Gairmscoil na bPiarsach - April 2018

School Extension
Gairmscoil na bPiarsach
Ros Muc, Co Galway

Paul Dillon Architects
2013 – 2016

Photographs – copyright Ros Kavanagh, courtesy of Paul Dillon Architects



Paul Dillon is an outlier, one that Irish architecture would do well to treasure and support. So it is heartening to see his work attract increasing recognition from those who think about the health of our architectural culture. Here’s hoping more clients will follow in their wake.

Perhaps his best known work is this modest, multi-award-winning extension to Gairmscoil na bPiarsach in Ros Muc, an Irish-language vocational school for 75 boys and girls in the heart of the Connemara Gaeltacht. The school, built in 1945 and extended twice – in the 1960s and 1990s – is named for Pádraig Pearse, An Piarsach, who visited the area in 1903, built a holiday cottage and spent the next twelve summers there. The old schoolhouse was latterly a Pearse Museum, opened by Éamon de Valera himself.

Dillon, who worked as an emigrant foreman on Manhattan construction sites in the 1980s before training as an architect in New York and California, came back to Galway in 1997 and set up on his own in 1999. 2008 was his breakout year, just as the crash arrived. Then came a series of school extensions, all with tiny budgets. He started in Newcastle West, with a commission for a single prefab. 

His portfolio has grown, but he is still not eligible to design a new school, because his annual turnover isn’t considered high enough. Nothing to do with talent or ability or expertise, just size. Our public sector’s myopic procurement regulations cast the majority of architects outside the commissioning net [A2, the architects of Eurocampus, Tegral’s September 2016 Building of the Month, is another example], but it is particularly cruel to emerging and rural practices, who suffer disproportionately when eligibility is determined this way.

Dillon’s opportunity was the Department of Education and Skills’s devolved grant scheme for minor capital works – typically prefab replacement – under which schools can pick their own design team, whether architects, engineers or technologists. The budget must be less than €500K. “The budget is so small that bigger companies don’t want to deal with it”, he says. “My priority is to figure out what suits the builder and the environment. We don’t ever discuss architecture. I am just like a carpenter or a plumber in all of this. That’s my aim – I just want to show that my services are required within society.

“I want to fit into the local system, designing buildings that can be built by locals, ensuring they can get whatever materials they need in the local hardware store. I want to use a local builder and local labour. My designs are not necessarily labour-saving. Actually, labour-intensive is fine by me. The scratch coats and wet-dash wall finishes of cement and pebbles that I specify are deliberately labour-intensive. The slating, too. That all fits into the local economy, the local thing. The kids might know the guys on the site. To me that’s real sustainability. They might even be inspired by seeing it, and not feel the need to leave. My challenge is to make sure that there’s architecture at the end of it all, but I want to leave as little trace of the architect as possible. What I’m really after is creating a model for local, rural practice.

“I wanted a long horizontal building here, and to distinguish it from the original by the roof. I like the long clean profile. I didn’t want to compete with the old Pearse Museum.” Eaves and ridge heights match the original. The extension is set back slightly to provide space for an Olympic handball court, of all exotic things, out front. Under the guidance of teacher Bridie Kinneavey, this tiny rural school became unlikely double All-Ireland secondary school champions – Boys Under-15 and Girls Under-17 – in the sport in 2013.   

“I just wanted to build with a system a bit like the old rural schools,” says Dillon. “I thought I’d stick to three local materials: concrete, pebbledash and fibre-cement slates. The concrete was done by an agricultural shed crew. He 100% knew what he was doing. I grew up on these things and, generally, if it’s easy to draw, it should be easy to build. I wanted the concrete designed by a straightforward engineer. Nothing fancy. 150mm slab, 225mm beam on edge, and tilting the slab to avoid perimeter drainage. The ring beam means there are no lintols over the doors and windows. There are no cills either. No plinth. All efficient.”

The payoff is a stoic concrete canopy supported on a colonnade of slender columns, sheltering an arcade the width of a standard school corridor. “The architect has some freedom in these areas,” says Dillon. “Ten per cent is allowed for circulation, but they don’t give grants for shelters. The covered external circulation provides three shelters which the school had lacked. They are an important social element, places for students to wait before and after school on wet and windy days. Corridors are usually opened at 9am and closed at 4pm – there’s not much use for them at all. These spaces can’t be locked, so the kids can sit around and wait in some comfort for as long as needs be.”