The Dolmen House - December 2019

The Dolmen House, Drumacloughan, Ramelton, Co Donegal

MacGabhann Architects
2009 – 2013
Photographs – copyright Dennis Gilbert / VIEW Pictures, except Gortnavern Dolmen courtesy of John Vigneau/Stonestrider and model images courtesy MacGabhann Architects


“When designing in the countryside, you often don’t have a generator like you do in the city,” says Tarla MacGabhann. “With no reference point, you may as well be on the moon. Maybe that’s why so many houses look the same. We always look for some local context to drive our designs. Liam McCormick did that before us. At Creeslough, it was Muckish. At Burt, Grianán Aileach. I’m pretty sure the Bluestacks and Sliabh Liag played a similar role as inspiration for Glenties [Tegral BOTM October 2016]. Liam was always looking for something archaeological or geological as a starting point to anchor his design in its place. We took a page from his book. 

“Our source here was manmade,” he says, “a nearby dolmen, Gortnavern. We wanted the house to hold as strong a presence in the countryside as it.” The compact megalithic portal tomb, suggested as dating from circa 3,800–3,200 BC, sits in a valley with higher ground in all directions except north, where it has a spectacular vista over Mulroy Bay at Kerrykeel, north of Letterkenny. An entry in the School’s Collection, supervised by the Irish Folklore Commission in 1937–38, says that on the ordnance survey map it is marked as Diarmuid and Gráinne's Bed – one of several scattered throughout Ireland – after the mythological lovers’ pursuit saga. The dolmen’s capstone has slipped slightly and now rests on the back stone and the eastern side stone, which has caved slightly towards the chamber. 

“We built multiple models and drew it over and over again,” says Tarla. “In our first efforts, the 350 sqm scheme looked like a baby museum. We said, ‘It has to look like a house’. We made one bold move – to project a metaphorical lump of stone, sitting on nothing, floating over the landscape. It is sloped to offer it a domestic scale. We wanted it to look like stone, but we didn’t want to make it out of concrete. We needed it to be lightweight, so it is made of steel and timber and clad in fibre cement. The colour comes from traditional slate roofs. We wanted it on the soffit too, but the client thought it would be too dark for the living room ceiling. We managed to bring it through into part of the interior.” SCROLL FOR MORE...
The Dolmen House dominates  a commanding site overlooking Lough Swilly, with a distant view of Grianán Aileach across the lough. “We wanted to avoid the problems of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, where there is no privacy anywhere,” he says, “so we made a solid stone block to contain all of the backup areas – cloakroom, utility, children’s playroom, home office and garage – and provide enclosure at one end of the fully glazed shared space and its patio, which allows the inhabitants feel as though they are living within the landscape. We had considered using stone like at the Zumthor baths and thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be great?’ But we have our own stone falling out of our ears in Donegal. These stones, from field boundaries on the family farm, were honed by the owner’s forefathers in the same townland, which seemed important.”  

The plan is simple and direct. Beyond the stone base is the full-height stairwell and a three-bay, open-plan kitchen/dining/living/party space, opening onto a sunroom facing south-southwest. At the head of the stairs is a more intimate sitting room with a terrace overlooking the lough. A long, gently stepping library corridor at the back of the plan connects to four bedrooms and a gym and steam room at the northern end, overhanging the carport. All of the sculptural brio comes from the figured section of the crisply detailed monolithic capstone, with its doubly slanted undercroft and angular roof. 

An extension is planned next year, with more bedrooms and a swimming pool. “It was like solving a Rubik’s Cube,” says Tarla, “extending the architectural concept that’s there, adding complexity. We can’t be slaves to what we do. The extension makes the whole ensemble better. At the moment, the house stands shoulder-square, saying, ‘Look at me’. It’s perhaps a little too classical, a bit too full-frontal. Now we will bring some of the walls down to the ground, using the same fibre cement panels. The extension will anchor the ‘flying dolmen’.”