another - that kind of detail."
Maureen recalls the brief she gave Diarmaid Brophy, then with Sterrin O'Shea Architects. "I wanted to be connected to the garden. I wanted clean lines. I had a picture to show them but I didn't want exactly that, I wanted an interpretation of it."
"There were challenges in the site," says Diarmaid. "It's long and narrow with a 3.5m level difference from front to back which is more than a typical storey in a house or apartment, and a 0.7m level difference from one side of the site to the other."
To one side was a 1940s bungalow similar to Maureen's and set at 30 degrees to the road, on the other was a modern build, set parallel to the road. Planning permission involved keeping the eaves of Maureen's house in line with those of the neighbours' - so it had to be a bungalow to the front - and something modern but in keeping with the houses already on the road.
"It was a new dwelling so you have to tick all the boxes with building regulations but also with Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown requirements so there is a [water] tank buried under the driveway. The house is externally insulated," says Diarmaid, "and it's got triple-glazed windows and underfloor heating. It has all that technology and all that stuff you need, but we didn't want it to define what the house looks like.
"When we started designing, it was 2011/12 and the construction industry was quite depressed," he recalls. "But as we went on, prices started increasing so the tender went over budget and we had to pare it back."
Maureen also got a call to duty - she was deployed to Lebanon. It delayed the build, as did working out how to reduce costs. Maureen and Diarmaid re-examined every item on the architectural wishlist. A pair of floor-to-ceiling sliding doors had to go. So did the garden landscaping and a line of lime trees that Maureen had pictured adding privacy to the garden. But some things were sacred. The patio stayed.
"I think Maureen did beg, borrow and steal because she said, if I'm not having a garden, I'm not moving into this house without a patio," says Diarmaid. In the end, it took four years from Maureen buying the house to getting to site. By then, Diarmaid had set up his own architectural practice and took over the project.
As always with architecture, it's the constraints that inspire something unique. "Every project is unique because the site is unique and the brief is unique," says Diarmaid.
"I think we agreed on the plan straight away, almost," says Maureen, there was "just one change. The bathroom is in a different place."
"It's not that it designed itself but it evolved based on the context," says Diarmaid.
What evolved is both a surprise and a delight. It's a compact three-bedroom house that is a bungalow at the entrance level and drops down at the rear to allow a second storey at ground floor level which accommodates the living/kitchen/dining area.
"We were able to take full advantage of the sloping site while also keeping as low a profile as possible when viewed from the road," says Diarmaid. "And by designing the house with a very shallow pitched, almost flat, roof, the new house was actually lower than the existing house in the end. Keeping a similar low profile to the front of the house as before was important."
The L-shaped rear is flooded with light and seems to wrap around the sunken stone-flagged terrace. "Keeping the kitchen/dining/living room open plan means you can have a more compact plan," says Diarmaid. Having the L-shape around a courtyard made sense because of Maureen's desire to make the most of the garden.
The centrepiece of the house is the stairwell and landing that is lit from above by a rhomboid-shaped rooflight. A waist-high piece of 10mm stainless steel acts as a banister. It is pleated and folded like a piece of metal origami and painted a gun metal grey. It runs parallel to the central spine wall of the house which is set at an angle to the two side walls. It highlights the shape of the house which is narrow at the front and flares out towards the rear.
The angles are repeated downstairs in the living room/kitchen. Even the kitchen island is the same rhomboid shape. It could all get a bit disorienting but, says Diarmaid, the trick is to introduce the angle but "you don't want it to take over and make everything a funny shape. I think in most rooms three sides are standard and we just have the diagonal on the fourth."
While, at first glance, the house looks like a simple, minimalist structure, a closer look reveals intriguing details - a stepped ceiling on the ground floor that has inset LED lighting, an en suite that is accessed via Maureen's walk-in wardrobe, a picture window in the spare room that frames a surprise view of Dun Laoghaire. "As it was a bungalow," says Diarmaid, "we weren't sure what view it'd have until we built it."
Maureen has kept the interior simple. The gun metal grey is repeated from the stairwell to the living room and window frames and echoed again in the wall of her bedroom and bathroom. The floors are polished grey concrete downstairs, wood laminates upstairs. Her sofas are from Arnotts by Natuzzi, chairs are Baxter dining chairs from Casey's in Limerick, while a pretty chandelier over the dining table adds a softer touch. It came from Brown Thomas.
Maureen is delighted with the house. "It really is my forever house," she says. "This is my last move. It's the way I want it. It's perfect for me. When I turn left and come down the road and see it, my heart lifts. It's so comfortable and bright and I'm so happy every morning when I wake up here."