Split House - April 2020

Douglas, Cork

Simply Architecture

2011 – 2016 

Photographs – Copyright Frank O’Sullivan, courtesy Simply Architecture


“After a few visits requiring scrambling over earth banks we had seen enough in the steeply-sloping, overgrown one-fifth of an acre to make an offer,” recall the clients. “Soon we were the owners of a site bounded by woodland, a 1970s apartment block and a busy tree-covered road. Our requirements were “something modest from the road and maximise the privacy offered by the woodland”. From this sparing brief Gareth Sullivan of Simply Architecture was able to create a design. Impressed with his sense of style, willingness to listen, explain, and educate, from our perspective the build was a positive and exciting experience. His steely powers of persuasion made the impossible happen, but always mindful of our requirements, realism about the budget, and fairness to the builder.”

Sullivan’s route to Cork was a roundabout one. “I had an interest in construction, having worked on building sites when I was younger,” says the Monaghan native. After studying architectural technology at Jordanstown, he was part of a group that went on to the school of architecture at Hull, which had connections with Jordanstown. “It was an old school,” he says. “It was a time of change for Hull then and the school moved to Lincoln, a hilly city like Cork. It wasn’t the road I had planned. It just evolved. Lincoln was very design- and theory-heavy. After graduation in 2004, I returned to Monaghan. A local business asked for help with a new office building and I did that for a year before going travelling for 18 months and working in Australia.

After that I realised I wanted to do smaller work. I ended up in London with Matthew Springett, a really good architect who had won the RIBA Silver Medal as a student, working on high-quality, small-scale residential projects for 18 months. I was due to start a new job in June 2009 but I moved to Cork because my girlfriend was returning home there. It was a sliding door moment. A relative wanted a house, then another job came along. Soon I was hot-desking and had a few projects in London and Cork.”

 

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Simply Architecture won the Future Award at the RIAI Irish Architecture Awards last summer. The award celebrates an emerging practice in Ireland, honoured for its work over recent years. Why Simply Architecture? “There were a few possibilities,” he says. “One aspect was my belief that most simple solutions are the best ones. So it does what it says on the tin. But I also didn’t want my name on the practice, for the sake of the people who would be working with me, because it assumes a hierarchy. It’s an umbrella name, one that everybody can feel a part of.”

The site has an extraordinary location, straddling two worlds – a public park, Ballybrack Woods (known locally as Mangala) to the north and west, and ragged suburbia, including a surface car park and a pair of bleak and boxy three-story flats to the south, which it manages to screen out by rotating the layout of the house at 45 degrees to the road. This first simple design move improves the orientation of the rooms immeasurably, while also embedding the house in the lush surrounding woodland and making the most of the site, which is split on two main levels and falls away sharply at the southern end.

“There were the remains of an old cottage on the site, by the roadside,” says Sullivan. “That’s what informed the gables and roof forms that give the Split House its character.” The house is split in section and plan, with four garden-level bedrooms tucked underneath the living spaces which occupy what appears at first glance to be a slipped pair of semi-detached, gable-fronted cottages. To the right and front is the porch, sheltered beneath a cutaway corner. “We wanted to create a welcoming threshold,” he says. “Not an add-on porch or a canopy, but something integrated with the building. The glass is frameless, there’s no clunky frame in the corner.”

The hall gives onto a generous home office for the clients, both academics at UCC. Beyond is the living room-cum-snug which can be subdivided in two by a folding wall. On the other side are the kitchen with its long horizontal window, the dining room, which is the real heart of the house, and an enclosed balcony terrace, a sheltered outdoor room that provides a framed view of the trees and receives sun from early till late. Its structural glass balustrade is in three sections, cantilevered off clamps set deep within the floor. All of the living areas open into each other but the dining and living areas can be separated by a concealed sliding door framed in steel.

Some of the cavity leaf block walls are clad with Siberian larch, detailed as a ventilated rainscreen. “The second material helps break up the mass of the house,” says Sullivan. “It softens the whole. We thought it would blend in well with the  trees – there was an element of that too. But we were careful about the weathering of it, so it is only used on the sunny sides of the house. We mocked up three different sizes of battens – 60, 50 and 30mm x 45mm deep. It needed to be thin to make the mitred joints at the corners really pop. We chose 30mm.”

And the roof? “We looked at loads of options. We wanted something nice and uniform, but with a little bit of character. Natural slates would have been too rugged, because the house is all about clean lines. Rivendale has a subtle texture, just enough for a clean roof, with its little ripples. The gables are crisply detailed with aluminium trims, zinc gutters and downpipes. There is no fascia board.”

The owners are happy: “We are frequently struck by the sublime, the light striking the wood cladding; the indulgent, a covered balcony; and the apparently simple, the fantastic flow throughout the house.  While you may never experience again a child’s wonder of a tree-covered road on the trip to Fountainstown, driving that same road and taking the turn to home makes us smile and that is what architecture should be about.”