Saturday 16 February 2019

Blot on the landscape or bungalow bliss?

The war over self-build bungalows and one-off houses shows no signs of abating. DARA DE FAOITE reports.They lie scattered haphazardly across the Irish countryside. To some, they represent an "horrific, cancerous blight", an evil design slung in manic disarray onto our fertile, green land.

The war over self-build bungalows and one-off houses shows no signs of abating. DARA DE FAOITE reports.

They lie scattered haphazardly across the Irish countryside. To some, they represent an "horrific, cancerous blight", an evil design slung in manic disarray onto our fertile, green land. To others, up to one-third of the Irish population, they are the "preferred dwelling" and an integral part of what makes us who we are.

Since their inception in the early 1970s, self-build bungalows and one-off houses plonked on generous plots of land have altered the look and the lifestyle of rural Ireland. Last year 18,000 one-off houses were built in rural areas, representing up to one third of homes built during 2000.

Despite its contribution towards much-needed rural regeneration, bungalow bliss has been branded an "unsustainable, unambitious and uninteresting" mode of housing by leading, mainly Dublin-based, architects and planning watchdogs.

The experts have called for a complete cessation of one-off developments and a move towards higher density housing within existing urban areas, along with the creation of "new, high-density clusters" throughout he country.

However Minister of State for Rural Development Eamon O Cuiv is just one person who is unhappy with such a notion. As a defender and owner of a one-off home, he believes the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland (RIAI) "doesn't understand rural living" and has called for "a few more houses to be scattered in rural areas".

He also criticised the role of An Bord Pleanala in the battle to build one-off homes. At a forum in Glenbeigh, County Kerry, earlier this month he accused them of being at complete variance with the local authorities.

Last week he was joined by the Council for the West, which accused An Taisce of imposing change on the way people live in the country.

The much-maligned single-story idyll on an acre has come in for much criticism at the hands of Ireland's leading draftsmen. "Apart from blotting out our landscapes, such forms of development are unsustainable in terms of schools, shops, services, water, gas, electricity, sewerage, rubbish, community care and roads," said Arthur Hickey, president of the RIAI at a conference on higher density housing held in Dublin recently.

The RIAI envisage a new "high-density not high-rise" approach to housing in the future in order to combat suburban sprawl.

Satellite towns including Carlow, Drogheda, Mullingar, Ennis, Fermoy, Carrick-on-Suir and Nenagh have all come under intense planning strain as workers opt to commute to cities nearby in exchange for a country lifestyle. So, are planners and the RIAI going against the will of the people for what they perceive as the good of the land?

"Providing for the housing needs of the future is a very different exercise from what we've been building up to now," said Ian Lumley, planning officer with An Taisce. "To date houses have been designed around a particular family profile of a couple who intend to spend the best part of their lives together bringing up kids.

"In the future we're going to have more single-parent families and more people living on their own and, as demographics have shown, living longer," he said.

Mr Lumley is particularly outspoken on the largely inexpensive, Irish one-off house phenomenon. "These one-off developments are anti community and environmentally unsustainable," he said. "They lead to separated, car-dependent lifestyles which in turn brings about further dependence on poor, convenience food buying and eating habits."

The An Taisce official is also aggrieved by the poor aesthetics of stand-alone rural and suburban homes.

"These structures have a major and adverse landscape impact in suburbanising the entire countryside as ribbon developments trail for miles along roadsides," he said. "It was thought we were moving towards a tele-working society of home offices but that has not emerged and, with population expansion, workers are now traveling further to get to jobs in urban centres."

The right to live where you choose presumably not on top of his Connemara doorstep is defended by Minister O Cuiv.

"I don't think the RIAI or An Taisce understands the value of community in rural Ireland. There's a great sense of place, being and history shared amongst the people of differing townlands through out the country," he said.

"Most rural areas could do with a further 30 or 40 houses scattered here and there and a few more kids in the schools and some more life in the health centres to boot," said the minister.

According to Minister O Cuiv the experts want only to "denude the countryside to the point of complete unsustainability". "With farming numbers decreasing rapidly this is simply not a reality," he said. "They tell you it's not economical to put the water running down the road, or the phone line or the ESB line running down the road. However, we still have to run the pipe to the furthest house in the valley so what extra cost is it if we have a further three or four houses on that line?" he said.

"This issue of sustainability could only be realised if a Stalinist approach was taken and all the existing rural houses were closed down and we were all corralled into their towns and clusters."

From his rural retreat in Corrnamona, Co Galway, the minister considers those houses haphazardly dotted on the landscape as a comfort. "As I look across my valley and view the backdrop of the mountains and lakes, these scattered dwellings only add to that sense of warmth a rural community thrives upon.

'There's plenty of wilderness in Connemara and as long as the homes are not of outrageous design or bulk then they only add to the visual amenity of the area."

All this of course is anathema to An Taisce's Ian Lumley and members of the RIAI who view most of Ireland's one-off developments as gross aberrations of design. "The average standard bungalow, originating from the bungalow bliss era, is not of great architectural merit," an RIAI spokesperson said. "The new era of dolled-up bungalow bliss designs is even more horrific with a multitude of architectural features crammed into one building which loses balance, theme and identity. These buildings reflect an identity crisis," they said.

But, as Minister O Cuiv points out, "there have always been, and should always be, people living in these houses and in these areas." In response Mr Lumley highlights the case of the "so-called beautiful Ring of Kerry that has been destroyed by ribbon developments stretching for miles outside towns like Kenmare and Killarney".

"What we need to start doing now is to link the location of new housing developments with areas of employment and social amenity," said Lumley. "Any new one-off house in the countryside should be required to meet with a whole range of tests and indicators before it is considered acceptable," he said.

Included on Mr Lumley's check list would be the houses' impact on the landscape, sewerage disposal, integration with local community and accessibility to schools and employment. Despite common cries that the elderly are often left isolated by the rest of society, particularly in rural areas, O Cuiv believes that country living provides as much support for the aged as they would find anywhere in Ireland.

"The range of services and the quality of life we can provide to the elderly citizens of rural Ireland is on a par, if not better, to anything provided for in the most affluent parts of Dublin," he said.

Meals on wheels and bus trips to the day-care centre are all laid on, according to the Galway TD. "An 80-year-old would find it a lot easier to drive their car down to their local shops in the country than their peer would in any Irish city," he said.

While Minister O Cuiv does acknowledge that the urbanisation of the countryside is a problem, he states, "this is largely the fault of planners who gave land for housing along road sides in the first place".

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