Emerald in the Rough
An architect and artist flee Dublin for the countryside to build a biodegradable house and raise their children.
The village of Cloone sits on a hill in Leitrim, in northwest Ireland. Leitrim, a county of farms and waterways, is best described by John McGahern, a well-known local author, who happened to pass away the day before my visit. He wrote in his memoirs: “The fields between the lakes are small, separated by thick hedges of whitethorn, ash, blackthorn, alder, sally, rowan, wild cherry, green oak, sycamore, and the lanes that link them under the Iron Mountains are narrow, often with high banks. The hedges are the glory of these small fields, especially when the hawthorn foams into streams of blossom each May and June.”
In the late 1990s, Irish newspapers reported that County Leitrim had the cheapest property in the European Union. That was when Dominic Stevens, an architect in his 30s, and his wife, Mari-Aymone Djeribi, a Parisian artist and book maker, decided to leave their apartment in Dublin’s Merrion Square and move to the country. They purchased a five-acre lot in Cloone for around $12,500, and began to build a house that embodies their vision of sustainability. They went as low-tech as possible, used locally sourced materials, and minimized the building’s footprint. Their house all but disappears into the hillside, and will actually vanish if left unattended for a decade or so. Stevens meets me in the village so I can follow him back home along the nameless roads. Typical of rural Ireland, Cloone centers around a pub and a church. The architect is easy to spot, arriving in a bright turquoise Renault Twingo, and wearing Robert La Roche glasses with half-inch-thick black oblong frames that suit his profession as well as his prescription.
On leaving the village, the Twingo stops for a few moments while Stevens chats with an old-timer walking up the road. We arrive at the house, a rustic assemblage of rectangles rising on stilts from a steep hillside, and go into the kitchen, where Djeribi is making pastries for a Saturday farmer’s market in a nearby town. Stevens fixes me an espresso and we talk in the living room, which overlooks hedges through floor-to-ceiling windows set between roughly hewn timber studs. I ask Stevens about the old-timer. “He’s a neighbor,” he explains. “His front door is open eight months of the year.”
“My grandfather was a contractor,” Stevens adds, making a salient segue. “He’s famous in our family for saying, in the ’60s, that this newfangled American central heating would never catch on in Ireland, because you don’t need it in this climate. It’s true, the weather is so mild that you don’t need it; on cold days you can light a woodstove or wear a jumper. But now everybody wants a new bungalow with a thermostat. They don’t open their doors, and they all have asthma.”
Stevens and Djeribi built their house in deliberate opposition to a new status quo that has developed in this country in the last 15 years, due to a booming economy fueled by high-tech industries, the unification of Europe, and rising property values. The resulting transformation is palpable for their generation. The living standard has improved in many ways, encouraging widespread optimism. There is more funding for scientific and artistic endeavors. Numerous immigrants from other EU countries, drawn by the job market, are increasing diversity and cultural vibrancy. Gourmet activities like yoga and wine tasting are becoming commonplace.
But the financial boom offers plenty to lament, especially from an architect’s standpoint. Suburban sprawl is spreading like a plague around cities, most of all Dublin, and engulfing the countryside. It’s the kind Americans know well, replete with cookie-cutter houses, dependency on cars, trips to the mall, and unbearable commuter traffic. All this underscores a sense that community spirit, which the Irish hold dear, is giving way to the “every man for himself” mentality typically associated with capitalism.
To get away from all that—and have enough space to raise their two children, Ezekiel and Nour, now aged six and four—Stevens and Djeribi went to Cloone. They built their house themselves, erecting two timber-frame boxes during one summer, and a straw-bale addition later. Stevens designed the construction method, inspired by self-build movements in England and the United States from the 1970s. It’s a modular system in which boxes can be added and subtracted to meet changing space requirements. So far, it has cost them $75,000, including the land.
“We didn’t want to be saddled with a large mortgage,” Stevens says. “Irish people nowadays tend to buy expensive houses that drive both members of a couple to work full-time to pay off the loan, while the children need childcare. Through inflating house prices, presto—the government doubled the GNP, because there’s twice as many people working. So owning a house becomes the driving force behind economic growth or screwing up people’s lives—whichever way you want to put it. It’s a chain reaction that keeps people working hard and not thinking very much.”
Djeribi and Stevens both work in outbuildings on their property. Stevens’s architectural practice resides in a refrigerated transport container with a porthole window. The well-insulated box is parked up the hill from the main buildings, past the couple’s ducks, geese, and goats, who graze between berry bushes.
“Our house was built in bits,” Stevens explains. “At no particular point did we start, finish, and move in. It’s not the house as a product, it’s more the house as a process. Over the life cycle of our family growing, it can constantly adapt to the needs of different ages of children. The house is amorphous as opposed to static.”
Indeed, the house began as a tent, where they lived while building the wood frame. They still had their apartment and jobs in Dublin, and Djeribi was pregnant, but they came out to Cloone four days a week and took advantage of long summer daylight hours. Stevens hired some of his architecture students at University College Dublin to help with labor. The first two boxes—for living and sleeping—were enclosed by fall. “It was a good summer, not a lot of rain,” Stevens recalls. “People in the village were instinctively helpful—lending tractors, equipment, hands. It’s a teamwork mentality that goes back centuries in the Irish countryside.”
Stevens estimates that the house would disintegrate in ten years’ time, should they stop maintaining it. It’s built from biodegradable materials, and the exterior cladding—inexpensive spruce and a sod roof—already appears on the way out. Stevens plans to replace it this summer. “It’s a week’s work,” he says cheerfully. “We’ll use the spruce as firewood and maybe put on something more durable, like cedar. I like the idea that the building can change its appearance radically. It’s just a frame you can click different panels onto.”
In Ireland, where the English seized land for centuries, owning a home to pass on to your children is a cultural obsession, almost as necessary as complaining about the weather. Stevens plans a different legacy for Ezekiel and Nour. “Nowadays we rely on so many inventions that people don’t know how to fix. Houses have become another one of those things, where people are always calling in experts for repairs. If our children grow up in a house that’s constantly being built, we’re giving them the knowledge to go and build themselves.”
The house’s spare materials—raw timber, panel board, and glass—form a neutral frame for the hospitable green land outside, and cheerful daily clutter inside: books, toys, good food cooking in the kitchen. Minimal architecture surrounds this family, while their practical choices offer maximum enjoyment of life. I wonder aloud how such socially and artistically minded people could live so remotely, and Stevens tells me that they are ten miles from a hundred-mile train ride to Dublin. This is rural living at its best.