Saturday 17 March 2018

My Favourite Room: Home of the green Dane

Architect Kim Dreyer practises what he preaches with the eco-home in Delgany he built with his Irish wife, Susan. But, as Mary O'Sullivan discovers, being enviromentally friendly doesn't equate with being dull. Photography by Tony Gavin

The ceiling
trusses are made
from green oak,
in this case
trees from a
friend’s farm.
Kim himself
designed the
dining table
The ceiling trusses are made from green oak, in this case wind-felled trees from a friend’s farm. Kim himself designed the dining table
Mary O'Sullivan

Mary O'Sullivan

At this stage, there isn't a soul who isn't aware of the importance of sustainability, but mention the words eco, green and natural, and eyes tend to glaze over as yawns are stifled. We pay lip service to sustainability, but most of us tend to think of it as worthy, but dull.

For architect Kim Dreyer it's almost as vital as breathing, but there's nothing worthy or dull about the home in Wicklow the Dane shares with his Irish wife, artist Susan, and their two children. Their house is functional but fun, and a lot more besides. As well as words like eco, descriptions like eccentric could equally apply. It's stylish and sophisticated, quirky and quixotic.

A bit like Kim and Susan themselves; both creative people, who originally met on a Greek island. "We met on a tiny little island called Symi. Deciding we had had a stressful couple months working to deadlines, we headed off and ended up on the same island. We were both travelling alone, both with a backpack full of books. We met, got chatting, and spent a couple of weeks together. Afterwards, I returned to Copenhagen, and Susan to London, where she was working in advertising. But, for once, it wasn't one of those holiday romances that didn't go anywhere," Kim says, adding with a laugh, "There was a fair bit of persistence on my part pursuing her -- visits back and forth and so on, until she realised I was definitely the one and only."

The next decision to be made was where they would base themselves, and London won out -- Kim joined Susan there, and practised as an architect for eight years. During that time he widened his horizons, and learned about the commercial side of his business, working for developers on large office and residential schemes. Cian, 13, was born there, but when Eva, 10, came along, they decided to move to Ireland.

"London is a fantastic place when you're young and full of energy. We worked hard, and partied hard -- then you think, 'Where are we actually going to live our lives?'" Kim says. "When Eva came along, one full salary was paying for nannies and schools, so we decided it would be more practical, and a more relaxed life, if one of us didn't have to run out the door every morning. We both grew up by the sea with forests all around us and we both longed for that, and a slower pace of life. As soon as we decided to move to Ireland, we decided not Dublin, but near Dublin."

The last place Susan had lived in Ireland was Delgany, so they knew the area. The family moved in 2001 and for a while, Kim, who had become a partner in a practice in London, commuted. During that time he built up his client list here and worked on a mix of projects. Despite the current climate, he says things are good -- he has designed for a broad range of clients: retail spaces, doctor's surgeries, factory buildings and quite a few one-off 'dream' houses. "If I had started five years earlier, I probably would have grown to have huge overheads, but because I was still on an upward curve when the whole thing turned I was much more flexible," Kim, whose studio is a stone's throw from the house, notes.

The couple rented for a while, found their site in 2005, and moved into the house in 2006. "When we first found the site, I don't think we realised how special it was. There's a huge bunch of great, creative, strange and startling people of all ages and all interests here," Kim says. "When we lived in London, our friends were a bit similar to us. I love being here with that mix of people -- people who have more money than they know what to do with, and people who've never had a job and don't care. If we go to parties or have a dinner party here, you can be guaranteed there will be all sorts of different people. It's really enjoyable."

Their home is perfect for such dinner parties -- the spectacular kitchen/dining/living room makes it a great party house, and it was the venue for their own wedding party, for 80 guests, two years ago. It helps that the back of the house opens on to a superb courtyard with glass doors, not only from this large room, but also from the sunroom at the other end of the house. "Part of the design of this place and the way we use it, is that the outdoor space is a second living room. Obviously there are X number of months when we can't get much out of it, but it's important that an outdoor space like this is sheltered, and it is. I often get up early and go outside and read a book. We entertain a lot outdoors."

Unlike many modern structures, Kim didn't go for large expanses of glass; while the sunroom is ultra-modern and does have a pair of pivoting glass doors, the kitchen/dining/living room has three sets of French doors and lots of windows of different shapes and sizes. "If you do have a beautiful vista, a great wall of glass can be fantastic. But, with the reality of the Irish climate, it's lovely to have lots of glass, lots of light, but with the French doors and the panes subdividing it, if you do have a rough day you can phase it out," Kim asserts.

The rest of this intriguing house comprises four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a family den and a massive mezzanine area where Susan paints and the kids hang out. The house is built on seven levels with an intriguing, almost sculptural staircase linking the spaces.

"A stairs is something you have to have, but if it can be a beautiful object too, it's an added bonus," Kim notes, adding that he designed the house in such a way that the front and entrance hall are deliberately low-key and muted, and the house reveals itself slowly. "It was important for me to create a succession of experiences as you come into the house -- that it's not just a box that, once you've seen it, you're done with it. There's a succession of different spaces, each with a different mood."

The house is, of course, a very green house. Ecological features include geothermal heating, reclaimed slates on the roof at the back of the house, sheep's wool insulation, trusses made of wind-felled trees, and paints from the Traditional Lime Company, which contain no chemicals. Where possible, it's sustainable. "I tend not to focus too much on that because [it's in] everything I do. There's a tendency for some people to say, 'Oh, I'm going to build a green house or I'm going to build an ecological sustainable house'. But, to me, it should be an ingredient -- like it has to stand up, and it has to keep the water out, and, of course, it has to be sustainable and low energy, et cetera, and that is an integral part of the design. And, to me it's fantastic, it has very low energy costs to heat it, it has lovely natural materials and faces the right way to get the passive energy and so on, but it's just part of living here, it's not something that's driving it. To me, the most important thing is to create a beautiful space, one that's great to live in," Kim stresses.

"Sustainability has to be one of the boxes that needs to be ticked every single time -- it has to be sustainable. And low energy -- I deal with it in every single project I work with."

When it came to the interiors of the house, Susan got particularly involved, and together they came up with a soft, soothing colour palette, echoed in the French-limestone floor, the marble work surfaces, the pale walls and the soft furnishings. It's a palette that permeates the whole house: "We'd be struggling if we fell in love with bright blue," says Kim with a laugh. It's never boring; there are lots of lovely details adding interest, including Susan's own paintings, interesting pieces of wood such as the pig and chicken troughs and quirky design features such as the built-in seating and the kitchen units made of plastered and painted concrete blocks. These were, of course, designed by Kim, who also designed much of the furniture, including the dining table and the coffee table. His original ambition had been to become a furniture designer and, while he ultimately decided that architecture would be a better option -- as an architect can design furniture while a furniture designer can't be an architect -- it's still something he really enjoys, and would love if a client wanted him to design the furniture as well as the house.

His designs are in good company with some classic Danish designs, such as the hanging chair by Nanna Ditzel, known as the queen of Danish furniture design. But the house isn't only furnished with iconic designs; lamps by the likes of Ikea feature, too. "I'm not snobbish. If it's good design, that's fine too," he laughs.

Surprisingly, another important feature is the enormous open fire sustained by the huge bank of logs. "It's not terribly sustainable to have an open fire, but we love to have a fire going every evening. It's really important to us," Kim says.

Somehow that's the essence of Kim's philosophy.

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