In the Viking city of Waterford, conservation crusader Fintan Duffy is one of the directors of Duffy Henry Bent (DHB) Architects, a firm that has worked on several notable restoration projects including St John's Priory, an Anglo Norman ruin in the city, the Trappist monk monastery Mount Melleray Abbey at the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains and the Royal Marine Hotel in Dún Laoghaire.
But an architect is only as good as his client and to really be able to flex his creative muscles the client needs to be in accord with his master plan.
This happens rarely but sometimes the planets do align and the coach house at Pembrokestown House is a beautiful blend of original features and striking contemporary design.
Duffy's idea was to create a house within a house, with the inside "walls" made of glass so you could see the building's heritage, owner Michele Beatty explains.
She and her husband, Stephen Beatty, have been living at Pembrokestown House for about 16 years. When they bought the property the coach house had to be secured as it was falling down.
“Then last year Fintan put forward the idea of restoring the coachhouse but leaving its walls unfinished. We ran with it although were a little concerned that inside was going to look grubby.”
The Beattys live in the main house, of the property and so were prepared to be more expirimental with the coachhouse which was earmarked as guest accommodation. Complete contrast The coach house with its bell tower forms part of the stable yard and features 3m-high doors.
Before the renovation the only residents in the 200sq m space were nesting pigeons who had created Jackson Pollock-like murals with their waste on some of the walls and on the thick oak beams that supported its sagging roof.
The Beattys love that the finished house isn’t pristine. Its elegantly wasted original limed plaster walls have been left in their original condition and provide complete contrast to the new glass insert installed inside the original structure but not touching it, designed to keep out damp and draughts.
The simple but effective idea adds so much texture to the space that it needed very little by way of embellishment. Because the exposed old walls were left as they were, the firm didn’t have to conserve in the traditional fashion.
Glass internal walls let you see the original walls and lighting was installed between these glass screens and the external walls to illuminate the 19th-century brickwork as well as all the different layers of plaster and paint from the 1870s, 1920s and 1970s.
Duffy retained the original window openings and installed new windows by JHG Construction.
We resisted the temptation to make it pristine, says Michele.
“Sometimes when you renovate an old building it ends up feeling and looking like a modern structure. Inside this building you can sense and see its past. You don’t forget that you’re living in an old coach house. It has a very nice feel.”
The property’s most dramatic feature is its ribbon-like reinforced concrete staircase that soars up to the roof like an art installation.
This started life as a 3D model as Duffy figured out how to get it to work geometrically.
Technically the stairs were quite difficult to fabricate, Duffy says. “They had to be drawn out very carefully on site with two walls of timber shuttering built to house the concrete.”
Cantilevered wooden steps
The concrete had to be poured in stages. When dry, it had a sufficiently good finish to be left in its raw state but the Beattys wanted to paint it bright white.
It didn’t need anything more. Plans for a handrail were shelved.
Cantilevered wooden steps, made by Alan Doherty, wind around the concrete but do not touch the exterior walls and in the photo you can see shadow play where the two almost meet. The encaustic tiled floor is the double-height space's only decorative feature.
The property has been subdivided into two units, two two-bedroom apartments, one on the ground floor, the second upstairs.
They share a state-of-the-art gym that you can see from the galleried walkway at the top of the stairs where, when you stand out the second apartment’s front door the structure creates an optical illusion – the stairs look like they’ve melted into the background and all you see is the concrete balustrade continuing to wind its way up. The stairs are there but just not visible.
The upstairs apartment opens into a large L-shaped open-plan room with the kitchen, a simple white laminate design by Ryan Roche.
Almost all the contractors were local. Murphy Larkin supplied the oak parquet and the hall’s encaustic tiles came from Best Tile.
The dining table, stands centre stage, surrounded by Bo Concept chairs. Above, the original oak beams, distempered by Duffy, create a striking feature.
Talking points include the marks left by the squatting pigeons and the initials J.O.B. left, possibly, by a former labourer which could either be a person’s name or indeed Waterford slang, Duffy speculates. J.O.B. is used to punctuate the end of sentences in this part of the southeast.
Custom built By installing a radiator between the dining and sitting room, the one heater can warm the two spaces.
Duffy had a bookcase custom-built to surround the radiator, housing books on the dining room side and framing a painting on the sitting room side.
It’s a simple but really well-thought out way to divide the room and yet keep the open-plan ethos and accommodate decorative elements.
Simple walnut-stained farm-style timber sliding doors lead off the long main room to its two bedrooms. These are set on agricultural-like ironmongery.
Two of the three visible doors bookend the bed in the master bedroom creating his and hers entrances, a neat trick to keep a sense of symmetry in the room and do without having to create a space-eating corridor.
“A conservation can end up costing more than a new build as it is more complicated and there are more unknowns, but with the builder it is manageable,” Duffy explains.
Michele agrees. "It was an unusual job for builders Clodagh Construction and at times counterintuitive but they were very patient and very friendly."
The Coach House is one of several exciting architect- designed houses in the new edition of the RIAI's House + Design magazine. Dhbarchitects.ie