Wednesday 12 December 2018

WATCH: Take a peek inside this wonderful Irish eco-home on stilts

Drumlowan, Gorvagh, Co Leitrim €385,000

Curved walls give an inviting look
Curved walls give an inviting look
The home office, one of the two outbuildings
Marie O’Kelly and Philomena Byrne
One of the porches

Words by Katy McGuinness Photographs by Tony Gavin

While Leitrim has long been known as 'the famine county', things are definitely on the up, say Philomena Byrne and her partner, Marie O'Kelly, who are selling their unique eco-home after a decade.

"The first set of traffic lights in the county was installed this year in Leitrim village," says Phil, "and Carrick, where MBNA is the big employer, is positively buzzing."

The couple moved to Leitrim when they returned from London over a decade ago. They bought a cottage about a mile away from their current home and started hunting for a site.

"We looked all over the country," says Phil. "Sligo, Galway… we always wanted to build an eco-house." They eventually bought the nine-acre site at Gorvagh in 2005.

"Leitrim is very understated," says Phil. "We were drawn to that. And the site itself hadn't been tampered with."

A chance meeting on a train with architect Dominic Stevens, who lives in nearby Cloone, led to Phil and Marie, both psychotherapists, commissioning him to design their new home. Stevens, who also designed the Mimetic House in Dromahair, has an expertise in eco-building.

"We were very specific," explains Phil. "We wanted the house to be elevated on stilts, and to be filled with light. And we wanted porches, lots of porches."

Stevens is known for his particular interest in Irish vernacular design. He took their brief and melded it with the notion of a traditional three-room cottage.

"Then," added Phil, "he made it into something else. We were absolutely delighted with the design."

The build started in 2006 and the couple moved in for Christmas the following year.

The main house is a Walter Segal-style timber frame construction with lime-rendered straw bale walls. It has over 170sqm of living space, with another 140sqm of covered veranda.

Essentially the house is made up of three huge multi-purpose rooms linked by structural boxes, with a flat, grass-covered roof. The rooms are of irregular shapes and feature curved walls that wind here and there organically.

The main living room is the central space, incorporating the kitchen and dining room, with bedroom 'wings' to the east and west. The living space gets sun from the south, while the master bedroom - which has a dressing room and en-suite bathroom - faces east for the morning sun. A second bedroom and bathroom are in the west wing, which has been designed so it could easily be sub-divided into two bedrooms should the new owner prefer. There is a little sitting area too, used as a library/office.

"The house is built at the intersection of four fields," said Phil. "Each room has floor-to-ceiling windows and its own distinctive aspect, looking out over different fields. You can't see anything from the house but fields, hedgerows and wildlife; it's a fantastic house to live in. We use the porches all the time and the rooms are light and airy, just the way we wanted. One of our friends told us it takes the notion of what a house is and completely turns it on its head."

Up a flight of stairs is an eyrie, cut out of the grass roof Phil says is a lovely place to sit and write.

"You are at treetop level there," she says, "we call it the sky room.

The house is heated by means of several kachelofens - a type of wood-burning Austrian tile oven - that the couple say are effective and economical. Other eco features include a rainwater harvesting system, and solar panels to heat water.

In addition to the main house are two separate structures on the site, one an artist's studio with a bedroom (which has obvious potential as an AirBnB rental), the other a home office suitable for two people. The artist's studio/living accommodation is approx 35sqm and the home office a further 32sqm.

Outside there is a 40ft polytunnel, three large raised beds and a huge fruit cage, meaning the couple are largely self-sufficient when it comes to getting their 10 a day. The garden is wholly organic and there's an orchard too. Phil says they stopped counting after planting the first 4,000 trees.

The couple are leaving Leitrim with no small amount of regret, to what Phil describes as "an ordinary house in Galway".

The house at Drumlowan needs a new roof, and a number of quotes indicate a cost of around €10,000-€12,000 for the cheapest option. A zinc roof would cost considerably more.

"We've loved living in Leitrim," say both women. "You get addicted to the quiet here, and to swimming in the lake, which is just around the corner from John McGahern's house; it's the lake he writes about in That They May Face The Rising Sun.

"Essentially there are two types of people attracted to the county," said Phil. "There are the fishing and boating types - drawn by the Shannon Lough Erne waterway and the lakes; and the arty blow-ins like ourselves.

"Apparently, Leitrim has the highest percentage of artists per capita in the country. The Dock arts centre in Carrick is a huge draw; there is lots of arty stuff going on around here.

"There is a great atmosphere in the town these days. The river walkway is lovely, and pubs such as the Oarsman serve great food. There are two amazing Indian restaurants, and Buffalos serves a terrific steak."

The couple hope the new owners will love the house as much as they have. "It would be great for a family," says Phil. "Any time we have had friends visiting us here with children, the children have just loved it. They can be so free."

The nearest villages are Mohill and Ballinamore, and there are primary schools in both.

Further information about the house can be found on

Agent Abbey Property Sales, Tel (071) 965 1734

Sunday Independent

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