Houses Tell Stories — The Sunday Times

Houses Tell Stories — The Sunday Times

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A version of this piece was published in The Sunday Times.

From the feet and inches marked with pencil on plaster walls telling the stories of growing children, to the door that always creaked; the scratch in the floor; the tree in the garden planted by Grandad, or the noise the central heating makes; houses tell stories. Houses are remarkable storytellers — the cycle of family life — generations of births, marriages, and deaths, captured in bricks and mortar. Millions of mini-monuments to stories we may never hear spread across the cities, towns, and villages of the Island of Ireland. The narratives of generations past quietly whispering to us as we rush along the streets from A to B to C, staring at our palms. What might we learn if we took the time to listen?

Here is one of those stories. Sixty-six years ago in 1952, a small, unassuming, white double-fronted bungalow was built in the Co. Kerry town of Tarbert. If you live locally you will know it as the house that Pat and Ailish Carey built, and following them another three generations of the Carey family. What began life as a regular bungalow— the kind you see in any Irish town — has become a small piece of family history and, hope the current owners, architects Brian and Barbara Carey, an important part of the conversation about the future of rural housing in Ireland. 

Originally occupied by Brian’s grandparents, his Father and Aunt, the first forty years of the bungalows life saw it gradually extended; growing with the family to suit their needs. “The house has constantly evolved," says Barbara, “over the years the kids got older, people passed away but it has continuously been in the same family for four generations.” Even the builder who built the house is part of the Carey family, with the doors and wardrobes — still in the house, today — made by Brian’s grand-uncle Paddy Healy a joiner and the Estate Carpenter for Glin Castle. "It’s constantly been adapted to suit every Carey that has passed through that house — it has evolved for them. Every single member of the family, starting from Brian’s Grandparents right down to our kids has had an input into that house”

Between 1997 and 2005 Pat and Ailish Carey died. One chapter in the life of the house ended and a new one began. The transition in family life was marked by the bungalow growing into a modern two-story house designed by Brian and Barbara for Brian’s parents. The brick and aluminum clad extension reaches out into the garden giving dramatic views towards the river. A south-facing courtyard cuts into the plan pulling light deep into rooms that would otherwise be artificially lit. A void above the kitchen linking through to a first-floor lounge opens up a space that would have felt claustrophobic. It’s a simple formula; natural light and open spaces — the result is a success. 

Not everyone was convinced though. Architecturally “Brian’s parent's friends were all scratching their heads when they saw the house being built, they probably thought that they had been led astray by their crazy architects," says Barbara laughing. “But, when they came into the house for the first time they were all impressed by the light and space, where externally they probably are still not sold on it, internally they all began to appreciate the large windows, the orientation and see that there was an architectural merit to the house.”

But there was something else that the Carey’s friends noticed. “When it was being built my parents would have had lots of friends living about a mile outside of the town, saying ‘what are you doing spending all this money’ and they would be looking at it kind of funny.” But the head scratching didn’t last long; “until the house was finished” says Brian. “the first week when they moved in, they all went to the pub on a Friday night”, everyone living outside of the town would have had to organise a designated driver, "then they all suddenly realised that my Dad and Mum could walk up the street and have a drink or during the day walk to the local shop without having to get in a car, and a lightbulb went on in their heads as they realised that living in the town made sense.”

For Brian and Barbara this is an important part of the story of the house and one of the reasons why, when they moved from Dublin in 2015, they decided to live in the town. Their house not only tells the story of their family but reflects Brian and Barbara’s passion for modern housing in Ireland’s rural towns. “If you live outside of town you are going to be stuck in your car for life, bringing your kids into town.” As Architects in a predominately rural area, this is familiar territory for them, with clients regularly requesting that they design traditional rural houses on farmland in the middle of nowhere. Barbara describes it as “a chronic issue in Ireland at the moment.” 

“We would disagree with it wholeheartedly," says Brian, “we think that people should be trying to move into town where there are services, public transport, and infrastructure.” Thinking back to the final months of his Grandad’s life he remembers being personally affected by seeing how “Grandad was able to live out his final years at home, with the support of a local community, it showed me the value of community and living within walking distance of neighbours and friends.” It frustrates Brian when he looks around the town and sees numerous empty commercial properties that could easily be converted to help meet what he sees as “the high demand for residential properties in the area.”

Between 2016 and 2017, the house changed again; this time to suit the needs of the next generation of Carey’s, Brian and Barbara’s two children Henry and Harper. The roof of the existing bungalow was remodeled to include a dorma, opening up the first floor to create what is now a large five-bedroom house. And the most recent addition — perhaps my most favorite — is a shed at the bottom of the garden, built by Brian with the help from some friends.  Constructed out of cheap bitumen based corrugated sheeting and polycarbonate cladding it reflects something of the simplicity of the agricultural vernacular that surrounds the town.

For Barbara, the story of the house is as important as the spaces, materials, and finishes. “There are things that are not perfect in the house for exactly that reason.” Where a lot of architects would want to hide the imperfections the Carey’s celebrate them. “The house wasn’t built by one person, it’s a whole bunch of different generations so you accept that things are maybe not perfect or as you would want them.” Something many architects could learn from. 

I am reminded of Kintsukuroi the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. The imperfections of the Carey house are part of its story — part of the family history. And so the story continues …

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