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McGonigle McGrath’s ‘exquisitely simple’ £335k home named RIBA House of the Year


The RIBA has named McGonigle McGrath’s ’simple and cheap’ family home in County Down as its 2019 House of the Year

The 235m² House Lessans scheme was built for £335,000 (£1,425 per m²) on a small farmstead and features white rendered concrete walls capped with zinc pitched roofs echoing a neighbouring corrugated barn.

According to the RIBA judges, the Belfast-based practice had pulled off a ‘a remarkable achievement for a newly built home of this scale’, adding: ’Through the application of basic building materials, cost-saving hacks and the simple arrangement of rooms and spaces, McGonigle McGrath has managed to design a home of outstanding quality on a budget.’

The jury, which was chaired by John Pardey, went on: ‘Walls made of cheap concrete blocks have been carefully laid, rendered outside and painted inside with flush mortar joins to ensure a perfect finish. The huge windows are also fixed throughout – with openings for ventilation – a far cheaper alternative to bifold doors. Every penny of the client’s budget has been carefully and well spent.’

Sylvia and Michael, the owners of House Lessans said: ’Like most non-architects about to build a home we had a clear idea about what we’d like in terms of rooms but no idea about how these rooms might be arranged or what the house might look like.

The magic a gifted architect can work was evident from the moment we saw the plans

’The magic a gifted architect can work was evident from the moment we saw the initial plans and that appreciation deepened as the project progressed. We feel that the house respects and indeed enhances the landscape. It is a joy to live in, from seeing the soaring bedroom ceiling on wakening, being surrounded by the gentle landscape in the kitchen during the day, to enjoying the sunset in the top room.’

The house was chosen from a seven-strong shortlist which also included: Nithurst Farm by Adam Richards Architects; Pocket House by Tikari Works; A Restorative Rural Retreat for Sartfell by Foster Lomas; Black House by Dualchas Architects; Secular Retreat by Atelier Peter Zumthor with Mole Architects; and The Green House by David Sheppard Architects. 

House Lessans, which also scooped a 2019 RIBA National Award, was revealed as the winner in the final episode of the Channel 4 series Grand Designs: House of the Year, last night (13 November 2019).

Houselessans 08

Architect’s view

The site is located in the gently rolling landscape of County Down. An existing assembly of barn and shed with double yard were the remnants of a small farmstead, the original farmhouse now a neighbouring plot. Approached by an overgrown lane, the enclosure created by the buildings and low walls only became apparent when at the yards, the predominant view from the lane being of the drumlins beyond.

The brief was for a simple dwelling to meet the accommodation needs of a semi-retired couple and their children, now only occasional visitors. The connection to place and to the language of the derelict but elegant barn was one of a number of defined objectives. Planning permission already existed for a new dwelling on the site.

The house is conceived as two simple elements arranged in relation to the retained and reused barn, to create the enclosure associated with vernacular clusters, and to permit visual and physical connections to the rolling landscape to the south and west. The first element, containing only bedrooms, is positioned to create the sloping arrival yard, and an enclosed space to the rear. The second living element is rotated to address the view. The entrance is positioned between these elements and allows the visitor the experience of both enclosure and landscape.

Forms and materiality are derived from the language of local corrugated agricultural outbuildings, referenced to the datum set by the barn, all rising from an embedded concrete plinth. Internally, generous volumes reflect the existing barn and track the external forms, and views to the landscape are carefully framed. Subtle shifts in level separate the functions.

Construction methods were necessarily basic, and detailing is precise and restrained.

Kieran McGonigle, director, McGonigle McGrath

Mm lessans plan

Project data 

Start on site November 2017
Completion April 2018
Gross internal floor area 235m²
Form of contract JCT Intermediate Contract
Construction cost £335,000
Construction cost per m² £1,425
Architect McGonigle McGrath
Client Private
Structural engineer MWL Consulting Engineers
QS MJ Donnelly Quantity Surveyors
Main contractor Hans Crosby 
CAD software used AutoCAD

Cast 1


Readers' comments (2)

  • A worthy winner, however no mention of site cost.

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  • I'm not sure why the cost of the house is felt to be factor. Good architecture isn't dependant on budget, so whilst many if not most potential clients won't of course have bottomless pockets, the fact that some will shouldn't be implied to be a barrier of any sort.

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