A new social housing scheme in the heart of the city is a triumph for eco-friendly design principles as well as scoring brownie points for the council's contracted developers, writes Valerie Shanley Charlie Long is exuberant at the prospect of a home in the new complex
The re-development of the old council flats on York Street is a transformation way beyond mere bricks and mortar. 'Social housing' in the past conjured up images of grim, Soviet-style blocks with basic amenities. The 66 brand-new homes that replace the original 97 flats are, according to deputy city architect Kieran Gallagher, of a better standard than some private schemes around the city.
In terms of sustainability and eco-credentials, York Street is quite something compared to its neighbouring stately buildings on St Stephen's Green. Massive solar panels, sedum-planted roofs to attract wildlife while absorbing and conserving rainwater, a state-of- the-art recycling centre, an allotment, and architectural salvage from the original tenements, all contribute to this being a flagship social housing project by the council.
However, it's the change in the lives of the council's original tenants – nearly all of whom are moving back into the new complex after being housed in alternative accommodation during the four year re-development – that marks the human transformation.
Charlie Long is one resident who lived on the street for close on three decades and he is exuberant – no other word for it – at the prospect of a home in the new complex. After returning from work in London in 1980, he fell on hard times and had to go on the council's homeless list. Although glad to get a flat on York Street, he remembers living conditions being consistently harsh.
"I worked in a hotel, returning very late at night – and I would be taking my life in my hands. The main doors into the flats would always be kicked open, anyone could come in from the street. Light bulbs would have been smashed and so I would be tripping over people slumped on the stairs, some of them maybe drunk or on drugs." Not surprisingly, a big plus for Charlie is the security of the new building. Each home has an intercom system with a camera, and there is also a 'talking' lift. The communal courtyard is also very secure, and the toddlers' playground is visible from every balcony.
The two feature Georgian door architraves, complete with classic columns, were salvaged from the original terrace of houses built on York Street in the mid 18th century, says the project's architect Seán Harrington.
The College of Surgeons still faces the development in an area that, in its heyday, was considered Dublin's Harley Street. After the Act of Union, the terrace of Georgian houses gradually declined into tenements, housing scores of families in slum conditions. The situation became so bad that Dublin City Council eventually demolished the street in 1949 and re-built the flats. But the living conditions behind the newly built, pastiche 'Georgian' façade, were far from adequate.
Up until four years ago, the York Street complex was a fire hazard; there was no fire escape, continual problems arose with damp, and bathrooms were non-existent. Tiny kitchens included a sink and toilet. Unsurprisingly, the residents wanted a say in how the re-development would improve living standards.
"The great thing about this project is that the community spirit is very together here, plus everyone is interested in eco issues," says Harrington. "The council trusted us to do something ambitious. It's a huge responsibility – you are given the trust to not only create homes, but also to create a building that sits comfortably within the city."
McNamara Construction – which last May pulled out of five public/private partnerships with Dublin City Council worth an estimated €900m due to 'adversely changed circumstances in the housing market' and new planning guidelines on scaled-up apartment sizes – was awarded the York Street contract four years ago to re-develop the site for €20m. Sustainable Energy Ireland contributed over €280,000 as part of its House of Tomorrow project. Design company Ventura (www.ventura.ie) styled two apartments to help tenants visualise how their homes could look.
"It was the first project I've ever worked on with Dublin City Council and I was delighted to have the experience
of working on such an unusual job, never mind the fantastic location," says Ventura's Arlene McIntyre, adding that the brief was to make the flats look and feel as spacious as possible.
Approximately half of the homes are one-bed apartments, with the balance split between two-bed apartments and three bed duplexes. The dual aspect light ensures the homes are warm and bright – unlike the old days when north facing flats were so dark the light had to stay on all day. Generously sized balconies function as additional rooms where the upper glass window panels fold right back to let in sunlight.
Recycling is a huge element in the design. Tony Gallagher, housing manager for the area, says everyone is excited about the state of the art 'digestor' in the recycling pavilion. "We are introducing a training programme for residents to show how leftover food waste converts to compost, and which can be used in the garden."
For Charlie, a big decision now is whether to get involved with the residents' gardening group. He's also bemused by the increased amount of offers from his sister who is really keen to stay in his swish new pad just off St Stephen's Green. "She's suggesting I go to her house for a holiday and she'll come here and mind the place!"
The council is hosting an open day for the public at the York Street development on Saturday, 8 November, from 1pm to 5pm