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Screen idol: A home like no other in Cork city

Number 3 Millfield is a neat piece of theatre, a home like no other in Cork city. Playful, eye-catching, and dramatic, it’s a crossover between sculpture and living quarters.

The creative behind it is architect Paul McNally, a market leader in sustainability and passive housing, and a director of the PassivHaus Architecture Company.

Architect Paul McNally at Millfield, College Road, Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan
Architect Paul McNally at Millfield, College Road, Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

He was approached to design a home in a quiet cul de sac where another architect had already flexed his muscles. That was Stephen Brennan of Collins Brennan Architects who lived in the original No 1 Millfield for a couple of years, before replacing it in 2017.

The second iteration of Number 1 is quite a special property, with sliding glass walls to the outdoors just one of its many unique features. It’s currently on the market for the second time in three years (the owners have relocated overseas) with a guide price of €1.65m.

The internal screen and staircase were created by Southwood Joinery. Picture: Janice O'Connell
The internal screen and staircase were created by Southwood Joinery. Picture: Janice O'Connell

The bar was therefore quite high when Paul took on the task of re-designing No 3, which had been one of a trio of 1940s homes, tucked up a laneway where College Road meets Magazine Road, and backs onto affluent Orchard Road.

“We began looking at the project in the middle of 2019 and developed the design between then and when planning permission was granted in October 2020,” he says.

The double-height ceiling space in the living/circulation areas.
The double-height ceiling space in the living/circulation areas.

“My clients wanted to build a passive house from the outset and approached me knowing that is what I like to do.

“We met and looked at the site and did some initial exploration of their budget and the viability of what they intended.

“They then spoke with some of my recent clients who had been living in buildings I had completed and we were happy to proceed together.”

The site presented challenges. First off, an existing two-storey detached home had to be demolished.

Millfield, College Road, Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan
Millfield, College Road, Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

“The client’s house was in too poor a condition to treat as a refurbishment. There were exceptionally poor ground conditions leading to subsidence and the house was not salvageable economically,” Paul says.

They would later have to pile-drive and lay a concrete slab.

Once they had agreed that demolition and a new start was the best course, Paul began to assess the site as a blank canvas. The original house had not been positioned to make optimal use of sunlight, so Paul was determined to push the replacement home further back on the site. “I saw many opportunities for the new house if we changed its position on the site. I analysed sun paths across the sky and shading by surrounding buildings and trees, which was significant.

The floor plan is a simple rectangle over two storeys.
The floor plan is a simple rectangle over two storeys.

“The location and orientation of the existing house were not optimised for passive design. By moving the position of the house northwest, and flipping the entrance to the opposite side, we created a new south-facing entrance that could avail of sunlight. That became the starting point of everything that followed,” the architect says.

SUSTAINABILITY was central to the design approach. The attitude to placing the building on the site as a first step meant optimising passive energy. “When you start with sustainability as the key goal, the effect on the design is profound,” Paul says.

“It is no good designing a building first, and then reading the regulations to see what insulation levels are required to make the building work. It just doesn’t work that way because you have baked-in problems that can’t be fixed by adding on kit or materials to compensate.” In the case of No 3, having maximised solar access on the site, he then looked at the form of the house.

“To make a house with an energy-efficient shape, we strive to make the form as compact as possible,” he says.

“Imagine being caught in a cold downpour with no rain gear. If you stood with your arms and legs outstretched, you would very quickly lose heat and start to shiver.

“Instead if you hunker down and wrap your arms around yourself and make yourself as small as possible, you lose heat slower. So, in this house, the floor plan is a simple rectangle over two storeys. Very efficient and simple.”

The two storeys are not directly one over the other. Instead, the upper block was rotated slightly to create overhangs at the front and side. These overhangs shelter the ground-level outdoor spaces, which are in turn screened by the dramatic timber overlay, giant vertical slats, that provide both privacy and practical benefits.

The wooden screen, made of glue-laminated larch timber, is Paul’s favourite element of the design. It’s maintenance-free and will go silver over time, he says. Spruce is a popular choice when it comes to glue-laminate timber, he adds, but larch is more durable.

The internal timber screen, by Southwood Joinery.
The internal timber screen, by Southwood Joinery.

“We worked with Cedarlan of Cork and our structural engineer Jim Canning to design this beautiful sculptural element that is very functional also.

“I think the clients love the [wooden] detailing inside too, like the entrance screen, the sliding doors, the really beautiful stairs, by Southwood Joinery. The contractor, Brian Twomey is a fantastic professional,” Paul says.

Paul’s own vision, beyond the simple rectangular design, extended to two other architectural moves, the first being a mono-pitch roof (made of zinc, for durability and ultimately, recyclable), sloping to face the sun, to allow solar panels to work. “Exceptionally simple but effective,” he says.

He adds that this roof design is “also really efficient, as we were not building any attic space over the first-floor bedrooms, and the lower part of the roof is over a double-height space in the living/circulation areas”.

The second move was to overlay the wooden screen.“The screen gives privacy to the internal spaces, which have lots of glass. It throws shade over these windows in summer.

“It creates covered outside spaces that can be used for sitting areas in the evening and forms a porch over the side entrance.

“And it also ’squares off’ the house to address the edges of the site which are not parallel,” Paul adds.

The upshot of Paul’s approach is a home that can truly hold its own in the architectural Millfield enclave. It’s by far the most striking of the trio, a unique-looking piece, with the added attraction of being exceptionally kind to the environment.

The building energy rating (BER) is A1, with an energy performance of minus 13.9 kWh/sq m/year, as it’s essentially more efficient than the level of efficiency deemed possible when the BER system was invented.

“Its carbon dioxide emissions indicator is minus (-1.78 kgCO2/sq m/year). It achieves this extra-ordinary efficiency because as well as being a passive house (which means the shape and means of construction are so efficient that it needs almost nothing to heat and ventilate the house), the panels on the

roof generate electricity and the result is better than the level of efficiency that was deemed possible when the BER system was invented,” says Paul, adding that “this is probably why the BER system is about to be re-calibrated with new EU legislation”.

Architect Paul McNally at Millfield, College Road, Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan
Architect Paul McNally at Millfield, College Road, Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

Paul’s clients — who, other than telling him the number and types of spaces they wanted, let him do his own thing — did add one or two important items along the way.

The most significant, prompted by the pandemic, was a separate home office, also designed by Paul. Triangular in shape and sitting into the rear of the site, the timber-frame structure has a wall of glass overlooking the beautifully landscaped garden (by Ann Hamilton of Fox Gardens).

It also has automated cat flaps, activated by the cats’ collars. It’s an exquisite home office, as high-quality as the house itself, where no expense was spared, from the large, open-plan navy Kube kitchen/living/dining area, where light floods in through extensive floor-to-ceiling glazing, and through quadruple-glazed Fakro roof lights, set in a double-height ceiling, to the stunning internal timber screen and staircase created by Southwood Joinery.

The house has been future-proofed too. The whole ground floor is accessible and one of five bedrooms is on the ground floor, with a generous ensuite.

Paul, who’s been Cork-based for about 12 years, became interested in passive building around the start of the millennium when Al Gore was raising awareness around climate change.

“Once I started looking into climate change as being a scientific reality, I realised passive housing was the only realistic model to drastically cut down energy use, while also allowing us to build comfortable homes,” he says.

He concedes that the initial outlay is more expensive — research suggests 5% more expensive — but clawed back over time through lower energy costs.

The demand for passive homes has always been there, he says.

“It’s just easier to achieve now, as the material and equipment are more available due to demand.”

SOURCEBOOK

Internal screen and stairs: Southwood Joinery

External screen: Cedarlan

Solar PV: Advanced Heating

Roofing: WeatherSeam (VM Zinc)

Kitchen: Kube Kitchens

Landscaping design: Fox Garden

Storage units in hallway: Cullenview Interiors

Potting shed: Grand Grow and Store by Juliana Group

Windows/doors: Mix of Zyle Fenster and Munster Joinery

Builder: Brian Twomey of Michael Twomey & Sons Ltd