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AJ Small Projects winner David Leech submits West Cork house plans

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The winner of the AJ Small Projects Award 2019, David Leech Architects, has submitted plans for a family home in western Ireland  

Based on the traditional Irish long house, the 177m² scheme will sit on the coastal site of two ruined cottages in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula in County Cork.

The project has been submitted under Ireland’s equivalent to the NPPF Paragraph 79 country house clause in the UK, which allows new-build homes to be constructed in rural areas under special circumstances.

According to the London-based practice, which was set up by former Caruso St John architect David Leech, the proposed house will have a domestic aesthetic that is ‘both a little hi-tech and a little DIY’.

The scheme will be self-sustaining, requiring no connection to existing public infrastructure, and features a photovoltaic roof.

Leeach won the AJ’s Small Project award, which celebrates innovative projects built on a budget of less than £250,000, last year with his Conservatory Room, a 63m² addition to a terraced house in central Dublin. The £49,750 scheme was praised by the jury for its ’clever use of off-the-shelf elements’ and for expressing ’complex ideas in unexpected ways’.

Subject to approval, work on the house in, West Cork, is expected to complete in December 2021.

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Architect’s view

The area is defined by a landscape of rugged sandstone coastline and carefully tended fields with dry-laid stone walls. This landscape still retains a romantic beauty as depicted by early 20th century Irish artists like Gerald Dillon and Paul Henry. A rural scenery, it is an image of the countryside and the community, and their interwoven relationship. The charming quality of this place is constructed from the natural and the man-made. The dry-stone boundary walls, narrow carriage ways, and ruinous stone cottages are as much a part of one’s memory as are the undulating hills, coarse grass fields, wild sea and big sky.

Irish planning regulations to build in remote rural areas are rightly strict. Similar to the Paragraph 79 country house clause in the UK, applicants should demonstrate projects are of outstanding quality and a progression of type, asking of oneself the question what it means to build in rural Ireland in the 21st century.

The site consists of two ruined cottages which, with others, once formed part of a traditional cluster of dwellings called a ‘clachan’. These clusters patterns were typical in Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries as a means to survive the harsh landscape helped within a small community. Each dwelling within a clachan was in separate ownership but shared a loosely bounded entrance and front yard. The cottages are usually sited with their shorter gable ends facing the weather.

The simple cottages had no windows and their relationship to nature was adversarial rather than the recreational relationship one has now. The cottages were usually only one room and, if extended, they would be elongated along the long axis to protect from the weather. This resulted in a typology of a single room-deep long house.

As a reaction to ‘bungalow blitz’, the local planning authority restricts development to sites with previous habitable buildings, whether intact or ruined. This means a lot of the charming ruins that once populated the area are being developed and transformed beyond their original appearance to enable the necessity for new rural family dwellings.

The design carefully avoids many recent examples where the renovation and refurbishment of these existing ruins is taken to a point too far where the existing original character is overcome and consumed within the body of the new proposal, making the original all but invisible.

Within the existing walls of the east ruin a delicate new glass and frame structure is inserted internally to provide conditioning and comfort without concealing the patina of the aged stone walls behind. The old field stones so carefully stacked to form the massive stone wall are kept visible through an insulating glass which provides the required U-value.

The proportion and width of this existing structure sets out the dimension and scale of the extruded extension.

From this inhabited shell a new (glass)house extends out, screened by a shallow colonnade of rainwater downpipes, it falls towards the coastline. Entered from an outdoor room held between the walls of the preserved ruin and the new extension, a long library and shallow flight of steps lead down into a large hall-like living room that holds spaces for cooking, dining and resting.

The long flight of steps function as a linear picture gallery and library with a large picture window terminating the space and framing views out towards Dunmanus Bay.

The living spaces are directional, following the topography and the view. A ceiling is draped internally with a rhythm and fall separate to that of the stepped exterior roofline. Off the stepped library, various outshots protrude, cranked for views and privacy, pochéd to hold more intimate functions as cloak cranny, breakfast nook, study cranny and inglenook.

Private chambers for bedrooms, bathroom and ancillary functions are in more static volumes. These rooms are vaulted and vary in height and proportion to determine an appropriate atmosphere and hierarchy of use.

Externally the long bar divides the site into gardens of different character, climate, and function. Like typical long houses the interior plan is one room wide with immediate connection to the outside.

The studio is in a separate annex located within the arms of the western ruin, sharing the entrance terrace with the main house. Externally the form is derived from a conversation between the new and the old.

The annexe and the romantically decayed gable of the western ruin allude to a single image of a dwelling but are in fact separated by small garden spaces, in certain perspectives their figures move together to visually be one and in others they separate to show the existing and the new.

The project references the optimism of the early Hi-Tech projects of Foster, Rogers, and Team 4, using advanced materials, technology, and systems. Technology is not used as an application but instead inherent to the building and architectural fabric, like at the Team 4’s projects at Creak Veen House and Murray Mews. Importantly, unlike Hi-Tech, the project does not attempt to fetish efficiency but instead to take delight in questions of function, redundancy, and the applied arts. Like the earlier more ambiguous projects at Murray Mews and Creek Veen, this leads to a more domestic aesthetic that is both a little Hi-Tech and a little DIY.

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In this manner 58 polychromatic powder coated aluminium downpipes, both act as a façade and as a sustainable way to distribute surface water run-off directly into the ground without the need for heavier infrastructure. The shallow colonnade they form is detailed to give the impossible impression of holding the weight of the roof above whilst also acting as a screening device to provide privacy to the glazed curtain walling behind.

Glass is chosen as a material more for its specular qualities rather than its transparency. A glass photovoltaic roof reflects the sky and the ever-changing weather. The glass PV panels are the building material, forming the roof rather being applied onto one. Aluminium patent glazing bars are fitted with PV glass sheets as a rainscreen over a single-ply pitched roof. The photovoltaics generate enough output for the house and studio and the excess electricity is supplied back to the grid.

The PV glass tiles and patent glazing bars recall the DIY quality of the greenhouse but also the vernacular roofing materials of a repeated tied thatch, or lapped slate stone roof, albeit translated now for the 21st century.

Other sustainable strategies for water supply and drainage are employed so that the house is completely self-sustaining, requiring no connection to existing public infrastructure. In this way the house is inherently sustainable with the lowest embodied and operational carbon strategy provided by locally sourced materials and off-grid energy generation and mechanical servicing.

In this respect the architecture and the technical resolution is one. The design hopefully demonstrates that if all architecture is to be sustainable one must not look at this technology as applications, but rather as the building material.

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Project data

Location Sheep’s Head Peninsula, West Cork, Ireland
Local authority Cork County Council
Type of project Single family house
Client Private
Architect David Leech Architects
Landscape architect Maria Canavan
Structural engineer DMCA
Historic building surveyor DMCA
M&E and sustainability consultant Ritchie + Daffin
Planning application submitted June 2020
Expected completion December 2021
Gross internal floor area 177m²
Annual CO2 emissions 14.5 kgCO2/m²
Embodied carbon 300 kgCO2e/m²
Renewable electricity generation 13,600 kWh/year

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