THE beauty of simplicity shouldn’t be overlooked — that’s the key to Keeper House, a low-slung and luxurious new build in the Mulcair valley, Co Tipperary.
A short jaunt by car from the M7 interchange at Castletroy and some country lane manoeuvring later takes you to anonymous stone gates.
Then, following a long, curving driveway through a young deciduous plantation, (all the while considering how long it takes to get a wheelie bin to the road), you come into a wide clearing.
A wide bright wall runs right across the site and gives a blank, almost defensive face to the world, but one that chimes with its location — this Scott Tallon Walker house is built cheek by jowl with an ancient ring fort — an early defensive settlement.
The monocouche wall is pierced in a number of places, however; tall wooden doors are tucked into one corner and there’s a glimpse of glass on the extreme right, while in the centre, a panel of horizontal cedar has vague door outlines.
The build has what designer/ owner, Denise Walsh describes as a ‘cat and kitten’ approach, the main house, hidden behind its protective wall, includes a smaller residence for retiring parents and was a clever response to the site and to planners’ demands that both dwellings be within a prescribed distance of each other.
The house also uses an architectural artifice that’s been around forever, says its designer, David Flannery, of STW, that of setting up a series of thresholds that gradually allow a psychological as well as physical arrival to the house.
So, there’s the driveway to negotiate, then the enclosing courtyard, then the doorway’s threshold, followed by the main hallway, (where views are through the house directly to the outside) and finally, to the full reveal of the large, open-plan living space with its wraparound glazing.
The architect envisaged the layout as a walled garden, with both houses built within the space defined by the wall, but remaining separate.
The main house faces south, while the living area in the littler ‘kitten’ house is cleverly turned westwards giving each its privacy.
This is a SAC area, (Special Area of Conservation) and the house istucked away from view on the edge of a steep, enveloping glen, with views towards Keeper Hill, from which it gets its name. The Mulcair river rushes over a sharply-cut valley below it and the beauty and unspoilt nature of the location is sublime. The house is built to respect this environment and the almost Japanese-style approach, where the building is cantilevered over the ground, means there’s little disturbance to the natural landscape.
The decision to abandon their Dublin lives and move back to the Limerick/Tipperary border has an extended family dimension for owners, Denise and Stephen Walsh. Stephen’s parents offered the couple the site which had permission for a house and ‘granny flat’ on the site.
However, the couple decided to rethink the layout and brought David Flannery on board because he’s local, (from Nenagh) and also because he was familiar with the site and the area. This familiarity, coupled with his firm’s experience in cutting edge builds, has created a simple, aesthetically beautiful building, but one with complex technology in its structure and specifications.
To describe the design as simply as possible you could invoke the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies Van der Rohe, a floating roof suspended over glass — but an easy way is to imagine an ice-cream sandwich, with the wafer projecting over both ends.
At the projecting end is the main living room, which opens onto the covered loggia created by the roof and the base of the house and on the opposite end is the bedroom wing. The main hallway, which runs west to east, bisects the space and ends in full length windows overlooking the rath behind.
This house is 70% glass, faces due south, with its feet cantilevered ever so slightly over the sloping ground; it appears to hover. The design, withstood the belting, high winds of winter, despite the balancing act pulled off by the roof. Suspended on slender supports internally, it also relies on glazing for support.
“From a technology point of view we integrated the available technology for floor to ceiling triple glazing,” says David Flannery, “and the internal strength comes from the triple glazing itself. We were pushing glass technology to the limits in a very complex build.”
‘Cat’ and ‘kitten’ houses are designed alike, with free floating internal spaces. Keeper House is quite simply a three-bed, single storey house and floats over the contours of the exceptional site while leaving the surround landscape untouched. The plan, says Flannery, is to have a pristine, lawned area in the entrance courtyard in direct contrast to the rough grass and reedy tussocks of the meadow surround. The south-facing side of the enclosing wall will be used for espaliered fruit trees and as a support for sail cloth, to create outdoor rooms in summer, in the space between cat and kitten.
David Flannery says he had 100% support from designer Denise Walsh who wanted a simple, but luxurious finish to the internal detailing. This includes Italian marble flooring and bathrooms, iroko doors and teak finishes internally and fluted hardwood doors externally, as well as finer detailing like shadows gaps on ceiling, floors and architraves. The kind of detailing that’s very hard to achieve without a good understanding between designer, builder and client.
“We produce nearly 30% more drawings that other companies — properly detailed drawings so there’s no ambiguity,” says David Flannery, “and when a contractor gets it, he gets it and it just goes with the flow. There’s a system there that works through all our jobs.”
Entering the house, you face the full-height glazing at the end of a wide entrance hallway, with grand piano as a flourish at room’s end. Ceilings are high and detailing is crisp — and Italian marble flooring, in a grey to sage green, magnifies the effects of underfloor heating and then fades into the background in the sunlit living room.
This is immediately off the main hallway, and is one great bright space. The line between outdoors and indoors is blurred, especially when the sliding doors open fully to the covered deck, (a clever extra for Irish weather) and while it’s difficult to highlight particular elements here, they all work in harmony, the subtle division of the living space is worth mention. Many homeowners fear open space for a number of reasons, but it’s the way in which it’s used that’s the clincher. With a background in fine art and experience in design in New York and Dublin, Denise Walsh handles her own house with a deft touch. In this case, a central pillar, which forms a firebreast for the slot-in Stuv, acts as pivot around which the various areas swing.
The kitchen is built around the north-west corner and on the other side there’s a home office facing east, which means it’s a perfect aspect for morning work. Here, deep shelving provides a home for a great collection of vinyl, objets d’art books, pictures and the usual flotsam of family life. Storage is her business, so the kitchen is a showpiece of imaginative and beautiful design. The power behind O’Donovan Walsh Designs managed to pack an amazing amount of storage into very little space — and it’s all very Zen.
Look closely and you’ll see a frame of solid teak shelving creating the super structure. Then into this is fitted the matt steel formica units topped with, and splash-backed by, the same marble as the floor. But eschewing the vogueish, ‘built-in wardrobe’ look of high gloss kitchens, she’s gone with the traditional fire-breast approach with insert hob and hidden extractor. Then everything else is hidden away in a pantry in the adjoining wall unit, where larders, (Hafle fittings) contort out for use and in a walk-in, but narrow pantry which is a Tardis of storage.
The island unit has that ‘saying Mass’ feel, because it’s in a powerful position overlooking the room and faces over the dining area in the south-west corner. Here a teak table is flanked by Eames chairs and the big, bobble lighting in the corner is by Tom Dixon. Walls, (where they exist) are hung with original works and it’s where all the colour goes, elsewhere, it’s ‘architect white’.
The bedroom wing is to the left of the hall and is thresholded again by a lobby area with guest bathroom in black marble, with foxed Venetian mirror as a counterpoint to the pared luxury of the space.
However, it’s the en suite master bathroom that shows Denise’s design talent. Teak units are slotted into the marble walls of the room with millimetre precision and push pull cabinets hide bottles and potions. The sink is underset in marble on a floating frame and fixtures are wall hung.
Outside is a private terrace, (placed behind the monocouche wall) and it was important in the design that all rooms have access to the outdoors, says David Flannery.
The master bedroom is a calm space — all soft whites and fully built-in with nib walls created to hide clutter. Denise stresses the use of nibs in every plan — projecting short walls to make for streamlined storage solutions, she says, shown perfectly in the bedrooms at Keeper House. The real joy is the fact that the bedroom corridor is not a wasted space but the biggest storage facility in the house. Remarkably, it fits the smart home system, the heat exchanger and manifold for the heating system as well as immersion and hot press. All of this sits behind blended units and light comes from an overhead, circular roof light. This shape plays beautifully in the moonlight, says Stephen Walsh.
With two businesses and two girls all fitted under a cosy, bright, roof, Keeper House is just that for the Walsh family — a keeper.
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