Welcome to the turtle house in Monkstown Farm
The animal-loving owners of this south Dublin house asked Taka Architects to design an extension – for their 60lb turtle
Three-year-old Conor Maverick with Swampy, the turtle, at their home in Monkstown Farm. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Residents of the Monkstown Farm area of south Dublin may recognise Marc and Suzie Kenny’s house on Oliver Plunkett Road. The former council house has a redbrick Victorian church porch front, a palm garden and an old post box built into one of its walls. Salvage lover Marc bought the Victorian Methodist church porch on eBay and had it resized to fit the house.
It all looks rather zany but is nothing compared to what they can’t see beyond – an architect-designed aquarium annex, built to house a very special pet.
Swampy, a snapping turtle that now weighs over 60lbs, turned up on Marc’s doorstep as a tiny foundling almost a decade ago and was welcomed into what was then a bit of a man cave.
Marc had bought the house seven years earlier in 2003 but it was in a pretty basic state, just four walls and a roof. The front door was nailed shut and he had to use a machete to access its north-facing back garden.
It would be several years before he would live in it. Staying with his parents nearby, he renovated at weekends, double jobbing to save the money to buy new windows, doors and, finally, flooring.
In the garden he started planting tropical species and the palms and other flora flourished. He installed a pond and put a red-eared sliding turtle about the size of a dinner plate in it. He far preferred doing the garden than the house.
A friend of his father’s happened to visit, looking for advice on an exotic tree and spotted the turtle in the pond. He identified her as female and suggested to Marc that he should get her some company. He had a connection to Dublin Zoo and said he’d ask if anyone there knew of an unhomed turtle.
Some weeks later Marc received a text from him to say that there was a present waiting for him on his doorstep. He arrived home to a large bucket on the front step. In it was a creature the size of a euro coin that he identified as a potentially dangerous “snapping turtle”. However, he was told that the species is not aggressive in a cool climate. “He was actually really cute. He looked like a dragon.”
The turtle, named Swampy, was too small to live in the pond. A bird would have taken it away so Marc bought a 12-inch by 8-inch aquarium and, as Swampy thrived, Marc kept having to “trade up”, housing it in ever-increasing sizes of aquaria; he rehomed him about seven times, he estimates.
Even as the turtle grew, putting him out into the pond was never going to be an option because it could give someone a serious bite – one night, after a feed of Chinese food Marc regrettably put his hand into the tank and was bitten - a wound that went right down to the ligament. It was Swampy’s only black mark.
By now the turtle had grown so big that Marc moved it out of the house and into a log cabin he had in the back garden.
By the time Suzie and Marc met online in 2013, Swampy was happily housed in the log cabin, which was, Suzie recalls, “way nicer than the house”.
Their first date was on Bloomsday and while Marc regaled her with plenty of funny stories about Mr Bully, his miniature bull terrier, he didn’t mention the turtle.
The pair were smitten and got married the following year and decided to do a job on the house. Suzie loved to cook and wanted a decent kitchen.
Taka is a successful small practice that was recently one of four worldwide to be shortlisted for the Royal Academy’s Dorfman Award, that singles out up and coming firms. Their work on the turtle house, listed as Palm House, Dún Laoghaire, has been shortlisted for a 2019 RIAI Architecture Award in its extensions category.
Marc and Suzie had already met several architects by the time they talked to Taka. They had found several to be “quite condescending” of what they wanted to do. “One even told us to sell the turtle,” Suzie recalls, horrified by the very idea. In contrast, they found Alice and Cian didn’t bat an eyelid and seemed excited about making Swampy the centrepiece of the house. They seemed to have an ability to think outside the box, Suzie says.
Plans were sketched to turn the two bedroom, one bathroom property of about 60sq m into a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house but these had to be redrafted to take into account a set of draining pipes in the back garden that the council has to be able to access. They couldn’t build over it.
The design was pared back. The extension was going to be small – 20sq m in size, well below that permitted under building regulations. The third bedroom was installed downstairs instead.
The firm couldn’t take on the project for nine months. This turned out to be a blessing as it gave the Kennys some time to save, which was good as the costings for the job had increased dramatically since they first tendered in 2014 and got estimates of around €140,000. In 2016 costings ranged from €267,000 to €340,000 for the work.
Suzie asked Andrew Haydon of Clarus Property Services to pitch for the build and he estimated it at €230,000 but the Kennys had a budget of €200,000. They had to trim €30,000 from the schedule of works, a document that forensically lists and prices every item used in the build from bags of cement to coat hooks. It was the size of a phone book, Cian recalls.
Describing herself as an Excel spreadsheet fanatic, Suzie combed through every single specification eliminating some but in most instances trying to source a less expensive version. Fibreglass replaced the zinc roof that had been specified. Mosafil glass mosaic tiles that they wanted for the bathrooms that were coming in at €227 per sq m were found online from a German supplier for €110 per sq m. Derg Joinery made the dramatic timber windows that frame several views of the garden.
The builder made the kitchen to a design drawn up by Cian using birch ply and the kitchen tiles and the rest of the bathroom tiles were bought on sale.
All told, the couple went €6,000 over budget but considering that Swampy’s crib cost €7,000, including pumps, light, feeding access and drainage, this is pretty impressive cost control.
The house oozes personality from its front door in. From here there are sightlines through the property and through the “dual aspect” aquarium right into the garden. A deep marine blue used on some of the tongue and groove timber panelling was selected to foreground the outside, drawing the eye beyond the interior and out through Swampy’s tank into the exotic exterior, Cian explains.
The concrete floor in the open plan living cum dining cum galley kitchen is now warmed by underfloor heating and leads through to Swampy’s room, where his designer aquarium extends to about 2.5 cubic metres, the size of a decent double wardrobe.
“We just never expected him to get so big. The turtle is about 13 years old, a teenager. He shouldn’t be the size he is. He now weighs 60lbs /27 kilos and is so heavy that for photo opportunities he has to be held on a hip.”
Swampy shares the house with the couple’s three-year old son, Conor Maverick Kenny, and their two dogs – Mr Bully, a miniature bull terrier, and Mia, a French bulldog.
Could Swampy be the only turtle in the world living in an architect-designed abode?