10 Jul 2020

A Modern Architectural Gem

Meticulously designed by award-winning Architect Niall McLaughlin, this modern-day masterpiece in Schull – named Skyros – was crafted from poured concrete and clad entirely in Irish Kilkenny limestone. Fusing modern architecture with minimalist-style, floor-to-ceiling glass windows allow the landscape to echo throughout the clean interiors, exhibiting stunning south-facing views over Roaringwater Bay and its collection of islands. Together with the AGA and underfloor heating, a glowing double-sided fire ensures this luxury retreat is as cosy as it is contemporary.

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Inside, the single-storey design has a vast internal volume, with high ceilings, pared-back interiors and light-filled spaces. The stunning living areas are complemented by four bedrooms, each exuding irresistible stay-in-bed appeal. The master has an en-suite bathroom with out-of-this-world views, whilst the twin and single share a bathroom with bath and shower. The second double bedroom has a private shower and is separated from the main living space by a secret door. Moving outside, Skyros’ garden is intentionally simple, bringing no competition to the house design nor the view.

Here, i-Build’s Editor, Rebecca Kemp, talks to Skyros’ owners, the O'Learys, to find out what inspired the family’s desire to build in the picturesque town of County Cork, Ireland.

RK: What inspired you to embark on your project rather than buying?
At the time, there weren’t any available properties in Schull that were desired – contemporary aesthetics and great coastal views. I obtained a beautiful site from my family, overlooking the sea in Schull. It was on a piece of land beside my family home where I used to play as a child, so I knew every inch of it. I loved that place and the happy childhood memories from living and playing there.

Creating a new home for a newlywed couple also felt like a real adventure – it will probably be the only property we will ever build from scratch. At the time we had the resources, the energy, a top architect willing to take on the project and a fantastic builder with whom we had a close relationship.

RK: What was the vision and inspiration behind your new home?
We wanted to build a beautiful house that would maximise the astonishing view out over the islands of Roaring Water Bay while fitting into the rugged West Cork Landscape. We were hoping to be allowed to build a contemporary design.

RK: How did you approach finalising your design brief?
The design brief and process to arrive at a finished plan were very iterative. We started by giving a very loose brief but with a big portfolio of images (likes and dislikes) that we had collected over the years, stripped from magazines and books. The architects then came up their initial vision, and for about two years, we collectively added and subtracted and pushed and pulled the design to come up with a final version. There were further modifications derived from planning comments. However, when we acquired planning, we further modified the project to ensure it was affordable.

RK: How long did it take to gain planning permission?
The design and planning process took about two years, but that was driven by us making changes as we continuously modified the design to incorporate new ideas. For example, the high up north-facing windows in the living room area were a late addition; however, the light really makes that space.

The project had to meet the strict planning requirements of the Cork County Council. They were very helpful during the process, and some of their comments around scale ended up making the project much more affordable versus some of our initial ambitions.

RK: Were there any challenging aspects to the project and build?
The global financial crisis! We had a few sub-contractors go bust, but we were fortunate to have such a stable and reliable main contractor – CHOM Construction.

The site was challenging as it had to be dug out of rock whose seams ran in such a way that made it very time-consuming to break and quite tight to operate in. The advantage was that the rock was pushed forward in the site creating a much bigger platform and ultimately a much bigger lawn than we anticipated.

RK: Did you project manage the build yourself?
No, the architects managed everything. We had a family member to act as our eyes and ears on the ground as we were London-based at the time. We had a very active relationship with the architectural team, and they heavily involved us in their decisions. However, we very much relied on them to lead the design process.

The whole project was led by Niall McLaughlin architects who had built two other fabulous coastal houses in West Cork. One of the Architects described it as a pet office project! They worked really hard to keep the quality while operating in quite tight budget constraints.

RK: How did you approach material and product specification?
In terms of material and products, the architects provided sensible recommendations based on our budget envelope from which we made final choices. We loved the feel and bulk of the Kilkenny limestone cladding. We spent a lot of time getting glazing that was of sufficient scale whilst avoid the cost of bespoke. Stunning grey resin floors. Jet black marble worktops. Its mainly blacks, whites, greys, clean surfaces. Of course, that’s the theory – it’s primarily covered in multi-coloured Lego and Playmobile with a candy-coloured Cosy Coupe driving through at speed!

RK: Did you install any renewable systems?
We installed solar water heating. The house receives vast amounts of solar gain and is very well insulated, so happily, it is very thermally efficient.

The house has fantastic insulation and benefits from substantial solar gain. The large sliding patio doors allow heat control in summer. The fireplace is fully enclosed but being double-sided radiates massive amounts of heat, which is exceptionally cosy in winter. Plus, the underfloor heating is very efficient.

RK: How long did the project take?
The actual build process took about 18 months which was as anticipated – although in common with all ‘grand designs’, the last week before our Christmas move-in was pretty frantic.

RK: Did you remain within the original budget?
The project budget did not slip thanks to the very professional job done by our builders, CHOM Construction, and their excellent QS. However, we added quite a bit of cost by adding extras, all of which were great additions.

RK: What are the interior and exterior finished spaces like?
The house has two separate spaces – almost like two triangles colliding – the front living room area and the rear bedroom areas – linked with a central hall and corridor. During the design phase, we continuously pulled the rear triangle out to the side, so it is a very long building which maximises the coastal view.

The front is entirely glazed and has a beautiful feeling of being outside. The rear is also incredibly light. The ceiling height is enormous front and back, so the size in no way equates to the square footage. And, the exterior is all clad in Kilkenny limestone – jet matt black, including the roof – angles everywhere – so it looks like a stealth bomber. We have four bedrooms – one of which can be effectively shut off from the rest of the house with its entrance. The master bedroom has a study-cum-sitting room as well as a bath with a view out to the Fastnet Lighthouse.

The kitchen and living room all run into one another. There is nothing more beautiful than a summer’s evening, cooking and drinking in the super kitchen; the huge patio doors open to the west, the sun on the islands to the southwest and the kids in and out on scooters and trikes.

RK: How does the property respond to its surrounding landscape?
The building, despite its size, hides in the hillside and is invisible from the road and very hard to see from the sea, all despite its magnificent view. You don’t even see it until the last minute as you swing up the driveway – every time I drive up, it still surprises me to see – 10 years on.

From inside, it maximises the beauty of the local area. From waking up to sunrise over Castle Island in our south-east-facing master bedroom to observing from the living room, the last bit of sun falling on Long Island and Cape Clear and all the weather rolling in from the North Atlantic in between.

RK: How does the garden respond to the surrounding landscape and your new home?
We are lucky to have beautiful cedars trees in our view, which complement the sea views – it feels like the South of France.

RK: What was your vision for the exterior?
The garden further helps the house to merge into the landscape, keeping it very private and hidden. We didn’t want the landscaping to compete with the architecture or in any way diminish the feeling of scale.

RK: How did you decide which plants to use and how to place them?
In true West Cork style, local fuchsia lines the driveway. Beyond the grass lawns; the gorse, brambles, wildflowers and willow are left to colonise everything that isn’t gravel, grass or limestone. This wild provides a contrast to the sharp jet black lines of the building.

RK: Have you incorporated any exterior furniture, flooring, sculptures or water features?
We have kept the exterior patios, paths etc. very simple so that the clean interior lines extend out to an uncomplicated exterior. We have also used black limestone and local gravel for all outside features to match the building and the surrounding rock faces. The main objective was to ensure that anything exterior was not competing with or breaking the line of the building.

RK: Did you work with a landscaping professional at any point in the process?
Yes, a local landscape garden designer advised us on framing views and positioning of some large rocks which was very useful. We had a fantastic stonemason to build our patios and paths.

RK: Is the final property everything that you hoped it would be?
The finished product is way more than what we thought it would be; I don’t think my wife or I expected the vast internal volume. And all buildings look so small at the early stages when walking round in the foundations.

RK: What’s your favourite thing about your new home?
Our favourite thing is being so involved in the ever-changing West Cork weather…from inside. We see the clouds marching in to be replaced by bright sunshine to be followed by hail and more sun.

RK: What advice would you offer to anyone looking to self-build?
Make sure you have assembled a great team. We had a great architect with great vision and flexibility. We weren’t afraid to debate with them about what we wanted. They accommodated our ideas while keeping to their own vision. We had a fabulous builder who did such a great job and who has always been there for us to deal with issues that inevitably crop up post-completion. And keeping a very sharp eye on the financial decisions, so it doesn’t become a burden for the next 25 years. Our project could have been 100% more expensive, delivering limited extra amenity and ultimately unaffordable.

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