Practice uses ‘cost-saving hacks’ to top seven-strong shortlist with ‘outstanding quality’ home

McGonigle McGrath has won RIBA’s House of the Year 2019 award with a three-bedroom home built to a budget a fraction of some of its shortlisted rivals.

The Belfast practice’s Lessans House, in County Down, was described as “exquisitely simple” by competition judges, who said the architects had employed a range of “cost-saving hacks” to deliver a home of “outstanding quality” on a budget of £335,000. 

McGonigle McGrath beat projects by Adam Richards, Tikari Works, Foster Lomas, Dualchas, Pritzker Prize laureate Peter Zumthor and David Sheppard Architects.

Not all of the shortlisted projects gave a budget, but Lessans House cost less than a third of at least one of its 2019 award rivals. Its price tag stands in stark contrast to James Macdonald Wright and Niall Maxwell’s £8m Caring Wood country house in Kent, which was 2017’s House of the Year.

RIBA president Alan Jones said House Lessans demonstrated that life-enhancing architecture did not have to cost the earth.

House Lessans by McGonigle McGrath

Source: Aidan McGrath

House Lessans by McGonigle McGrath

“Executed with incredible clarity and restraint, McGonigle McGrath have used simple and cheap materials to create a truly bespoke home that resonates with its owners and its context,” he said.

“Even with the tightest of budgets, House Lessans shows that a dream home, designed by a talented architect, can be a reality.”

House Lessans by McGonigle McGrath

Source: Aidan McGrath

Architect Kieran McGonigle said the project had been “both a delight and a challenge” to work on – a delight because of the beautiful location and simple brief, and a challenge because of the budget.

“The outcome, a small collection of forms in the landscape, contributes to this place and, we hope, extends our understanding of how to make buildings in our countryside,” he said.

“Our thanks go to our insightful and trusting clients, and to the contractor’s team and craftspeople who had the patience and skills to bring our designs to reality. We are thrilled with the outcome.”

House Lessans by McGonigle McGrath

Source: Aidan McGrath

Built on the site of a former farmstead, the property completes a small compound of agricultural buildings with crisp, white-rendered concrete walls capped with zinc pitched roofs that echo the adjacent corrugated barn and root the family home within the landscape.

The home is formed of two perpendicular blocks – a dramatic double-height living space, and a suite of three bedrooms overlooking a sheltered courtyard garden.

Judges said that while all the property’s rooms were “minimal and pared back”, all varied “dramatically” in volume and feel.

“The breath-taking open plan kitchen and snug take advantage of the views with huge expanses of glass, while the three, equally sized bedrooms are restrained, private and more familiar in scale,” they said.

House Lessans by McGonigle McGrath

Source: Aidan McGrath

Judges said that “every penny of the client’s budget has been well spent”, noting that walls made of cheap concrete blocks had been carefully laid, rendered outside and painted inside with flush mortar joins to ensure a perfect finish.

They added that the home’s huge fixed windows had represented a far cheaper alternative to bi-fold doors, contributing to an overall project cost of £1,425 per sq m.

McGongile McGrath’s victory was announced after the seventh shortlisted project for the 2019 awards – David Sheppard’s The Green House – was revealed on Channel 4’s Grand Designs: House of the Year show.

The wedge-shaped property, built on a steep slope on an estate near Tiverton, was praised by judges for the way its exterior appeared to change from every viewpoint.

“It makes an intriguing bent shape on plan, and together with its falling roof makes it impossible to pin down,” they said.

“From below at lake level, it is a tall tower house standing with the trees while from uphill it is lower than eye level.

“Bat boxes are integrated on the side; this house abounds with character and personality. A masterful play of shaping with land, trees and water that might well prove to be timeless.”