A Game of Homes — The Sunday Times
This house is like a game — a game of homes. The pieces: a farmhouse built in 1850, in need of updating; space for Ian & Lin McMorris a retired couple returning to the family homestead after living around the world and space for Michael McMorris their brother who has been living in the house since birth farming the surrounding land. The problem: combine all the pieces in a way that provides two distinct living areas, catering for each parties individual needs while creating one coherent and comfortable modern rural farmhouse.
This is the game that Derry-based firm Shane Birney Architects had to play when they were appointed to design Mount Pleasant — a beautiful reworking of a rural farmhouse near Strabane Co. Tyrone. Shane Birney who founded the practice in 2010 calls the game “intergenerational living.”
Intergenerational living is on the rise. For many, house prices mean that owning their own home is little more than a distant dream. According to UK think tank the Resolution Foundation, “The cost of housing has been rising for the last six decades”, each generation — spending around a quarter of their income — is paying more for housing. Then there are students who, wanting to avoid the thought of a future shackled to dizzying amounts of debt are choosing to study locally. And, as life expectancy increases, many are beginning to consider creative ways of caring for elderly relatives. According to the National House Building Council (NHBC) Foundation report, in the UK the number of intergenerational households increased by 38 percent between 2009 and 2014.
Living with the elderly in-laws or grown-up children might sound, for some, like their idea of a domestic nightmare. Domestic bliss being living in our own detached house, with a garden fence small enough to say a quick hello to the neighbours but big enough to provide the all-important privacy that we in the west seem to prize.
Contrast this with China where intergenerational living is the cultural norm. 41% of over 60’s live with an adult child with another 34% living in the same neighbourhood as one of their children. Elderly relatives in China, as with many countries in the far-east are highly respected. For an elderly parent to live on their own brings shame on a family and to send an older person to a care home is only done as the very last resort.
While intergenerational living is about all ages it is a particularly relevant conversation for the elderly. According to the charity ALONE, in Ireland more than a quarter of people over 65 live alone in private housing while one in ten people suffer from chronic loneliness — a sobering thought. As the population of Ireland gets older, not younger — a 225% increase in 65-year-olds and a 375% increase in over 80s by 2046 — new questions will be asked about how we care for the elderly. Even President Mary McAleese had experience of this. Her father-in-law (now deceased) lived with her family in Aras an Uachtarain. “Intergenerational living is not simple," says Shane, but he is optimistic, “it can, and does work, and it’s a conversation that people are beginning to have. As a practice, we are getting more and more work that deals with these questions.” Mount Pleasant is one of those projects.
The project began with the same simple, basic questions that Shane asks at the start of all their projects. “What can be done here? How can we bring this back to life?” And the question specific to this project: “How can we turn what was a working farmhouse, back into the 21st century, for a new generation to live there, see out there days and then pass it on to the next generation of the family.” Add to these questions the client's requirements; to have one house comprising of, in effect, two homes, meeting the requirements of two very different clients — a retired couple and a working farmer — and you realise the complexity of Shane’s task.
But these are the kind of challenges that Shane enjoys. “To a certain extent you’re appointed by the client and you have to meet their requirements, but then it is also the job of the architect to challenge them and see if you can push them beyond there expectations, beyond what they might have expected — exceed their brief.” This, of course, is all very well and good but not every client is up for this kind of journey. The McMorris' were.
“They’re in their sixties, to be honest I went into this thinking that they would have some quite traditional ideas” but Shane’s preconceptions were wrong. “They were very much up for trying to reinterpret the classical farmhouse; how it worked; how they interacted with the house, and were very
keen on using local materials and thinking in innovative ways about things like water harvesting and sedum roofs.”
A measure of the client's commitment to the project was their insistence that something of the existing farmhouse remain. While for Shane it would have been easier to start from a blank canvas the decision was made to retain three existing walls of the house, using them as the reference point for everything else. “It would have been easier to get rid of them” says Shane, “it cost more to keep those walls” In the north of Ireland 20% tax is paid on work to existing proprieties. “it was quite a bit of the budget to keep those walls but, it was important for the client that something of the original farmhouse remained like the original door with the original big lock and key, which were things they very much wanted to keep because they were part of their childhood memories.”
What emerged from the remaining walls is an elegant solution that respects the history of the original farmhouse while using simple, bold, modern forms, punctuated with generously sized windows. “It wasn’t about producing a shiny object," says Shane, an important part of the practices design philosophy. “I don't want to be trotting out cliches but I’d like to think that we are people-centric and this project was very much about looking at the family.”
The three blocks — one rendered and two timber clad — are knitted together into one unique home. The separate elements are about “giving identity to the people who live there” explains Shane. To help achieve this sense of identity the house has three entrances. A traditional farmhouse entrance, a family entrance which leads into an open plan area, “where the door is always open and the Aga’s always on,” and a working entrance for the brother who comes in covered with muck.” Internally the design is simple. The kitchen is a modern take on the traditional farmhouse kitchen, coloured blue to reflect the “family colour.” Doors, balustrades, oak shelving and ceiling timbers have been restored and reused — a nod back to the existing house.
At Mount Pleasant, Shane Birney Architects have found an elegant solution to the jigsaw puzzle game of intergenerational living. A house that honours the past, looks forward to the future and respects the identities of its new occupants.