A stunning achievement, plain and simple

This 21st century cottage is a masterclass in design, says Rose Martin

It blends seamlessly into a damp, misty landscape, hugging low to the land, even though internally, it has surprisingly large volumes

Back in the 18th century there was a brief fad for the cottage ornee style — aristocrats playing at being peasants, while following a trend set by the French queen Marie Antoinette at the Hameau de la Reine in Versailles. This was a model farm on a small scale where the queen could play house, or even shepherdess. The sudden withering of the fashion on the vine may have had something to do with her untimely, and unseemly, end, but we do have one good example of the trend here, at the Swiss Cottage, near Cahir in Co Tipperary.

During the build-up to the Tiger years, we also had a sort of national resurgence of the traditional cottage style, albeit in 20th century form. Wide barges, small windows, deep roofs and gables-a-go-go, were just some of the stand-out elements of the new vernacular — but few managed that lilting homage to the Tudor era that the Arts and Crafts movement had achieved. We had plain old pastiche — and a lot of not so very fine variations on a theme.

However, the lure of the traditional runs strong through Irish architecture and when it’s done well, it’s exemplary.

Enter Davey + Smith Architects, singled out for this year’s RIAI emerging practice awards and also shortlisted for the People’s Choice award for its 21st century cottage at Lispopple, Swords.

Grey roofs reflecting the low skies of north Co Dublin and a clachan wall to protect the habitation site within from wind whistling across the open plains of north county Dublin, the house is a masterclass in restraint. It’s a word architect David Smith uses a lot on the way around this modest but large house. Again, there’s a deceptive simplicity — a limited palette of materials like natural dark blue slate, Kilkenny blue limestone, crisp light render and grey, tonal joinery in the exterior that occludes the deftness of the design. This is an old theme, brilliantly executed.

And in this summer, the house blends seamlessly into a damp, misty landscape, hugging low to the land, even though internally, it has surprisingly large volumes.

There’s nothing new here, we know this type of house like the back of our hands, so in a way, it’s even more a test of the architect’s skill. And the sleight of hand is in the way that the geometry of the traditional, V-roof and rectangular form are jumbled up to create a sophisticated living space — the difference between join the dots and art.

There are three separate elements to the build, with two valleys in between and the signature letterbox opening in the roof line is simply for guttering — but it creates a unique focus of interest.

And there’s also a harking back beyond the agricultural vernacular to the far distant past with the cottage’s enclosing wall. In a windswept plain it makes sense — but it also connects directly back to the rath and cashel, the defended farmsteads of pre and early history. (David Smith says the amount spent on the stone wall enclosure equals the volume and cost of stone had the property’s exterior been clad instead).

The house also presents itself like a clachan, that grouping of farm houses in a village enclosure, seen throughout the country, and the roof spread keeps the impact low — this house stands out, but for all the right reasons.

“The one and two-storey house is conceived as a series of natural slate pitched roofs organised by a blue limestone wall which faces the road and provides protection from the prevailing westerly wind. The roofs form a series of linked double height spaces, punctured by roof lights,” says Smith. “The concept of framing views of the landscape within an opening is extended to the protective stone wall which forms the entrance court and entrance.”

The commission was to create a low-maintenance, easy to manage house, but with plenty of light and space for visiting children and grandchildren and over flexible levels. Thus, there are ground floor bedrooms and upper level rooms and a fluid run of space that’s mostly open plan on the ground floor. But almost perversely, the run of rooms is at right angles to the flow of the build: the living space runs under all three roofs, facing due south with wide windows to soak up all that passive heat. Levels are broken up to give a sense of discretion and again, like the exterior, the quality is in the design and the fittings, the rest is secondary.

The entry, however, does create a strong first impression: there’s that enclosing wall (which subtly integrates into the house) that defines the private area more than any amount of imposing pillars or electric gates will do. The narrow Tobermore paving runs through the inner courtyard and the main entrance is flanked by clean raised beds with ranks of little annuals.The main doorway is a simple, oak frame with clear, wide windows on either side and overhead is a cantilevered, zinc canopy that runs out from a corner and grounds itself by means of a chain drain at its furthest point.

There are clear yet tantalising glimpses of the interior, but the house isn’t immediately readable, even after entry to the main hallway. This is a short space but it’s high, reaching up to the apex of the centre gable and packing a punch. One tall radiator is slotted into the wall and to the left, the open tread stairs climbs upwards, (no-nonsense oak, it’s all about restraint, says Smith), but not before a drop in level to the ground floor and a sharp left to the bedroom wing.

Look up and there’s a glazed panel from the landing above, which spotlights westerly light downwards, a feature that only became apparent during the build and which Smith promptly incorporated into the design. Upstairs, it adds a nice touch to a usually boring landing space. The stout oak door harmonises with smoked, white oak floorboards in wide panels used throughout the house and fitting in with Smith’s philosophy of a simple palette. It flows through the space, he says, and allows the visitor to read the building without distraction.

“The palette of finishes internally is restrained, with simple white plastered walls that accentuate the spaces and blend harmoniously with the natural oak floors.”

The internal doors have a similar, straightforward finish, but he encourages good-quality ironmongery too — they are what the user lives with all the time, and it’s where the money should be spent, he says.

There’s also a huge roof light overhead that gathers westerly light and reflects it back into the living space at evening time, through another high glazed panel in the dividing wall. The varying levels of the ground floor not only keep the interest and define specific areas but allow “the compression and release of space”, says Smith.

A simple oak door leads through to the main living space, three areas running from east to west with specific attributes defined by rises and drops in levels. The doorway brings the visitor through to the dining level, which drops to the right to the kitchen and informal dining space and on the left, steps down to the evening living room. All along, the combined run of three gables is cut through with glazing in large, sliding panels and various doors. It’s the strongest and boldest feature of this house and creates a bright and very comfortable living space — but without any gimmicks.

That being said, the kitchen is a bit of show-off in bright blue — a colour that’s still on the far edge of cool, but making its way mainstream. It’s Scavolini from McAuley kitchens and the interesting thing about the glazed door panels is that they’re removable — if you get sick of the kitchen, just change the panels. The worktop is a composite in Corian, Antarctica and it forms a sink in the island unit too.

The main bathroom is all in black and it works superbly, especially when one entire wall is mirrored and dark tiles only come to waist height, so the effect is sophisticated but not overpowering.

The master bedroom on the top floor is particularly large, with a long entrance hallway. One side of the room is taken up with a full bathroom and a huge, walk-in wardrobe. This space comes without doors, by design, as it allows more room and because it’s shelved and railed, it looks good too. A window behind adds natural daylight and the main bedroom area is flooded with light and faces east.

Grounds are still in a state of progression — the owners want to get it right, so the acre or so around the house is mostly under grass, with some raised beds, (hiding the necessary bio-cyle unit) and trimmed with old sleepers. Closer to the house, however, crisply laid rectangles of Liscannor fan out from the living room in two separate patio areas, both protected from the prevailing winds by the house’s natural projections. Even this was factored in at the drawing stage. That’s the level at which a good architect will work. That’s the level at which Davey + Smith work. Remember the name.


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