Sunday 21 July 2019

'It's a bit like living in an art installation' - Architect who built his own underground grass roof house

  • Underground grass roof house, Mayo, by Mark Stephens
Mark and his wife Teresita on the grass covered roof
Mark and his wife Teresita on the grass covered roof
This house in the foothills of the Ox Mountains in Foxford, Co Mayo is set into the landscape and is partly underground with an intensive grass roof on top
Renovated Georgian bank
The building was was reimagined into 'living over the shop accommodation'
Many period features were retained at the former Georgian bank in Dublin 2
Peter O'Reilly and Colm Doyle
Mark Stephens' home in Co Mayo is orientated to maximise solar gain
The underground space is an open-plan living/dining room

Twelve years on from when it was first built, architect Mark Stephens' home in the foothills of the Ox Mountains in Foxford, Co Mayo still attracts inquisitive stares and curious glances from visitors and passers-by.

"It's a bit like living in an art installation sometimes," says Stephens of the semi subterranean, grass roof, eco house he shares with his wife Teresita and four children.

The building's design details and methods of construction, innovative at the time, also remain a source of inspiration for many to this day.

Mark and his wife Teresita on the grass covered roof

"It adheres to Mayo County Council Rural guidelines before the guidelines were even written, and went way beyond build and effluent requirements of the time," says Stephens.

Having since become a qualified Passivhaus designer, Stephens says if he had to do it again he would triple the insulation, make it absolutely airtight, upgrade the windows and install a mechanical heating ventilation system.

Not that he plans to. In fact, when Stephens first moved to Mayo from Britain back in 2003 he had no intention of setting up a practice in Ireland. A feature on his house in the Western People newspaper changed all that.

"It was to become the first of many projects for us," says Stephens of his practice which specialises in 'well-designed and functional buildings that are sustainable and eco-friendly'.

Completed in 2006, the three-storey split-level, 2,500 sq ft house took two years to build at a cost of €200k. Stephens took it on as a self-build with direct labour and was able to save money by doing some of the work himself.

"It was stressful but I learned more through building than I did during all my years at architectural college," he says.

The house is set into the landscape and is partly underground with an intensive grass roof on top. It's orientated to maximise solar gain with extensive glazing on its southern façade and is heated with a geothermal heat pump heating system.

"The grass roof helps maintain an even temperature all year round. Occasionally we get the odd wild goat or cows that have escaped from the field grazing on it," he says.

The bedrooms are located on the upper level, while the underground space is occupied by an open-plan living/dining room and kitchen.

The underground space is an open-plan living/dining room

"The plan was always that it would be sustainable and ecological. Making it subterranean just evolved," says Stephens.

"Moving to Ireland and building our dream home is still the best decision we ever made. Our children have loved growing up here and have enjoyed a bit of a Swallows and Amazons life building gardens in the den. Our youngest even learned to ride his bike in the living room."

Renovated Georgian bank

Dublin 2

by Colm Doyle

Peter O'Reilly and Colm Doyle

Architects are often described as visionaries, able to see the potential in projects that others dismiss. In Dublin 2 Colm Doyle overhauled a derelict former bank to create a unique home for himself and his partner Peter O'Reilly.

The 8,000 sq ft space has been reimagined into 'living over the shop accommodation', comprising a 3,000 sq ft home, including a 1,000 sq ft roof terrace, above a restaurant.

"There's a huge amount of underutilised and abandoned building stock all over the city that's ripe for reinterpretation," says Doyle. "If we can bring these neglected spaces back to life in imaginative ways we can rejuvenate the fabric of our cityscape while creating new forms of living."

Doyle's home was the headquarters of the Irish Nationwide Building Society up until the 1960s. When it was built in 1815 it was two separate Georgian family homes and at some time served as tenements. The bank knocked the houses into one building.

Not many people would take on a property of this scale and disrepair but the couple were looking for a project.

Doyle is a co-director (along with Lisa McVeigh and John Flood) of DMVF Architects, an award-winning practice that specialises in a diverse range of projects, from high-end one-off private residences to commercial and educational buildings.

"It took two years before we went sale agreed another year before we got it," says Doyle, who used the time to do research on the property and work out what needed to be done.

The restoration was a mammoth task. The building had dry rot and wet rot, no power and no staircases in the upper floors. Water was pouring in from the roof.

"It was in rag order," says Doyle, who treated it as if it was a protected structure, retaining its period features and restoring and salvaging what he could. "Where something was new we've tried to mark it as new."

The build took eight months to complete and "could have been a terrifying experience if it wasn't for the skills and expertise of our amazing builders, Minnis Developments," says Doyle.

The building was was reimagined into 'living over the shop accommodation'

Accommodation comprises four receptions rooms, a TV room, kitchen, office and three en-suite bedrooms. Not forgetting that fabulous roof garden.

"That's definitely the best thing about living here. It's really rare to get a garden in the city, especially one this size," says Doyle.

The worst part of the project for Doyle was getting the finance. "Dealing with the banks was gruelling. They didn't understand the over the shop concept and didn't have a model for it.

"We could have built for a lot cheaper and a lot less stress but the end result is definitely worth it."

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