A version of this piece was published in The Sunday Times
If you were born towards the tail-end of the 1970’s you will have just about made it into what became known as Generation X. In other words, you came of age in the 90’s; you’ll remember where you were when Mandela walked free, what Oasis vs. Blur was all about, Clinton and Lewinsky, Curtained hairstyles, Dr. Martens shoes and where you were when you heard the news about Cobain. Recently you will also have reached another coming-of-age milestone. Your parents likely called it being middle-aged, but after a heavy dose of mid-nineties pre-millennial tension us Gen Xers prefer the more optimistic outlook of seeing the forty-year mark as the start of something new rather than the beginning of a slow downward trajectory towards retirement, daily trips to the golf course and — should the pension have survived —a yearly Mediterranean cruise.
Being part of this generation also means that — all being well — you will form part of the 25% of Ireland’s population (double the current figure) who by 2050 will be over sixty-five years old; which means, that at some point in the not-too-distant future, if you are a homeowner, and especially if you have children who are teetering on the edge of the nest, you might be starting to talk about the D word. This is a conversation that Belfast based, Irish and Swedish architecture practice, Fämily Architects want to be part of.
“Downsizing is not a conversation that most people want to have," says Grainne, who along with husband Alasdair and son Oscar started Fämily Architects in 2016. “It should be a creative and fun experience, the beginning of something new and not the end — we must embrace ageing.” This is the philosophy behind Number 37, Grainne and Alasdair’s newly completed ‘downsizing’ house just off the Ormeau Road in Belfast.
If your idea of downsizing conjures up images of a quaint mock-tudor bungalow in a quiet cul-de-sac with a manicured lawn and carefully placed ornamental garden gnomes then think again. This house, a black and yellow timber clad inky question mark punctuating the end of the red brick sentence of familiar terraced houses that line the surrounding streets, is something very different. The questions that Fämily Architects hope the house will ask: “what does it mean to downsize? What does it mean to grow old? What does it mean to age and keep that fun element in your life?”
Most architects, when showing you the houses that they have designed want to talk about what’s there, what they’ve designed. Grainne is more interested in doing the opposite; talking about what isn’t there, what they didn’t design. “We wanted to see how small we could make the house" she says, as we walk up the narrow timber staircase leading to the mezzanine level double bedroom; a simple white room that has no door, en-suite, wardrobe or even a wall separating it from the rest of the house. The ground floor is one space— kitchen; dining; living; with storage neatly integrated into the kitchen cupboards. It’s an economical, carefully edited layout; every square foot of unnecessary space removed leaving Grainne and Alisdair with exactly what they need in a house and nothing more. It’s small — about the size of a one bedroom apartment — but clever use of height, light, and form create the illusion of space.
“I’ve been amazed at how big this space is in comparison to what I expected it to be," says Grainne. “I think that most people living in big old houses would come into this space and say that they could see themselves downsizing into this house, but they don’t get to experience this, so this house is part of that narrative.” It’s also part of a wider conversation about sustainable living. 8% of Irish households have seven rooms or more but are only occupied by a single person or by a married or cohabiting couple. “There is” Grainne reminds me “something hugely eco about downsizing.”
In a word this house is simple, but that’s what interests Grainne. “There’s nothing exceptional about it, it’s ordinary and we love ordinary things, things that other people find boring,” again, not something you usually hear an architect say, but it’s the simple and ordinary that Fämily Architects are interested in and perhaps most importantly “trying to use architecture and design to change peoples lives.”
This house isn’t the solution to the D word conversation, but it does one of the things that good architecture should do — it asks questions about the way things are and starts a conversation about how things could be. Given that a recent report by the Economic and Social Research Institute found that just under 41% of older people live alone in houses with up to four rooms, these are questions worth asking.
The house also asks questions about how we view growing old. In Greece old age is respected with elders playing a central role in family life. Native Americans pass knowledge does to younger generations; Koreans hold a reverence for the elderly while the Chinese view respect for older people as one of the highest virtues, yet “there’s not a lot of attention given to ageing, we’re ashamed to grow old but we must embrace it” says Grainne. “The conversation around ageing is not out there as a narrative at all, because nobody wants to stand up and say ‘hey I’m old’ and its okay” Grainne is passionate about moving away from the broadly western European idea where youth is fetishised and the elderly are often removed from society and put in residential homes or retirement accommodation.
For Grainne and Alasdair, this is more than a design philosophy, “there’s real potential in ageing, we want to get more radical the older we get.” It’s not that they are particularly old, but the nest of the large Victorian house that they have lived in for the past number of years is now empty. A prescient pause in time that they have used as an opportunity to think creatively about the future. Their new house is a way of provoking others to do the same. “We want to encourage people living in massive houses to get up, think creatively and enjoy the rest of their lives, don’t think it is time to shut down, close the door and hide.” Grainne calls this creative downsizing.