Interior designer builds her very own light-filled Hollywood house with a view
Sites for new houses can be impossible to come by, but a chance chat with the person sitting beside her at an event solved that problem for interior designer Liz Balbirnie, who had searched in vain for years
Liz Balbirnie wanted to design and build a house all her life. It's taken her a while to get around to it, but it's been worth the wait.
"It's like a Hollywood house, all white and glass, with amazing views," is how one neighbour described it, and she couldn't have been more right. Situated high on a hill in Howth, it looks out on Ireland's Eye and Lambay Island, and on a good day, Liz can even glimpse the Mournes.
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It's also glamorous and contemporary, yet cosy - a culmination of everything Liz has learned in her very successful 30-plus-year career as an interior designer. The house has drama, yet is peaceful, and it's got the latest in technology.
All in all, it's a sharp contrast to her last house, which was a castellated period gate-lodge in Clontarf which, admittedly, she always loved. However, that desire to create something herself was there from the time she was at secondary school, when she had her heart set on becoming an architect. "My plan was to go into the British Army and study architecture," the dynamic blonde recalls, adding, "My dad, who was MD of an insurance brokers, had been a lieutenant colonel in the British Army during the war, and once you're the son or daughter of an army officer, you're virtually guaranteed entry. That way, I thought I could travel. The only problem was I was 16 doing the Leaving, and I was too young for the army."
To fill in the time until she would be eligible, and to get design experience, Liz, who grew up in Clontarf, did a foundation year in the College of Marketing and Design. She found she loved college life in Dublin, so she stayed on and did a four-year degree in interior design.
That led to a job with one of the edgiest furniture and interiors companies around at the time - O'Hagan Design - and she stayed with them for five years.
"What happened then was a huge recession, bigger than the one 10 years ago, and I was made redundant," Liz explains. "I decided to set up on my own. I decided I wanted to be in charge of my own destiny. I think it's something you do when you're made redundant."
So she established her own company, Habu Interiors, and it has been going strong ever since. In the early years, she was in partnership with her late mother, who mainly did the bookkeeping. "She kept me on the straight and narrow," Liz says fondly. "She was always threatening to retire, but she stayed 20 years."
Twelve years ago, Liz found another ideal partner, when her nephew, Robert, came to work for her. "It was a complete accident. He had finished his degree in sports management, and gone around the world. When he came back, he had nothing on. I was very busy with a series of showhouses, and he helped me out and loved it," Liz says. "So he did some interior design courses and came on board. He's a natural."
They divide the work neatly between them. Robert does the commercial work mainly, while Liz concentrates on the residential projects. "I do all sorts of jobs, big and small," she says. "Sometimes I get a call to do just paint colours for someone. The one you do the paint colours for, if they like what you do, they'll come back for the curtains and furnishings."
She also does a lot of expat projects - where an Irish family might live in Asia, but have an eye on coming back to Ireland, or might spend the summers in Ireland. In the case of jobs like that, Liz is usually given extensive freedom with colours and furnishings - the only communication would be through email and Skype.
An early client of hers back in the late 1980s was a man called Ian Switzer, a fellow Clontarf-er. "Ian and I were in national school together, and we met again when we were in our 30s. He bought an apartment and got me to do it up. He liked the way I did it," she says with a laugh.
The two obviously liked each other as well - they moved in together two years later, married, then bought the old castle lodge in Clontarf, where they lived for over 20 years.
However, Liz never stopped looking for a site on which to build a house. "After my father retired and bought a farm in Rolestown and became a bit of a gentleman farmer, I thought of building there, but it was too far out." she says. She began to realise that she and Ian socialised mainly in Howth - they both sail out of Howth, and play golf in nearby Sutton - and decided that that area should be the focus of their search.
When she finally found the perfect site, it was really thanks to her outgoing personality. "I was sitting next to this woman, Jean, at a dinner at the golf club, and I was telling her that I was looking for a site in Howth, and she said, 'I think my next-door neighbours are selling a site'."
Liz got in touch with the people in question, and, sure enough, they were thinking of selling, but it wasn't all plain sailing. "They interviewed me on several occasions, I'd have cups of tea; I'd be in there, chatting," Liz says. "They wanted someone they liked, as they'd be living next door to them; the site was their vegetable garden."
Even after all that, it didn't happen easily. "It took me a year to get it over the line," she says. "I'd say I'd been up to them three times and then they decided they weren't selling. In fact, we decided we'd stay put in Clontarf and we laid a new patio. Then we went on holidays and we got a phone call saying they'd accept our offer. The excitement! Because, of course, I'd already designed the house in my head."
The site was not an easy one - it was triangular, and the back was facing into a wall, so Liz decided to put all the living space at the top, with bedrooms underneath. When granting the planning permission, the planners put a limit on the ratio of windows to walls. Because of that, Liz saw no point in the back of the house on the lower floor having windows facing into the hill; she didn't bother too much with windows there, and so was able to have plenty on top, in the living area And as well as walls of glass, she has tons of skylights, so there is light everywhere.
Each floor is 1,100 square feet; downstairs, there are two bedrooms and two bathrooms and a gym, while upstairs, apart from a tiny office for Liz, the space is open-plan, and comprises a kitchen with an island, a dining table, and a comfortable living area.
The house has underfloor heating and a heat-recovery system, and inside is at a constant 22 degrees. The floor upstairs is engineered oak, while downstairs, there are porcelain tiles in the hall, with carpet in the bedrooms.
The decor throughout is monochrome. "Why would I need colour? There's my colour," Liz says, pointing at the expanses of green and blue from the trees and the sea and the sky, and the garden below, which is maintained by Ian.
They have a long oblong pond filled with fish. "When people said, 'What do you want for a housewarming present?' we always said, 'A fish'," Liz says with a laugh.
They have a tiny patio to the front of the house, and an indoor garden space; both are filled with plants, and both add splashes of green.
Colour is also introduced through the paintings on the walls, many of which are by Liz. "Wednesday night is painting night at the yacht club," she says.
Interest is added through the many pieces of sculpture and the light fittings which Liz and Ian have picked up the years - some were brought back from abroad in their luggage; others were shipped back; some they've had for years and have finally found a proper place for them to be displayed.
It's obviously a dream come true for Liz.
And if there is one tiny disadvantage to being on a hill in Howth - the hilliness - she's even got a solution to that, too. Or, rather, Ian has.
"He retired from the motor trade at 60, but didn't really want to retire. We were away sailing in Italy and everyone there was going around on these electric bikes. Ian decided they'd be brilliant for Howth, and he got the agency," Liz says.
Ian and Liz obviously use the ebikes themselves. So not just a fab new house, but a whole new mode of transport for the dynamic duo.
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