‘I’m giving these buildings a second chance and giving them the love they never had in life’

What I Do: Nathan Wheeler found creative and professional satisfaction in hand-building models of family homes and derelict buildings

I’m from Bray, but never really had a stable home growing up. My family didn’t get on very well and I was shipped off to boarding school. I felt my parents washed their hands and walked away from me. When they went off and remarried, I felt like this remnant of a mistake they had made, making their life difficult. I ended up living with my grandparents and friends from school.

When it came to university, I had literally no money and had to go cap-in-hand to my parents who said if they funded university, I would have to do law. I was railroaded into becoming a solicitor to get a “proper job”. There was no understanding of what I wanted to do, like art.

At Dublin City University, I did not fit in. I passed all my exams and got a job in a big American law firm, but I hated it. One weekend, when I was a bit beaten down by everything, I got a bunch of cardboard and built an elaborate church thing at home. Honest to God, it was pure trash – but I’d never felt so happy in my life. I started creating more and more structures and got involved with the making community, quickly developing a passion for it.

The turning point was when my father-in-law’s mother passed away and he wanted something to remember his family home by. My wife suggested building a model of the house, so I spent two months feverishly hand-building this house and gave it to him for Christmas. He was in floods of tears and a video of his reaction went viral.


A bunch of other people asked me to build their houses. They had incredible stories of their family home and what it meant to them, and I was always looking at them going: “I can’t empathise with you here.” I love seeing the outpouring of emotion when they receive a model of their house but for me it’s such a foreign concept having never had that.

Sometimes I build them as they were back in the 1970s or 1980s, working back from older photos and removing an extension or including an old car. For an awful lot of people they’re no longer living there and they don’t have that connection with their family home. You’re rebuilding a person’s memories for them. It’s one thing to do a picture, it’s another thing to watch them to relive their childhood in three dimensions.

Generally I get reference photos and go and see the buildings. I use 3D software to map out the dimensions of the buildings, or maybe track down the original blueprints. I try to incorporate as much recycled material as possible. The backing of them is wood, and I often laser cut the windows and doorways out. Sometimes I’ll use plaster or concrete on it – the same way as a normal building but with smaller tools. Bricks are done with a type of foam and then painted and weathered. I have a bank of airbrushes, a couple hundred paintbrushes and tubes of paint. I’ll use an awful lot of soil too, and in one model of the Spanish Armada getting beached in Co Sligo, I used the actual sand from the beach. Sometimes I’ll use 3D printers for really detailed elements. It’s a super time-intensive process.

I often look at painters and think, those guys have it easy. I have to research and get familiar with every brick. It really becomes a part of you.

The houses start at about €1,000. Hundreds of hours go into them, and they could take an average of three months, as I balance my full-time job in financial services too.

When I started doing derelict buildings, everything started to take off. There are so many homeless but so many vacant buildings – and then you’ve got refugees too. This shouldn’t be a reality in Ireland. We shouldn’t live in a world where every other building is left derelict for a litany of reasons. I took a problem as big as dereliction and I just made it smaller. Suddenly, the blinkers come off and people can see.

I’ve been doing some work on models of buildings in Drogheda that have been left for 30 years and no one even knows the owner. Or there’s whole streets in Ennis like this too, and yet the town is struggling to find places for people. It’s so common that if you go outside, no matter where you’re from, and go walking in any direction, you’re going to find places that are empty and burned out. It’s just not talked about.

I look at these buildings and I see a huge amount of beauty. Even though they’re boarded up and unloved, I do feel a bit of kinship with them. I had that feeling growing up. Just because something is abandoned, doesn’t mean it has no value. In my art I feel like I’m giving these buildings a second chance and giving them the love they never had in life.

In conversation with Conor Capplis

Bryan O'Brien

Bryan O'Brien

Bryan O’Brien is Chief Video Journalist at The Irish Times