Thursday 23 November 2017

Let there be light

When architect David Leahy came to build his own home for his family, he tells Mary O'Sullivan, he was able to give his enthusiasms free rein. Photography by Tony Gavin

Mary O' Sullivan

'Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep." When the ground-breaking architect Le Corbusier said those words they were revolutionary; little was he to know what effect they would have on succeeding generations of homeowners. These days, most people building or extending their homes would list these elements, particularly light, as main requirements. Sadly, not all architects are creative with light and many people end up with cold, characterless glass boxes. However, clients of David Leahy will certainly have no trouble satisfying their prerequisites. Not only is the Limerick architect something of a genius in capturing light, it seems he also loves windows and believes in making a feature of them. His own house features dozens in different shapes, sizes and even colours.

Nothing about his house overlooking the Golden Vale is standard, or average for that matter. It's what David calls a fun house -- it being his own, he could afford to play with its design. And what he conjured up is magical. It has all sorts of weird and wonderful elements, including a barrel roof, and about 40 windows in all. The facade also has features such as enormous front doors and an imposing stone entrance with an epic inscription.

The house is barn-like yet baronial, with echoes of the kind of houses David's late mother brought him to see when he was a child growing up in the exclusive Ballyclough area of Limerick. "Mum used to bring me to all the old castles and old houses around Limerick, Aubrey de Vere's old house, and Dromore Castle, which was a Gothic, Dracula-type castle on a lake," he recalls. "Maybe because of that, I was obsessed with houses. I remember as a child drawing elevations and front columns; I remember, even then, understanding proportions."

Though both his parents were medics -- his father is a retired cardiologist, his mother was a dermatologist -- David always wanted to study architecture, and after boarding at Glenstal, he went to architectural college in Humberside, in Hull. David delighted in the north of England -- contrary to the usual perception of it as a bleak and industrial area, he says, it's a paradise for an architectural student, home to some of the best houses in England. "It's where all the great houses are, places like Castle Howard, where Brideshead Revisited was filmed, and Chatsworth, owned by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire," he says. "I was always visiting these houses. I loved to study how they related to the landscape."

Everything David soaked up during his time there, whether in the lecture hall or in visiting these marvellous old piles, he went on to apply to his house designs, first in London, where he worked for three years in the prestigious Fitzroy Robinson Partnership at the top of Regent's Park, and then in Limerick, when he returned home. "We were fed up of London and basement flats; it was lovely for a while, but only a while," he says with a laugh.

The "we" are himself and his wife, Jane, an accountant with Limerick County Council; the couple met at a hunt ball in Adare Manor when she was 17 and he was 19, and they married in their early 20s. They came home in 1997, and their first home was a semi-detached, three-bedroomed house in the Limerick suburb of Dooradoyle, where David set up his practice in a little office to the side of the house. It soon took off. Though he has been involved over the years in prestigious commercial projects locally, he particularly enjoys designing houses. "A lot of architects wouldn't touch houses during the boom but I love designing them. I get excited at the start of each project," he notes with a smile.

Given his enthusiasm, not to mind talent, it's no wonder his designs were soon in demand, and he has designed some of the many spectacular houses that have gone up in the Limerick area in recent years, not least his own, which he built by direct labour seven years ago.

For David, the design depends on the site.

"Before I got the site, people asked what kind of house I planned to design for my family and I had no ideas. It starts with the site," he explains.

It was important that the site should be in the countryside. "I grew up in Ballyclough, which was countryside then; I went to school in Glenstal, that's in the countryside. I wanted my house to be in the countryside and I wanted views." So he proceeded to trawl the byroads and laneways of Limerick looking for his ideal site. He eventually found it. "I knew these fields well, I used to ride horses here as a kid. The hunt still meets here." However, there was a little problem -- the site wasn't actually for sale. But that didn't deter David. "I ended up looking up the land registry to find out who owned it, then I plucked up my courage and knocked at the door. I don't drink tea or coffee but I must have drunk about four cups and we never mentioned the field. I knew why I was there, he knew why I was there. I was there an hour and a half and the bit of business was done in the last three minutes," David recalls with a laugh.

David and Jane bought the field subject to planning permission, and to make the project more palatable to planners, he designed the house in such a manner that it's positioned deep in the site. Though it is three storeys high, it appears from the road to be a single-storey dwelling. Once through the gates and down the curved pathway, the full height of the house is revealed and it's an imposing sight, set against a spectacular mountain landscape and given further importance by its position between two other buildings. The viewer's interest is immediately piqued by the different roofs. As well as the barrel roof, there's the parapet roof on the garage building where the family pets -- Wolf, a stray dog, pedigree papillons Dude and Darling, and the cat Miaow -- are kept. Tubby the hamster lives in the playroom. There's an A-roof on the third building, which is a flexible space and has all the facilities of a self-contained, two-storey apartment, but at the moment serves as a play area for David and Jane's three children Clara, 16, a prize-winning singer; Christopher, 11, who plays the violin and piano; and Robyn, 8, who loves to draw and write. Children are very important in this house as can be seen from the inscription David composed for over the front entrance: "Noble House, proud and true, keep safe the little ones, here with you."

Indeed, this adoring dad designed the house with the children in mind. "I wanted to avoid the 'house house'," he says. "I wanted it to be totally different than a normal house; I wanted it to be a fun experience for my children. For example, the staircase is like something out of a castle. Yet I didn't want it to be fussy, so that was a challenge."

The entrance is spectacular but it is more than matched by the double-height hallway, which is floored in Portuguese limestone and features the dramatic black staircase. "I grew up in an architect-designed house," David says, "and even though it wasn't the greatest design it did have a lovely staircase and a lovely hall. It influenced me in the way I was determined to give this house a nice hall too. I cast the staircase all in concrete and covered it in black, armour-coated render which has a sheen off it. There's a monumental quality about it, I feel it's like a sarcophagus."

David says the design of the house is a simple rectangle. "I was obsessed with getting all the features within that rectangle."

The hall leads directly to the dining room -- which is flanked by the kitchen on one side and the drawing room on the other and so, surprisingly, is the focal point of the house. "When I was growing up we never used the dining room except at Christmas. I like the idea of having a dining room and so placed it in the centre of the house," David says. But, as throughout the rest of the house, with David's designs there are always options. The whole ground floor can be completely open plan or the rooms, which have extra-large double doors between each of them, can be closed off. Thus, if he and Jane are entertaining people to dinner and want the guests to have drinks first in the drawing room, the doors from the hall to the dining room can be closed and guests can be shepherded through a separate, curved door to the drawing room, and from there to the dining room. The maple kitchen is conveniently off the dining room, but this too can be closed off.

The three spaces, like the hall, are beautifully furnished and each has some striking features. The drawing room, which is decorated in creams, olive greens and soft mauve, has a wall of niches which are used to display Jane's collection of Dresden figurines.

The key features of the dining room include a wall of glass, which opens up completely to the outside patio, and an antique mirror from Farrington Antiques in Dublin, which reflects the views from outside, which is to David one of the most important elements of his design. "You are always aware of the views and the light, the way the morning sun comes in through the kitchen, the way the colours change on the landscape."

The enjoyment of the views is of paramount importance, so he kept the frames of the windows, which are all triple glazed, extremely simple. "The windows are all pure and honest, no mullions, no transoms," he explains.

It's the same story upstairs -- the rooms are all beautiful in themselves and have lots of details. Some are clever, such as the log fire in the master bedroom, some pure fun, such as the trompe l'oeil mural in the bathroom and the battlement-like slits in the back wall on the top floor -- but maximising the enjoyment of the views was uppermost in David's mind when he was designing the house. Hence the large deck off the landing of the second storey, the nine windows in the playroom and the large expanse of glass in the master bedroom. "If I've had a stressful week, I can lie here and watch cattle moving about the landscape. That's therapy," he says.

In the landscaping of the grounds around the house he has enhanced the views -- he built a pond where moorhens nest and lay several clutches a year; to one side of the pond he built a mound on top of which he planted six trees; and between the two he stood the rocks which he took out of the site when he was clearing it. "I arranged the stones to look as if they're dancing," he says with a smile, adding with a note of pride: "My mother was a fantastic gardener, she was well known for her garden, which ran the length of the golf course in Ballyclough. She helped me with this before she died."

The effect of the landscaping is somewhat archeological, with echoes of a neolithic site, yet it's never Disneyesque. Indeed, it more than fulfils the criterion laid down by another marvellous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who said: "The good building is not one that hurts the landscape but one which makes the landscape more beautiful than it was before the building was built."

David H Leahy Architects, 1 Riverpoint, Lower Mallow St, Limerick, tel: (061) 40-4400, or email, or see

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