Modern housing in rural Ireland gets a bad press. The sprawl of “bungalow blitz” across green hills and wooded valleys, spoiling the precious scenery for everyone, is all too apparent. The locals will no doubt insist that they need to live somewhere decent and that older cottages in Ireland have outlived their usefulness. But we all have seen examples of fake gothic mansions (‘Dallas’ the TV series springs to mind). Somehow, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to build new houses that blend with both the natural landscape and are sympathetic to the traditional building styles and materials of the western Irish counties? On a recent trip to highland Scotland, I was very impressed with the stone house style – everything looked local, natural, and authentic.
My girlfriend came across this great document recently, called the Rural Housing Design Guidelines 2007, from Mayo County Council. It has many little gems of architectural and aesthetic insights and tips, that if only everyone adopted, we’d have a much improved environment. I congratulate the Mayo Council for producing such a useful document. (As an aside, I don’t know how many other counties have attempted a similar initiative – I wish they all would try at least).
Who could not agree that the traditional gate style pictured below was not more appropriate to the rural landscape than the more ornate modern style? However, we see this new style frequently in the countryside.
New style gate
They also make practical suggestions about how narrow houses absorb more natural light, and are more effective in terms of natural heat creation. They recommend the planting of trees both to shield the house from the wind and rain and to act as a natural screen that makes the house blend more natually into the landscape. All of this is good, practical advice.
Narrow house absorbs more natural light and heats up naturally.
They constantly point out things to avoid in house construction. I would have thought that some were obvious, but again and again one sees these examples everywhere in Ireland. For example, they say “Avoid: Neo-classical, pedimented porches with mock Greek columns and lightweight flat roof construction finished with P.V.C”. And, indeed, that they need to explicitly say this means that many examples exist!
I found something of immediate relevance to my own situation too. We have been looking to replace a small tiled roof, set over a bay window at the front of our (urban) house. In choosing materials, we went for a natural stone slate, grey in colour, and with a hardness and roughness that looks “authentic”. The Mayo council agree with our choice: “Natural Slate – traditional roofing material, particularly recommended for its durability and aesthetic qualities. Recently Artificial Slate have been produced to imitate the texture, weight and colour variety of natural slate. They do however, reflect light in a completely different way to natural slate and its colour fades eventually.” Great advice.
The document looks like a set of soft guidelines rather than hard recommendations. But I’d love to see it implemented more widely. Nothing in it strikes me as particularly inappropriate or unattainable. There is an aesthetic deficit in the Irish mind, which is odd, given that we boast of our love of the country and the environment. But maybe its because we’re playing catch-up with the rest of the world. We are developing houses at such a prodigious rate that we’ve hardly paused to consider how it will all look in 100 years.