VIDEO & PICS: Learning curve by way of extension in Cork

An old Cork farmhouse has been renovated and enhanced by its appreciative owners — it’s breathtaking, writes Tommy Barker. 

AFTER a month of floods in Ireland, and the wettest, boggiest Christmas on record, it’s perhaps appropriate that boat-building techniques were applied to the construction of one of the most individual of Irish house extensions, a hideaway home which has just sailed through the December deluge and emerged bone dry. 

Think, in fact, of an upturned West of Ireland lath and canvas currach, with a twist and a turn, as an out-of the blue and coincidental comparison.

It took rather a different eye, and architectural background, to see the scope for an entirely individual, and site-specific, response to the request for a second-time around extension to a centuries’ old traditional Irish farmhouse.

This home, and its cluster of buildings, high and thankfully dry on a hill in rural Cork, was first upgraded by its owners when they bought it, almost 20 years ago, noting that its wooded and mossy copses had barely been touched in a century.

Set up by the top of a wild, rugged and wooded hill with long east and west views, this farmhouse was bought almost as an accident by its German owners, psychiatrist Hanns Joachim, and psychoanalyst Ute, while on a holiday visit in the 1990s.

VIDEO & PICS: Learning curve by way of extension in Cork

Joachim had wandered off on a bit of a ramble, arrived back to Ute well into the evening, and, apart from commenting on his late return, added “it’s even worse than that, I’ve bought an old farmhouse.”

The solo purchase was agreed between Joachim and the farm’s then-owner after a fireside chat, a bit of negotiation, some alcohol and, after agreeing the purchase, Joachim admitted “I had even no idea of the size of the farm.”

It turns out, the couple ended up with over 100 acres, and while it might not be the best of farmland, it has an ethereal quality amid the rocky outcrops which it now ingeniously straddles, by resuscitated outhouses, ancient mixed woods, a signal ash tree and opens vistas past undulating folds in the landscape, dropping down to a stream by a distant boundary.

It’s all utterly private, and while the views go for miles east towards Cork city, north to hills with wind turbines and west towards Kerry, it’s effectively unseen from anywhere, except from the heavens.

That seclusion may partly explain how planning was easily granted by Cork County Council for such an expressive, around-the-bend build, with a plastic-skinned extension snaking off at right angles to the original orientation.

When the couple first bought this old, vernacular house, they had used the services of Ballydehob, West Cork, architect Dietrich Eckardt, to oversee their 1990s plans for renovation, extensions and conversion of outbuildings to a self-contained guest studio.

What now (in hindsight) was ‘phase one’ saw a high-grade conservation job swiftly carried out, deferential to the building’s age and heritage, yet opened up in its main core to roof apex for a dramatic, double-height living space with old inglenook-style stone chimney and hearth at its heart.

It’s a beautiful job from its first makeover, in its ‘old’ section. Back then, it gained a kitchen and dining space added on to the north, glazed on both sides for long views along an east-west aspect, with a second quite traditional block added too for bedroom, bathroom, library space and dining room.

However, that hint of greater things to look out upon was a kernel of ‘phase two’ hopes for something contemporary and which stretches the imagination all the more.

The architect for this bold, and somewhat experimental, 1,600 sq ft, single space extension was Zurich-based Markus Schietsch, who’s closely related to the clients here. He knew the house since they first bought it, had visited regularly too on holidays, and was quite familiar with the site’s charms, and its peculiar rock- striated topography.

VIDEO & PICS: Learning curve by way of extension in Cork

Having tossed ideas around with Joachim and Ute over several years, the architect elongated the extension for all it was worth, bridging out to a rock-rise perhaps 50’ distant from the main dwelling: then came the metaphorical and physical twist in the tail, adding a curving turn, seemingly climbing up the rise, and stopping abruptly like some truncated or lopped-off tower (there’s a local 16th century four-storey tower house nearby, on a river, that gave some design inspiration for this house’s vertical expression.)

The result is a run of internal space, about 18 metres long with a sinuous uplift, and artfully positioned windows for framing views of ground, sky and landscape.

Like a sideways-set periscope, it’s a stand-out feature and has a jaw-dropping impact when first glimpsed, having ascended a winding private valley road to its setting, amid scooped-out grounds and a pond created for wildlife.

Finished now for over a year, it has clearly brought a whole extra dimension to the way the house is used and experienced by its appreciative occupants, who’ve quickly colonised the new area, and embraced the extra space and its airiness, usually not experienced in traditional Irish builds, with small rooms built for easy heating.

This new extrusion is primarily a living room, with underfloor heating under polished concrete, the finishes are pared-back, and minimal, with flat-white painted walls and large glazed sliding doors facing one another across the shorter axis.

Under a graceful, skilfully finished ceiling with soaring, inverted ‘cleavage’, is a master bedroom, effectively up on a plinth or a perch beyond the living room.It has doors to the now gently colonised hilltop, and there’s a semi-underground bathroom beneath the plinth, where a stand-alone oval-shaped bath gains views near and far).

The hill’s alive with wildlife, from pheasant and foxes to hares and rabbits. A neighbour grazed horses for a while but the ‘herd’ grew to 30 horses. Oh, and at one stage, Hannes surprised Ute with a gift of 60 sheep for one of her birthdays. As one does, after accidentally buying a farm.

VIDEO & PICS: Learning curve by way of extension in Cork

Getting from a Zurich conceived design to a mid-Cork on-site design, wasn’t straightforward, and only came about thanks to the involvement of a professional crew who ‘got’ the idea and were determined to make it work.

Markus Schietsch drafted in Cork-based architect (and former UCC/CIT lecturer) Kevin Gartland of Gartland Architects to do the site survey, managed the tendering, dealing with other professionals, coordinating all on site.

“He made a great job,” enthuses Markus Schietsch, among whose other recent works was a €65m Elephant House for Zurich Zoo, with an even more extravagant roof, a curvaceous dipping and soaring glulam wood structure spanning acres (8,500sq metres), including indoor lakes, watering holes and an indoor swimming pool, with glass sides to the pool. So, a house extension in Cork was a walk in the park. Almost.

The expertise to do curving, trapezoidal curves and straights in glulam beams might exist in Continental Europe or Scandinavia, but not necessarily in Ireland, so Gartland worked with engineer Paul Hegarty of Fourem in Cork to adjust the design’s construction to allow for local construction, as well as climatic changes, by integrating now-unseen steel portals into the construction.

QS Richard Leonard from Douglas did costings to show that the goal was achievable within a realistically generous budget

Sean O’Leary from Ballingeary was the ace builder, and he and Kevin credit skilled carpenters Liam Concannon, Brian Hyde, and Christ Callaghan, who crafted the structure, much as you’d build a boat, with bespoke ribs and rafters, each with different angles top and bottom.

Once framed and with rigid insulation inserted, it was almost a pity to cover up the skeletal craftsmanship with sheets of plywood, with layers of very thin ply used in layers or built up in veneers for the curves.

Next, the vital skin: options explored include cladding in slate, or shingles, but again the curves presented unique problems so the agreed solution was to skin it in a liquid plastic called Polimar, rolled on as a viscous material over a fleece mat layer like you’d use in fibreglassing.

This was done after the ply joints were sealed by a specialist debonding tape, which allows for slight movements in the ply sheets as the building expands and contracts according to the vagaries of the Irish weather.

Involved in the weather-sealing were Bandon-based Betcon Roofing for the flat portion over the bedroom, and then M&S Asphalt Roofing shrouded the rest after a month’s long wait through a very wet summer, only getting a weather window by October of that year.

VIDEO & PICS: Learning curve by way of extension in Cork

The liquid plastic finish is in a dark grey hue, coincidentally perhaps not unlike the elephant skins that Markus Schietsch ended up housing in Zurich’s 2014-completed zoo.

The extension’s outline is clear and uncluttered,no gutters, drain pipes or the like, so when it rains, the water simple pours down the top and sides, and then dries off as quickly in wind or sun: “It’s just like a skin,” agrees Ute, and she and Joachim also get comfortable in their refinished Irish skins.

This oasis of calm has mostly been used for holidays, as the couple have practices in Germany, but it’s growing all the more on them, and they’re spending more time here, realising the caretaker gets to enjoy it almost more than they do.

Already, the house has started to hold more of their books, music and some furniture pieces such as Marcel Breuer ‘Wassily’ chairs, Le Corbusier sling and cube seats, the latter naturally at home with Eileen Gray E1027 side tables, as well as contemporary sculpture, and lighting pieces.

Conjuring up an almost magic realist movie image, they recall returning home one day to find the heating had triggered the unseasonal awakening of dormant, over-wintering peacock butterflies within. A sight to behold, many hundreds flitted around as they entered: Now, this house too has had its own metamorphosis, as bewitching as that from chrysalis to butterfly.

Get the look

1. Think outside the box. This site-specific extension, finished in a liquid ‘Polimar’ plastic membrane like the tar on a curragh’s skin, sort of elbows its way onto a nearby rocky outcrop, allowing views and access to the great outdoors, while its 18m length also allows long internal vistas.

2. It’s a steel: This corten steel sculpture appears as well-rooted and as vertical a counterpoint as the skeletal winter trees in this precious landscape.

3. Shell to see: This house’s owner has created memory boxes and boxed collections of themed, found and natural objects, from crab carapaces to sheep skulls and farm tools.

4. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. Here, the original house’s first floor has been removed for a double-height space.

5. Opening up this old farmhouse’s internal core means the original stonemason’s skill in fashioning an inglenook fire opening and hearth gets full exposure.

6. Celebrate differences: This viewing includes old stone oubuildings, rebuilt having been held together with ivy, a reworked house gable wall with inset window, a 1990s extension, and the latest, and strangest, a building bending upwards in the background.


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