Karen and Michael Duff’s home wouldn’t look out of place on a traditional New England ranch, but it is actually situated in Co. Louth, Ireland — and is also completely brand new.

“We had been living in Yonkers, New York, for quite a few years and just decided it was time to move,” says Michael Duff, a painting and decorating contractor, originally from Ardee, Co. Louth, who had for 17 years been running a successful business in Manhattan and Yonkers. “Our daughter Holly was just old enough to go to school, so we had decided to move to South Salem in upstate New York, where the schools are excellent.”

But as luck would have it, they made a trip home to Ireland in September of that year when, for once, the Irish weather was beautiful. They fell in love with Ireland all over again, and decided to move home instead. “We started to look at sites, which to our surprise had more than doubled in cost over the previous few years,” remembers Michael. “There was a rumour of a beautiful site on a rise above rolling countryside somewhere around Drumcashel, but no one seemed to know exactly where the field was, or who it belonged to.”

Michael used his local knowledge to track it down, for he grew up not half a mile away in the Victorian gate lodge of an old castle, which ironically he can see from the front windows of their new house. “I travelled a long way to come right back here!” he remarks. “Once we saw the site, we knew it was for us: we loved the views of rolling hills and the tiny, stonewalled lane that led to it. After eight years in Manhattan and nine in Yonkers, the countryside really was a breath of fresh air for us, yet it is also close to Dublin and the airport.”

Karen and Michael had always wanted to build their own house from scratch, and they loved the New England and Dutch Colonial-style houses that they had seen – and Michael had worked in – during their years in America. “The Colonial is a beautiful style of housebuilding,” comments Michael, “practical, but with something of the elegance of the Georgian period.” They decided to design their own house, incorporating the features they liked from many different houses. “Karen really wanted a front porch,” remembers Michael. “That was to turn out to be the biggest part of the whole project! The scale of the porch in relation to the rest of the elevation was vital; it was difficult to get exactly right. I ended up flying back from Yonkers three times to consult about it.”

Their plan was to have a family house that was bright and inviting, and good for entertaining too. They wanted a substantial front porch, a ‘gallery’ hall with French doors opening to the garden at the rear, visible from the front door. “No long dark corridors,” says Michael. “We wanted all areas to be accessible to each other and to work in harmony, especially the kitchen, living and TV rooms: this area was to be the hub of family life, and had to work as a whole for entertaining too.” The couple also wanted their brand new house to look old, as if it had been there for the last 150 years. “That is why we were really interested in the use of stone, brick and salvaged timber,” explains Michael. “I was really chuffed when the removal men asked how long it had taken us to renovate this old house!

“We chose natural and durable materials for the fittings and finishes, so that they would all just get better and better with age,” continues Michael. The exterior of the house is stone, with pretty redbrick detailing around the openings – a very traditional Irish pattern. Neutral dark slate has been used in the hall; the kitchen is contrasting in a warm terracotta tile. “That took a long time to source,” remembers Michael. “We wanted a real terracotta tile, which would age well, but the price was prohibitive. We thought we were going to have to bite the bullet and spend a fortune, or give up and compromise, but at the last moment we spotted these at a reasonable price in a big store.”

The TV and living rooms are floored with salvaged pitch pine floorboards from the old Guinness Brewery in Belfast. “It looked fantastic on the wall of the salvage shop showroom,” says Michael. “But I actually wasn’t prepared for the reality when the delivery arrived: pallets of dirty old timber – unrecognisable! It was certainly some job to clean and sand it all down, but it was a labour of love. I wanted to clean it up and sand it enough to be usable, without losing the character that a hundred years of wear had given it. In the end it was all worth it: it’s a beautiful floor and practical too, as the boards have no tongue-and-groove, so they can expand safely with our underfloor heating.”

The kitchen was made by Cabinetministers in Dundalk, to Karen and Michael’s specifications. “The most important thing for me about the kitchen is the views,” says Michael. “That’s why there are so few wall cabinets: they were fitted in around the windows, which we spent a lot of time and effort sourcing – we wanted traditional sash windows.” The kitchen has a traditional hand-painted finish in colours Michael describes as “old-style rusty red and dark green”.

Michael naturally did all the painting in the house, which contributes greatly to the character. “I like colour, and I wanted to instil as much character as possible into the house, but I also think that it is very important to create a flow of space throughout the house, so that no colour jars with one adjacent to it,” he explains. “A natural blending of one space into another is the aim.”

The house was a lot of hard work, but it functions fantastically well as a family home,” says Michael. “Yes, we love it,” agrees Karen, “It’s very homely and comfortable.” But restless Michael has just spotted a great site nearby, and is itching to start on a new and even more ambitious project, so watch out for the result!

‘American-style’ houses are gaining in popularity in the UK and Ireland, but much the same as our own architecture, there is more than one style – and many variations on each. Karen and Michael were heavily influenced by the Colonial style, which is very popular in New England – indeed many US kit home manufacturers seek to emulate it. In general, the style is characterised by a strong emphasis on the roof, often gambrel or mansard in shape; a weatherboarded exterior; heavily emphasised gable ends and dormers; rounded bay windows, often of double height; and sweeping porches, often with a balcony above. Other popular styles are Cape Cod, Plantation, West Coast and Prairie. Often, as in this case, planning policies restrict adopting a complete American design.

Project Details

  • Name: Karen and Michael Duff
  • Build Cost: £272,000 (£837/m²)
  • Build Time: 2 Years
  • Build Route: Subcontractors
  • Region: Ardee, Co. Louth

American Style

‘American-style’ houses are gaining in popularity in the UK and Ireland, but much the same as our own architecture, there is more than one style — and many variations on each. Karen and Michael were heavily influenced by the Colonial style, which is very popular in New England — indeed many US kit home manufacturers seek to emulate it. In general, the style is characterised by a strong emphasis on the roof, often gambrel or mansard in shape; a weatherboarded exterior; heavily emphasised gable ends and dormers; rounded bay windows, often of double height; and sweeping porches, often with a balcony above. Other popular styles are Cape Cod, Plantation, West Coast and Prairie. Often, as in this case, planning policies restrict adopting a complete American design.

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