Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Designs for our Future

The waste of public funds is the cause of intense resentment in the post-Tiger era. Examples abound of Government waste and poor value for money (HSE, e-voting, FAS). But in truth there was extreme wastefulness in private spending also and nowhere was this more evident than in domestic property. Not only did we spend extravagant sums on purchasing real estate, we also paid unreal prices for building work, for kitchen appliances and fitting, for all types of domestic luxuries.

The Designs for Life series on RTE is intended to show that architects can make houses better suited to the needs of their owners. Instead, it has unwittingly documented a wasteful era. The last programme was an extreme example which showed a couple spending over a million euro on a house in a rural part of East Clare.

I used to think that all those soul-less, ugly shoeboxes were the product of ignorant developers, short-sighted developers, greedy bankers etc. but I'm beginning to think that, in reality, they are what Irish people want. First-time buyers might have little choice (although I think the market would respond to some degree to their preferences) but when people can afford something more expensive than a bog-standard three-bed semi, they spend it on space and glitz, not on aesthetics and not on the environment (except for phony touches).

Most Irish people don't even understand that good design can make a house a better home i.e. the basic premise of this series. First-time buyers might be forced to accept bad design in the hope of "getting on the property ladder" but look at the McMansions strewn across our beautiful landscape. Not only are these houses eyesores but I now realise that they don't even function rationally for their owners, with dead spaces, inefficient designs, dysfunctional layouts etc.

If the problem was just aesthetic, I might put it down to a difference of taste but there are objective, practical objections which are really design failures. I'm beginning to think most Irish people don't grasp the importance of design i.e. working out what you want a house to do, how you want to live etc. and then seeking solutions based on the site, the budget etc. . They seem to believe that commonsense or tradition will provide the solutions.

In recessionary times, the case for good design is stronger than ever. The couple last night would have been much better served by a well-designed house at half the size (and price!). Nonetheless, there will be very little scope for Irish architecture in the coming years. The tragedy is that, apart from some notable public buildings, the standard of Irish architecture during recent years, which could have been a golden era, is now irredeemable The couple last night were being ripped-off by the builders not the architect but the coming years will see even more false economy as Irish people cut out the architects from the few projects going.

This is not just a problem of domestic architecture. It clearly has a profound impact on how Irish families live their lives. Even those fortunate enough to live in large expensive houses are all to often not living in a space that suits their lifestyles. That has a negative impact on family life.

There are also broad economic implications. Ireland will only emerge from the current crisis when it is again competitive in the world market. The sources of competitiveness for the Celtic Tiger (low wages, demographics) will probably not help us in future. That means being competitive through being efficient and thinking ahead of our competitors, in short: competitiveness will require good design.


  1. They got a terrible result for their €1.1M, very ugly and akward looking outside though the inside had some nice touches.
    They were constrained by the planning laws to do it that way. When they found that demolition was the only practical way to go I wonder if we had a facility to get a very rapid decision for changed plans would it be useful. Strict controls and cost penalties would be needed to prevent misuse.

  2. @Michaell, I doubt if the planning laws are at fault in this case. In fact, they did not appear to seek approval to demolish the existing house. The problems arose mainly from (a) overpaying for the original house (they should only have paid site value) and (b) not working with the architect to fit the design to their needs (did they need 5,000 sq. ft) and (c) going for glitz when they should have invested in landscaping.