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'They’re our lawnmowers, but they’re also very cute': architect John Curran on his three alpacas, and the ‘flying’ house he built in Limerick wildflower meadow

One architect couple have taken the concept of remote working to the limit - by living in Limerick while working in Shanghai. The upside is they live in a stunning house of their own making

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Meadow Dance

Meadow Dance

Meadow Dance

Meadow Dance

Meadow Dance

Meadow Dance

Meadow Dance

Meadow Dance

Meadow Dance

Meadow Dance

Meadow Dance

Meadow Dance

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Meadow Dance

Architect John Curran had dreamed about building a house in Ireland for years. He and his Chinese wife and business partner Liu Hai Ying, and their three boys were living in Shanghai, a city of 25 million people. Life was busy and their architectural practice was thriving but, while they loved Shanghai, John says: "It does feel like you're holding your breath and postponing living until you get out."

What they really longed for, he says, was a change of pace and to get back to nature.

But something - usually work - would always crop up and delay their plans.

Then in 2014, John's mother fell ill back home in Limerick. "We were with her near the end," he recalls, "and we talked about how short and precious life is and how the years slip by so fast."

That was the push they needed.

When his mother passed away, she left John a wildflower meadow, part of the land that had been in the family for generations.

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Architect John Curran pictured with his wife Ying and one of their alpacas at their home in Co Limerick. Photo: Don Moloney

Architect John Curran pictured with his wife Ying and one of their alpacas at their home in Co Limerick. Photo: Don Moloney

Architect John Curran pictured with his wife Ying and one of their alpacas at their home in Co Limerick. Photo: Don Moloney

"I've very vivid memories as a child of my mother walking through this field in particular, picking wild flowers."

The meadow became the starting point for their design. They wanted the house to "blossom" out of the field, which would be left untouched as a habitat for ground-nesting birds. "We simply wanted to enjoy this landscape and wildlife without disrupting it."

Researching and designing the house they call Meadow Dance took the next three years. "My wife Ying and I are compulsive planners. We refused to rush in. We did lots of research, including talking to families at home who had been through this experience in Ireland."

The design would pay tribute to John's mother, but also to architect Will Alsop, who won the prestigious Stirling Prize in 2000. John had worked with Will for a decade in London before moving to China 26 years ago and setting up J Curran Architects.

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Meadow Dance

Meadow Dance

Meadow Dance

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"Will always found the joy in everything he did and that has always stayed with me. When you look at Will's work and this house you can see the influences - it's playful. That's the intention."

The site and the views were crucial to the design. "Myself and my wife always had this idea in our heads that the house would fly over the meadow and that we were catching views towards the bog, and this wetland." They even hired a scissor lift to work out how to orientate the windows and frame the view of the flying wing.

In late 2018 the build started. The couple opted for a prefabricated construction because it is more sustainable, as well as cost and time effective. The kit arrived on site and was put together within six weeks.

Once the frame was made weather-tight, the interior fit-out and exterior finishes, such as drystone wall or timber cladding, could happen in tandem. The construction cost came to €1,550 per sq m (2019 pricing), excluding furniture and consultant fees.

The completed house is Y-shaped and made of two parts: a stone-clad plinth or base and an upper flying wing that 'dances' over the meadow on its brightly coloured legs.

Despite all the planning, the pair did make one change during construction. "We decided we would convert the two bedrooms on the ground floor into a home office and that is where we work out of when we're here, communicating with Shanghai or meeting clients here in Ireland." In hindsight, the change in function was a blessing.

Inside, the ground floor is a huge open plan space that hinges on a double-height sitting area with the serene atmosphere of a church about it, and a floating wooden staircase that leads to the three bedrooms upstairs.

A large, industrial 'showy' kitchen is set at one end of the ground floor with what John calls, the 'dirty kitchen', hidden away behind. "That's where the wok is always on. Chinese cooking takes a heavy toll on a kitchen." The dining area sits in the middle of the space.

Meadow Dance has a BER of A2. "By incorporating an air-to-water heat pump with heat recovery, the house uses little energy. Everything is electric and our monthly electric bill, averaged across the 12 months since the house was completed last year, is circa €100-€125 a month. We are very happy with that, bearing in mind we have a floor area of nearly 4,000 sq ft, and we are constantly turning off lights left on by our children."

The entire build took eight months, and the family moved in in April. "We left Shanghai in lockdown and came to Limerick in lockdown."

They have settled in quickly to the area, just as the house has nested into the landscape. "We're blessed with really good supportive neighbours," says John. "Any time we're stuck for something they always lend a helping hand. We're just not used to that from being in China - that sense of community. People look out for one another more here. That is the stark contrast with living in a city with 25 million people like Shanghai."

They have started growing their own vegetables and their 12m x 4m polytunnel is full of produce, enough, says John, to feed a family of five and still have plenty over to give to neighbours.

This week the latest members of the Curran family arrived: three alpacas. They have been named Dermot, Barry and Anna, in honour of Dermot Bannon and his crew who came along to shoot the house recently for the new series of RTÉ's Incredible Homes.

John has a job in mind for the alpacas. "They are our lawnmowers," he says.

For more about John and Ying's Meadow Dance house, see house+design, the RIAI's magazine, €4.75 from newsagents nationwide and the RIAI bookshop.

Dermot Bannon's Incredible Homes airs next Sunday at 9.30pm on RTÉ One.


John Curran’s tips for the house of your dreams

Building your own home is probably one of the most important life decisions you will make. It can fill you with terror and excitement in equal measure. To minimise the heartache of surprises jumping out during the build (surprises equal extra cost) be systematic:


  • Find a good architect. The RIAI has lots of free information online, including their useful guide Working With An Architect; see riai.ie
  • Allow time for the design to mature in your head. This design must then get faithfully translated into the build documents. Allow time for the architect and quantity surveyor to compile a watertight set of information so that nothing (at least nothing major) slips through the net. Architects’ drawings and architects’ specification and the quantity surveyor’s full bill of quantities must be totally coordinated. This takes time.
  • Know your builder. Before going to tender take an interest in the shortlist of builders to satisfy yourself that they all have proven experience. The chosen builder should be your friend, turning your dream into reality.

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