New breed of Irish designers are architects of their own success
Our buildings of the last 20 years lacking in style not substance
'In every capital city in the world, there are developers who specialise in the upper end of the market. But in Ireland, you Google 'boutique developers' and you end up with the same people responsible for all the housing estates."
That's the view of David O'Shea, a partner in ODOS Architects, which has its offices on trendy Drury Street in Dublin 2, and is regarded as a practice at the top of its game.
O'Shea and his partner, Darrell O'Donoghue, are scathing about the paucity of vision evident in the work of Irish developers over the past couple of decades.
"What era are we in?" asks O'Shea. "We had Georgian and Victorian, we had the quality building of the 20s and 30s, but when we look back through the annals for the typical Irish house of this era it's going to be a three-bed semi on a housing estate. What a legacy - really it's criminal. The Irish people have been let down badly over the last 10, 15, 20 years.
"We get a lot of calls to come and look at period houses in Rathmines and Ranelagh that people have bought and want to refurbish," says O'Donoghue. "And the first thing that everyone says is: 'Isn't the light great? Aren't the proportions wonderful?' These are houses that were built 100 or a 150 years ago. Walk into a house built in the last 20 years and you get no reaction at all. We've lost all that."
O'Donoghue and O'Shea are conscious their profession has an image problem, with architects viewed with suspicion by the general population.
"Architects are seen as the black suit brigade, pontificating from an ivory tower," says O'Shea. "We were at a housing conference last week and there was very little discussion about quality of design, it was all about square metres and technical criteria rather than creativity. It was very disappointing. It's like a child writing a great essay in school - at the moment the debate is about the width of the lines, the size of the paper, the type of pencil. We'd prefer to be associated with the common man and promoting a better standard of design across the board."
They're cautiously optimistic people are starting to have a greater awareness of design, aided by programmes like Grand Designs and RTE's Room To Improve.
"Dermot Bannon is a good guy," says O'Shea. "He's absolutely putting architects on the map."
"When have you ever seen an architect on the cover of RTE Guide before?" asks O'Donoghue. "For too long the profession has been seen as stuffy and impenetrable, with people thinking that hiring an architect is something for other people.
"Dermot's making it more accessible, helping people understand it's not a question of whether they can afford to have an architect, but whether they can afford not to have one. But you have to choose your architect carefully, to ensure you don't ruin the asset you have.
"Compare it to dentistry. If the going rate for root canal is €400, and you heard there was a guy doing them for €50, what would you do? Architects need to be taken as seriously as dentists. You wouldn't ruin your teeth by going with a cheap dentist, so don't ruin your house by choosing a bad architect - and there are plenty of them out there.
"You need to vet your choice really well, get second opinions and referrals. Whatever you can afford to pay, pay it. The more you can afford the better you will get.
"There's still a lack of respect for architects," says O'Donoghue. "You wouldn't ring up 10 solicitors and say: 'I have a problem and I'd like each of you to tell me how you're going to approach it before I decide which one of you to use.' But there are still people out there who expect half a dozen different architects to prepare a scheme for their job without being paid.
"To do a scheme like that would take two or three weeks. I don't know any other profession that's prepared to work for free and we won't do that. Certainly we've lost work because of it."
The recent launch of three townhouses designed by ODOS at One Percy Lane in Dublin 4 is hopefully one of the first indications that some Irish developers are beginning to focus on quality design, rather than on shoehorning as many units as they can onto a site for as little money as possible.
For those interested in the architecture of the city, and for whom there has been precious little to get excited about in recent years, this can only be a good thing.
The 1873 sq ft townhouses each have a private roof terrace, a courtyard garden and a balcony, and two are on the market for €1.25m and €1.295m. The structure of the terrace is clad in natural stone surmounted by a distinctive black zinc curved roof.
Inside there are flush vertical LED light fittings, power-floated reinforced concrete floors, triple-glazed windows and lots of eco-kit to ensure thermal efficiency.
ODOS are mindful to give credit to the clients who have commissioned them, including the developer of Percy Lane, Paddy McKillen Jr.
"He consciously wants to raise the bar in terms of design and to make a difference to the quality of architecture in the city," says O'Shea. "He has a good eye and is a good fit for us."
They will collaborate with McKillen again on an apartment scheme nearby at Percy Place, which they hope will be a notch above the standard Dublin units geared towards transient, short-term renters, rather than families committing for the long term.
"The hope is that these will be apartments for people who will buy them to live in and make a life in," says O'Donoghue.