Meet the new judge on RTÉ’s Home of the Year: Cork architect Peter Crowley. He tells Esther McCarthy how he designed his own house –and reveals the secret to creating the perfect family home
Ten years ago, Peter Crowley and his wife Gilly returned from honeymoon, opened their first newspaper in three weeks, and were stunned by what they read.
The subprime mortgage crisis had led to a financial crash in the US that would quickly reverberate in this part of the world. For a man who had spent the previous six months building up a fledgling architecture business, news of a looming property crash was not good.
“It was like someone just turned the tap off. It was incredible,” he says now. “I got married just before the crash happened. We went off for our honeymoon for three weeks to this really remote area and had no contact with anybody. And coming back through Heathrow I bought a paper, and opened it, and realised. We had no idea. I thought it was like one of those Candid Camera things. I was waiting for someone to jump out and go: ‘Wasn’t that funny’.”
PAC Studio, the company he had co-founded with Graham Petrie, was still in its infancy and focused on commercial business. The men knew that to have any hope of making a livelihood they would have to diversify.
“Then there was the whole kind of trigger effect. By the time I got back things had changed here already. People were getting very nervous but then it just all stopped. We were lucky in the sense we had no overheads built up. We were just started. It was just the two of us. We hadn’t loads of wages, staff, we hadn’t got lots of debt we could no longer service. It gave us a chance to deal with it but then there was no work. So we quickly kind of identified that the only market that was going to be there was residential. Because people couldn’t sell.
“We started into that market but we’d no experience of it, it’s a completely different skill set. We just kept going. I had a mortgage and all the other things like everybody else. There mightn’t have been much work out there but we found what work there was.”
The company developed a reputation for excellence in high-end and unusual domestic properties which will now lend itself to Crowley’s latest role.
On February 19, he joins the judging panel on Home of the Year, RTÉ’s much-loved show featuring homeowners who have done something truly special with the place they call home.
Over eight weeks, 21 homes will compete for the Home of the Year title in 2019, with three very different properties featured each week.
For the Cork architect who grew up in Dublin Hill on the fringes of the city, filming the series has been a great experience.
“ShinAwil contacted me. It was never something that crossed my mind. I have no experience of TV at all. So the whole thing was completely new.
“Then we went and did a test to see that the chemistry with the other judges was okay. I enjoyed it, it was different than I expected and I found myself relatively at ease with it all. I went to meet them and we tried a few things and everybody seemed happy about each other.
“When the show started, Hugh and Deirdre went out of their way to help me. They were amazing. I wasn’t sure what to expect. There were always going to be interesting houses, but what was really fascinating was a lot of them are highly unique unusual houses, as opposed to flash houses or big houses.
Crowley had dreamed of a career in architecture ever since he was a little boy building properties out of Lego in the family home. It was a career his parents supported and encouraged, even though the fact that there was no architecture course in Cork at the time meant he had to go to Dublin to study.
By the time he was an adolescent, he was drawing plans for his father, who used to install kitchens in people’s houses.
Growing up with the city to one side and the countryside to the other inspired him to think about how we live, a sense of community and how great design can enhance the experience of home.
“I’m from Dublin Hill. It was actually very interesting because that’s where the city boundary stops and the county boundary starts. If you went out our front door you could walk all of the way into the city and it was all built up and you’d be in Patrick Street in, say, 25 minutes. If you went out our back door, it was all farmland. So we literally lived right on the edge.
“In the summers we could head out into the farms and be gone for a whole day getting tadpoles and stuff. But we all had part-time jobs and you could also walk into town. From that perspective it gave you the best of both worlds. It was like being in the city but also having the country at your doorstep.” After college, he worked for eight years with renowned company Bucholz McEvoy, whose emphasis on creating environmentally responsible buildings was ahead of the curve.
“A lot of them are public buildings. They did the County Hall in Swords, Limerick County Hall. We did the UCC Environmental Institute Project and various kind of very high-profile projects. It was almost like a second education. Everything came back to the environment, looking at where the sun is, where the sun’s path is, how you get that natural light and just about making really healthy spaces. A huge amount of how I think has come out of that.”
Since setting up PAC Studio the company has been involved in many groundbreaking projects including Donnybrook Fair on the seafront at Malahide, winner of best commercial project two years ago at the RIAI Awards.
But creating your own home, a homely and happy space for your family, is a different project entirely. When, 18 months ago, a property came up for sale in need of complete renovation in north Dublin, Crowley embraced it.
“We bought a house built in the early 70s. I would only look at houses that the rear of them were south or southwest because you have to orientate the house correctly to get the sunlight and the warmth and make a nice healthy house. Gilly would have been in agreement so we just didn’t go to see anything that was not facing the right way because you can never turn the house around, but you’re going to spend your whole life paying for this and living in it.
“It’s made a big difference to our family lives actually because we have two young children, a six-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl. It’s just that thing of open-plan living, being together, we can cook when they’re doing homework, we can all chat. It really is a very sociable house to be in. The relationship between the house and the back garden is really nice, we put a lot of work into that as well.”
He passionately feels that as an architect he should “bring something to the table” when it comes to new clients.
“A lot of the time, people’s thinking is constrained by what they see in front of them but I don’t see the house they see, I see potential. Whereas people, if they’ve lived in their home or if they’ve been there a while they can struggle to get beyond that. It’s simple things, it’s about trying to get the fundamentals right. Because it makes a huge difference to people.”