My Favourite Room: 'I wanted mum's angel on my dresser upstairs'
As regular wedding guests realise by now, the traditional wedding fruitcake is almost a thing of the past. The cake is often still three tiers covered in marzipan and white icing, but the content is now usually a cheesecake, a rocky road mixture, or a biscuit cake.
Karl Slyne and Val O'Kelly went one better - when they got married in Dromquinna in Co Kerry in 2017, they eschewed the three tiers in favour of an exact replica of their new home, down to its occupants. Their cake, a biscuit cake, came complete with adorable figures of their combined families of three sons each - six in total.
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"We wanted something different, something that the kids would go, 'That's quite cool'," says Val, adding, "Tracy Desmond, who made the cake and the figures, asked me for all their hair colours and sizes, so the boys were like, 'Oh gosh, am I eating myself?'"
The cake, just like the couple's home itself, was named Tus Nua (new beginnings); this house is the first home of the couple together, and it was very much built to accommodate the two families. Timber-framed and sitting on half an acre in Rochestown, Co Cork, it's detached, with six bedrooms, four bathrooms and a lot of living spaces.
The couple did have an architect on board to design the house, but it helps that Karl is a quantity surveyor with his own practice, so he knows the business inside out and was able to determine the best type of house to build on the site.
He also knows all the best builders and suppliers, having built up his practice in Cork over the last 15 years. "My father worked in Ford, then had a garage, but I had an uncle in construction and my late brother always had an interest in it, so between the two of them, I think that's where my interest came from. My brother became a quantity surveyor and I followed him into the profession," says Karl, who studied in Cork and Glamorgan in Wales, and is the youngest of five.
"It was never a well-known profession until the Dermot Bannon show, Room to Improve. Now people realise we are there to fight their battles when it comes to costs and money," he says.
Val, who's from Carrigrohane, Co Cork, and is the middle child of five, works in the bank, and has done so for most of her adult life, but it's obvious from the stunning decor in the house that she's also very creative - something she says she inherited from her late father, who was a graphic designer and artist; his works hang throughout the house.
When it came to building a house together, a key consideration was location, as it was important that the kids would continue to be able to walk to their schools. Karl, whose practice is involved mainly in the building of schools, residential and commercial projects, heard about the site through his work, and the couple decided it would be ideal.
"What I love is it's near the kids' schools; we're not far from our workplaces; we are two minutes in the car from Douglas, and yet it seems like living in the country," Val enthuses.
The next issue was getting an architect on board to design the house, and they opted for Gareth Sullivan of Simply Architecture. "It's a young firm, I liked that," says Karl. "And since he designed our house, he's won a lot of awards."
Val initially wanted something small and cosy, but when Gareth asked, 'What are your circumstances?' and she said, 'We have six boys', even as she was saying the words, she realised her plan for small and cosy was a non-runner, particularly as the boys are nearly all in their teens.
Val's boys are: Jack (16), Luke (14), and Alex (12), while Karl is father to Steven (15), Kieran (13), and Robert (10). "There's a lot of testosterone about," Karl jokes, adding that they had two Junior Certs this year, and will be having both Leaving Certs and Junior Certs for a good few years to come.
The couple gave Gareth a blank canvas, and bearing in mind the six boys, he came up with a plan - first with a set of drawings, then with a model of the house - with which the couple were delighted. "I'd be very strong on what I like and don't like, but I find drawings hard to visualise," says Val, adding, "The model meant we knew exactly what the house would look like. And everything was fantastic - the double-height hall; the vaulted ceiling in the kitchen; the double-height master bedroom; all the living spaces." Karl adds that the timber frame gave a lot of flexibility in getting double-height spaces.
Val also really liked Gareth's idea for the utility room. "He said, 'Don't have it near the kitchen, it's a working room'," Val explains, adding, "He was right. The washing machine is going all day, as is the tumble drier, but we never hear them, and of course he included a chute from the bathroom upstairs to the utility room downstairs."
Karl came up with a few very interesting structural ideas of his own, including the various niches around the house and the idea of glass bridges upstairs.
"There are two links - from a landing to a bedroom and a bathroom upstairs, and I got a thought one night that maybe we could do the floor of the two links in glass. I thought it would be a cool feature to the house," Karl says.
"The following morning, I rang the builder, the engineer, and the underfloor-heating guys. Most people would say no, but these guys, after a bit of cajoling, they said yes. It was difficult to get it done, but it was possible. We managed to re-route the services and we figured it out."
It was a great idea on Karl's part, but one Val wasn't too keen on initially, given that she suffers from vertigo. "I've got used to it, but I wouldn't hang around on it. Karl would jump on it, but I'd go, 'No, not for me'."
Karl is full of praise for everyone he worked with, including the Eco Timber Frame company; and their builder, Brian Twomey of Twomey Construction in Crosshaven, who couldn't do enough for them. He's also full of praise for Val and the way she worked with all the different people involved, down to bringing some ice cream for the bricklayers on a particularly warm day in 2016 when they were building the house.
"One of the lads told me that in 27 years, no one had ever bought him an ice cream," Karl says, while Val shrugs it off, saying, "My motto is life is, 'It's nice to be nice'."
The house is a passive house, with an air-to-water heating system, underfloor heating and a hrv (heat recovery ventilation) system. "I love opening windows." says Val. "With a passive house, you keep everything closed; everything is airtight. It took a while to get used to that."
When it came to decor, Val says she had tons of ideas, but with a full-time job and the boys, she didn't have the time to source things like the best kinds of wooden floors, and she says interior designer Fiona O'Keeffe was a tremendous help in narrowing things down. "We didn't have time for 20 wooden floors, but she'd recommend, say, two. And she gave us unbelievable contacts," Val says.
They got the big white kitchen with its two-tier island from Classic Kitchens in Cork, and again she raves about their service. She is also full of praise for Ivan Wolfe, who framed all the fantastic artworks by her late dad. "I'm into angels, and my mum had bought me an angel for the wall, but it didn't do it for me," Val explains. "I brought it to Ivan and I said, 'I want mum's angel on my dresser upstairs', and he put it in a very delicate frame, which I love. I also had a piece which had no monetary value but I got it in troubled times, and the words on it, 'Laugh, live, love' meant a lot to me. Ivan brought it to life for me with his ingenious framing."
The couple are also indebted to Deirdre O'Sullivan of Style 25 Painted Furniture. "We had a lot of brown furniture, but it was all good and hard to part with," Val says. "Deirdre painted it all for us and gave it new life."
It helps that the couple are very open to strong pops of colour and a bit of craziness, like the multi-coloured apples, one of which is in the hall and one in the garden. "I saw them on a TV programme and then found some in America. I showed them to Karl and he said, 'Fantastic', then I told him the price. But I wouldn't pay it myself. I found smaller ones and gave them to Deirdre. I told her to do what she liked, and I love the result," Val says. "I trust people and they come good."
Three years down the road, the boys are very used to the house, and enjoy extras like the games room. Karl and Val are constantly adding things - an aviary built by Karl with 15 birds is a new addition. It's obvious they're happy with it, and their overriding joy is in the fact that they feel grateful that they've built a safe, nurturing environment for the boys.
It's summed up by two little pictures near the sink in the kitchen. On one there is an image of a couple with the words, 'Happily ever after'. Val found it in Ardmore and thought it was lovely, but then she realised they were nothing without their boys and she commissioned a second, with an image of six figures. It arrived with the words, 'And they all lived...'
And the couple are confident that, aside from the day-to-day issues found in any family, they are all doing just that.
Karl Slyne Quantity Surveyors LTD, see ksqs.ie
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin