So many rooms, and why so cold? Some German views on Irish homes
The standard Irish home takes a bit of explaining to foreign visitors
Standard Dublin housing in the 1990s: kitchen, dining room, sitting room, three bedrooms and a bathroom. Plus an open fire, and lots of colours. Photograph: Frank Miller
Many moons ago I worked for McInerney International, a newly formed branch of McInerney Homes, the well-known Irish housebuilders. The company took up a presence in the former East Germany to take advantage of the building boom which was generated by the reunification of east and west after the Berlin Wall came down.
As a German speaker with lots of office experience (and by lots I mean none) and being at the time between jobs (on a FÁS course) I was accepted the position of bi-lingual secretary to assist in the setting up of a new office in Leipzig, East Germany. It was 1992, and I think I was on a salary of £12,000 per annum plus expenses, which was unheard of at home at the time. Depressingly, when I last looked, the hourly rate for a European languages graduate in an international call centre still makes my McInerney package seem pretty attractive today.
In 1992 Leipzig looked like a city untouched by time. Being so far east it had escaped the worst of the bombing during the second World War, and under the communist regime that followed there had been very little change in the intervening years. We were struck by the old-style grandeur of the wide streets and gothic-looking buildings, although they were filthy from years of neglect. Trabants were still the most common car on the roads but things were changing fast. Tower cranes dominated the skyline as western building companies filed in to get a piece of the action in modernising East Germany.
It quickly became apparent that not being intimately acquainted with the 45,000 German Industry Standards (DIN standards) which govern everything from how to make a chair to distances between houses, was going to make winning and executing contracts very difficult for a non-German company. So it was decided by head office that we should perhaps bring some interested parties over to Ireland to show them how we build houses here, in the hope of maybe convincing them that McInerney was your only man if you needed lots of houses built very fast.
“Why have these houses got so many rooms?” they asked.
“Ja, rooms, why so many?’
“Well I suppose, em, it’s because, well that’s just the way it is, kitchen, dining room, sitting room, three bedrooms and a bathroom.”
“Too many rooms,” Herr Dr Linsel told us uncompromisingly, “and too many colours,” he added sternly, indicating all the lovely pastel pinks and orange walls.
The only feature of the homes that really seemed to impress them were the open fireplaces – which of course, back then, were a staple in every Irish house. In German houses the addition of an open fire would fall very much into the category of “special features”; something akin to adding a jacuzzi. They were very taken with this.
“Does every Irish house have an open fire?”
“Yes.” Cue confused looks all round: sure how else are you going to heat the room?
“And all families light an open fire in the sitting room?”
Looking at this practice now it does seem a little reckless.
Nowadays open fires are being phased out in favour of more energy-efficient stoves, but back then words such as energy efficiency or even insulation were not “hot” topics. Insulation existed only in attics, as far as I knew, and had a slightly edgy reputation of being a sure fire way to send you crashing through the ceiling should you be foolish enough to mess around with it. It was best avoided. Luckily we didn’t get into a conversation about insulation (DIN standard 16,599) or exactly how much insulation these houses had (I’m guessing not much). It was clear that the only interior our German party were interested in seeing any more of that day was the inside of an Irish pub.
I had a deja vu moment on this topic recently when, as a favour to a friend, I accompanied a small group of Germans on the Howth cliff walk, as their guide. We spent as much time gawking at the fabulous houses nestled between cliff and sea along the southern slopes as we did taking in the spectacular views across Dublin Bay. It got us talking about Irish houses.
“How’s your Airbnb accommodation?” I asked (in flawless German).
“Yes it is very pretty. Lovely sea views but a little cold.”
“Ah yes, that’ll be the zero insulation. It’s a national issue, but we are making progress.”
“And do you know why the electrical . . . how do you call?”
“Sockets. Why they are located near the ground in the . . . ?”
“It’s a mystery really. Probably for cultural reasons. Is it the same in every room?”
“In every room except the kitchen, we have looked. And there are many rooms in this house. Four bedrooms, three bathrooms, two sitting rooms and another bathroom downstairs. Is that normal in Irish houses to have so many rooms?”
“Well family sizes are bigger but, yes we did go a bit mad during the Celtic Tiger years on the bathroom front alright.”
“The water charges must be enormous!”
“Yes, you would think.”
“You don’t have?”
“Well, let me explain . . .”
Just as on the previous occasion, the discussion moved to the pub.