A dream home that’s down to earth

There were three reasons why architect Declan O’Donnell chose to build his family home where it is. The first two are prosaic. There was the size: a decent 205sqm. And location: a nifty 20-minute commute away from his practice in the centre of Dublin. The third was poetic. A screen of trees wraps around the wedge-shaped site like lofty green sentinels, adding an air of rural seclusion. Here, he thought, was a chance to start again to build his own rus in urbe.

O’Donnell and his wife, Judith Byrne, a marketing director for Dulux, reached this decision after a fruitless property trawl. “Secondhand” houses in need of rejuvenation had no appeal. “I’d walk in, size up the flaws and realise they didn’t make economic sense,” says O’Donnell, whose first job was with Foster + Partners in London. This plot of land, though, at the end of a companionable, postwar cul-de-sac, was a find. “There were definitely easier options,” he says, “but I knew I could make it work. You need to be a bit mad to build your own house. If you analysed every pitfall you’d never do it.”

The gamble paid off. “I have plenty of opportunities to flex my design muscles in my 9-5. But I wanted this to be an un-shouty house that nestles softly in the streetscape,” reflects O’Donnell on our Zoom tour. “We took our cue from local materials, using darkened tones.” Brick and slate with crisp, aluminium-framed windows combine for an effect that feels different, but unobstrusive.

Modest first impressions continue inside. “When you design a house, you start with the layout and function of each room and work backwards,” he says. By the front entrance, a utility room is tucked behind a secret door. The cosy snug leads off the hallway or “spine” of the two-storey house. It is at the back that the drama unfolds. Here, O’Donnell abandoned economy, creating the light-saturated, double-height living and cooking space. The dining area is cantilevered over the garden. He points out the sunken sitting room: a homage to the Dublin home of late architect Sam Stephenson. Its squashy sofas proved irresistible to the couple’s toddler, Maggie, who uses it as a “spectacular” play pen.

The Zettel chandelier by Ingo Maurer over the dining table was another indulgence. The DIY design allows you to clip whatever you like – photos, jottings – on to the frame. “During lockdown, we’d write notes to each other every morning.”

Opposite, the kitchen is from a dark veneer. A smoky-gold glass splashback bounces light into the east-facing space. The “altarpiece” layout, where the island sits in front of floor-to-ceiling storage, is echoed in the high clerestory window. O’Donnell designed the glazed opening to draw the treetops inside, like a shimmering band of green in summer.

There’s a corresponding eco element here, too. Beneath the poured concrete surfaces, the underfloor heating is powered by an electric heat pump, concealed in a shed. A natural ventilation system – like a Middle Eastern wind tower – keeps the house fresh and temperate throughout the seasons.

Left to his loftier ideals, O’Donnell admits he might have designed a stark cube complete with “one angular chair. Uncomfortable… but it would have photographed beautifully.” But there was the “client”, namely Mrs O’D, to consider. “This wasn’t about me as architect employing logic and reason to communicate my vision, it was about building a house for us all. Judith made me get off my architectural high horse and focus on what we needed: a comfortable, colourful family home. Atmosphere is a word I’m interested in. You can’t design a house without understanding atmosphere, because that’s what you’re ultimately creating.”

The smaller rooms are painted in punchy tones – deep blue, berry-red, mallard-duck green. Each is a different colour so that, at night, when the house is lit from within, the rooms look like Rothko paintings floating in a woodland.

Vistas dictated the clever design of the main bedroom, which overhangs the living space like a minstrel’s gallery. The glazed internal wall overlooking the kitchen has automated blinds for privacy; a mirror above the bed reflects the garden. Practical and bucolic, it crystallises the spirit of this individual home.