St. Benedict's Housing - January 2018

St Benedict’s Housing for the Elderly, Estuary Road, Malahide, Co. Dublin

Paul Keogh Architects
2004 – 2008

Photographs – PKA (1–3), Peter Cook (4&5), Ros Kavanagh (6&7)
courtesy of Paul Keogh Architects (PKA)


This tranquil residential community – comprising 31 one-bedroom and six two-bedroom houses – was developed by the Society of St Vincent de Paul, the largest charitable organisation in Ireland. Financial support came from Fingal County Council, while the arcaded communal building at the head of the scheme was funded by the National Lottery. The site was donated by a local resident, Josephine Denning, who willed her land to house the elderly. 

Two models, both Dutch but originating centuries apart, drove the design that fulfilled her dying wishes and won the 2009 Irish Council for Social Housing award for housing for the elderly. The first is the almshouse: terraces of charitable housing for the elderly – often well-connected widows – in a Christian tradition that dates back more than a thousand years. In the Netherlands, these are called hofjes (courtyards). ‘There is a fine example in Drogheda,’ says Paul Keogh, referring to The Alleys, dating from the early 18th century, behind St Peter’s Church of Ireland. Built for widows of clergy, these beautiful, plain, strict, Georgian terraces were established by Narcissus Marsh, Archbishop of Armagh, who is best known for his illustrious library beside St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. 

Keogh cites Sir Christopher Wren’s Trinity Green in Whitechapel, of 1695, the first group of buildings in the East End of London to be preserved for posterity (on its bicentenary in 1895, following a campaign by CR Ashbee, with support from William Morris, among others). Three features of these mariners’ almshouses stand out, apart from the sublime architecture: a grassy central garden, strikingly paired doorways and a separate building at the top of the site, called the Club Room. There are powerful echoes of each in Malahide.

Keogh also mentions Dutch examples in Delft and The Hague, where hofjes were built for the working middle classes from the second half of the 18th to the early part of the 20th century. 150 years ago, a quarter of The Hague's population still lived in almshouses. This was the beginning of social housing as we know it. ‘We’re interested in them as a typology that is particularly relevant for sheltered housing,’ he says. ‘We’re interested in the making of spaces – courtyards and gardens – rather than objects. It’s a bit like at Oxbridge colleges, only on a smaller scale.’

The most obvious thing about all of these historic precedents is their mirror-symmetry. But Malahide is not symmetrical. ‘The site was rather tricky,’ says Keogh. ‘Long and narrow, running north-south. There was a solid stone wall to Estuary Road and a housing estate immediately to the west, so the houses had to look inwards.’ Significantly, there was also a derelict property on part of the frontage that was not available. That’s what produced the long wiggling terrace that is at first concave and then convex as it winds its way along the boundary. Facing it are five square, double-pile, pavilion blocks – each having three apartments, one at the front and another to either side – separated by a series of square gravel courts fringed with lavender.

‘We placed villas on the opposite side, rather than terraces on both sides,’ says Keogh. ‘A second terrace would have required back gardens, so the buildings would have been pushed closer together, killing the central courtyard garden.’ Although smallish, this raised woodland garden provides a striking focus for the scheme. Most living rooms face into it, maximising passive surveillance and generating engagement among the residents. 

By removing kerbs and any obvious indication of a travel line for cars, the paved pedestrian realm is expanded into what would otherwise be a carriageway. This strategy derives from the ‘home zone’ concept – an English term for a woonerf – the urban design tool developed in the Netherlands and Flanders to shape residential streets as shared spaces that primarily meet the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and children, with motorised traffic tolerated but restricted to walking pace. 

The use of a contemporary vernacular aesthetic lends charm and character to the place, which is surrounded by typical suburban housing estates. ‘The continuous curved rood was a challenge to achieve, but it works well visually,’ says Keogh. With the exception of elegantly paired solar panels on the villas, all pipes, vents and roof lights are banished to the rear slopes. Verges are as sharp as a blade, while eaves and their gutters are finely detailed. Big cut-outs in the serpentine range provide order and scale to the complex, but do it in the most neighbourly of ways, connecting pairs of doorways under a shared porch that also makes possible diagonal views out from the living rooms – a little benediction in itself for the community’s less mobile residents.