My father’s drawing board... The story of Jack Fitzsimons and Bungalow Bliss
An excerpt from Adrian Duncan's new book, 'Little Republics'
When I was 11 or so, my father left his job in the Longford County Council to set up his own engineering consultancy. He converted one of the bedrooms in our home into a drawing office where he drafted house plans and planning permissions for local people. I was in primary school and enjoyed watching him ‘inking up’ a design, his hand zipping a horizontal line across the tracing paper, then dropping a variety of careful verticals and diagonals until all of this wet ink began to magically take the form of a single-storey house. These houses he drew were quite similar to, and in one way or another originated from, a set of house designs that had by then been around for almost two decades – the Bungalow Bliss book.
I went through secondary school taking mostly technical subjects and then left to study structural engineering in Scotland. During the summer breaks I came home to help out with my father’s growing consultancy. The office was now in what was once our turf shed. It consisted of a spacious and bright drafting room, with two drawing tables, a print room and a small archive. My father’s business was not only producing many house designs but also some larger housing schemes, and I helped with the mapping of these layouts, the drafting of the associated drawings and their printing too. Here I saw, now under my own hand, these bungalows begin to take shape once more. After I graduated from university, I went off and worked for a number of structural engineering firms in the UK and Ireland, designing multistorey commercial buildings, and I forgot about the bungalows.
A decade later, I left my job as an engineer and enrolled in the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) for an MA degree called 'Art in the Contemporary World'. I took a course titled 'Other Modernisms', and each week our lecturers presented us with a variety of works of art and architecture from around the world. It was in this class, gazing at colourful slides of curved and pointed edifices – the work of Oscar Niemeyer in Bras.lia, Belo Horizonte, Niter.i – and being told how these designs were a blend of high-modern and local architectural styles, that I first wondered: What might the Irish ‘other modernism’ be? The Bungalow Bliss catalogues that once lay around my father’s office rushed back to my mind. I realised these books had influenced not just his drawings but also the drawings of countless engineers and draughtspeople throughout the country. I resolved to explore the origin of these influential books.
One morning, over half a century ago, in early July of 1971, a man called Jack Fitzsimons left his house in Kells, County Meath, with a car boot full of small self-published books. He drove through the twisting trunk roads of rural Ireland to large towns in the midlands, south and west, selling these books to any newsagents, petrol stations or bookshops that would take them.
Declared across the front cover were the words 'BUNGALOW BLISS'. Inside were 20 designs that could be used to build affordable homes. These designs were ordered from Fitzsimons either over the phone or by post. The drawings (usually a set of three, showing plans, elevations and cross-sections) were sent out for a small fee. The buyer put them through the planning process and then the houses these drawings described could be built. Before this book appeared, the options for housing in rural Ireland were: inheritance, getting on the housing list, or emigration. The cost of employing an architect was prohibitively high, and the idea of doing so was beyond the horizons of most. Bungalow Bliss unlocked a need in many thousands of Irish people at the time and it became an instant bestseller. Within a year edition two appeared, and the year after edition three, and then edition four … The book was rewritten, expanded on and republished throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties. A twelfth edition was released in 1998 and reprinted up to 2001. During these 30 years, over a quarter of a million copies were sold, roughly one for every second household in the countryside.
By the late seventies, around the time I was born, over 10,000 of these one-off bungalows were being built each year in rural Ireland. The cost of land was low, so too the cost of construction. The plan area of each design in the book fell under 116 square metres. This deliberate feature qualified a homeowner for state aid of up to £300, about ten per cent of the cost of the whole build. It was a plan size that would accommodate a lower-middle-income earner. It was of far less interest to the wealthier homebuilder – a bracket of higher earners that comprised less than five percent of the population.
On the outskirts of small and larger towns space was less expensive, which gave the homeowner extra room to expand the home should they, in the future, have more children. Cars and motorbikes were now more affordable, and had become the dominant form of transport in the countryside. This led to ribbons of these houses, most of which were on roadside plots of land measuring between one-half and three-quarters of an acre – a dimension that came from a tax break of which farmers could avail.
During these years it wasn’t only ideas about homebuilding that were undergoing a seismic shift; beliefs on accessible education and fostering wealth through foreign investment were also making themselves physically apparent. The most prominent of these new buildings were the Regional Technical Colleges (RTCs), and the Industrial Development Agency (IDA) buildings, all modular structures hosting a technical kind of education and labour. These low-slung buildings had fa.ades of brick and cladding, with large windows and broad doors, and were constructed using materials associated with light industry – aluminium, concrete, mild steel, Perspex. They were surrounded by networks of roadways, car parks edged with landscaped grass. Newly planted leylandii shrubs and poplars graced the roadways in front of the RTCs and IDA buildings, something that also began to happen around the new bungalows.
While I was in NCAD exploring these types of buildings, I decided to take another look at the old drawings in my father’s office. I re-examined the planning permission documents required for a one-off house. I was struck by the stark pragmatism of the demands: a soil test, a series of site maps of increasing scale and six copies of the plans proposed. The Ordnance Survey land maps used in this planning pack had no contours on them, so the only sense of three-dimensional interplay for any proposed site were two numerical spot levels indicating the difference in height between the main road and the floor of the new house. How the building looked on the site was never visualized. It became clear to me that the schematic nature of this planning pack not only suited the technical skill set of the applicants, but also the decision makers in the county councils, where no architects were employed. This form of mapping flattened the country. When the landscape merely undulated, this document functioned well, but when the land began to roll and lift, especially in the ‘untouched’ West, this system broke down disastrously. Some cultural commentators called the results a ‘desecration’. By the late eighties this issue – often exacerbated by local politicians overturning planning decisions – sparked outrage from the architectural establishment and the broadsheet press. But this wasn’t the only problem identified by the cultural gatekeepers. They complained that not only were these new homes harmful to the environment, but that they were ‘inauthentic’ too. The ‘vernacular cottage’ was held up often – in a kind of Gaelic-Revivalist manner – as an exemplar of how one-off housing in the Irish countryside should appear.
The form and aspect of a thatched cottage stemmed from the materials available to build it: stone, timber, straw. The roof covering of straw, for example, was close to hand and in good abundance, so too stone and timber. The basic building blocks of a Bungalow Bliss-era home were also close to hand and in good abundance. These blocks were all precast concrete and 440 mm in length and could be bought ‘off the shelf’ at any of the concrete works that then dotted the country, usually near limestone quarries. For the bungalows, this 440 mm measurement affected more than the length of the walls: it dictated the size of the windows too. Formed with precast lintels and sills, they were all a multiple of this 440 mm-long block.
One of the new planning rules for house design at this time was that the window openings to each room had to be no less than one-tenth of the floor area they served. This prescription is like a grammatical rule, and it influences how the building will look. When a central government lays down rules for its national institutions, it also does this for building regulations. This standardization helps to shape the modern style of any building stemming from these rules.
If you combine the height of the previous cottage windowsill, the need for a larger window opening, the precast lintels available, and the type of to-hand building skills in place, you end up with the typical wide window of the Bungalow Bliss house. This blend of precedent, accessible materials and available technique extends to every other aspect of these houses – the plinth, the walls, the roof, the chimney – and it produced a new and valid style of housing that reflected the administrative and cultural forces being exerted on the people. To return to the correct architectural term: these houses had become ‘the vernacular’.
*An excerpt from 'Little Republics - The Story of Bungalow Bliss' by Adrian Duncan, published by Lilliput Press 2022. €15. See www.lilliputpress.ie