The circle of life in city home with a dome

The corner has been turned on this majestic circular house. Tommy Barker visits the finished product on a two acre site in Cork.

DESIGNING and building a circular house, from scratch, could have driven the team behind such a project — from owners to architect, and from carpenters to roofers and plasterers — around the twist.

But, it didn’t: the only twist in the tale of the Round House’s seamless delivery is the circular, helical staircase, its very heart and pivot, one topped by an ocular domed window, very much an eye on the sky.

The Irish Examiner first visited this true one-off back in March 2010, when it started to emerge on its two-acre Cork city site and as its conical membrane roof went on: we said at the time of what was a site visit we hoped to call ‘round when the project was finished. Voila! Job done, corner turned.

“This is undoubtedly the most relaxing home I have worked on,” says architect Steve McClew who saw the project from the germ of an idea to full flowering family home — albeit one still awaiting a feather in its cap, the planned-for grass sedum roof to seal its eco-credentials. “Its easy-going atmosphere lends itself to having friends around and enjoying the company. My clients tell me they’ve been in the mood for more entertaining than in anywhere they’ve lived before,” he adds.

And that sociability of space extends from the inside out, with exterior garden access from the kitchen/dining room, and from the family room, with outdoor balcony access also from overhead bedrooms and from a top floor office.

Living in a round or circular house or tower can make some demands — such as how to position flat-back furniture and art work on curved walls — but there’s such an ease about this place, the question doesn’t even seem to arise, the move in of family bits, pieces and paraphenalia seemed to go with the flow. That, surely, is the essence of good design.

The clients here, a couple with young children, had come across an exceptional two-acre site in a special part of Cork city, and wanted to do it justice. For specific planning reasons, earlier applications for a larger density scheme had been shot down, and permission was allowed instead for two one-offs, one of which has been built and completed since late 2010. The Round House and its story has made the cover of the annual Build Your Own House and Home Magazine, and further farther-flung coverage could be anticipated: given the scale of some architectural edifices of the building boom. It’s a modest gem, one which will weather and mellow naturally with age.

“As an architect, my passion is to encourage clients’ own inspiration, and to act as a sounding-board for their ideas, to create uplifting spaces for living, working and relaxing,” says Scots-born McClew, now Kinsale based and married locally.

Doing a building in the round was a learning curve for all parties as “nothing about it was taken for granted, all of the curved walls had to be precisely considered and set-out at the very beginning of the construction process. Moving a wall in a house like this is nearly impossible, there are no right angle here,” its designer notes.

It really demanded thinking plans and planes in 3-D, and getting the picture right from the start was timber-frame builder Brian Malone of Malone Construction Inniscarra, whose own background in civil engineering stood him in good stead for building from sticks.

The process started with a steel reinforcing bar set in the centre of the foundation slab as a radius, and then the shape — like a cake with a slice cut out for the entry point — proceeded to flow from there.

The owners and architect now say that “swirl and spiral is more the flow of spaces here, not in a fast-paced frenzy, but in an easy-living, freewheeling and relaxing way — even as the children run and cycle around the ground floor.”

Centre-point is the winding, spiral stairs, practically poetry in oak-motion, fashioned and fitted to the n-th degree by Stanley Browne of Design Warehouse with relatively shallow and wide steps “really enjoyable to wind up or down.”

Radiating out are an array of rooms and spaces off each level, culminating in a top floor study space (and as yet un-colonised attic that adds to the already conquered 3,100 sq ft of space) with small terrace — with superlative city views — where you can unwind from the day’s stresses.

The Round House is effectively timber, through and through, from carefully crafted timber frame (fabricated on-site) and finished in a mix of cedar shingles and 8” wide rough-sawn cedar boards, still carrying the scent.

Builder/engineer Brian Malone took it in his stride, noting “it was a challenge but a great experience too,” and what’s as notable as the house itself is the fact everyone stayed civil, and friends, during and after the project.

Despite the description, this is deliberately not a perfectly round building, sections of this free-wheeling home have been pushed and pulled and played with to get a good balance of uses, most notably at the entry hall and the south side off the kitchen to create outdoor links, a sheltered loggia.

The classical references continue with the temple-like polycarbonate dome window atop the stairwell.

The finished home is, in a way, red in tooth and claw.

Having boldly gone for a shape as far from box-standard as you can get, they continued their bravery with an assertive use of strong red hues inside and out, on walls, in furniture on rugs, in the raspberry kitchen units and — most unchangeably — in the window frame glazing, sourced from Munster Joinery.

Designed in from the start are energy efficiency measures, from air tightness to high insulation values, heat-recovery ventilation, and the aspect alone brings in massive solar gain, with utility, bathrooms and less lived-in rooms put sensibly at the more northerly side of the house. Then there’s geo-thermal heating from west-Cork based Alternative Heating and Cooling.

That is piped across a good portion of the lawns, which have a southerly slope, and there are also solar panels set on a cut potion of the site’s rear bank as it climbs to old, orchard boundary walls behind.

Back inside, the ground floor has a simple, circular flow of space around its spiral stair heart, which could have gone so wrong, but unerringly came right: you can just feel the potential for party-time gaiety and disporting, with cut-out rails on the first floor landing crying out for a touch of Shakespearean delivery -stage set.

This adaptable, four/five bedroomed house is, incidentally an example of ultra-low density site building, replaces a 1960s large 5,000 sq ft home, so in a sense, the two-acre inner suburban site has even ‘traded-down.’ That leaves plenty of room for the second house on the site and with full planning permission for a 3,000+ sq ft home in place the site is available (contact the architect to find out more.)

There are long vistas across the undulating lawn gardens, with southerly views to the city and River Lee beneath. There’s the faintest glimpse now from across the Lee on Cork’s southside of this house’s emergence, as it settles into the mature site.

Sliding and folding glazed doors facilitate inside/outside living, and the curvature seems to draw even more light into the rooms adding as well to shadow-play. Taking in the most social collection of spaces, from the kitchen’s utility end through dining and on into a den and sitting room (no fireplace yet, but the chimney breast is here, painted red outside, naturally!) over half of the house’s circumference is given over to maximum living enjoyment, from sun up to sun down.

In terms of investment, the remarkable private site was the most costly part of the project, and thanks to a prudent eye on materials, building and finishing costs come in nicely below the €200 per sq ft sum — not at all bad for a 3,000 sq ft plus home with immediately convertable additional attic space.

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