How Brick Is Inspiring Young Irish Architects

The use of brick continues to inspire Irish architects. There are hundreds of shades and shapes, traditional and contemporary, and new ways to match and blend. SANDRA ANDREA O’CONNELL reports …

Photography by Ste Murray

Brick is a richly coloured, versatile and tactile building material that has shaped Irish cities and towns for centuries and continues to inspire Irish architects today. Our Georgian townhouses are renowned for their elegant brick facades, and contemporary homeowners love the character of red brick period homes of all styles and sizes.

While considerable quantities of brick were imported into Ireland, an Irish brick industry began around the cities of Dublin, Limerick, Cork and Belfast in the early 1700s. Following the opening of the Grand Canal in 1779, Irish brick making expanded to towns like Athy and Tullamore, with barges carrying the bricks to Dublin. In the 19th century, much of our social and economic infrastructure – including our homes, hospitals, libraries, factories and breweries – was built from brick. Dublin became known for its yellow and grey bricks produced by the Mount Argus and Dolphin’s Barn brickworks – colours that have remained favourites today.

With such a rich tradition in Ireland, it is clear why brick is still a favourite. In our homes, the use of exposed brick walls radiates warmth, while a brick exterior helps to stitch a building into its surrounding urban fabric. Young Irish architects continue to build in brick but they are innovating with colour, application and textures to give it a modern twist. This was evident in this year’s Architecture Awards, held by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI), where home extension projects adopted a strong brick theme.

Brick Style

Brick when used as an exterior material can have a sculptural affect, as in the case of this striking two-storey extension to a family home in Clontarf, Dublin (above). Architect Shane Cotter, MRIAI, of Architectural Farm, designed the extension as a dense “brick tower”, framed by two beautiful trees. The brick walls have a tapering section to support the structure of the new first floor master bedroom. The use of brick externally and internally blurs the threshold between inside and outside and makes this new addition feel very much part of the garden. Shane Cotter says “the brick needed to have a richness and warmth that provided a comfortable living space but also respond to the brick of the original house”. He chose an Ibstock Birtley Olde English, which is a brick with warm and natural tones. Much time was invested in selecting not only the brick but also, and as importantly, the mortar. The mortar colour and type joint can change the character of the brick. The white mortar with flush joints, which was finally chosen, enhances the warm tones in the brick while tying the new addition back to the colours and tone of the existing house. The outcome is a spacious contemporary family home that radiates warmth and a sense of permanence.

Photograph by Aisling McCoy

Old and New

Architect Ryan W Kennihan, MRIAI – who won the RIAI “Extension” category with a clever remodelling of a typical “two up two down” home off the South Circular Road in Dublin 8 – says the use of brick allowed him to “blend the old into the contemporary”. This is an ideal strategy for those who love traditional building materials and don’t seek a clear distinction between old and new, avoiding for example the sharp contrast of a sleek glass box extension. The owners of this red brick period house – a young couple with a small child – wanted to “retain the character of their home by making the extension appear as if it had always been there”. Architect Kennihan deliberately blurred the lines between old and new: the existing rear room was stripped of its plaster to expose its brick construction, giving it a unique character not commonly found in period houses. The new extension was then constructed in brick but painted white to lighten the space and to make it distinct and yet related to the older adjacent room. In this house, old and new flow seamlessly together and create a beautiful family home, full of character, on a modest budget.

Photograph by Aisling Mc Coy

Brick Portico 

White brick has also been the dominant feature in this elegant extension, designed to open up the living spaces of a Dublin home to the sunny garden side. Architect David Flynn, MRIAI (Commended in the RIAI Awards 2018) added a tall brick portico to provide privacy and shading to the tall glass doors of the new extension. “The portico is like an extension of the living spaces, as it stretches into the wide garden, as well as a great outdoor space from where the owners can track the motion of the sun from morning till evening”, says David Flynn. Here the brick has not been painted white but the architect has chosen Ibstock White Engobe bricks with a white mortar. The white brick both connects and contrasts to the red brick exterior of the existing house. Inside the extension, the white brick creates a bright space of timeless modernist character. The bricks also faintly reflect the light, giving the spaces a soft, almost incandescent quality. Even on the most overcast days, this house feels light and airy, to the delight of the owners, who love the subtle differences of light reflected by the brick texture from the ever-changing Dublin sky.

Photograph by Ste Murray

Bricks Inside

The warm and tactile quality of interior brick walls is celebrated in this extension to a 1940s bungalow in Glenageary, Co Dublin by Robert Bourke Architects
(Highly Commended in the RIAI Awards 2018). The clients are a couple with two young children and the use of brick was inspired by their request to have “new family spaces for living, dining and a kitchen that feel both connected and distinct”. Architect Robert Bourke, MRIAI, explains how he created these distinct zones through brick: “The brick starts life in the corner as an alcove, bends and dips to form a window seat and folds to form a bench, which encloses the dining area.” His practice often uses brick to create depth by “folding” it inwards around openings to create window seats and alcoves for books and furniture. In modern construction, depth is not easy to create as walls are usually made of thin layers of masonry and high performance insulation. “Using brick to create depth, adds character and creates atmosphere”, says Bourke. He chose an Ibstock Birtley Old English Buff with a simple stretcher bond and a standard cement mortar with a simple flush joint, which was brushed shortly after being laid to soften its appearance.
As a contrast, white glazed bricks were used for the kitchen splashback. This change in brick type created an interesting corner detail where it meets the red bricks.

Photograph by Alice Clancy

Bricks Now

A contemporary three-bed residence in a prominent location in south county Dublin on the site of a former orchard, was a sensitive location for planners who believed the pivotal nature of the site required a subtle response. Architects for the scheme, ODOS Architects, believed that the use of materials, in this case red bricks, was key to providing a solution to this. Their concept for the contemporary house had no windows on its outer walls, instead bringing light through the clever use of courtyards, internal terraces and top-lit double-height spaces. The brick volume blends with the surrounding Victorian-era properties and when viewed externally, looks much like a perimeter of a 19th-century walled garden might do if situated within granite estate walls.

Sandra Andrea O’Connell

For more information on the history of Brick in Ireland, see Susan Roundtree’s essay on “Brick” in Art and Architecture of Ireland, Vol. IV, Yale University Press, 2014.

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