Units in one of Cork’s best modern developments are for sale for the very first time, writes Tommy Barker.
ONE of the best modern apartment developments in Cork, the tucked-away six/seven storey and stepped back Altus building, has more or less flown under the radar since completion about a decade ago, enjoying a relatively low profile ever since.
Why? Well, events, clearly. A property crash, a prolonged recession and eventually a slow, inch-back recovery which in itself took a while longer to see interest in apartment purchases gather pace and garner buyer confidence once more.
Had things turned out otherwise, or had the 30 high-end apartments with architectural aplomb and curated detailing been completed a few years earlier, in the Celtic Tiger’s full-on rampage, the profile and recognition factor at Altus would be far higher.
Location is by the lower section of Wyse’s Hill, just up from the city’s gracious Georgian riverside beauty that is the North Mall, and before the genteel homes and elevated mansions of Sundays Well.
Just about every single unit of the 30 here is south-facing, with a span of city views ranging from the engaging to the the exceptional. And it has a foot in each camp, the cachet of a Sunday’s Well address, and the ease and convenience of city living, a stroll away from the urban core, or UCC, or the Mercy Hospital and more.
Altus smartly gets its 30 apartments/units on a mere half-acre set against a cliff backdrop. It was a complicated site that included part quarry, the purchase of two or three old modest-sized houses, and a specialist mechanic’s yard, used for decades for servicing older Mercedes Benz cars.
The project included working around existing lanes, and building almost under the noses of existing homes higher up off Blarney Street. It embraced too the conservation of a couple of older houses (one had previously been a shop and its shop front is kept), while the site’s topography allowed something of such a reasonable scale and density to be slotted into such a visually sensitive site.
As it transpired, by the time this exceptional and ambitious development, on a challenging city site got finished off, with no corners cut at any stage, not only was the overall residential market shot and all shook up, but the apartment sector in particular was left high and dry.
Nothing to do but finish it off and put it up for rent, which is exactly what developer Eddie O’Mahony of Cumnor Construction decided to do: it was very much his company’s pet project, and was developed in a close design relationship with skilled, Brazilian-born architect Haroldo Oliveira of Jack Coughlan Associates.
The same duo are also currently active on Cumnor’s far larger scheme, Convent Garden, Kinsale, on the town’s expansive former Mercy Convent site, with new-builds soon to be added to by large and luxurious apartments within the converted original convent structure overlooking the tourist town, harbour, and marina.
Their city collaboration, the Altus development, had always been conceived, and designed for owner occupation... just it wasn’t quite envisaged at the design stage that they’d only be able to be offered for sale a decade down the road, in 2019.
However, as the maxim goes, ‘quality will out.’ Altus’s apartments were about the first in Cork city to make serious rental thresholds, some topping €2,000 a month several years ago via Trading Places, largely to a mix of corporate renters, Europeans who’d moved to Cork for work — and even one lecturer in architecture in Cork who made it his family home for several years.
It’s going to be interesting to see now, after years in one tenure model, rental, how the development will sell on to private owners/investors over the next year or so.
Over the past two or three years, there have been very strong prices paid for a handful of high-end apartments in Cork city, most notably in O’Callaghan Properties’ Lancaster Gate development. Generally offered for individual, private vendors, they’ve made from €300,000 for a 530 sq ft one-bed, to €780,000 for a 1,624 sq ft penthouse, and three made over €500k.
On a price per square foot ratio, the resale prices there at Lancaster Gate since 2017 have varied quite widely, from €400 psf, to just over €800 psf, with some just driven up by very dogged ‘must-have’ bidders.
Unlike recent block sales, where entire apartment schemes have been sold to one buyer (typically investment funds and flippers,) all 30 at Altus will be sold individually, in time. But right now, just eight (plus a show unit) are vacated and coming up for sale, launching to the market via Savills’ director Catherine McAuliffe next week: the eight will be followed in further batches as leases to Altus’s existing tenants run out.
The eight span a range from a one-bed of 61 sq m/664 sq ft up to two-beds and duplexes of up 977 sq ft, 1,076 sq ft and a bit more, the largest so far being released at 1,192 sq ft, and the scheme includes one triplex.
Savills start prices at €290,000 for a one-bed terraced apartment, two of the two-beds each carry a €325,000 price tag; another duplex with two bedrooms is €375,000; others are €410,000 and €420,000 a pop, and two are over a half a million euro each, at €510,000 and €520,000. Unit 20, the 1,022 sq ft show apartment isn’t yet priced up, and will earn its keep first impressing visitors and viewers with its furnishings pretty much exclusively sourced by designer Oliveira from Minima in Dublin, and from European suppliers.
The look, while luxe, is low-key and calm, with bathrooms and sanitary ware from the Italian company Gessi, lighting is also Italian (Delta Light) or Belgian, flooring includes porcelain, and the sleek kitchens and banks of presses are by Clohane Joinery.
Former Fenton Gallery owner Nuala Fenton sourced the art and displayed photography for the scheme and for the show unit in particular. Quirkily, one photograph is of cranes building high-rises emerging from mist or clouds in Dubai: stand in the right spot in the show apartment, and you’ll see cranes on the Cork skyline almost superimposed, reflected in the compact frame’s glass.
All Altus apartments have own-door access, and private external spaces, with balconies or terraces, and there’s hardly any exact repetition of units; each is especially worked to get the best of light, views, storage, and privacy: it’s thoughtful in the extreme, a partnership of developer and designer on the same page, working closely and uncompromisingly from concept to completion.
Within, it’s sort of a private world in a public setting, with the stepped-back building’s scale (it has seven storeys in part) surprisingly non-imposing; thanks to that cliff backdrop it doesn’t loom over anyone, hardly intruding on the views, or neighbouring homes.
Haroldo Oliveira says Altus benefitted from a character reference, in keeping some existing buildings, and from “the unique topography of the site. The orientation of the new buildings is towards the south, which happily coincides with both the topography and the views from the site.”
The design sees the apartments built in three sections, off a raised podium with car parking (one space per apartment) hidden away underneath, and just one lift is needed to the scheme, thanks to a clever use of external walkways over several levels. The premium ones are most likely those on the uppermost levels, with the largest outdoor spaces (see top image). Those top-tier apartments are currently leased and occupied, and so will be offered later on.
The calibre of the units is uniformly high, and expectations are raised from the moment you pass through the tall, hardwood access gates and start the climb to the open, sun-trap podium.
You immediately notice things like the tesserae or mosaic tiling on the wall by the stairs, or in the main block’s lobby, with the motif of leaves and birds picked up by the designers of the 18-page sales brochure for Savills, which also flips up on the website, www.altus.ie.
Notable too is the landscaping, with a handful of Eucalyptus trees planted about ten years ago at the lowest point, in the car park, and they soar up past the podium level to now almost pass out the height of the topmost apartments.
Integrated layered landscaping to this level is still quite rare in Irish apartment developments, with notable stand-out exceptions in Cork being the Elysian development’s acre of raised garden, and the two blocks of 1990s-built apartments on South Terrace. Those Eucalyptus more than earn their keep, they quite literally root the development to the spot. Elsewhere around the pink granite paved podium are other planted sections with a mix of pines and other well established varieties, creating an unexpected lushness amid the modern build material, and expensive Dura stone cladding with its fossil imprints.
It all helps to lend a continental air: visit Altus on a sunny day, and you could quite easily be transported from old Cork to some more exotic climes.
Ah, but then when you see the views from within, you could be in no other city or setting. Centre in the views, due south, is St Fin Barre’s Cathedral. Many units have views east, upriver to the city, with the Elysian as the tallest marker to date, where a cluster of further buildings of scale and greater height are set to surround it in coming years.
Numerous cranes are visible on the skyline (we counted nine or ten), bringing the city’s next chapter on stream, but visible too are pieces of older Cork, and some recent history too.
The UCC North Mall campus with its low-slung, protected structures and 20th century industrial architecture (by Frank Murphy & Partners) is across the road, under Wyse’s Hill on the former distillery fields, now fringed by a public amenity walkway from the North Mall to the Mardyke.
In full view too is UCC’s Tyndall Institute by the bend on the Lee’s north channel, easily identified by the curve of buildings turning onto Bachelor’s Quay, and discernible is the quality of the restoration/conservation work done by UCC at 5 Grenville Place. Back in the mid 1800s, No 5 was the lodgings of UCC mathematician George Boole, whose algebra paved the way for modern-day computing. It was at Grenville place that Boole wrote his seminal An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, and in time the building will be used as a centre for tech innovation. Coincidentally, the specialist building work at the Boole house was done by none other that Cumnor Construction, says MD Eddie O’Mahony, with quiet pride.
His Altus is of a different order, with a lot of excavation and engineering and stabilisation gone into the site.
Two of the blocks, for example, back into a quarried-out sandstone cliff under a section of Blarney Street. Cumnor stabilised that from loose stone or debris falls into the future by spraying it with concrete in a process knows as shotcrete, effectively power hosing up to 6” of mortar over steel meshes across the entire area, with drainage holes interspersed.
In just over a decade, this rendered cliff finish and backdrop to the external walkways is being colonised by growth, rampant nature, with lichens, mosses and greenery all on the march. One 6’ tree has even emerged from a tiny drainage cylinder while, at the back of a neighbouring house a large fig tree is vigorously flourishing.
The buildings themselves are ‘green’ in a different way, getting good B BER ratings, with NIBE geothermal heating and heat recovery, while glazing is triple-glazed alu-clad, with cedar on the inside.
Given the aspect, and amounts of glass, much of it floor-to-ceiling, there’s considerable solar gain, and apartments are exceptionally warm. Each was fitted with a gas boiler for the slender, tall rads from day one, but effectively they’re never needed or used, so effective is the eco-astute heating source.
Now about a decade old, and only now coming to market for the first time, the development looks as fresh as it did day one. It takes little to scrub up well, and that’s down to things like the Dura stone cladding, granite paving, and high-quality glazing.
Apart from Altus’s tenants and their guests, it’s really only been accessible to the curious on one or two previous occasions. That was back in 2010 when coming to completion, architects in the RIAI held a site visit for professionals and it also opened up to a small public coterie of the curious and impressed a few years ago, on a balmy evening, in the Open House series of visits to buildings of note.
“It’s time now to move it on,” says Cumnor’s Eddie O’Mahony as the first eight of his Altus charges are about to break free. A management company will be set up (one wasn’t needed up to now, as he oversaw its upkeep) and new owners can expect maintenance charges to range from €1,500 to €2,000 per annum, depending on apartment size.
Auctioneer Catherine McAuliffe and Savills extol not only the setting and design, plus the overall quality of the scheme, and its individual units in a cohesive whole, while at a starting point of €290,000 (admittedly there’s only one one-bed at this level) up to €500k-plus, it’s not the most predatory of price scales. But, after all, they have 30 to sell, and the buyer pool is not enormous.
They expect buyers to be a mix of impressed locals, traders-down, and returnees, and Ms McAuliffe says there’s also a small investor cohort who want to put money into the best-quality Cork apartments, of which there’s not been much choice... until now.
VERDICT: Altus means ‘high’ – and that’s the level the bar was set for design, and delivery, of this accomplished modest-scaled development on a complex Cork city site.
Altus, Sunday’s Well, Cork
Size: 61-110 sq m (664 sq ft-1,192 sq ft)