THE SIMPLE LIFE
Working in Norman Foster's office in Hong Kong and London was an important phase of David McDowell's career. But for someone who grew up in open spaces, close to Dublin, the prospect of bringing up children in a confined London home raised questions of lifestyle. David, and wife Lois, originally from Scotland, have created their own 310m 2 home at Wheatfield House for the price of living in limited space in London (despite Ireland's second mini-boom). They rented locally while building the house; McDowell is now with Dublin practice Horan Keogan Ryan.
The stableyard is listed, largely as an adjunct to the farmhouse rather than for its own architectural merit; if it wasn't, McDowell would probably have gone for new-build.
Planners were supportive of the conversion and extension. An interesting aspect of the listing was that the planning application had to include professional-standard (black and white) photography of the existing condition of the building, the product of recent legislation, with the potential to build an invaluable archive over the years.
The stableyard - a square courtyard - is open to the north; south and west blocks have been converted. The inner faces of the blocks meet at the corners leaving a square that had been filled in with lean-to construction. The south-west infill, at the knuckle of McDowell's L-shaped plan, has been removed and the extension starts here. As well as the stables having views on to the newly landscaped courtyard, there are views west across open fields. To the south, currently, are concrete hard standing and basic system-built barns - somewhere to catch the daylight at least.
The stable blocks were gutted, which for the taller south block allowed lowering of the hayloft floor level to create two levels of accommodation. These shells are treated sympathetically, walls reharled, stone slate roofs renovated, stable door openings now become windows and a door. By running the south block's first-floor corridor on the courtyard side there was no need to introduce larger bedroom windows here. As with the stable doors, the new windows are set near-flush with the walls, which leaves reveals nearly half a metre deep in the thick, now-insulated masonry. Internally these are used, say, for flowers, as well as setting a rhythm to the interior.
On the west block these windows also constrain room planning, though their size brings ample daylight. Rooms the full depth of the plan at either end of this block reduce the apparent length of the bedroom corridor between. For the ground floor of the south block, the shallow building depth is addressed by making the kitchen and family-dining area open plan, lit from both sides.
The Foster roots show not only in the family dining table - Foster's Nomos, which the McDowells treated themselves to before leaving London - but also in McDowell's focus on assembling this project. Detailing here is simply appropriate, with plastered walls and plain skirting boards. Doors are heavy, solid-cored to maintain the substantial feel of the building. Things work.
McDowell decided to keep the staircase compact, to make the most of the footprint available (the extension runs out close to the site boundary). In a neat touch the stair begins with a low landing, creating a vision slot between the kitchen and the extension's formal dining room and lounge. This twostorey extension is distinct, of today. The south wall of the double-height formal dining room and its north wall at first-floor level are etched glass. Beyond, the lounge and master bedroom above are glazed floor-to-ceiling.
Outside, the extension reads as contemporary too, with a touch of the agricultural. The west end, now reading as a two-storey wall of glass, has a picture-frame surround of galvanised steel framing with horizontal oak slats in steel subframes. The south side is boarded, with further panels of slats in front of the etched glass of the dining room.
Here, as in many aspects, McDowell's attention to detail shows through. Through exploration in hand sketches he has worked the details to a hard-won simplicity, from the clarity of the galvanised steel junctions to the fine supporting cable that runs through the midpoint of each of the horizontal oak slats. A labour of love, as you might expect.
Touching the existing stable blocks gently.