Big dream, small space: how a dream home was built on forgotten wasteland in the middle of Dublin city
'We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,' said Britain's Winston Churchill, and his statement could not more aptly describe the relationship between Dubliner Joe Kearney and his wonderful house.
His home, which Joe describes as an upside-down house, is a labour of love that took nearly 10 years to create, but it's safe to say that while it nearly killed him, it also saved his life. He started building it some years after his beloved wife suddenly dropped dead in her forties and the house became his driving force.
Joe isn't an architect - he had studied science at UCD before changing course to study psychology and philosophy at Trinity - however he had a lifelong interest in architecture, thanks to his late father, who was a civil servant. "I think my father was something of a frustrated architect," Joe muses. "When he left school his opportunities were limited; it was either the bank or the civil service, but he loved houses. My parents lived all their lives in the same house that they bought in 1947, and he added various extensions as the seven children came along. He loved to look at houses and assess the finer points and the cruder points, so I suppose I developed something of an amateur interest in architecture."
It was an interest that lay dormant as Joe got on with life. He was only 24 when he fell in love with fellow Trinity student Kate Cruise O'Brien, who was then 21. Kate, the daughter of Conor Cruise O'Brien, went on to become a writer and publisher, while Joe went to work in Telecom Eireann (now Eir) and together they had one son Alexander, now in his early forties.
Then tragedy struck 20 years ago when Kate was 49. "It was a blue sky event," Joe relates. "She was perfectly happy and healthy and suddenly she was gone. No symptoms, no warning. There one moment and gone the next."
"Then it was a case that I had no wish to carry on, what was the point?" Joe adds. "We were very close. To a great extent we lived in each other's pockets."
At the time of Kate's death, Telecom was restructuring and Joe got the opportunity to leave. "For me it would have been unbearable to carry on, it was part of a different life and I wanted to move on from that," he says.
For a time, Joe moved to the South of France, to Uzes, and toyed with building a house there, but after 18 months he decided it wasn't for him. He and Kate had lived in a lovely old Victorian house in Ranelagh and while Joe had loved it, it was more Kate's creation than his.
"It was eccentric, theatrical. A lot of me was invested in the house, but it was very much Kate's place; I needed to move on," he says "I always had an ambition, if I could bend her to my will, to build a house of my own," he notes with a fond laugh. "And I thought, 'If I'm ever going to do it, it's going to have to be now.'"
It was the early 2000s, and Joe started to wander around Ranelagh and Rathmines, looking at sites. The few that were available were usually unsuitable, but he kept coming back to this one site. "It was just a piece of wasteland. It was originally part of a garden in Ranelagh, the previous owner had some notion of turning it into a car park but he couldn't get planning permission," Joe explains. "When I approached him it had basically been used as an informal rubbish dump."
On the face of it, the site hadn't much to recommend it. It was small and triangular in shape - challenging to say the least. Joe, who had all his adult life been sketching ideas for houses, designed the house to fit the shape, in effect a triangular house.
"That was what attracted me, the challenge. It had a clear view of Rathmines church, but the downside was the unusual shape. For privacy, there could be no windows to the front, as it's right on the street," Joe says. "I started on the design; I designed a copper roof as I wanted to pick up the copper on the dome of the church and it was going to be an upside-down house, to get the views. My approach was very pragmatic - 'There are all these restrictions. How can I work within them?'"
He got an architect to work on his designs and with relatively small modifications to Joe's design he got it through the planning stage.
That architect was then transferred abroad, so Joe needed another to look after the details. His son Alexander recommended architect Tom Maher and he came on board. "When Tom showed me his working model, I thought, 'This is mad but it's also genius.' He had taken the restrictions and turned them into something creative. My plan had been to try and work around the restrictions, whereas he used the limitations of the site as opportunities," Joe says. "He was very strong on the fact that, as it's so small, the inside and the outside had to work together. For example, he uses the exact same materials both inside and outside."
The walls, inside and out, are of a special plaster called Parex, there's a copper roof and the ceiling of the ground floor is also copper. Everything as far as possible has a dual function. For example, the floor of the kitchen at the top of the house, which is Canadian maple, is the ceiling of the living room beneath. One other timber, sapele, an African mahogany is used inside and out. On the ground floor, Kilkenny limestone is used and also used on the walls of the courtyard.
Joe was thrilled with Tom Maher's creativity. Sadly, it was when the building commenced that the difficulties occurred. It was the height of the Celtic Tiger and it couldn't have been a worse time to build. "It started in 2005, at a time when the builder was king," Joe says. "The build was meant to take six months, but it took three years. I think the builder rather regretted taking it on. It was only when the build was nominally completed that we realised there were serious problems."
The main problem was rainwater seeping in under the floors, near the electrics. Cracks began to appear. Joe had a survey done and practically everything from the foundations to the roof needed to be fixed. And the exterior had to be completely replastered. A second builder did the plastering but then walked off site.
"When that happened it was a case of deciding whether we would abandon ship. I thought, 'I can't walk away, if I do, I'll never do it again.' Iron entered the soul," Joe recalls.
Fortunately Joe found good tradesmen to come on board. His son, Alexander, who worked well with Tom Maher and who had studied architectural art history, became project manager, and between the two of them, and the workers, it was finally completed, and Joe moved in during 2014. The frame is there from the first build, but everything else, including the timbers, is new.
It's a stunning home - so special that it's been chosen to compete in RTE's Home of the Year. It features on Tuesday's show and is definitely a worthy contender. And Joe is clearly proud of it. "I'm not a high achiever," he says modestly, "the house is my only significant achievement"
And what an achievement it is.
See Joe's house on 'Home of the Year', 8.30pm, Tuesday, RTE One
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin