Irish architects think inside – and outside – the glass box

For this year’s winning home designs, architects came up with ingenious solutions to size and other restrictions

Folding, floating, hiding, sinking, sliding, sheltering, overshooting – architecture is constantly shifting about, as is evident in this year’s RIAI Architecture Award winners, not least the homes.

The winners of this year’s best house, best extension and best housing go beyond the box to multiple boxes, with volumes piled and shifted across each other, roofs that reach out beyond the building, plans punctured with courtyards, and sunken spaces, all creating dynamic homes designed to work within awkward sites without compromising (indeed, they maximise) light, air and views.

Context, but also disobedience and daring, are at play in architecture today, says Peter Carroll of A2 Architects and course director at the University of Limerick's School of Architecture. Irish architects are "unavoidably more aware now than ever of global trends, particularly the culture of European architecture practice," he says.

Britain and countries such as Spain, Portugal, Belgium and Norway have, like Ireland, an active young architecture culture, quite a lot of it at the scale of a house or extension. In addition, Carroll says, design is kept local, due to the "strong interest in tradition and continuity" and a "healthy embrace of the anarchistic and disobedient".


“It is important,” he says, “that our work has resonance locally.”

Designing in the city

The local context for this year’s winning home designs was complex city sites. Architects worked through the restrictions to make the homes defensive, by using solid materials and small windows where they need to be – and opened out to air and plants when possible, often by stepping sections back, or beyond the main structure, or inserting outdoor spaces and glazed walls into the plan.

The first design response was to context in A2 Architects' Folding House in Cork city. Built in a garden, it screens its occupants and neighbours on the street side and opens out at the upper level with a balcony, thus lifting views over a perimeter wall to Fitzgerald Park and the Daly Suspension Bridge.

By “orchestrating space from outside”, A2 achieved harmony within and throughout the house by bringing in spaces such as a courtyard and other bright spots. These include a double-height, roof-lit entrance atrium at its south-facing core. Sunlight here is chopped, dappled, reflected and changed throughout the day by deep rooflight baffles.

Dublin Design Studio also faced a complex site in Clontarf, Dublin. The site of the Hazel Lane Mews Houses measures 70m by just 10m, bounded by more than 20 other sites, leading to issues of privacy and overshadowing for the scheme of three 180sq m houses.

"Our starting point was how to maximise the potential of the site without imposing on and detracting from neighbouring sites," says Niall Henry of Dublin Design Studio, while also concentrating on making the houses "very, very bright".

The design includes installing setbacks to avoid overshadowing and a first-floor overhang to provide shading in summer for 3m-high glass walls on the garden side of the ground floor, and bringing their first-floor bedrooms, with glazed walls, close to nature by placing them around a south-facing planted roof.

The garden is an integral part of the design, as it is in McCullough Mulvin’s winning “Hidden Garden”. In this Dublin home, a sitting room sinks beside a courtyard on one side (between the existing house and the extension) and the garden on the other side, rooting people in at the level of surrounding plants and creating an intimacy with earthy delights.

The undulating floor is both innovative and traditional, recalling the classic Dublin villa with its split section. (The golden-section layout reaches back even further into history.) The roof extends beyond the extension to enable people to be outside in most weathers and a rooflight overshoots from one space to another, creating a dynamism in light and form.

The areas of privacy from overlooking, combined with expansive bright spaces, include the black- rendered exterior of A2’s Cork house, and its white plastered interior. There is also the white brick walls with small openings to the north and east of the Clontarf scheme, and its glazing to the south and west.

“All you can see are trees and all you can hear are birds – in the centre of Clontarf,” says Henry.

Those expansive interior spaces have been future- proofed, with entire walls that slide or pivot in the Hazel Lane scheme in Clontarf, he says. “What is open-plan now – when children are aged about five – can be subdivided when they reach their teenage years.”

Glass flexible

A2 has exercised similar flexibility with glass screens throughout the house, “in some instances to fold and compress spaces and in other instances to expand and open the house to views beyond”, Carroll says.

There is a better understanding of materials across Irish house design, says Carroll: “Wood, glass and concrete are being tested to their limits.”

In some cases there is no longer a material distinction between walls, floors and ceilings. Single materials, such as compressed stone products, are also being used for the floor, a kitchen island and up part of the wall, says Henry.

In the A2 Cork house, Carroll says, “wall surfaces and ceiling soffits fold and flow, connecting interior spaces in a sculptural manner”.

The key to innovative design “is a good client who is willing to take risks and who is willing to trust their architect,” he says. “The client provides a much-needed anchor to the work.”

Clients are rewarded with something beyond expectations. As the Hidden House owner says: “A beautiful series of light-filled interconnecting spaces capture the best aspects of this corner site.

“The sequence of spaces – old and new – feel expansive because of the way they open into each other, always with views through to a space beyond.”

When talking of trends in architecture, it is not about fashion or surface style because buildings last for so long and are about lives and society. The “trends” seen in these buildings address that: they are homes set in a local context for the people within and around them.

Says Carroll: “I think we could go even deeper in understanding materials so that our architecture is informed more by substance than style or precedent, making architecture from the fundamentals of building – structure, space, material and people.”

  • For a list of all RIAI award- winning buildings, see
Emma Cullinan

Emma Cullinan

Emma Cullinan, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in architecture, design and property