Frank Gibney (1905-1978) was an architect and planning consultant whose career spanned the period from the early 1930s to the early 1970s. A planner before the profession really existed in Ireland, he prepared detailed plans for several towns including Tralee (1939), Drogheda (1940), Navan (1943), Waterford (1943), Cavan (1945), Listowel (1947), Ballina (1950) and Tullamore (1950). Although perhaps now best remembered for the villages and developments which he designed for Bord na Móna workers in the 1950s, the connections he established when working on these town plans led him to work as a housing architect for at least sixteen different local authorities. From dozens of ‘one-off’ rural cottages for Kerry County Council to large urban housing estates for Waterford Borough, Gibney’s houses are to be found right across the country.
Gibney’s working method for both the local authority and Bord na Móna housing was to set out schemes using a basic palette of generic house designs. Lay-out drawings show the placing, in block plan, of houses on particular sites, with an indication of which house types are to be built. This approach led to obvious efficiencies in design and construction costs. While the houses themselves are basic and repetitive, distinction and variety was given to each scheme by the use of ‘feature’ houses, more elaborate versions of the core types, inserted to add emphasis or punctuation. But what really makes Gibney’s schemes stand out are the distinctive layouts. His oval design for a small estate of 20 houses in Stradbally, Co. Laois (Brockley Park), or the tadpole shaped Bord na Móna estate at Bracknagh, Co. Offaly (St Broughan’s Park) are just two examples, both deriving their curving forms from Gibney’s careful consideration of site, aspect and orientation.
During the construction hiatus enforced by the Second World War, Gibney had time to indulge one of his many interests – building with clay. ‘Emergency conditions’, he wrote, ‘have forced us to look inwards upon our own natural resources and to extract therefrom the maximum substance for the primaries of life – Food, Fuel, Clothing and Shelter’. When it came to the last of these, shelter, Gibney proposed a ‘practical… simple’ solution – the clay cottage. After all, he says, ‘there is nothing new here, for the building of dwellings in rammed earth and thatching of roof with straw, reeds or heather, was at one time a thriving Craft in our country’.
In 1943 he produced a drawing for a Clay Cottage for Captain Prior-Wandesforde of Castlecomer Collieries. This was to be no mere paper exercise; a sample cottage, based on the drawing, was in fact erected at Cloneen Co. Kilkenny, a few miles outside Castlecomer. A basic bungalow, traditional in plan yet – as Gibney was anxious to point out – nearly twice as large as contemporary local-authority-built labourers cottages, the Clay Cottage was finished in early 1944 and was ’warm, dry and comfortable.’
Construction was straightforward: ‘the walls, two feet thick, are constructed with sub-soil clay from the Cottage garden, removed immediately from excavation without watering and rammed hard between timber panelling. Straw reinforcement was only used in the internal partition walls, they being twelve inches thick. Surfaces of walls were plastered and lime washed white. The windows are timber double hung sashes fitted into wood jamb linings and cills built in the walls as part of the panelling.’ The fireplaces and chimneys were brick-built and the cottage was supplied with a flushing toilet, hot and cold water, ventilated sub-floors and a ‘modern drainage system’. The thatch was treated with ‘fire and vermin solutions’.
What made the building truly practical for Gibney – and particularly ‘sustainable’ in the modern sense – was the fact that ‘practically all material was found on site – clay from [the] garden, timber from nearby oak-trees, straw from harvest, and all work executed by local Craftsmen’. Even the boiler, located in the living room, was made by a local blacksmith. So fired was he by the success of the Clay Cottage that Gibney could see nothing but a bright future: ‘the writer believes that this mode of construction could be considerably developed in alleviating Rural Building problems, both in housing, farm buildings, workshops, Community halls, and even small Churches’. Alas it was not to be. The increasing availability of more modern building materials after 1945 meant that even Gibney himself had to abandon clay for concrete. But perhaps the Clay Cottage was an idea ahead of its time.
Copies of Frank Gibney’s town plans (2013/9) and drawings from his architectural practice (2014/63) were donated to the Irish Architectural Archive by his son, also Frank Gibney. Work is ongoing to catalogue and make accessible this record of the work of a remarkable and fascinating man. All quotations above come from an unpublished note by Frank Gibney attached to his Clay Cottage drawing. For more on Frank Gibney and his work see his entry in the IAA’s Dictionary of Irish Architects.