Architect Niall Henry of Dublin Design Studio talks to us about the family home he shares with his wife, Emma and their three young children in Clontarf, County Dublin. Mr Henry lives in a rather contemporary home and he, his wife’s brother and sister live in the same style of house on the same laneway in the Dublin suburb. This familial home was also featured on RTÉ One’s ‘Home of the Year,’ programme. This scheme places three two storey contemporary dwellings onto a vacant plot located at the intersection between the back gardens of some 20 semi-detached and detached dwellings in the established residential community.
This site is approached via a 5.5 metre wide laneway located between two semi-detached dwellings and is hidden from the street.
The site is 70 metres long and just 10 metres wide sharing garden boundaries with seven dwellings to the north and a 4 metre wide laneway to the south. The buildings geometry, orientation and size is dictated by the site constraints, issues of privacy and overshadowing. The core project concept was to maximise the available site area of each house without impacting on the amenity of any of the adjoining dwellings. To achieve this, the footprint of each site including the garden and house was conceived as a single entity.
“The design of our house was dictated by the site conditions and the requirements of three young families. We were expecting our third child and my wife Emma’s brother and sister also had young children. The site fronts onto approximately 20 houses in the surrounding area,” said Niall Henry. “The key was making sure that we really maximised the potential of the site without overlooking or damaging any of the houses around us. The starting point for the design is the ground floor level. We wanted as much glazing and as many openings with the garden as we could because we have a big boundary wall around the site and we were very private and we wanted to make sure that we maximised the use of the floor area also and we knew that a good use of the garden would really open up the house at ground level.
“As we couldn’t overlook the surrounding gardens, we had to be very careful about where we were proposing to put the windows. Generally in a house there are windows at the back and the front of the house but we couldn’t do that with this house or the other houses as the windows would have been overlooking gardens because the laneway runs perpendicular to all of the gardens surrounding us,” added Mr Henry. The garden is an integral part of the overall ground floor plan, a mirror image of the house plan interlocking with the house plan. By ‘introverting,’ the external garden area into the design of the house, the site area is maximised without any impact on the adjoining dwellings. This concept allows for the ground floor to be as open plan as possible and avail of the south west orientation of the site. As such, the laneway facade is designed as a defensive or boundary wall, pierced only by small openings with timber louvre screens.
“The design of the house really comes from a practical response to all the difficulties that are on the site. Internally, we’ve made the most of the space we have because the house has a small enough footprint. We put the stairs into the darkest corner of the house and then we put a roof light above it to make sure that it became quite a bright area,” he explained. “All the remaining space went into our kitchen, dining and living area so that we could really maximise the space we use as a family. Nobody wants to live in one giant room so that’s why when we were putting doors in on the ground floor we decided to put full height sliding doors in and they slide right back into the walls and they are completely hidden,” enthused Niall. “As they are big sliding doors they are only opened once or twice a day. In the evening, when we have put the kids to bed and we can’t face cleaning a bomb-site of a playroom we can just slide that door across and the mess is hidden. It allows us to use the rooms multi-functionally; very few rooms at the ground floor provide just one function for instance, the playroom is also used as a study and that is how you try and get the bang for your buck out of the space that you have,” continued Mr Henry.
On the garden side, in sharp contrast full height glazing three metres high allows maximum penetration of light deep into the plan from the south and west facades. The first floor level is treated in much the same way as the ground floor with all windows focused around a planted sedum roof. This south facing roof garden and full height glazing to the bedrooms allows light to penetrate deep into the bedrooms without the possibility of any direct or indirect overlooking of any adjoining properties. The lroko louvres at the ground floor are extended up to the first floor levels to form a privacy screen to ensure that no oblique overlooking is possible.
“We have a long corridor on the first floor and that overlooks the master bedroom and the other bedrooms. The house has a flat roof on it so we don’t have an attic so the full length of the north facade is cupboards and they are built in so as they look like they are part of the design. When you open up one of those cupboards you will see that it is jammed with stuff! “The open plan layout only works if you have a back kitchen or storage areas to support the space because otherwise your kitchen is just full of stuff. Modern open plans works if you have the storage to support it,” advised Niall. The ‘openness and transparency,’ of the south and west facades at ground level juxtaposes sharply with the ‘closed,’ treatment of the east and north facades. These facades are left as solid brick planes to ensure no overlooking of adjoining gardens.
The first floor brick clad box accentuates the solidity of these inward looking sculptural volumes with architectural glazing carefully placed to avoid any overlooking. The uncompromising outward facade projects a determination to ensure the privacy of those inside and of those in surrounding houses. “Designing our house as well as the houses for my brother and sister in law was a challenge but the only thing that was very helpful was the fact that we were all at the same stage in that we all had children and we all had similar requirements in terms of space.
“The planning department were anxious that the three houses would read as one similar design so as they weren’t looking at three different designs. The planning department worked with us but they were suggesting that the externals of the houses should be similar but the internal of the houses is all very different,” revealed Mr Henry. “On our house my wife, Emma was the client so I designed the house with herself and the family in mind. There were plenty of discussions such as I wanted polished concrete floors and Emma wanted a timber floor because she thought the concrete would be cold and I’m happy because the timber floor looks very well. The colour palette and the finishes were all chosen by Emma and that really helped because it is difficult to design a house for yourself. “There is no doubt that I would do things differently if I was to build the house again only because as an Architect I don’t tend to want to do the same thing again, I’ve a low boredom threshold and I like to try new things and I’m always trying to improve on designs,” he said. “Due to the site being so constrained there is very little additional stuff I could have done in terms of the plan layout but there are things such as construction techniques and how stuff works within the house that I would change.
“Work began on the house in 2014 and it took 12 months from start to finish. The only problem we faced when we were building was site access. In terms of insulation within the house we took the opportunity to make sure that we were going to far exceed the building regulations so we have 125mm of insulation within the cavity and we have another 50mm internal dry-lining insulation throughout the house and there is 200mm of insulation on the flat roof. In terms of insulation we exceed the house quite a bit and it’s a really warm house,” concluded Niall Henry.