Vaulting Ambition: The process of perfection

By Alexander Kearney

Lower living area with kitchen / dining area beyond. The shared space is spanned by three monumental concrete vaults. Photo by Alice Clancy.

I meet builder Declan Darcy outside 22 Seafort Avenue on a blazing sunny morning in mid-June. The semi-detached house is roughly midway from Sandymount Village and the sea. “When I was a boy I used to pop in here for sweets”, he says, as he points to a broad opening in the red brick front wall. More recently it was a clothes shop.

The renovated house still retains a large glass frontage, but one now divided by slim fins of weathered steel and integral planters containing lush grasses. A clever solution – acknowledging its past life as a shop front, drawing an abundance of light into the lounge area behind, yet retaining privacy from the street. And this is only a taster for what lies in store.

We’re welcomed into a deceptively modest hallspace by Katie, one half of the couple who commissioned architects Grace Keeley and Michael Pike of GKMP to transform the house with a two storey extension. Katie and her husband had been long-time neighbours to No.22, and so knew the site well.

Declan is treated with the ease of an old friend, something that doesn’t always happen to a builder after an ambitious project. Indeed, client and contractor can often regard each other with a certain wariness, as each recalls a litany of costs and woes.

No sign of that here, though the original budget did creep northwards. As we pass into a soaring double-height lobby – the link between the old parts of the house and the new – the reason for their shared pride becomes wonderfully clear.

The walls are lined with vertical ribs of timber, and elsewhere with painted blockwork. The floor is finished in terrazzo by Ryan Terrazzo – a nod to the original finish on the thresholds of the hall and shop floor. The cool, speckled surface rises in a series of steps to an elegant painted steel staircase ascending to a projecting gallery above. I’m struck by the exceptional refinement of the brass handrail by James Healy Ltd. Reading my expression, Declan responds, “the key word for this project was ‘care’.”

Declan Darcy is someone who knows all about the importance of preparation. As well as being a local builder based in Sandymount – with a workforce of ten – he’s the selector and right-hand man to Jim Gavin’s formidable Dublin GAA football team. The Dubs are now preparing for their fourth All-Ireland football final in just five years. Declan speaks warmly of the camaraderie of the dressing room and praises the dedication of the team, but quietly insists, “it’s not about winning, it’s about the process.”

As we tour the house I notice he speaks of construction in similar terms. “You have to plan very diligently, and concentrate on the process. You have to get it right – to make it look good.”

We pass through a large pivot door into the new addition. The kitchen / dining and living areas descend by a series of levels to the back garden. Light streams through large windows and sliding glass screens, and more discreetly through rooflights aligned with a solid, shelf-lined wall. Dominating the space, and giving the house its name, are three broad, impressively smooth concrete vaults that leisurely spring from blockwork piers. The vaults maintain a constant height so that, while the kitchen / dining level feels securely embraced, the lower-slung living area is open and lofty.

From every angle the concrete looks to have been perfectly struck – a remarkable achievement in such a demanding medium. Declan tells me about the concrete specialist, Gerry Brennan, whose expert team prepared the formwork for the continuous pour. He describes Gerry’s total commitment to the job – how he’d sometimes come in, in the evenings, to check that all was in place, and that none of the forms had shifted or loosened, even by a fraction.

Concrete – the fine, fair-finished kind – is notoriously unforgiving. It leaves an indelible record of its preparation and betrays a moment’s inattention. There can be rehearsals, but essentially it’s a one-off performance, frozen in time for all to see. Replays are generally out of the question. I could see why Declan Darcy so admired both the process and the result.

Out in the still generous back garden, Declan and Katie showed me an open air dining pavilion with a concrete table inlaid with ceramic tiles. Declan and his team had closely watched Gerry and his crew at work. They then cast this table with scrupulous precision – a respectful nod from one team to another.

As we walked back to the living room, Declan pointed out the dry-dashed finish of the new extension, which continues round the sides of the old house. Cutting though it, just above the sliding glass screens, is an expressed external concrete ring beam. Unlike the vaults, its surface is finely boardmarked, preserving the grain of the timber formwork with the delicacy of a leaf-rubbing. The Concrete Society of Ireland recently declared the house Overall Winner and Elemental Winner at its annual awards. The prizes are richly deserved.

Back inside, we finally ascend the staircase. The children’s bedrooms are in the old part of the house, but I’m momentarily left wondering where the master bedroom is? Katie silently opens a concealed door in a timber wall, and a whole suite magically appears. A spacious bedroom, dressing room, and ensuite bathroom occupy the space above two of the vaults below – the roof of the third vault might have afforded a roof terrace, but the planning authority wouldn’t allow it.

Views outwards are nonetheless framed by blockwork walls to focus on the surrounding greenery, while views in are restricted. And the blockwork itself – painted a calm white – is a soft-spoken exercise in meticulous forethought. The position of every block was marked on the architect’s drawings, and checked again on site. The goal: To avoid cutting whole blocks and so maintain the visual integrity of the construction. That’s certainly not a task that can be done on the fly, and as Declan drily observes, “you wouldn’t want to be dopey on a job like this.”

As we leave the house, I ask Declan how he managed to oversee a job like this, and prepare this year’s Leinster-winning team? He points out, with genuine modesty, that his schedule also includes regular training sessions with various boys and girls GAA teams. His diary is often full for weeks in advance, and carries over into weekends too.

His construction firm, Darcy Bros, will only take on three, at most four jobs at a time, but here the team is even more closely knit than on the pitch. Both his father, Frank, and his uncle Johnny are deeply valued colleagues, and each of the crew is skilled in multiple trades, so the pressure is never simply on one player. The firm’s ability to work well with ambitious architects is a tribute to their close organisation. And it’s surely no coincidence that the Vaulted House has just won the Best House Award at the RIAI Irish Architecture Awards 2018. Few builders would have been able to realise such a demanding design.

I wish Declan Darcy good luck for the All-Ireland Championship; though some critics have been grumbling that the Dubs have become too dominant of late. He gives that notion short shrift, and says the team really deserves huge credit for their work. He’s a former player himself, who played for Leitrim, then Dublin, and captained the Leitrim team to take a Senior Connacht Football Championship in 1994.

His success on the pitch, and on the building site, have been achieved through deliberate and exacting preparation. Then, as now, luck had very little to do with it.

Lower living area with kitchen / dining area beyond. The shared space is spanned by three monumental concrete vaults. Photo by Alice Clancy.