In Nenagh, Tipperary, I had been picked up by architect Pascal Madoc-Jones of Londonbased A-EM Studio and the client's brother in a huge four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee, to be taken to the site, where even my 2.0 litre Kia Clarus Exec would find difficulties.
Approaching the village of Puckane, when I commented on the narrowness of the country lane, the driver snapped back: 'Lane? Jaysus, sure this is the main road.'
Apparently, many retired and incredibly wealthy Germans and Scandinavians have bought plots here; one has a seaplane hangar hidden in the woods and another is reputedly spending £100,000 on a 800m dry-stone wall to surround his manor. The seaplane is a handy addition, as all sites front onto Lough Derg, an inland waterway three times bigger than Windermere, where waves crash onto, rather than lap, the shore.
I am here to visit the house of Mr and Mrs McCarthy, returned from London to spend more time with their extended family in the region where they grew up.
Their house, which is still under construction, is set back from the 'road' and is devised as a series of layers, 'linking the geometry of the building with the geometry of the landscape'. The site is arranged such that the outer, more public zone comprises rough, wild planting, thus trying to compensate for the local planning requirement that hedgerow be removed to the frontages of all developments. (This stipulation combines the need for driveway sightlines but also enables the local authority to widen the road in the future without undue expense. ) The planting of mature trees and indigenous hedgerows will reclaim the rural appearance of the site from outside.
The next layer comprises an internal walkway around a man-made pool to create a semi-domestic ambience, consisting of meadow flora, fruit trees and grasses. The house sits between this area and the more formal, 'conventional' lawn and gardens - overlooking the lough and hidden from public view.
Built as two large blocks, the monolithic frontispiece is the guest accommodation, the ground floor of which contains the garage, stores and the services for both buildings.With such proximity to the water, the views through the elongated windows will be spectacular, although these will be reserved for the public landscaping area to ensure the privacy of the main house. The upper floor contains a large living/dining space, bedrooms and bathrooms, overlooking the meadow land.
In the same way that the landscape becomes more formal on approach, so the building structures reflect the hierarchy of uses: the guest block is slightly lower than the main building circulation-zone, which is lower than the main family house itself. The driveway extends up the side of the site before turning sharply to the drop-off point between the structures. While the guest block appears, on first appraisal, to be a dominant form, its visual role is to close off the views of the main house and to act as a courtyard buffer, creating a secluded space to enter the houses. It plays the role of a gatehouse, rather than an appendage to the family home.
The circulation space of the main house has been partially extracted from the body of the building, and is articulated in the use of stone, distinct from the roughcast render and timberwork of the rest of the house. The workmanship on this stonework is impressive - built of Kilkenny limestone with 2mm joints (some pieces having a visible face of no more than 10mm x10mm) - and is carried into the internal face of the entrance hall. Along the length of this hallway, toplight glazing brings daylight washing down the stone and past the cutaway landing. The upper rooms are accessed over stepped bridges and have walls built up to 2.4m, topped off with silicone-jointed glazing to maximise the light penetrating the bedrooms and to emphasise the lightness of the structure.
The oblique angles of the stone entranceway guide one into the main 'entertainment space', a huge double-height area with the first views out over the lough. The gable wall is built up of glazed concrete transoms and mullions, with full-height views into an enclosed winter garden beyond.
The usual circulation routes for the family will be via the interlinking doors along the south side of the building, passing through the large kitchen and into the south-east informal living area. The south wall has been punctured by single-storey and full-height bays, or pods, 'avoiding the tweeness of little windows'. In fact the chunkiness of the larch post-and-rail double-height bay window, is sufficient for the depth of floor and ceiling to be captured within the size of the transom.
Madoc-Jones admits that 'there are no clever details here - everything is big'. Consequently, he is honest about the restraint needed in a job of these proportions, to avoid falling into the trap of using space gratuitously. Being more used to the restricted sites of London, he confesses that the design-rigour requiring him to maximise utility within tight spatial constraints works equally well in less constrained conditions.
Given the scale of the project, the architect has executed the design with a certain deftness, an eye for detail and a contextualism which, although respectful of its surroundings, stretches the rural vernacular.
In the main house, we wanted to keep all principal rooms facing the lake, which would ensure family privacy from the road.The separate guest house allows for autonomous use as a base for visiting - without crowding out the client's family.
The external approach is sequenced through a series of landscape enclosures, linking with an architectural route from front door inwards, to dramatise the sense of arrival in the main rooms from which the views of the lake are finally opened up.
This sequence links with an enfilade of doors along the southern wall of the house which modulate the lake view (and, hopefully, the dappling effect of the sunlight) and a promenade of windows, a different one in each structural bay of the building.The axis then extends out to the landscape - westward along the terrace to an illuminated fountain.
The hippodrome lawn and surrounding planted borders between house and lake are a true, private garden as opposed to the rougher landscape drawn around the shoulders of the house.
CLIENT Mr and Mrs McCarthy ARCHITECT A-EM Studio, tel 020 7713 9191 CONTRACTOR Jim Egan BUILDING AREA 100m 2(guest house), 500m 2(main building) COMPLETION End 2002