Baltrasna House in Dublin, Ireland by Ryan W Kennihan Architects - International Burch University
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Baltrasna House in Dublin, Ireland by Ryan W Kennihan Architects

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  • Baltrasna House in Dublin, Ireland by Ryan W Kennihan Architects

New into Old 20121 Highly commended: Ryan W Kennihan Architects’ integration of a new family dwelling into a cluster of old buildings in Dublin opens up possibilities within traditional settings

Like many returning migrants, when Ryan Kennihan’s clients went back to Ireland from the US, they wanted to live close to their family. Unlike many trying to buy a home in the chaotic Irish housing market, they were lucky. They had some space on the north Dublin farm where their ancestors settled more than 200 years ago and where their relatives still work the land. In this coastal region some 30km from the city, agriculture remains important, and clusters of vernacular farm buildings persist in the landscape among newer housing estates and enormous commercial polytunnels. 

The long history of habitation on the farm left disused sheds and derelict animal shelters alongside more recent buildings. The existing assemblage involves an abandoned cottage, with ancillary stables and a former hen house forming an L-shape around a grassed-over farmyard. Built in local stone, the buildings retain their form and seem to fluctuate between durability and vulnerability. The clients found it ‘incredibly enticing’ and, on visiting the site, Kennihan was excited too – the clients say, ‘He immediately felt it’. Other architects had been less enticed, partly due to local planning restrictions that recommend surviving vernacular architecture is either renovated or incorporated into any new buildings. While the clients thought it likely they would renovate the cottage, Kennihan went for incorporation. Above all, the clients wanted to retain the physical memory of their predecessors and, he says, a simple renovation of existing buildings would ‘erase the evidence of time, use, accumulation of materials, and make it more abstract’.

The corner of the new building is visible past the existing masonry structure with its damaged render

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New into Old 20121 Highly commended: Ryan W Kennihan Architects’ integration of a new family dwelling into a cluster of old buildings in Dublin opens up possibilities within traditional settings

Like many returning migrants, when Ryan Kennihan’s clients went back to Ireland from the US, they wanted to live close to their family. Unlike many trying to buy a home in the chaotic Irish housing market, they were lucky. They had some space on the north Dublin farm where their ancestors settled more than 200 years ago and where their relatives still work the land. In this coastal region some 30km from the city, agriculture remains important, and clusters of vernacular farm buildings persist in the landscape among newer housing estates and enormous commercial polytunnels. 

The long history of habitation on the farm left disused sheds and derelict animal shelters alongside more recent buildings. The existing assemblage involves an abandoned cottage, with ancillary stables and a former hen house forming an L-shape around a grassed-over farmyard. Built in local stone, the buildings retain their form and seem to fluctuate between durability and vulnerability. The clients found it ‘incredibly enticing’ and, on visiting the site, Kennihan was excited too – the clients say, ‘He immediately felt it’. Other architects had been less enticed, partly due to local planning restrictions that recommend surviving vernacular architecture is either renovated or incorporated into any new buildings. While the clients thought it likely they would renovate the cottage, Kennihan went for incorporation. Above all, the clients wanted to retain the physical memory of their predecessors and, he says, a simple renovation of existing buildings would ‘erase the evidence of time, use, accumulation of materials, and make it more abstract’.The corner of the new building is visible past the existing masonry structure with its damaged render

The corner of the new building is visible past the existing masonry structure with its aged render

Credit:Aisling McCoy

His solution was to plot a new dwelling between the remnants of animal byres and directly abutting the derelict cottage. These confines determine the limits of the building, with the walls of the old byres shaping two sheltering courtyards to the front, eastern part of the house, the former troughs now planted but still carrying the rusted tethering rings of their erstwhile inhabitants. The west-facing side of the house is directly joined at one section by the end gable of the now roofless cottage, creating a new configuration with the disused hen house and stables, both still roofed with the red corrugated metal that is so characteristic of vernacular buildings in this area. This use of the site means the new dwelling is not a closed box but partly integrated into the former buildings without occupying them. 

The contemporary house is both congruent with the existing architecture and inverts it. The key typology is the single-storey vernacular cottage, a highly mythologised Irish building type. These are typically two- or three-roomed rectilinear dwellings made of stone and earth, often rendered in white, and with a thatched or pitched corrugated steel (‘tin’) roof. The new house similarly has three main rooms, with two bathrooms enclosed in the centre. Opposing corridors around this service core create circulation from each of the bedrooms into the main living space. From the outside, the house reads as a simple rectangular single-storey dwelling with a pitched red corrugated-steel roof, echoing those of the surrounding agricultural buildings including a large barrel-roofed barn a few metres to the north of the house. However, this is challenged in section as it is cut through with internal gables, expressed through a complex treatment of the ceilings. These gables make the interior volumes surprising and delightful, from the miniature gables of the corridors to the main living space which has a ‘tented’ ceiling and a structural pole in the centre, merging expression through the play of the ceilings and ‘honest’ functional language. The construction materials are similarly ordinary but still captivating, involving exposed ‘off-the-shelf’ concrete lintels and standard breeze blocks, washed with soft mortar so the individual modules create a ghostly presence in the interior.Baltrasna-House-by-Ryan-W-Kennihan-Architects-drawings.gif

As Kennihan says, ‘every window is a door’, and so, unlike typical vernacular cottages that usually had just one entry way and were built against rather than with the elements, the new house is deeply permeable. For example, from the main living space it is possible to exit directly to the outside through four different glazed openings. This is of particular delight for children, who get to run around the building and in and out of the windows in a seemingly infinite number of circuits. 

The children’s room is at the southern end of the house and closest to the road outside, this gable wall blank save for a small triangular oculus near the apex. This, Kennihan says, is designed to throw sun shadows on to the ceiling inside to create interesting effects, and in fact the play of light on the interior is one reason the clients love the house. They say that ‘there’s always something happening with light all over the house, different shapes at different times of day. More often than not, it is moonlight not sunlight. There are so many little surprises.’ That this variety was achieved so well and so economically is partly down to Kennihan’s considerable talent as a designer, and also the ‘perfectionist’ builder whose snag list consisted of just one item (to fix a lock on the bathroom). Material economy is not confined to simple construction; the actual budget for the house was a relatively surprising €296,000.

The glazed door from the parents’ room leads directly into the disused dwelling, and they look straight in at the old chimney stack and hearth, the functional and mythic centre of traditional Irish houses. Despite it being a place their relatives inhabited in living memory and where they played as children, they don’t find it too intense to live with dereliction. They say the fact that the older structures are physically rather than just visually accessible makes the difference, and the passage from bedroom to the ruins to the garden is an everyday occurrence.  Detail section of Baltrasna House by Ryan W Kennihan Architects

The architect removed all the roofing material from the old house and with its walls and gables intact, the structure and its layers of accreted building matter have been made legible – earth, stone, plaster, timber, red brick and brick blackened by the kitchen fire. This draws attention to the diverse singularity of the materials that ended up in the house, and the ways that time and use continue to act upon them. Kennihan worked to stabilise the old structure but with a light touch, and so it is not a fixed and frozen entity but is slowly undergoing certain dynamics of decay and change. Painted green boards peel and flake on the window openings, bits of leather horse harness gently rot in the old stables. Once a place of vivacity and consequence, quieter forces have taken over. The clients love how the ruins provide a home for plants and animals, and there is a sense that they and the architect conceive of the buildings as processes as much as artefacts. For now, the old cottage functions as a uniquely mnemonic garden room and is a strong material force from within the house through the way it frames the sky, its gable lit up by passing cars at night.

In terms of the future, the project allows flexibility due to the robust layout and additional space to extend to the north and west. Although fitted so snugly into its particular site, Kennihan’s project transcends this specificity to be an exemplar for others. In an Irish context, it provides a model for creating meaningful and sensitive architectural life among and in relation to the many vernacular buildings that have fallen into disuse. More generally, the way it values and retains material memory, instead of eradicating signs of decay, provides an approach that goes far beyond the romanticisation of ruins. It brings to mind Caitlin DeSilvey’s book Curated Decay, which calls for a responsibility to vulnerable others (a building, a species, an artefact, a place) that might accompany change rather than perpetuation and preservation, and how ‘absence may paradoxically facilitate the persistence of memory and significance’.