First published in the Spring edition of Living Design magazine.
No.37, a house by FAMILY Architects, is as much about what isn’t there as what is — what hasn’t been designed and why. The question leading architects Grainne and Alasdair to design the house was what to do now that their two-hundred year old, five bedroom nest was empty. A dilemma that many of us, if we haven’t already, will one day face. This house is an exercise in what Grainne describes as “creative downsizing.”
“We wanted to see how small we could design a house, how little we could get away with," says Grainne. The house is just that. No bigger than the average size one bedroom apartment, the economical plan leaves no room for anything deemed unnecessary. Like bedroom walls, en-suits, and, well, rooms. The house is simple, but it is the “simple and ordinary things” that interest FAMILY Architects. The ground floor is one room — kitchen-come-storage, dining, and living opening out onto a simple bark covered garden area. A narrow set of stairs leads up to an open mezzanine housing a small double bedroom.
This is living light. Small? Yes. Claustrophobic and unpractical? No. The full height living space cleverly and simply creates the illusion of space. Storage space has been designed into the kitchen while a small side space acts as a wardrobe, utility, larder, cloakroom. The detailing both inside and out is as Grainne describes; “simple, robust and functional” but no less aesthetically pleasing. Having worked with Jonathan Ellis-Miller, traveled the world and been influenced by the late and great English architect John Winter, Grainne has a pragmatic and unpretentious view of architecture. There is a confidence that comes with this kind of experience. A confidence where less is definitely more than the less-is-more architect designed faux-modernist show houses, of which there are too many.
Externally the inky black timber cladding and bright cadmium yellow door and window cills do not feel out of place among the rows of Belfast brick terraced housing. “I honestly thought that when we were building this house people were going to knock on the door and say ‘what the hell do you think you are doing’” says Grainne “but it wasn’t like that, people were coming up photographing it, telling us how much they liked it.”
This simple, beautiful, unpretentious little house opens up a very important conversation. Across the island of Ireland, the demographic is shifting. By 2050 there will be more than double the number of sixty-five-year-olds — that's you if you are in your late thirties now. This throws up some interesting questions around housing: what happens when the big, double-fronted, four-bedroom Victorian house on the hill becomes too big, or too difficult to manage? Why can't we think creatively about downsizing?
“Downsizing is not a conversation that most people want to have," says Grainne, “but it should be a creative and fun experience, the beginning of something new and not the end — we must embrace ageing.” This is what this house does. It answers the question for Grainne and Alasdair. The answer for others may be different, but the challenge remains. Why not think creatively about the possibilities that downsizing may bring.“There’s real potential in ageing, we want to get more radical the older we get” Grainne’s attitude, her manifesto for the next x-number of years is inspiring. This house stands as a testament to an architecture beyond skin deep aestheticism. As Grainne says “There’s nothing exceptional about it, it’s ordinary and we love ordinary things.”