One swallow does not make a summer. Budget 2014 took a small step in revitalising the domestic market by providing an income tax credit of 13.5 per cent for homeowners carrying out home improvement expenditure between €5,000 and €35,000. The Government should, of course, have taken a seismic step if they really want to kick-start the construction sector, and reduced VAT from 13.5 per cent to 9 per cent, if even for a two year period.
There is evidence of increased activity in the residential sector, particularly in Dublin and Galway. Vacant units are being taken up by demand (the perceived oversupply is not true) and house starts are beginning to increase, but could do with an incentive as outlined above. House completions in 2006 were approximately 90,000. What were we expecting, a Chinese invasion?
House completions in 2011 were a paltry 10,000. The sustainable level of of house completions to match population growth should be approx 30,000 per annum. Now is the time to plan to cater for the population projections, and avoid another property housing bubble.
The population of Galway today is 75,500 and is forecast to increase by 65 per cent to 125,000 by 2040. The national figures are also quite remarkable: the current population of Ireland of 4.58 million is forecast to increase by 932,000 people to 5.51 million by 2035, and by 1.965 million people to 6.56 million by 2060. All this begs the question: where and how do future generations wish to live?
There is already a significant shortage of accommodation in Dublin, with rents increasing and house prices on the move. Surprisingly, the market place appears to have rejected the model of high density planning and desperately wants three or four bed family homes. This mindset or failure by architects/developers to provide acceptable high density life cycle family living will only increase the pressure on suburban sprawl. Irish people have been described as reluctant urban dwellers and take refuge in the tried and trusted semi d model, with front and back gardens.
The projected increased population has a danger of becoming east coast and Dublin-centric, unless balanced regional growth can be stimulated. Ireland has no shortage of land to cater for this population explosion. It appears that future housing growth will, in the main, will be High Density Urban, Low Rise Suburban, or Dispersed Rural.
High Density Urban living comes with civic duties and responsibilities to make it work for society. Bitter recent experience of dysfunctional management of common areas, vandalism to shared facilities, such as playgrounds and courtyard spaces, have alienated the non transient and would-be family sector of urban dwellers. We don’t have the generational experience of city living like our European neighbours, although we all love the benefits of the urban buzz, albeit on an “a la carte basis”.
Herein lies the challenge for urban planners, developers, architects – to design and deliver best in class urban living units, which are sustainable, desirable, have generous private open space/balconies, adequate storage, and internal spaces that meet full life cycle needs. Galway Docklands and the expanded harbour area is just one of many locations where this could be achieved, locally, but only with the benefit of imaginative and inclusive planning.
Low rise suburban will always be the people’s choice, especially for family units, and brings with it the challenges of land usage, transport issues and creating a sense of place.
Ireland has an established pattern of dispersed settlement going back over 10,000 years. The town land system is of Gaelic origin, pre dating the Norman invasion, and most have names of Irish Gaelic origin. The Constitution affirms the right to life, political, economic and cultural, in accordance with our genius and traditions. The question of rural housing has been a thorny issue for many years, in terms of sustainability and quality of design. On the latter, innovative design should be a welcome addition to the rural countryside, if expertly and sensitively handled. Here qualified and registered architects have a major role to play. I believe that rural housing should be actively encouraged in Government policy to avoid the migration to urban centres and to allow country communities to thrive. Communities are defined by Townlands, not necessarily by streets and squares.
So how sustainable are rural houses?. New technologies and the possibility of on site or local power generation makes rural houses very sustainable and, in future, a net energy contributor, once the national grid has been upgraded. The island of Eigg in the Scottish Inner Hebrides has developed an electricity supply that is powered from renewable sources and is environmentally and economically sustainable. On a practical basis, the issues of concern regarding sustainability for one-off houses can be considered on an item by item basis. Most rural sites can be served by Group Water Schemes, bored wells or rainwater harvesting. Effluent must comply with EPA guidelines and modern day package plants are designed accordingly.
Our country has an extensive network of rural roads, which provide access to rural sites. Power can be generated by solar/photovoltaic and by wind turbines, which in due course can feed into the grid, and of course charge the electric car. Interestingly, ten per cent of cars now sold in Norway are electric. Houses designed to passive or near passive standard and using geothermal will require minimum heating without reliance on fossil fuels. Regarding communications, broadband is virtually everywhere with unlimited capacity in fibre or satellite options.
All of these factors give the element of choice, especially given the increasing popularity of remote working with the shift away from the nine to five centralised place of work.
Well designed rural houses can provide wonderful living environments to raise a family and ensure a very good quality of life.
The State should not dictate where and how we live. There is no one solution to our future housing needs. I believe the option of rural housing should be actively supported by Government and that balanced regional growth is a necessity to ensure a sustainable future.
Patrick McCabe is an architect in private practice and has a significant portfolio of completed residential projects.