A daring Donegal design trumps bungalow bliss
The site on the Inishowen peninsula was stunning but the house was not, so the owners asked Shane Birney to give them something different
Newly constructed house at Fahan, Co Donegal, designed by Shane Birney Archiects
“Standing with your back to the sea you would have seen an uninspiring two-storey house in a derelict state – two small windows, a door facing the wrong direction; dark; sat right back into the hill; nothing of any significance or value.”
So says architect Shane Birney, recalling his first visit to the Donegal site where his Derry-based practice were commissioned to design a contemporary home. Turning around 180 degrees, and in the distance, just beyond the point where Drongawn Lough greets Lough Swilly a vast panorama unfolded, that in the western half-light of the Donegal sky is a view as beautiful as any.
The dramatic view from the site posed a question: “how do we do something that this site, that this view deserves? How will this house fit with the existing landscape?” Quickly followed by the question: “how, in an area where the majority of new houses are traditional in design can we do something modern?”
Birney is passionate about the answer in terms of Irish house design. “You can have a traditional Irish house be that modern or not but the things that people say are traditional are not traditional at all,” he says.
The recently completed house is an example of what can happen when an architect and client are willing to go beyond the traditional.
In Birney’s sights are the PVC barge-boards; fake timber cladding; stuck on cornerstones and the mock-Tudor design-by-numbers architecture that gets passed off as the traditional Irish cottage – for “cottage” think “bungalow” and for “traditional” think anything but the rich vein of centuries-old heritage of Irish residential architecture, that if you look hard enough, can be seen dotted across the rolling hills of Ireland’s pastoral landscape.
“We’ve got a thing that has become stylised and there is no resistance to that; there is no thinking about it.”
Birney has taken on the “you’ll not get that around here; we’ll never get that passed” attitude with a simple, beautifully conceived, modern house in Fahan. While you would be forgiven for detecting a hint of architect’s arrogance about Birney’s mission – his modern and contemporary way or the highway – this is anything but. “It’s not the client’s fault”, there is a humility, a graceful air about Birney. He is not interested in forcing his ideas on to people, nor is he interested in sitting back and allowing the all too common “emperor’s new clothes” attitude to architecture to prevail. “It’s our fault as a profession, it’s what we’ve fed people, so it’s what they are used to.”
He’s referring to the uncontested all-too-familiar narrative arc of: buy a site, pick a plan out of the book, the same plan as the house on the opposite side of the road, and without pause for thought build a “traditional” house.
“There’s not enough people fighting that in Donegal – it’s such a beautiful part of the world, it deserves better.”
As important as the view from the site is, the starting point for the scheme was the view from the lough shore back towards the site. Spending time walking the shores of the Lough, looking back at the strata of the millennia-old gently undulating hills, gave Birney a better sense of how his desire to do something rooted in the modernist tradition might sit with ease in the surrounding landscape. The result is the antithesis of the shy and reclusive existing house. A series of carefully proportioned, glazed rectangular forms open the house up to views across the bay while the eaves create strong horizontal lines – a simple, and when viewed from the lough, very successful layering of forms that makes reference to the geological strata of the surrounding hills.
“The planners were really helpful,” says Birney, despite what people might think, “they are not anti-modern design they just wanted something that had a relationship with the landscape”. Remarkably, the scheme was passed by the planners within six weeks and has also created quite a bit of local interest. The practice, Birney tells me has had 15 new commissions from local people who have seen the scheme and realised that it is possible to do something like that in Donegal. “It isn’t people who say we want a house and here’s a plan, it’s people who have now seen that you can do something different, that the planners are open to things.”
While there have been obvious benefits for the practice, Birney would rather focus on the benefit that good design can bring to the local area.
He has detected a new-found willingness among many of his clients to think differently about what kind of designs they might want. He wonders if this is the result of the likes of Dermot Bannon promoting more contemporary design ideas through the media. “Whether you love him or you hate him, he’s changing peoples ideas, opening a door, ” says Birney, “if you go down that route” the modern and contemporary “or you decide to go down a different route it’s opening the door for the conversation which makes it easier. People are beginning to ask: can we do that?”