La dolce vita

It’s not just entrepreneurs who get their best ideas when relaxing on holiday, so do self-builders! This Irish SelfBuild certainly has an international feel.

Wall: 465mm: inner leaf 215mm concrete block/150mm cavity fully filled with Eco Bead blown insulation/100mm outer leaf. U value 0.13W/sqmK Floor: 150mm K3 rigid thermoset phenolic insulation board, self levelling floor screed over underfloor heating pipes. U value 0.16W/sqmK Roof: Warm roof construction: 150mm Kooltherm K7 insulation between rafters and 72.5mm Kooltherm K17 insulation below rafters. U value 0.15W/sqmK Windows: Timber double glazed, argon filled U value 1.5W/sqmK. Timber triple glazed, argon filled U value 1.3W/sqmK Hot water: Air to water heat pump runs on demand and the gas boiler acts as a top up as and when needed, two hot water cylinders. Central heating: Mains gas fired boiler. Ventilation: Mechanical ventilation with heat recovery 95% efficient. AV: Integrated fire detection, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors looped, alarm, lighting, heating, TV, security.
Colin and Barbara Barry had always wanted to self-build on a site with sea views, and when a large plot in Co Down completely open to the sea on three sides came up for sale, they didn’t hesitate in taking this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When you have, as Colin and Barbara did, a very clear idea of the setting and type of house you want to build, getting it all together is quite a tall order. The germ of the plan took hold when the couple were on holiday in Italy, as Colin explained: ‘We spent a holiday at Lake Garda in northern Italy and just loved the way the villas are built around the steep hillside bordering the Lake. The setting is fantastic and I knew exactly where, back home, we could get the same feeling, so when the site was put up for sale in 2006 we moved quickly to secure it.’ From the facades and layout of the house it is evident that the influence of Italy was more than a sense of place, the style is, as Colin described it ‘Irish Palladian’. ‘I love the symmetry of the ancient buildings in Rome and especially those of Andrea Palladio, but also, in the modern era, the fabulous Art Deco period villas on Long Island, New York state, and Miami.’

Irish SelfBuild

The result is a house with an international feel yet quite distinctively Irish. Although new to self-building, the couple had plenty of experience of building as they had completely restored the house they were living in, a Listed building, and prior to that, renovated a modern house. In his day job, Colin has a background in large residential and commercial building. With this knowledge and interest, was it not tempting to do the designing himself? Colin was emphatic in his response: ‘Designing and building a house are two very different things and I had no hesitation in using an architect. It was his job to make all our ideas work in practical terms as well as distilling our thoughts on style into a form that we were happy with and that would work. The architect we knew because he’d already built a house for my brother in the area and the builder had worked for our family before on other projects. We were very fortunate in having these connections already established because it was quite a complicated build, and good communication and understanding were essential.’ Given the unusual design, its size and location, it would not have been a surprise to hear that gaining planning permission was a long, tortuous process, but not so. The site had originally been passed for the erection of two separate dwellings so the change to one large family home represented considerable planning gain, and permission was granted following some minor adjustments to the design. The house is of masonry construction using 9”/230mm concrete blocks laid flat for sound attenuation and to create thermal mass. With three teenage children, the couple were particularly aware of the importance of both of these! ‘We wanted them to be able to bring their friends to the house but without us feeling as if we were living in a hotel!’ explained Colin. ‘The children chose what they wanted in their bedrooms which are large enough to have several people staying over, as well as which, on the top floor we have a multi-purpose room with a cinema screen; it’s also a place to play loud music without everyone else hearing it. The concrete beams and insulation between the floors means we can still enjoy peace and quiet downstairs.’ The family were allowed a ‘wish list’ of what they wanted, which is at first glance surprising for what they left out. ‘We have plenty of space for a swimming pool and tennis court’ Colin continued, ‘but nobody was enthusiastic. The tennis court we’d had at our previous house and I admit it was rarely used, the swimming pool might have been voted for if they’d been younger. Nowadays kids prefer to have their friends round or to go out.’ Predictably though, they all requested showers with body jets and in their rooms, a TV screen and internet access. The question of using renewable energies was considered in the same way as the fabric and interiors, from a very aesthetic as well as practical point of view. ‘We looked at having both solar panels and a geothermal heat pump, but the panels would have been an eyesore on the roof and the cost of digging down for the heat pumps was huge. What we have been able to do, apart from fully fill the wall cavity with insulation, is to use an air source heat pump for hot water in summer. Otherwise it is a mains gas boiler and, apart from an open fire in the hallway – which we’ve yet to use – there are gas fires in the living areas and it also powers the AGA cooker. Although it cost an extra £800/€1,020, we put in a management system for the AGA and that has proved very effective in controlling the timing and temperature.’ The warm roof construction ensures maximum use of the space inside and out with the projecting balconies a magical place to sit and watch the sun go down across the Lough and the hills beyond. As darkness falls, the blinds lower and curtains close; both are part of a system that’s clever enough to adjust to the time of sunset throughout the year, automatically. Even if the weather is poor, huge windows, (these and the Bangor Blue roofing slates were among the more significant parts of the build), provide almost the same experience. The curved glass in the projecting bays softens the seaward façade and contrasts with the geometric gables and tall rectangular chimneys. These curves are echoed inside with the wide sweeping staircase leading to a semi-circular balcony, giving access to the upper rooms. Whilst her husband was keeping a watchful eye on site, Barbara was busy at her computer sourcing the fixtures and fittings for the interior, one of which is a stunning chandelier. Many a stately home owner must envy the motorised lowering for easy cleaning! A Grand Design this home may be, but the use of marble flooring throughout and soft tones with splashes of colour create an interior whose stylish simplicity highlights the inventiveness of the design. Few changes were made in the course of the build, but one very visible as you walk through the front door, is the use of curved walls which just ask to be followed, to find out what lies behind and beyond. In the classic 1960’s film La Dolce Vita, the main character (a journalist), searches in vain for ‘the sweet life’ in Rome. If the film were to be re-created, then Colin and Barbara’s wonderful house and location would provide the perfect set, only this time the story has a happy ending.  House size: c15,000sqft/372sqM Site size: 2 acres EPC: 83 Airtightness: 2.73

What do you think?

Written by Astrid Madsen

Astrid Madsen is the editor of SelfBuild & Improve Your Home magazine. She previously held the same role in an Irish trade publication, before that she worked at the National Standards Authority of Ireland. She graduated with a BA in Urban Studies from Columbia University in New York and holds an MBA from the Instituto de Estudios Bursatiles in Madrid. France of origin, she now lives in Portarlington, County Laois, where she's taken on the task of renovating a listed building! Email astrid.madsen@selfbuild.ie

Charity begins at home

Primary numbers