From Today's Times
Designs for better building in the countryside
Though some half-dozen county councils have produced rural housing design guides, none are as graphic as one recently produced by Cork County Council. Frank McDonald, Environment Editor, reports
One of the interesting questions arising from the current debate about one-off housing in the countryside is whether it would be quite so fractious if the houses were better designed and carefully sited rather than, in so many cases, simply blots on the landscape.
Billy Houlihan, the Cork county architect, has no doubt that people who believe that rural Ireland is being relentlessly suburbanised "wouldn't feel so bad about it if the houses weren't so ugly and grotesque". What he wants to see is more attention to design.
Speaking about Cork County Council's new design guide for people building one-off houses, he says: "We have to face reality - there's going to be a certain amount of rural development whether we like it or not. But, if we can get the design right, it could even add to the countryside."
There's a particularly arresting image in this very well-illustrated guide of a hideous house being plonked on a site by a giant helicopter. And truth to tell, that's what seems to have happened with thousands of houses built without any reference to the lie of the land, nevermind orientation.
Cork is less ruined than other counties, because a line of sorts has been held. The established planning policy is to build up the towns and villages by making them more attractive as places to live and to curtail rural housing to cases of genuine need insofar as possible, especially in scenic areas. But the pace of development is so rapid that the county council felt it had to provide practical guidance to people planning to build a new house in the countryside.
And it's in big demand, not just in Co Cork but elsewhere, according to Mike Shanahan, the Clonakilty architect who helped to prepare it. "I showed images from it at the RIAI symposium on rural housing in Galway last year, and a lot of architects came up and asked when was it coming out so that could give it to their clients", in an attempt to dissuade them from demanding Dallas-style porticos and other excrescences.
Along with Colin Buchanan and Partners, Shanahan worked under the direction of Billy Houlihan and executive planner John Clements on a guide that is unashamedly intended to make it easier to get planning permission for new houses in the countryside - subject to certain parameters being met.
Houlihan, who pioneered the idea of "planning clinics" 30 years ago, hopes it might take some of the heat out of the debate, at least in Co Cork. "If we can do this by co-operation rather than aggravation and legislation, we'd be better off because we'll have less of a battle on our hands," he says.
By outlining the key characteristics of traditional houses in the county - such as simplicity of form - Clements says it should encourage "designs which draw directly on these characteristics and imaginative departures from tradition where this is done skilfully and relates well to its landscape setting".
Prospective house-builders are advised to choose a site that offers good shelter, privacy and orientation and then to maximise the benefit of its features by ensuring that the house "appears to sit down into the site" with cars parked out of sight and a minimal amount of "green baize" lawns.
Instead of removing roadside hedgerows, the emphasis is on linking the new house with the countryside around it. "House, garden and landscape must be designed as a unit if the house is to achieve a strong link to the land," it says. It also gives examples of indigenous plants, such as fuschia.
On design, the advice is to keep the shape of the house very simple, minimise modelling of the front faÃ§ade and incorporate "well-mannered" attributes of older houses in the area. As Billy Houlihan says: "I've never heard anyone saying about a traditional rural house that it didn't fit in." But with good construction, "the devil is in the detail", as the guide points out. Irish rural houses were "deceptively simple" and relied solely on attractive proportioning, careful use of colour and quality of materials for their success. "Avoid white plastic and 'add-on frills' wherever possible," it says.
Recommending that an architect should be engaged, its authors say: "Getting issues such as proportion, scale, form and massing right and the detail can more easily fall into place. Get them wrong and no amount of frills will compensate for a potentially clumsy, awkward and unattractive structure".
The guide shows what not to do with a sloping, south-facing site - such as the typical response in the 1970s and 1980s, where a pattern-book bungalow would have been plonked on the most elevated and exposed part of the site, with a concrete driveway and Leylandii planted on the boundaries.
Or, worse still, the "full impact presentation" of what it describes as the 1990s "all-show clunky house", which is positioned to be seen, set in a "sea of green lawn and tarmac, cars to the front" and built using poor quality materials, including "lots of plastic and imitation stone facings".
The preferred response is for the new house to be located in the most sheltered part of the site, following its contours without the need for a platform. It would also be orientated to maximise daylight and solar gain and set back from the road with a secluded garden behind retained hedgerows.
The guide includes a very useful diagram mapping the sun's path in relation to a landholding so that the right site might be selected. Apart from ensuring that the main rooms face south over a sunny private garden, such an orientation could also help achieve energy savings of up to 30 per cent.
Though some half-dozen county councils have produced rural housing design guides, none are as graphic as this one. It's obviously intended to communicate with the widest possible audience. It is also very clear about what's acceptable and what's unacceptable for building in the countryside.
"It moves the issue of design away from the simple appearance to design in its widest sense - siting, shelter, orientation, landscaping, context and sustainability," says John Graby, the RIAI's director general. "It's a very effective design primer anybody could benefit from looking through."
Cork Rural Design Guide: Building a New House in the Countryside by Colin Buchanan and Partners and Mike Shanahan and Associates, may be inspected at all of Cork County Council's offices and libraries. Copies may also be purchased from the planning department, at €20 each