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One of Ireland’s leading architects for many years, Sean Harrington’s designs have always placed great emphasis on sustainability – as groundbreaking projects such as the York Street housing and Ballymun’s imminent Rediscovery Centre demonstrate. When Construct Ireland asked Harrington to select projects for this feature, the award-winning designer took a characteristically left-of-brain approach, leading to fascinating results…

One of my favourite legends of these islands is the story of Robert the Bruce and the spider. Robert, the King of Scotland, had been defeated by the English (again) at the battle of Dalry in 1313 and escaped to Rathlin Island, which was owned by his Irish mother, off the north coast of Ireland.

Hiding in a cave for three months, he watched a spider building a web in the cave’s entrance. The spider fell down time and time and time again but finally succeeded in making a useful and beautiful web. Robert the Bruce was inspired by the spider to retry his fight and returned to Scotland, eventually seeing off the Sassenachs and achieving an independent Scotland during his reign.

The moral of the story is that inspiration can come from many places, often from the most unexpected sources, like the Rathlin spider. It’s also a reminder to me as an architect (trying to create a more sustainable, fair and enjoyable future) to never give up, no matter how many philistines tell you it’s not possible, we can’t afford it, or ask, what’s the point?

Talking about inspirational arthropods, the humble termite is right up there.

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I recently had the pleasure of sharing a speaker’s platform with Patrick Bellew, principal of Atelier Ten, the world-renowned environmental engineering consultancy. Patrick talked about termites. Not just any termites. Barossa termites – blind wood-eating insects found in Africa that are best known for building massive, finely engineered earth nests that can reach seven meters in height and come with fully integrated passive temperature control.

“The system can control the temperature in the queen’s chamber, at the heart of the nest, to within 1C throughout the year, even in the extreme heat of the African day,” says Patrick. In order to achieve such a precise temperature the termites rely on three fundamental physical principles—convection, thermal mass, and evaporative cooling.

“Outdoor air is drawn through tunnels into a subterranean chamber, which has a large contact surface area with the ground to help cool the space on hot days and warm the space on cold days,” he explains. When the central core of the nest becomes too warm or the air too stale, the termites unblock openings to ventilation shafts to exhaust the air out the top of the nest and start the convective draft that drives the system.


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Termite mound in the Selous Game
Reserve, Tanzania

In extreme heat, this system is supplemented by evaporative cooling. The termites travel tens of meters down tunnels to the water table to collect minute quantities of water to place into the system to use for cooling.

In the world of biomimicry, science looks to nature for the most efficient solutions and Atelier Ten have been inspired by the intuitive science of the Barossa termite nest. During the past decade, they have applied much of what they learned from Africa’s white ants to develop buildings that minimise—or even eliminate—the need for air conditioning, even in climates much warmer than ours.

Patrick Bellew firmly believes that successful low-carbon buildings need to be 80% about passive design, using natural forces to minimise reliance on systems.
“What could be more inspiring as a role model than a tiny, blind insect that builds vast structures that intuitively exploit the physical laws to produce a comfortable environment in even the most extreme weather conditions?”   

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The Villa Rotunda in Vicenza, Italy, which was
built by Andrea Palladio in 1566 and uses natural ventilation and thermal mass to help cool the building

At the heart of Atelier Ten’s design philosophy for mass-cooled buildings is a subterranean passive thermal storage system, composed of what Patrick describes as a labyrinth of concrete tunnels that are an integral part of the actual building structure but are thermally decoupled from the spaces that they serve. During the summer, warm outside air is drawn into the subterranean chamber using low-pressure mechanical fans and, with the control of dampers, is channeled slowly through the labyrinth, where it cools before being routed into the interior of the building. 

Using the earth to cool buildings is not new. In the village of Costozza near Vincenza in Italy, a group of six Renaissance villas are connected by subterranean shafts to a series of caves (called covoli) that run beneath the Borici hills. The caves remain cool throughout the summer due to thermal coupling to the earth and lack of exposure to sunlight.

Cracks at different heights connect the covoli to the outside, and thus (SO) a downdraft of denser cooler air is generated inside the cavern when the outside air temperature is higher than the air temperature in the covolo, as in the summer. In winter an updraft is generated when the temperature outside is lower than in the cavern.

The villas are built at a lower level than the covoli and connected to them with a series of underground galleries, to make use of the cooled air in the summer. It’s then delivered to the homes through marble floor grilles, keeping the occupants comfortable on hot summer days.

The villas at Costozza were known to Andrea Palladio, who referenced them in his seminal work, The Four Books of Architecture, and he used this age-old principle of natural ventilation and thermal mass to reduce summer temperatures in his own designs, for example at the classic Villa Rotunda in Vicenza, built in 1566. Here warm air rises in the central domed hall and escapes through an opening at the apex, thus drawing in fresh air from below, which first flows through the house cellars to cool it.

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Historically, the best, most sustainable, architecture responds to the climate, and it is built sensibly and economically with local materials. In the Alps, the common sense basics of architecture are universal: keeping snow on the roof, avoiding dripping water and staying warm.

Typically, the ground floor of an Alpine house is built of stone and is sometimes partly recessed into the mountainside to give some protection from prevailing winds. In the past, farm animals were housed on the ground floor, generating warmth for the humans above, while undesirable animal odours were carried away though small window openings in the stone walls.

This stone base provides a solid foundation for the timber structure of massive pier and joists, frequently made from slow-growing, seasoned spruce, supporting the upper floor and roof.

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Typically, the ground floor of an Alpine house is built of stone as shown in this traditional Austrian house with flowers in bloom

The family would usually live on the first floor, which generally featured a central fireplace with a stone chimney. On steeply sloping sites, the rear of this storey would be at ground level. The second or upper floor stored hay and timber. Houses are usually a square shape on plan, keeping the wall to floor ratio as small as possible, helping to reduce heat loss through the external walls.

The design of the roof is critical. Whereas in hot and rainy climates roofs are steep to shed water quickly, and generally are flat or domed in hot and arid climates, in Alpine areas roofs are at a moderate slope; flat enough to keep snow on the roof (a good thermal insulator) but just steep enough to drain away rain and snow melt.

In the past, animal fodder was stored in lofts above the dwelling living quarters. This created insulation for the inhabitants against the cold and prevented heat from escaping upwards to the insulating snow. This was the original ‘cold roof’, for good reason; in Alpine areas if the roof is not kept cold, serious water penetration can happen just above the eaves – ice dams form when snow melt runs down a warm roof over a heated space, then hits the eaves roof, which is below freezing. The ice blocks the run-off, forcing the trapped water back up the shallow pitched roof, where it gets under the roof covering and eventually into the structure.

Typical roof slopes in the Alps and rural Scandinavia correspond to generally accepted gradient for snow stability – in other words, between 22-30o. (The 1966 classic text on avalanche study, The Avalanche Enigma by Colin Fraser, established that a maximum pitch of 22o is safe for avalanche origination).

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Swiss-style houses in Vella, Switzerland, again with snow on roofs which acts as a good thermal insulator

Roof forms are kept simple, consisting of symmetrical gables. Valleys are rare, where water could concentrate and increase leakage. Chimney stacks are generally also at ridge level, rather than low down, again to prevent the build-up of snow between stack and sloping roof.
On top, chimneys are capped with elegant metal ‘floating’ lids, preventing snow from entering and aiding the draw of the chimney.

Entire villages are composed of buildings with similar roof designs, all orientated in the direction of the prevailing wind to avoid the drifting of snow onto leeward roofs. Front doors face the sun where possible and are under the gable end of the roof to avoid dripping water on people coming and going below.

Generous roof overhangs protect walls from water and consequent weathering problems. In summer, when the sun is higher in the sky, the overhangs provide shade.

Full width, deep balconies are often located at gable ends. These are sheltered under the wide projecting roof above, and are used for drying clothes, storing fruit and vegetables and in the summer they become a useful extension of the living quarters, bedecked with balcony boxes of colourful flowers.

The resulting building form is distinct, beautiful and is a result of generations of trial, error and improvement. There is also something wonderfully comforting and protecting about the broad, shallow pitched, generous roof form. Roof means home; a canopy of protection, a refuge, a physical and psychological security. Seeing a traditional Alpine chalet covered in snow warms the cockles of your heart as well as keeping the inhabitants inside cosy, or as the Tiroleans say, “gemütlich”.

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It took four of us closely working together – the quality of the wall and the future of our fingers depended on it. Three of us would each tentatively hold our own boulder in place in the wall. The fourth would then carefully lower the last rock into the remaining space. Once roughly in place, Máirtín would warn “Seachain do mhéarachaí” (watch your fingers!) followed by a countdown, “A haon, a dó, a trí… Anois!” Máirtín’s key stone would be dropped the last half inch into place, simultaneously with all of us releasing our own stones, making sure no fingers were left behind. All the stones locked into place, in perfect balance, and with structural integrity, giving us the satisfaction of completing a 3D jigsaw puzzle.

We were building the enclosing walls of a paddock for the new calf, on a previously unwalled area of lower Cnoc Mordáin in Cill Chiaráin in Connemara – a single stone thick, five foot high granite boulder wall, made from the stones we had earlier cleared from the field to be enclosed. Following the age-old tradition, firstly the route of the wall was roughly marked out on the ground with large stones, one every ten feet or so. Then a two foot width of the shallow soil was flattened or removed along its length. Two or three courses of flattish stones were securely laid along a 100 foot length, and then we went back to the beginning to start the more skilful work.

Páidín, an ageless man, expertly selected the “correct” stone from the random pile nearby, to fit the next “space”, and instructed the team accordingly. He had the ability to think six or seven moves ahead like a chess grandmaster, but in three dimensions. The skill with a Connemara single stone width wall is to build leaving about 20-30% void (passageways for fierce Atlantic westerlies that would otherwise  u topple the wall) whilst maintaining structural integrity, with the size of stones, and the proportion of void increasing towards the top. This requires complex, multi-stone counter weighting and cantilevers – the wall as a mechanism. 

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Dry stone walls on Inis Mór

By the end of my seven month apprenticeship (during a year long stint in the Gaeltacht in 1984), I had just about grasped it. It is a skill passed from generation to generation like traditional music – a link to the past, a continuum that yet demands individual creativity from the maker.

Dry stone walls have been around for at least 5,000 years in Ireland, from the boundary walls at Céide Fields in Co Mayo, to more complex, refined examples at Buí na Boinne, and numerous late Bronze age dúnta or forts like Dun Aonghusa and Dun Dúbhchathair on Inis Mór – surely the most proven, sustainable form of construction on this island.

My favourite examples are in the Mourne Mountains and on the Aran Islands. In the Mournes, stunningly beautiful field walls made from near-spherical granite boulders (again, decreasing in size towards the top of the walls) are topped-off by a row of smaller stones, carefully placed to give the appearance from a distance of a smooth level top. These walls precisely trace the undulating contours of the rolling foothills. Further uphill, the magnificent Mourne Wall follows the 35km length of the Silent Valley reservoir watershed of the surrounding mountain ridges. Built with roughly squared granite (using plugs and feathers) this awe-inspiring double stone wall was built between 1904-1922 – it’s our very own Great Wall of China – a marvel of skill and beauty – a man-made structure in total harmony with the landscape.

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Dry stone walls in the Mourne Mountains

On the three Aran Islands, a total of 1,500kms of vertically stacked, single skin, carboniferous limestone walls define the small fields – stones are cleared from the landscape to create tillable fields and stacked up on the perimeters. They act as windbreaks to protect the painstakingly created topsoil from simply blowing away, and improve the microclimate at crop level, allowing food and feed to be grown successfully in the unforgiving climate.

Properly constructed dry stone walls are both truly sustainable and works of art in their own right – long lasting, made economically and quickly from readily available local materials, requiring almost no maintenance, low-tech, high-skill, hand-made, useful, distinctive, constructionally expressive, as if growing from the landscape, yet with the sensitive mark of the maker.

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Something that is of particular interest to our practice is the search for a timeless way of building, and to establish an appropriate pattern language, to paraphrase Christopher Alexander. In this context, powerful inspiration can be found in features of vernacular architecture, when appropriate to climate. This is particularly relevant for one of the most critical challenges that lays ahead – building affordable homes with healthy climatic internal conditions for the three billion extra people who will be on the planet within 40 years, most of whom will live in underdeveloped regions with severe climatic conditions, in great poverty. 

The great Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, who was way ahead of his time, devoted his life’s work to this issue, both designing buildings and writing, until his death in 1989. His ground-breaking books – Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt (1973) and Natural Energy and Vernacular Architecture: Principles and Examples, With Reference to Hot Arid Climates (1986) – anticipated much of the ‘appropriate technology’ movement that is a standard element of grassroots development-philosophy around the world today.


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Snow falling in the courtyard of an old Damascus home

His standpoint was that the vernacular architecture of the Arab world and neighbouring regions not only solved climatic problems brilliantly, but did so with a combination of beauty, and physical and social functionality, and was an inspiration for the future.

Adobe, or building with baked mud, was Fathy’s technological passion, because of its proven durability over millennia, its availability, (about one-third of the world’s people live in houses made of earth) and its thermal properties – in many desert climates it maintains comfortable temperatures within a range of three to four degrees centigrade over a 24-hour cycle. Under Fathy’s control the geometric flexibility of the material also led to simple, captivating beauty.

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(left) A courtyard in Marrakech; (right) an example of Adobe building, the Hassan Fathy Dar-Ul-Islam Mosque, New Mexico

Besides using adobe to enhance thermal comfort, Fathy also experimented in his designs with the revival and modern adaptation of time-tested Arabic vernacular architectural elements that also affect actual and perceived temperature—the courtyard and windcatcher.

In traditional desert architecture, from Morocco to central Asia, the most efficient air conditioner available is the inner courtyard. It traps cool night air and releases it gradually during the day to adjoining rooms.

In almost all of Fathy’s designs, the courtyard was a central feature, acting as a light-well as well as an air-shaft, bringing both daylight and air movement to the rooms around it.

In hot, arid conditions, the courtyard typically functions in three regular cycles, taking advantage of the daily range of temperatures during summer of sometimes over 20C. 

During the first cycle, the cool night air descends into the courtyard and fills the surrounding rooms. Walls, floors, columns, roofs, ceilings and furniture are cooled and remain so until the late afternoon.

During the second cycle (around noon), the high altitude sun hits the courtyard floor. Some of the cool air begins to rise and leaks out of the surrounding rooms. This sets up convection currents in the rooms, which give further cooling comfort. The courtyard now begins to act as a chimney. At this hour of the day the temperature outside is very high, but thick adobe walls prevent the external heat reaching the inside of the house, and if three out of four external walls are party walls, which would be usual, the house remains enclosed on all sides and is insulated from most heat gain during the day.

The third cycle takes place during the late afternoon when the courtyard floor and the inside of the house get warmer and further convection currents are set up, aiding cooling. Most of the cool air trapped within the rooms spills out by sunset.

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Windcatchers, or malqafs, in Yazd, Iran, which create natural ventilation by drawing wind down into a building, cooling the interior

Fathy frequently enhanced the climatic control achieved in his courtyard houses with the use of a windcatcher, or malqaf, in a way that had been done for thousands of years, before falling into disuse in the Middle East when European housing design gained popularity.

The malqaf is a shaft rising above a building, open to face the prevailing wind. Functioning as the opposite of a chimney, it catches and channels the wind high above the building, where it is cooler and stronger, down into the lower reaches of the interior, often across a pool of water and occasionally also over wet fabrics or screens, both of which further decrease the air temperature through evaporation. It is also helps reduce the sand and dust so prevalent in the winds of hot arid regions, that might otherwise be in the house. The wind it captures above the building contains less solid material than the wind at lower heights, and much of the sand, which does enter, is dumped at the bottom of the shaft.

In a wind-free environment or waterless house, a windcatcher functions as a solar chimney. It creates a pressure gradient, which allows less dense hot air to travel upwards and escape out the top, much like a passive stack chimney used today.

It is a great shame that patronage for Fathy's “architecture for the poor” never materialised to any significant degree, and his deepest hopes went largely unfulfilled. However, his wonderful books that explain and promote vernacular-based passive technology may well be his most lasting and influential legacy, and an inspiration to us all for the challenges ahead.


I was in Russia for the first time last year talking about our York Street project in Dublin at the first international green building conference in Moscow. Afterwards I was accosted by an enthusiastic Muscovite architecture student who informed me that all the things I was talking about – rainwater harvesting, domestic food growing, composting and the importance of personal space – had been done by the Russians for years in their ‘dachas’. My curiosity was roused, and what I found was a wonderful and inspirational example of food self-sufficiency, a connection to nature, and a place to escape.

Dacha is a Russian word for a seasonal or year-round second home with a small area of land for growing fruit and vegetables on the fringes of Russian cities.

The first dachas in Russia began to appear during the reign of Peter the Great in the early 1700s. Initially they were small country estates, which were given to loyal followers by the tsar (the word originally meant a parcel of land given by the tsar to his aristocrats).

By the end of the 19th century, the dacha was popularised as a summer retreat for the upper and middle classes of Russian society. Following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, most dachas were nationalised.

After the Second World War there was a huge growth in dacha development, as squatters began occupying unused plots of land near cities and towns. Some built sheds, huts, and more prominent dwellings that served as dachas. This was generated by the desire of urban dwellers, all living in multi-storey apartment buildings, to spend some time close to nature, and also to grow their own fruit and vegetables.
As time passed, the number of squatters grew and the government officially recognised the right to amateur farming. In 1955, a new type of legal entity was introduced; a gardeners’ partnership. This gave the right to permanent use of land exclusively for agricultural purposes and permission to connect to public electrical and water supply networks. In 1958, a cooperative for dacha construction was introduced the right of an individual to build a small house on the land leased from the government.

Soon it became official policy that citizens were to grow food themselves, to supplement the apparently meager production of collective farms.

There was one dacha per family, and groups of these were formed into cooperatives and supervised by trade unions. The typical size of land given by the state to a family varied from four to 12 "sotok", six being the most common (or about 600m2), and use of this land was strictly limited to growing food.

In good years, harvests provided virtually everything that a family could need for a cold harsh winter. Whole families would descend on the gardens for three months every summer, to prepare the ground, and relax in the peaceful nature, away from the hustle, bustle and pollution of city life.

The 1980s saw the peak of the dacha boom with many families having a dacha of their own or spending weekends and holidays at friends’ dachas. Often very basic dachas were the ultimate solution for millions of working class families. Houses were usually only 25-50m2 in area but offered an opportunity for self-expression – anarchic, individual designs, often painted in bright garish colours – a real contrast to people’s regulated, uniform existences in the grey urban flat complexes. Having a small piece of land with it – like an allotment – also enabled city dwellers to grow their own fruit and vegetables. To this day, many urban residents spend the long Mayday weekend planting seeds and tending fruit trees as the ground defrosts after the long Russian winter.

The end of communism in the Soviet Union saw the return to private land ownership. Most dachas have since been privatised and Russia is now the nation with the most owners of second homes, with about a quarter of families living in large cities having a dacha.

With the new wealth in a changing Russia, the use of the dacha is changing to a more recreational use (and in some cases subject to raw property speculation – Russians be warned!) but despite this, many Russians still prefer to grow vegetables themselves – it’s a long-lived tradition: it’s cheaper and healthier, avoiding the vegetables in shops and markets that have been doused in chemical fertilisers.

The most common dacha fruits in cool, temperate regions of Russia are apples, blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries, raspberries and strawberries, and popular vegetables and herbs are potatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, pumpkins, tomatoes, carrots, beetroot, cabbage, cauliflower, radishes, turnips, onions, garlic, dill, parsley, rhubarb and sorrel. Water for irrigation is collected in barrels from the roof of the dacha, vegetables are rotated and compost is spread from the plot compost pile to keep the soil fertile. Living is simple, with many families gathering around evening barbecues after a hard day’s gardening, or enjoying some homemade plum brandy with fellow neighbouring dachniks.

In Russia and former Soviet Union countries the dacha has been, for many years, a method of survival at its very best and, despite the harsh climate with a short growing season, they have achieved food self-sufficiency in a manner that we in the west have rarely seen on such a scale. 

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Last year, I came across life on Ireland’s canals really for the first time, firstly by hearing about where my German teacher lived, and secondly by being involved in the Slow Architecture exhibition. Slow Architecture travelled on a wide-beam barge from Belmont Mill in Co Offaly to the Grand Canal Dock in Dublin in September and October 2010. Many of the exhibitors took turns travelling with the boat during its journey. It was slow by name, and by nature, as frequently the boat would be overtaken by walkers and joggers on the tow-path. But for me it offered an insight into another way of living; the peace, tranquility and beauty of the canal and its banks, the flutter of a moorhen, parades of ducks, majestic bull rushes – a real connection with nature. There was a friendliness and intimacy about the speed, or lack-of it, with time to chat to passers-by and fellow boat-people. I was surprised to find so many people of all sorts and all ages living on the canal: families, couples, lovers, hippies, and retirees.

Caroline – who hails from Hamburg – her partner Ger and their two children live on a canal boat on the Grand Canal at Sallins, Co Kildare. They live comfortably and simply in a 58m2 boat, which has two bedrooms and a living space, in an area that is way lower than the minimum permissible size of a two-bedroom apartment – and they love it. They have hot and cold running water, and a bathroom with shower, fitted kitchen and a wood-burning stove. The boat is well insulated and cosy. “Even in the arctic conditions of December, when the canal froze-up, we stayed warm indoors,” says Caroline.

From talking to them both, it is clear that living on a canal boat has an almost Zen-like minimalism about it – and this is where the eco-friendliness comes in. “You have to think about the ordinary tasks of daily living. You can’t take the water, power, washing – ourselves and our clothes – for granted.” (We all are beginning to understand that feeling since the recent water cuts!). Everything they need is on the boat, even though they’re living off the grid. “You need to know how much electricity you’ve got – you can’t just plug something in and expect it to work,” says Caroline. “You also have to know how much fuel, gas, wood and water you’ve got on board, and use it carefully.”

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Caroline and Ger's barge, a model of low impact living

They have invested in photovoltaic panels to help charge the on-board batteries and have four 68 watt panels fitted to the wheel-house roof. As with most boats along the canal, the engine is fuelled by diesel, which is primarily used to generate electricity rather than move the boat, which remains moored most of the time. Some boat dwellers are changing to bio-fuels, although there are still some difficulties finding easily available fuel.

The future, however, may be to use hydrogen fuel cells. In 2007, engineers at the University of Birmingham in the UK turned an old canal boat into a clean energy vessel, running on hydrogen, which is converted to electricity in a fuel cell. This powers the boat’s motor and charges a backup battery. The only direct emission is water. The heavy metal hydride fuel cells are in the base of the hull replacing the former concrete blocks as ballast.

Caroline and Ger’s lifestyle is minimalist and green, they have a fraction of the carbon footprint of the average person, and have avoided the materialistic rat-race conveyor belt that most of us are on. “But it’s a fulfilling way to live,” says Caroline. “We are close to nature, have some great friends in the boat community and are in tune with our real needs.”


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