Peek inside this sustainable house built from scratch by the owners
Most people, when they're planning a new home, start to use a whole different vocabulary to the more settled among us. Things such as insulation, triple-glazing and engineered flooring begin to preoccupy the new homeowners, and while the rest of us glaze over, house-related terms trip off their tongues.
Now, more and more, there's a different subset of aspiring homeowners who talk about items such as straw-bale building, sheep's-wool insulation, hemp lime render, rain collection and compost toilets.
These are people who want to build sustainable houses, and are constantly looking for ways to do so imaginatively. They want to build lovely homes that cause as little damage as possible to the environment, and use less electricity and water than the average home.
Funnily enough, there's a concentration of these homes in Leitrim, and many of them have come together under the umbrella term Green Door Ireland, to share knowledge with each other and with any newcomers to the sustainable-building game. At the end of this month, it will be possible to view many of the houses in the area and talk to the owners who generously share their know-how and experience.
Heading the group are Jo Lewis and her partner, Mike Harris, who bought a 160-year-old cottage in Dromahair, and, over a period of seven years, built their dream home.
The couple are actually blow-ins, and it was through a very circuitous route that they ended up in Leitrim - a route full of travel and enterprise which, though it took in more exotic locations than Ireland, was obviously very suitable for the kind of life they have gone on to live in Leitrim.
Mike hails from Scotland, while Jo, a trained artist, is originally from London. "My dad was an architect and my mother was a keen gardener, so between them I had a very artistic, middle-class childhood. We went to art galleries and plays when I was young; lots of visual stimuli," Jo recalls.
Unusually for the time, her parents decided to get out of the rat race when Jo, the eldest of three, was 10, and they brought the family to south-west France, near Bordeaux. "We were thrown into French schools, and within three months, we were fluent," Jo says.
She lived there for four years and then was sent home to England to finish her schooling - her parents didn't stay much longer in France, either, as her mother missed her social life in the UK.
Jo went on to do a BA in fine art, followed by an MA in sculpture in Birmingham. "When I finished my MA, I wanted to travel, so I got a job with a safari company taking groups of young backpackers from Nairobi in Kenya out to the game parks. Mike and I met as guides with the same company," Jo says.
They loved their time in Africa and travelled around, but, after three years, they decided to return to England to continue their careers.
It was difficult to get work in London; Jo eventually got a job as a youth worker, but Mike found it harder, until he came up with a novel way to make some money. "A friend of ours, Heather, had a daytime cafe, which seated 30. Mike asked her if he could open in the evenings and serve dinner," Jo says. "Heather agreed, and based the rent on a percentage of his takings, which meant rent was only high if the takings were high. After a year, it took off, and I began to work with him in the restaurant." Jo also managed to complete a PhD during this time, on women artists in Botswana.
The night-time restaurant was such a success that, in 1992, they bought an old pub, renovated it and created a 100-seater restaurant serving vegetarian food. Their USP was an 'all you can eat' buffet-style restaurant, and again they had a success on their hands, even winning awards for their food.
However, there were downsides, particularly when their children started to come along. "We lived above the restaurant and it was 24/7; all-consuming. After about seven years of it, we felt we either had to step back and let someone else run it for us, which we didn't want to do, or give it up," Jo explains.
As it happened, Mike had been in Ireland a few years earlier. He had seen properties in places such as Sligo with what he considered to be amazing price tags. He wondered if a zero was accidentally missing on some, as they were such good value. And so, the couple started to talk about selling up and moving to Ireland.
"We used to come here on holiday. We'd buy a bottle of wine in the evenings and fantasise about buying a place in the middle of nowhere, and we'd talk about how we'd renovate it," Jo says with a laugh.
In 2001, they did move to Ireland with their family - at that stage, they had two little boys - but they didn't buy in a remote place; instead, they bought an old cottage in the village of Dromahair. "I'm so glad we didn't buy in the middle of nowhere," Jo says, "It would have been madness. We have three boys, and where we are is ideal. They were able to walk to school when they were small."
The 19th-Century cottage came with 13 acres, which means they can grow all their own food. Mike and the three boys - Ruben (17), Callum (15) and Frank (14) - are all vegan, while Jo, who likes a little cheese now and again, is vegetarian. Jo runs art courses for children, and the couple also run Mike and Jo's Supper Club, as well as doing the catering for local events.
Mike has morphed from chef to builder, mainly thanks to all he learned while renovating the cottage. "When we bought it, it was a three-room cottage. There was no toilet, no running water; we had to get water from a well; it was very basic. In hindsight, we might have torn it down and built a new house from scratch, but I like that it has history. Two years ago, a woman who was born here was brought back to visit the house by her family on her 100th birthday - that was very significant," Jo recalls.
The couple got architect Colin Bell to draw up plans, and over the following seven years, Mike built it almost single-handedly while the family lived in a caravan on the land. As non-builders, they were starting from scratch, so they gleaned what they could from magazines, tv programmes and friends, which makes their Green Door group such a nice thing for any aspiring sustainable homeowners nowadays.
They were slightly in the dark when it came to choosing the right type of heating supply; how to use lime render on earth floors; how to collect rainwater; and how to make the most of resources available, which is why Jo started their group and why they and similarly minded folk in Leitrim and Sligo open their homes - 39 in all, this year - to interested parties every two years.
Their event, Green Door Weekend, falls on the weekend of September 29 to October 1, and there will be talks and discussions by experts highlighting the issues around sustainability as well.
Through trial and error, it all worked out for Jo and Mike, and the cottage, which they completed in 2009, now comprises a kitchen, living room, sun room, bathroom and master bedroom downstairs, while upstairs there are four bedrooms, one of which is used as an office. Unusual features of the house include a grass roof, which is covering rubber membrane on the extension.
"The first year we planted some seeds and cabbages grew there, now it's just grass, and Frank goes out occasionally and scythes it to keep it neat," Jo explains.
Straw bales are used in the walls; minimally treated wood trunks hold up the roof in the sun room; there is lime render on the floors, but these details are not noticeable.
What is noticeable is the charm of the home, which is full of natural elements, wonderful African art and lots of love.
Mike and Jo had a wanderlust, but they have settled for good now. "We are really happy here," Jo says. "The 17-year-old can't wait to leave, but that's 17-year-olds for you. The boys have had such a happy, healthy life. Mike plays his badminton; I have my book club and yoga. We have a great community. I wouldn't swap it for anything."
For details of the Green Door Weekend house visits, talks and workshops, see greendoorireland.ie
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine