Carpenters use the adage “measure twice, cut once” as a reminder to double-check before committing – and it is uttered by a character from the new 2020 film “Self” to a group of newbies. But it’s also a fitting metaphor for the entire journey of Sandra (played by Clare Dunne), a single mother in Dublin trying to solve her housing problem. The saying warns them to plan and prepare – and then take action.
After Sandra leaves her abusive husband, she has to declare herself homeless in order to be eligible for government assistance. She is placed in an airport hotel where she has to use the “poor door” to gain access to the room she shares with her two daughters while she waits for her number 653 to be on the public housing list. (Due to the lack of available housing, Dublin has become one of the most expensive cities in the world – more expensive than Tokyo, Sydney and Singapore. Before the pandemic, the number of people without housing had quadrupled in five years.)
After Googling “Self-Build + Ireland + cheap” she lands on irishvernacular.com, which offers free plans for a self-built home designed by architect Dominic Stevens. When Stevens built the original house for himself in 2008, it cost 25,000 euros. Although Sandra makes a compelling case to the city housing department that subsidizing their construction would be a smarter and cheaper option for them than paying for their housing, the proposal is rejected. But she is pursuing her quest with the help of a friendly contractor, patron, and Ragtag group to build her dream home from scratch.
The tradition of building your own house could evoke images of border homes in the United States – be it a log cabin, a salt box or a bungalow. Similarly, Ireland has a rich home improvement history – many construction workers in the US and UK were Irish “before they inherited the farm,” says Stevens.
Stevens believed he showed a sensitivity to the entire earth catalog of the counterculture of the 1960s, but soon found that he had picked up on the deeply ingrained traditions of Ireland. And both nations have common building customs. In the US we’re increasing the barn; In Ireland it is called Meitheal – a term proudly used in itself.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, Clare Dunne’s idea was inspired by the story of a close friend. A single mother of three had to declare herself homeless when her landlord asked for her apartment back and could not find a replacement due to a shortage. Clare, a struggling actress in New York, took inspiration from her two adversities and invented this story of empowerment.
Without realizing it, Dunne took advantage of the maker movement, in which women are well versed in building. This has been made possible by cordless power tools that require less force, the ubiquity of big box stores (Home Depot, Lowe’s and Woodie’s in Ireland), and online tutorials.
The house itself is simple: three bedrooms, two stories, and 775 square feet. Says Stevens, “I drew on my experience with modular construction, the wonderful work of self-building pioneer Walter Segal, and the rural folk tradition of building your home instead of buying it.” Segal (1907–1985) was a Berlin-born British architect who developed a do-it-yourself method that used standard materials to create environmentally sound homes with minimal experience.
The exterior is vertically corrugated matt black onduline, a French roofing material made from vegetable fibers compressed with bitumen. It can be cut with a handsaw and is waterproof. Stevens says it looks like “expensive black cartridge paper,” and the application triggers the Irish currach boat, which has a lightweight wooden frame with stretched canvas. Stevens also cites the black cow stalls in Leitrim, the town where he built his house, and black Scandinavian houses like the one on Fårö Island (including Ingmar Bergman’s house) that use pitch painted on wood.
Stevens’ do-it-yourself project grew out of his experience in Berlin shortly after the Wall fell. “We lived in a city that made itself,” he says – and he brought that feeling back to Ireland. However, he says, “Until I built my own house, I felt like a scam on every construction site I’ve ever been to because I didn’t really know what a contractor went through.”
Stevens sees opportunities arising from the current pandemic – the previously anonymous residents of his apartment block have begun to socialize at a distance, exchange tools and band together to negotiate with landlords. “It gives people power,” he says.
He is reminded of Le Corbusier’s statement from 1922: “It is the question of building that is at the root of today’s social unrest; architecture or revolution.” As Stevens says on irishvernacular.com, “The purpose of this website is to bring back to the general public knowledge of how to build a house. Use it, enjoy it, respect it.”
She is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Visit irishvernacular.com for plans to build the apartment.
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