A social housing solution for the people

Architect Dominic Stevens is about to embark on a social housing scheme in Dublin, the first of its kind in Ireland, that will be driven by the needs of people, and not the market

Kitty Holland interviews eighteen year old homeless woman Nadine Garland currently housed in appalling conditions in a south Dublin city B & B with her one year old son Hunter. Video: Bryan O'Brien


‘Housing is my passion,” says Dominic Stevens, the Leitrim-based Irish architect whose views on the subject mark him out as an individual thinker and creator, an outsider strongly influenced by five years working in Berlin in the 1990s and by the ideas of the self-build guru, the Swiss modernist architect Walter Segal.

“Housing,” Stevens says, “should not be a form of consumption directed by the market, but directed by people and their places to live”. With this in mind, he is shortly to embark on a proposed social housing project with a Dublin local authority which will be the first of its kind in Ireland, a “road map that others can follow”, he says. “It will build on all the practice-based research that I have been doing since Berlin and what I have always wanted to do.”

The Berlin experience made a major impact. “I was designing housing with people who came from a long tradition of good design. I learnt the whole culture of the ground-up approach to urban design which was fresh and exciting.

“Housing standards there are very strict and families stay in [rented] housing for their lives whereas here in Ireland [renting] housing is seen as a stepping stone to owning your own.

“Developers here are looking for margins that are too high. In Europe there is a greater long-term investment in making high rises that families will want to live in for a long time . . . and if we did this in Dublin, it would be a great place to live in 20 years time.”

Ground-up approach

The proposed social housing scheme with a local authority (in collaboration with Open Architects), costing €350,000 and due to begin in spring, consists of five adjoining houses, one for his client (a Dublin professional), three for homeless people on the housing list and one which will be sold back at cost to the council.

The two-storey houses are oriented towards the view so back gardens are south-facing and their positioning recreates a sense of a cul de sac. Inside, the kitchen, dining and livingroom area can be reorganised in different ways to suit the needs of the occupants.

“Kitchens used to be things out the back and that was the woman’s domain. Generations of students that I teach [in DIT] grew up in a house with a family room. The extended kitchen/living/family room is an area that places a woman in the centre of the house so the feminist movement has undeniably changed the Irish-built environment,” he says.

The construction will involve forming a housing co-operative with a protective covenant preventing them being sold in two years’ time.

The designs are based on Segal’s timber frame with up-to-date regulations and a foreman contractor funded from a local training unit will be appointed and unemployed building skills put to use.

“It is a social project that empowers people and the by-product is a house. It is not about making somebody money. It is like a mini private/public partnership removing housing from the market,” he says.

Stevens’s work has attracted international attention in other ways, most particularly for his award-winning Mimetic House, built in a field in Dromahair for the artists Grace Weir and Joe Walker which has featured in many architectural magazine and books worldwide. This extraordinary building, covered on all sides by semi-reflective solar glass, seems to disappear into the landscape, its name chosen to mean mimicking its surroundings.

The idea grew out of a conversation with the couple who wanted something contemporary on a tight budget, and the design was inspired by Stevens’ visit to a retrospective in Paris of Dan Graham, the US artist famous for his mirrored pavilions. What was originally intended to be a holiday house eventually became a family home.

“They moved in and never moved out again,” says Stevens. “It has captured people’s imagination.” A UK couple now want to build something similar in the Cotswolds on a larger scale and there has been interest from further afield.

Irish cottage

Another building that drew a lot of reaction is his low-cost €25,000 version of an Irish cottage, which took him 50 days to build over a two-year period with help from family, friends and neighbours, replicating in a modern way the “vernacular” tradition, ie using simple technology and local materials.

He has had requests from as far as New Zealand, Greece and Spain as well as the Isle of Skye for details. In another innovative step, the plans are freely available online, though they need to be “translated” by local architects, he says.

Other notable and distinctive projects include the In Between House, an artist’s studio in Leitrim which won an AAI award and the “Hidden House”, both in the west of Ireland.

His biggest commission to date has been the Coastguard Station in Doolin (in collaboration with Dorman Architects) for the Department of Transport, a dramatic linear structure reflecting sea and light “a poem to the landscape” but also a utilitarian building geared to the demands of coastal emergencies.

Stevens founded his practice in 1995 after five years in Berlin. From Dún Laoghaire and an urban background, he started making furniture after his father gave him a catalogue of the designs of Gerrit Rietveld, the Dutch furniture designer and architect.

“I like technical drawing and making models. I love people places. Architecture has so much to do with people and what they do in places. You are making places for them to do the stuff they like to do. My mother was a marriage counsellor and as an architect you are also dealing with people and relationships and making people’s lives better.”

Steven’s views and conceptual thinking on landscape will be the subject of his forthcoming solo exhibition Works by Nature and Man, a series of installations and videos at the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray opening on December 4th

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