The Irish couple who hired star of 'Grand Designs' to renovate their country cottage
Stan and Ursula Mason have a 'Grand Designs'-style house - and happily, they achieved it without any of the tribulations such houses normally bring with them.
Of the many house-related programmes transmitted on TV over the last 10 years, Grand Designs on Channel 4 has been the most enduring.
The reasons are obvious - the end result is usually a magnificent home, but the journey is always a human struggle on a grand scale. We enjoy the journey, and we lust after the houses. While we might take away the odd idea and try to implement it in our own homes, in the main, it's pure escapism; house porn, if you will.
However, Stan and Ursula Mason took it a step further. When they wanted to do extensive work on their country cottage, they checked out the programme's website and found the ideal designer to not only come up with a plan, but also to build their dream home in the country.
"I love Grand Designs. We'd been to-ing and fro-ing with an architect; we'd had quotes for extensions, and they weren't competitive. I said to Stan, 'Let's go into Grand Designs and see what they have'. When I went into the Channel 4 Grand Designs website, the name DaVinci Haus, German house designers, came up," Ursula explains.
She adds, "I found out they had an office in Waterford - 24 hours later, we were in their offices. The rest is history."
This was in the mid 2000s. By then, Stan - short for Standish - and Ursula already had a lot of personal history together, going back over 30 years. Stan, who's from Dublin, is the managing director of a company called Mason Technology; the firm has been in his family for over 200 years and he is the seventh generation of Masons to be involved. "We started off as opticians in 1780, but we're now in laboratory analytical instruments. Our products are mainly for the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, and for universities. It's things like microscopes. The most expensive one we've sold so far is about half-a-million quid, and we've sold quite a number of those," Stan notes with satisfaction.
Ursula is from Clare, and came to Dublin to do nursing in St Vincent's Hospital, where she met Stan. "I got a kick in the head playing rugby and I was in Vincent's for the weekend," Stan says. "Anyway, when I was leaving, I thought I'd take out one of the nurses; we got married seven months later." Ursula adds, subtly explaining that there was no real need for the haste, "As my eldest daughter Sandy would point out, she arrived three years later."
Ursula went into private nursing after their marriage, but when she became pregnant with Sandy, she gave up work to devote her time to her family. Sandy was followed by two more daughters: Jean, who lives in London; and Sarah, who's based in Dublin, and is now also working in Mason Technology, becoming the eighth generation to do so.
When the girls were small, the family lived in St Kevin's Park in Dartry, while the girls went to nearby Alexandra College, and in 1995, Stan and Ursula decided it would be nice to also have a little bolthole in the country for the family, preferably by the sea. "Ursula is from Kilrush; her home there was on the site of a coastguard station overlooking the estuary, and she always wanted a house overlooking the sea," Stan explains, adding, "Kilrush is 177 miles away and you'd never go there except for a long weekend; you just wouldn't. So we were looking for somewhere closer to Dublin. An hour-and-a-half from Dublin, sea view, a couple of pubs, a couple of restaurants and a golf course. We looked and we looked and we looked."
Their endless search was fruitless. "If you go down on the east coast looking for a house with a sea view, you just won't get it. You will get a sea view from a caravan park, but there are sand dunes in front of the sea everywhere else. We went up and down as far as Rosslare - nothing," Stan notes, while Ursula adds, "You should have seen the houses we looked at. Nothing was right."
Stan goes on to make another very good point. "The east coast is dominated by summer homes, and everything closes down during the winter; the restaurants, bars, and food outlets."
Finally, they decided to change tack - and Ursula was the one who found the right house in the end. "We changed the view from a sea view to a river view. I was a member of Mount Juliet in Thomastown at the time, and we got lucky," Stan says. He adds that when he would go off playing golf in Mount Juliet, Ursula would go to Kilkenny with him, but would head off for walks with their dogs - they've always had dogs, and at the moment have Poppy and Blue, both golden retrievers - and she realised that there were lovely houses on the river. "I went to an agent and asked him if he had anything on the river, and he said there was one house. It was never on the market officially. We saw it on a very dark winter's day, and it still looked great, so we bought it," Ursula relates.
At that stage, the house, which is in Inistioge, was a single-storey bungalow, but it was a generous size, and so was ideal for their purposes. It had good grounds and the requisite river views, and it was attractive enough to spend weekends there. Ursula and Stan used to regularly use it, and, as the girls grew older, they loved to come separately with their own friends.
Then in 2005, the girls had all left home, and Stan and Ursula decided to downsize in Dublin. They sold St Kevin's Park and bought a smaller property in Clonskeagh. Around the same time, Stan semi-retired, and they were beginning to enjoy spending more time in their weekend home in Co Kilkenny, so they wanted to make it more attractive to live in. They also wanted to make it comfortable for their extended family; the girls have eight children between them. "For one thing, it was very cold. When we came at weekends, we had to leave our jackets on in the house - it was like the heat was going straight through the walls, even though it was double glazed and insulated," says Ursula.
The house had been fine as a weekend cottage, but not suitable for longer stays, particularly given their advancing years. However, both were adamant about one thing - they may be at a certain age, but they didn't want to grow old surrounded by old, fusty furniture. They wanted colour and edgy, contemporary pieces.
"I was a great fan of certain furniture designers," says Ursula. "Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his ladder chair; and Eileen Gray - we had one or two little pieces. Then, when we decided to downsize in Dublin, we decided to go all modern. We bought some pieces from Dublin furniture designer Knut Klimmek - tables and chairs and beautiful coffee tables - and we gradually bought into the whole modern scene." So when it came to it, they furnished their Kilkenny home in a similarly modern style.
But first they had to look at upgrading it, and in the end, after they had made contact with DaVinci Haus, it was decided to demolish it and rebuild.
The location on the river was everything, and the people at DaVinci Haus were keenly aware of that. "The architect came over from Germany and looked at the site," Stan explains. "He recommended that they make the house two storey instead of single storey, to maximise the views. He went off with the instruction that we were interested in his suggestion. Effectively, this is what they came back with." Ursula adds, "They came back with a modern version of what we already had, which is what we wanted. The first thing they said was, 'The sun rises there, this is your eating area; the sun goes around during the day, so there you have a balcony and another eating place'. They took full advantage of the site."
The initial meeting took place in Ireland in July - the house was then built in Germany. The couple went to Germany for three days in the autumn of 2008, and during those three days, they picked out the designs they wanted for every aspect of the house - the sanitaryware, the doors, the windows, handles, every little thing.
"The house arrived on the back of three enormous trucks; they put it together in seven days, and they spent five months kitting it out. They supplied everything - doors, curtains, carpets, tiles. The thing about DaVinci is their houses are constructed to a formula, and it works," says Ursula, while Stan adds, "There was one interesting thing that Ursula spotted; I didn't. When we looked at the kitchen design, Ursula spotted that there were two pillars in the drawing; when we asked, 'What are those for?', they said, 'That's for supporting the roof when it snows in the winter'.
"We said that we don't get snow, they investigated that and said, 'You're right, you don't need those'. Otherwise, we'd have two pillars in the middle of our kitchen!"
Ursula wasn't too keen on the German company's kitchen formula, so she opted to get an Irish kitchen company, Darren Langrell Furniture in Wexford, to do both the kitchen and the wardrobes, and Langrell and DaVinci worked well together.
The German company worked differently to Irish builders - each crew worked separately. For example, while the tilers were in, they were the only ones allowed, and the next crew had to wait until those in situ were finished. As a result, the finish everywhere is excellent.
The whole house is spectacular. The upper storey is what Ursula calls the granny flat; it comprises the open-plan kitchen/dining room and living room as well as their bedroom, which is en suite and also has a walk-in wardrobe.
There's a pergola to the side next to the kitchen area, and a balcony wraps around the whole house, giving views of the river, the wildlife, the woodlands and the garden, which was landscaped and planted with plants sourced from Oliver Schurmann.
Downstairs, at river level, there are two more bedrooms, an office and a large play area - this floor is for their daughters and their partners, and their grandchildren. "The grandchildren call it the topsy-turvy house," Stan laughs.
All rooms, at both levels, have stunning views, and all rooms at the lower level have access to the garden; interestingly, there are no opening windows, only doors that act as windows.
The basic colour scheme throughout is neutral - the walls are white, the tiles are white, and the window frames are grey, but Stan and Ursula have introduced bright colours everywhere, most notably in the Langrell kitchen which has red units, and is full of clever ideas. For example, Ursula had a special step made for the grandchildren, so they can help her while she's cooking.
Colour is also introduced in the form of the Roche Bobois and Ligne Roset seating units, which double as beds for the grandchildren, and, of course, the many wonderful paintings.
Two artists feature all over the house. One is Francis Tansey, who is based in Kilkenny. "Joe Tansey had a bicycle shop in Dublin. I knew him from going in and getting bikes for the kids," Stan says. "One day, he said, 'Come in and see what my son is doing'. Over the years we've bought a lot of his [Francis's] work."
The other painter they really enjoy is Patricia Murphy, who is based in Blackrock, Co Louth, and they've hung her work all over the house. The work of both artists is very different, but they have one thing in common; they both use colour brilliantly. The house shouts youth and energy and vigour.
The Masons are right about one thing - they certainly will not grow old in a house for old people. And if anything, it will keep them youthful for a long time to come.
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan.
Photography by Tony Gavin