Strawberry Hill forever

An architect’s stand-out home uses every inch of space to maximum effect, and it’s clean-cut look is almost monastic writes Rose Martin

GOOD architecture has a reputation for being elitist and expensive — but the example of architect Haroldo de Oliveira’s house at no 1 Strawberry Hill, Cork, shows otherwise.

The two-bedroom is an example of how a building can be fit-for-purpose, cost-effective, easy to maintain and beautiful. Small wonder it was short-listed for last year’s RIAI Public Choice Award. Concrete, cedar, stone, glass — four elements used in simple geometrical shapes to create a nationally-recognised and user- friendly build.

While its flat-roof, box structure stands out in a line of Victorian villas and former farmhouses, it slots neatly into its postage-stamp site. At the junction of Strawberry Hill and Convent Avenue, no 1 is a show-stopping symbol of the 21st century in an old suburb.

Most of the house’s impact is hidden behind a blank, stone wall with a glimpse of a cantilevered first floor from a side view, but enough to draw tourists from the City Gaol across the road.

The entrance is sandwiched between two driveways and is part of a linear site that had been earmarked for a three-house scheme. The new streetscape didn’t happen, but de Oliveira forged ahead with his own creation, which is a five-minute walk from his offices at Jack Coughlan and Associates on Sunday’s Well Road.

The project wasn’t without difficulties — there was a lot of back and forth on the outline, but planning regulations were a sticking point. Getting the nod for the two-storey house involved juggling the sensibilities of neighbours and the boundaries set by City Hall — including its need for a ‘back yard’. The matter was resolved by creative thinking — the architect applied for permission for a garage with overhead apartment and circumvented the requirement for garden space by providing it with a first-floor terrace.

De Oliveira got on with being his own project manager, and brought in Cumnor Construction to do the hard work. The architect has a close working relationship with the civil-engineering firm — he’s part of the team for their Kinsale convent re-development, and is responsible for the breathtaking, but hush-hush, Altus scheme on Cork’s Wyse’s Hill. (This sleek apartment scheme sits into a blasted-out, sandstone niche at the bottom of Sunday’s Well, overlooks the river near North Gate Bridge, and can best be seen from the new amenity walk from the Mardyke).

The look is not dissimilar to de Oliveira’s own home, the site for which was excavated out of the sloping Strawberry Hill. Piling was necessary at one end to support a neighbouring stone wall, (which is referenced at the behest of Cork City Council in the stone wall of no 1) and then the pouring began.

This sleek, contemporary gem is a brute — a rock-solid, concrete creation with a wall of glazing and a cut-out internal courtyard that lights the ground-floor bedroom level, which is tucked behind the car garage. De Oliveira refers to the house as a ‘bunker’, although its calm, Zen interior belies the fair-face concrete that makes up the floors, ceilings and walls of this tonal cocoon.

The shuttering spaces create a design element, he says, with fine, oiled plywood used to achieve a smooth finish. The lines of the pour create a subtle pattern in the concrete — which has taken two years to cure. The house is comprised of two ground-floor bedrooms with two-car garage and one large, open-plan space overhead, with a wall of glass facing south.

But the flair of the finish is all about taking a donkey material, concrete, and working it into fine joints and smooth surfaces. De Oliveira uses the term ‘clean’ to define his vision and that’s what the house is: the floors run up to the glazing elements, with the frame on the outside, and the walls run seamlessly to the ceiling — and the same, soft-grey colour is everywhere, broken by the bright-white kitchen upstairs, and the internal courtyard and glazing elements downstairs.

There are no annoying architraves, skirting frames or other dust catchers — this house is clean. One frame of the window wall slides open to reveal a glass balcony/safety break and the floor-to-ceiling glazing provides a picture capture of the city below.

Pedestrians pass up and down Strawberry Hill and the windows remain uncovered day and night, winter and summer:

“There’s a sense of autonomy up here,” says Haroldo, “the viewer is looking down and the passer-by is looking up — at night it’s dark and appears as a box of light.”

The house is designed to be stressless — calm, neutral, with few distractions, an almost meditative space above the trees and above the city.

“There are no distractions — you have what is needed and when you don’t have a distraction you have more of a sense of being part of the building. And then it’s more relaxing and more conducive to spirituality — that’s why monasteries are so simple,” he says. If there is a monastic stringency to the design and the elements of this build, there is a very subtle patina of luxury. The handpicked furniture is high-end in terms of design and provenance and the kitchen island is a glazed, ceramic sheet — a huge tile, in other words, formed into a long rectangle that divides the functional from the living end of the open-plan first floor.

The entrance is via a simple, recessed doorway that follows the classical symmetry of the garage doors, which are sheathed in soft-grey melamine panels.

The main hallway is subtly lit at knee level and overhead with industrial-style spots: similar fittings light the floating staircase, also in pre-cast concrete, and doors are floor-to-ceiling in simple white with steel ironmongery.

The bedrooms are located in an unexpected space off the main hallway, (which has a utility hidden behind a sliding door) and are set around a glazed courtyard, with a giant rhododendron at its centre.

The rooms are monastically simple: low furniture and lighting, a single colour, white, and just a touch of luminosity in the mosaic tiling of the bathrooms.

Furniture comprises sleek, e15 beds and naked hanging rails, but it’s the bathroom spaces that catch the eye.

Streamlined fittings, wall-hung ware, (most sourced in Poland) and tatami-mat shower trays create a soothing elegance that’s quite theatrical too, because the bathrooms are open to the bedrooms.

One shower has sliding, glass panels that are deceptively simple, with finger-hole openings set on steel runners and designed by de Oliveira. Both bedrooms are warm and comfortable, thanks to underfloor heating, and en-suite.

The living space is accessed from the right of the entrance hallway and the big, almost-square room is cantilevered over the lower level, with a glazed circulation space at the top of the stairs giving access to a decked courtyard outside. This secret space faces north and west and has a doughnut hole created by the inner courtyard below.

One wall of the kitchen is finished in white-painted, MDF floor-to-ceiling units, with undercut finger holds designed by the architect.

All of the kitchen storage is secreted here and the living space is separated by the alter-island, whose mitred edges meet to create this cool, rectangular workspace.

No extractor hangs to spoil the clean simplicity of the room and the only break accommodates the necessity of sink and hob.

The one colour flourish here is the huge canvas created by de Oliveira in an Indian ashram, which is perfect on the eastern wall. “The cleaner you have it, the more you’re in tune with yourself,” he says.

And this is a house that’s a balm to the soul, a pleasure to the eye and a credit to its designer.

Versatile portfolio

HAROLDO Oliveira is senior partner and the principal designer at Jack Coughlan Associates.

Haroldo graduated in architecture and urban design in Brazil in 1990. He has worked in Ireland since 1992, joining Jack Coughlan Associates in 1993.

His role involves providing project designs which comply with current planning regulations and, in addition to new builds, he specialises in designing the conversion, reuse and extension of existing buildings.

Haroldo has worked on a significant number of projects which incorporate existing historical buildings, many of which are protected structures. Examples include an existing warehouse complex at Wandes- ford Quay, Cork; conversion of the 19th century Our Lady’s Hospital, Cork, for modern residential accommodation; refurbishment and extension of the early 18th century building at 55 Thomas Street, Dublin.

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