House Behind a Hedge - January 2017

House Behind a Hedge
Summerhill, Co Meath

Boyd Cody Architects
2002 – 2009 

Photographs – Sinead Bourke 
courtesy of Boyd Cody Architects


The context was typical of many parts of rural Ireland: a flat roadside site primed for ribbon development. The property had one unusual feature, however – a tall mature hedge running parallel with the road, shielding the paddock behind from view. The clients’ expectation was to build in front of the hedge, but the house is big, so the architects proposed a more subtle approach, one that would reduce its scale and visibility and anchor it to the land. “We were reacting against the trend for McMansions,” says Dermot Boyd. 

They cut a gap through the hedge for the driveway and neatly clipped it to single-storey height in front of the house, leaving it untouched along the rest of the frontage. The form of the house is related to vernacular long houses, but Boyd says he also had in mind the slipped arrangement of the deck and pavilion at Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. 

The Summerhill house is split in two slipped wings of equal dimension but contrasting expression: one seems traditional, the other modern; one is black, the other white; one sits lightly on the ground, the other is dug into it. The timber-framed, slate-clad ‘house’ contains the lofty living rooms, while the rendered bedroom wing has a solarium or viewing terrace – a nod to Mies’s deck or a witty take on Le Corbusier’s surrealist 1920s Maison de Beistegui roof garden in Paris, or both? – on top, its parapet level with the trimmed screen hedge.

The slender wings run north-south and overlap on the axis of the driveway, where a broad flight of steps rises grandly between the white walls of the garage and utility block on one side and the bedroom wing on the other, to a glazed entrance. Although the scale is very different, Boyd says the staircase was inspired by the memory of a limestone stile in a lime-washed wall on Inis Oírr. 

The up-and-over stile metaphor is apt. The steps lead past the belvedere terrace to a recessed porch, beyond which is a parlour with a small study to one side. Placed overhead the master bedroom suite, these are the only rooms on the upper ground floor. Guests can be entertained away from the family areas, which are only a short flight of 10 steps below. The arrangement would also make a fine home office if ever required. 

The oak-floored kitchen, dining and living room is one tall space, its ceiling following the line of the roof. Large openings – made possible by deep lattice-beam lintols – face east and west. The fibre-cement details are restrained: gutters and rainwater pipes are concealed, while the fireplaces in the parlour and living room have slim metal flues because the architects didn’t want blocky chimney stacks interrupting the abstract form. 

“Our interest lay in the simplicity of the slate-wrapped object and how it could be eroded,” says Boyd. The entrance porch is recessed beneath the eaves, which is everywhere else flush with the wall. The corner cutaway for the porch is emphasised by the parlour window, which makes most of the gable appear to cantilever. 

The family’s everyday entrance is off the forecourt, behind the garage. The bedrooms face onto a sunken garden, which was to have been planted with half a dozen apple trees. The layering of the flat site is exceptionally refined: road, paddock, hedge, forecourt, house, garden terrace and sunken garden, a lawn enclosed by a rectangular path and, beyond that, pasture extending into the distance. 

Perhaps fearful of maintenance issues, the clients may have baulked at certain details that would have made all the difference: no stud rails, planting the orchard in the sunken garden and laying a gravel drive, forecourt and paths instead of surfacing them with tarmac. Such small details matter greatly and can elevate even an outstanding project beyond the expected: here, regrettably, they made the end result more suburban than the architecture aspires to be.