The Irish man building American dreams

Irish architect Cormac Byrne designs multimillion-dollar homes in Connecticut, where ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ can be a preoccupation

When Dublin-born architect Cormac Byrne starts designing multimillion-dollar homes for Wall Street types in Connecticut, he jokes with clients that they can't go to any more neighbourhood cocktail parties. Mansion-envy among the squillionaire financiers and hedge fund executives living in Greenwich, one of America's wealthiest towns, means that they end up coming back to Byrne with repeated changes to his designs as they try to keep up with the Joneses.

“When they go to a neighbour’s house, they see this and want to change the design because they want to incorporate a two-storey glass wine cellar or something in their diningroom,” he says.

“There’s a circle that they all move in and check out each other’s houses. Because of that it becomes a sort of very fluid design process.”

Greenwich, at just 20 minutes by train from New York City, is a “bedroom community” for Manhattan. The town’s waterfront plots and sweeping country estates attract some of the richest people in the country to set up home in Byrne’s uber-exclusive catchment area.

Originally from Dundrum in Dublin and a graduate of Bolton Street, Byrne, who has been working in the town for 15 years, has had his own architectural practice, Jones Byrne Margeotes Partners, which he took over 10 years ago, designing high-end homes for the rich and super-rich.

Given how small the community is in Greenwich, most new business comes by way of referrals. Work brings him into nearby wealthy areas in New York State, such as Rye, Harrison and Scarsdale, also commuter towns of the Big Apple.

“A typical client is the Wall Street guy, the banker, the investment banker,” he said, noting how many of Manhattan’s biggest hedge funds have relocated to Greenwich. I haven’t dealt with a bank or mortgage provider for years. It’s all paid for outright.”

Construction cost

Byrne has just completed one home that had a construction cost of $15 million (€14.1 million). Adding the cost of the land to the project, the owner spent the guts of $30 million on their new home.

“We also do your modest $1 million or $1 million starter home as well,” he says, with a chuckle. Investing millions of dollars in their homes means clients “do fun things” with their properties.

“Every house is totally different. Each client has very specific things that they want,” he says. “They are all captains of industry so they know what they want. All of these guys are very smart, very driven clients. It is an interesting process.”

Designs include indoor swimming pools, home theatres, spiral-glass staircases, stables and golf putting greens.

Given the money these people spend and the design efforts they go to, they are happy to show them off and have them photographed for newspapers and magazines, which is good for Byrne’s business.

“You get to challenge your design capabilities on these kinds of projects,” he says. “People want to one-up their neighbour and if they want to be at that level, they want something that they can publish. We are lucky that almost all of our clients want their houses to be photographed. They really want to do something special and different.”

One of the strangest requests was to include a two-lane bowling alley in a house. A recent job involved bronze-framed windows imported from Italy that makes the brand new house look like it has been there for 100 years. A favourite design is the English or Irish country manor home, though tastes are changing.

“We are starting to see people get a little more risky and tend more towards contemporary, more modern design,” says Byrne. “That is what we all want to do deep down but you work on what your clients want to build.”

Wireless homes

Another popular feature in these mega-rich homes is technology. Smart homes are a thing of the past, says Byrne; the latest trend is for fully wireless homes. Confessing to being “a total gadget geek”, Byrne says many of his designed houses include Savant automated systems, the Apple-operated system that allows home owners control lighting, climate, sound and electronics remotely from a smartphone or tablet.

“You can be on an airplane on the way to Aspen and can turn off the heaters and lights in your house,” he says.

Byrne says he “kind of stumbled upon Greenwich”. He arrived in Connecticut via London, Atlanta and Boca Raton in Florida. Prior to moving to Connecticut he had been mostly designing commercial projects prior to moving to America’s north east.

“I thought I was never going to work on houses but then I got here and saw that these houses are like office buildings – they are 15,000, 20,000sq ft houses,” he said.

Among Byrne's clients were Irish couple Sean Dunne, the bankrupt property developer, and Gayle Killilea, his multimillionaire wife. The couple were referred to Byrne by a local property agent. His firm designed their first two house renovations in Connecticut, including the property on Bush Avenue in the Belle Haven neighbourhood.

The house is one of the properties at the centre of long-running courts actions between the couple and Dunne’s creditors. It has been claimed that Killilea is a front for Dunne’s American property business, and that the developer’s claim that he works for his wife is a pretence. (Dunne denies this.) Byrne declined to comment on whether he thought it was her or his business while he was working for them.

‘Phenomenal’ development

On visits home during the Irish property boom, Byrne saw the "phenomenal" level of development first hand; he can see Dundrum Shopping Centre from his parents' home. There were some nice designs around in Ireland, he says, but thinks that some of the south Dublin suburb's Celtic Tiger era apartment blocks won't stand the test of time.

“Maybe they were building a little too quickly,” he says. “I think we can all be a bit guilty of that when you get busy.”

On his own projects in Connecticut, Byrne can take plenty of time; some multimillion dollar homes he designs can take up to three years to complete.

The 45-year-old father of three stresses that he doesn’t live in one of these multimillion-dollar mansions; he lives a half-hour north of Greenwich in another town. He does, however, admit that his work for the mega-rich gives him grand designs for his own house. “I go home and drive my wife crazy because I want to do all these things in our little house,” he says.