How did you start with the green door?
The idea from that came from renovating our cottage here 20 years ago. It took 7 years to get our house to the stage where we could live in it comfortably. Such a huge amount of work was involved and we found, because we were new to the area, we didn’t necessarily know the best places to go for everything. At the end of the process, I thought ‘gosh we’ve got so much information about sustainable building now that we could share this with everybody, it seemed like the most sensible thing to do. I thought it would be great to have a website where people could put up any information they might have, a web site that is for those who are local, and one that’s localised. For example straw bale building in America is a totally different experience to building with straw here, you have totally different weather conditions and different environments so it was important to make the website a local one that specialised in the North West of Ireland. With that in mind, I approached Leader and they funded the necessary research. I spent the summer of 2010 driving around Leitrim finding people who had homes that had any kind of eco status to them. It was fascinating. Anybody who was trying to build or renovate or live in a sustainable way was part of the world I went to visit. I took photographs of what they were doing, wrote down notes and diagrams, and went back to edit at home.
Was there an abundance of it?
Yes there were loads of interesting builds out there. I visited forty homes, I couldn’t believe it. A real nerve was tapped, a real source of energy, sustainable energy. You’d go and see one person and they would say ‘Oh you must visit this other person down the road, they’re doing something similar in a different way’ so you would discover a variety of ways of building and making on different budgets, with different priorities. Some people might want a new sustainable build, but small and affordable and other people might have an old building they really want to hang on to for historical reasons and I’d document their struggle in how they managed to do that. Some people are living off grid and others are living without septic tanks so it’s all very interesting. All of this went on the website and it was launched organically really. Then I thought wouldn’t it be great to have an open house event. There had been one in London and in Dublin but there hadn’t been a rural equivalent. I asked the home owners if they would be interested in an open home event and I didn’t think that many would want to say yes, but they all said yes, every single one of them. I had no idea just how popular it was going to be!
So I thought this is so generous. I went back to Leader and received some more funding. Because we all live remotely, we like company when we have it. So the home owners threw open their doors and the people came in their droves for the first Green Door in 2011. It was so hugely popular, everybody had visitors and the feedback was really positive especially from the home owners. You struggle to build or renovate to create something unusual and it might be successful or not, but you’ve got nobody to tell about your journey so when somebody interested actually comes around and says ‘That’s Fantastic’, if you have ten people coming through the door telling you that If you have fifty people telling you that, by the end of the day it’s a great feeling. People being happy to share information that was the key to the success of the event. The home owners all said how surprised they were that people were genuinely interested in particular things, about the heating, about the insulation suppliers and that kind of thing. People were writing down advice, some people sat for hours in other people’s kitchens and just chatted. So we really tapped into something there I think. The home owners had put their sweat and blood into these builds to create a sustainable long-lasting home that was created or renovated with respect and friendship for the environment and this dedication really resonated with the visitors. It’s all about seeing into the future and knowing that in the long run you’ll get payback.
What parts of renovating your own property were the most surprising, difficult or challenging?
Saving the old house. If someone else had something similar, they’d probably have said, ‘just knock it down and lets start afresh, it would be cheaper and easier’. It wasn’t in too bad of a shape, it’s a traditional three roomed cottage, several hundred years old, built straight onto the clay, no foundations. The walls were built well but at the top they were all getting crumbly, they were full of infill, rubbly stuff at the top so we had to put a lot of work into straightening the top of the walls, tying them together. A framework had to go around the tops of the walls and we used lime and sand mortar to fill it in to make it solid, and the straw bale extension with render on both sides fitted into that framework. Then the roof went on top of that. It has a lovely feel to it, it’s a curved room so it’s worth the challenges it brought us. In America there are straw bale houses that are over a hundred years old so as long as the property is managed well a straw bale home should last forever.
Why Straw Bale?
Well when we were still in England working in the restaurant, Mike did a lot of research on the various methods of building and restoring in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner. He took a course in straw bale building and when we moved to Ireland we drew up our plans and took them to local architect Colin Bell. He worked on drawings for the site for us from which Mike could build following his instructions. Colin is great at tying with self-builders, he works very well with them. He offers and gives a lot of support and encouragement. We brought in local craftspeople who were amazing in helping to build the staircase for example.
Tell us about your Supper Club, the menus are tantalising.
Three years ago Mike came up with the idea of trying a Supper Club. We thought we’d do one and see how it went so we sold out for that one night. Then we thought we’ll do it again and this time we did it two nights in a row, because we have to change the whole layout of the house, the living room becomes a dining room. There are twenty five each night so our house becomes a restaurant for those weekends. It’s just the two of us but we work well together. We worked together in professional kitchens for years so it’s good fun. I love the hosting end of things, the meeting and greeting. Mike does most of the cooking (apart from the desserts which I prepare), it gives him his outlet without having to open a restaurant.
Inspirational Homes exists because of the huge creative sector living in this part of Ireland. They came to this area because housing was affordable and the landscape pristine, wild and beautiful. Green Door and Inspirational Homes exists because those creative types who came to live here were and are passionate about sustainable living, eco considerate building and restoring, locally sourced materials and employing and collaborating with skilled craftspeople. It continues to grow and gain a following because of this demographic, which is unique in Ireland. When the Organic Centre became established in 1995 it drew more like minded people to this area, then the Sculpture Centre became established which drew even more again so more creative people wanted to settle here. Then The Glens Centre attracted artists involved in performance, music and writing. The Bee Park works directly with these people and liaises with the arts centre to create a good environment for everyone living here. It’s a great place!
Networking for future-proof homes
Festival of Rural Architecture and Design