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Embedding craft in construction

Tríona Byrne

One Good Idea

We know that the greenest building is the one that already exists. Yet in a country with a huge vacancy rate, facing into a housing and climate crisis, Ireland is experiencing a shortage of skilled craftspeople to do conservation work. A dedicated state-funded craft skills training centre could be one solution to ensuring this knowledge is maintained, alongside our old buildings.

Volunteers repointing a stone wall at the SPAB Ireland Working Party in Faugheen, Co. Tipperary in 2022

It seems that people are simply not interested in pursuing a career ‘in the trades’ in Ireland. We, as a society, have fed into the narrative that to pursue an apprenticeship after leaving school is for those ‘who didn't get the points to go to college’ but hopefully that mindset is beginning to shift.

Our built heritage is of profound importance, rooting us to our surroundings and giving us context for who we are and where we come from. But where does it come from? Who built these impressive buildings, from grand Georgian establishments to the humble yet tenacious thatched cottage? They were all born by the hand of a skilled craftsperson.

One doesn’t have to search hard in Ireland to find an old building and to notice the work done by a skilled hand, be it by a craftsperson or the owner of a vernacular building. We know they were skilled people because the buildings are still standing hundreds of years later. As a structural engineer, I know that we typically design buildings today for a fifty-year design life, nowhere near the lifespan achieved by traditional buildings, built by expert craftspeople.

We are living in a climate emergency, and we know that the greenest building is the one that already exists. So in a country with a huge vacancy rate, facing into a housing and climate crisis, we should be championing our craftspeople, who have the skills and know-how to repair and maintain our old buildings.

Apprentice thatcher Sara Leach working on a thatched roof in Co. Wexford this year

A key barrier is the shortage of skilled craftspeople to do conservation work, across all trades. It seems that people are simply not interested in pursuing a career ‘in the trades’ in Ireland. We, as a society, have fed into the narrative that to pursue an apprenticeship after leaving school is for those ‘who didn't get the points to go to college’ but hopefully that mindset is beginning to shift. Although there have been moves in recent years to increase the number of apprenticeships, through the likes of the Action Plan for Apprenticeship as part of the Programme for Government [1], there is a huge backlog in start dates for craft apprenticeships in particular and formal conservation skills training is difficult to come by. There is also a danger that the likes of bricklaying or stonemasonry apprenticeships don’t necessarily provide the right skills for conservation work, depending on the employer’s recent work (which could be all new-build).

While there are conservation skills training courses currently provided by NGOs and private organisations, these are disparate, often one-off, and tend to be aimed at the DIY-er rather than the person looking to upskill for work.

So what could be done? Like most issues, decent funding would be a massive help. Funding to run a state-funded conservation craft skills training centre, headed up by experienced craftspeople, would be a huge boost to the sector. Better still, several skills training hubs across the country, with attractive salaries for those who can share their skills and no/low fees for those who wish to learn. A good source of inspiration might be the Engine Shed, Scotland’s dedicated building conservation hub, which delivers skills development and training for the heritage sector.

An Irish version of this might be located in the midlands, where anyone from across the island could easily travel to. There are plentiful derelict farmsteads and stable yards, for example, where a permanent training centre could feasibly be located. The existing farm buildings could be repaired as part of on-site workshops, with certain parts left half-done and un-repaired altogether, in order to show the repair works at various stages.Permanent demonstration panels/models could be set up on site on a large scale, so that someone could practice the basics of thatching, for example, undoing and redoing it over and over again (which would not be feasible on a real project).

Stone carving demonstration at Tullynisk farm buildings, Co. Offaly as part of the SPAB Ireland Working Party in 2019

Demonstration panels wouldn’t work as well for other craft skills, but there is no shortage of buildings all over the country in need of repair. Once the central skills training centre could develop a base curriculum, staff, and equipment, there should be no limit to the range of mobile workshops and classes that could take place on live sites around Ireland.

Funding could also be used to incentivise experienced craftspeople to take on apprentices. Compulsory employment of apprentices on large, state-funded conservation projects could be another option, which wouldn’t require any funding. Voluntary organisations like Irish Traditional Skills Initiative should be supported in their aims to develop skills training and connect aspiring apprentices with experienced professionals [2].

We still need to change the narrative that an apprenticeship after secondary school is somehow lesser than going on to university. A national awareness campaign to encourage young people, or maybe more importantly, their parents, to consider alternatives to university could have merit. Career guidance counsellors could also be targeted to promote hands-on learning more widely to second-level students. The recent steps to include apprenticeships on the CAO is a step in the right direction but we need to do more to make sure that like neglected old buildings, our treasured supply of craftspeople doesn’t crumble away.

Once the central skills training centre could develop a base curriculum, staff, and equipment, there should be no limit to the range of mobile workshops and classes that could take place on live sites around Ireland.

One Good Idea is a series of articles which focuses on the simple, concise discussion of a complex spatial issue. Each piece is presented as a starting point towards a topic that the author believes should be part of broader public discourse. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact

One Good Idea is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.


1. Action Plan for Aprenticeship 2021-25, Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, 2021. Available at:

2. See for further information.


Tríona Byrne

Tríona Byrne is a structural engineer working on conservation projects in the greater Dublin region. She is a co-founder of the Irish branch of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) and served as chair for five years from its foundation in 2017 until 2021. She completed the SPAB Scholarship in 2017 and is a SPAB Trustee. She is on the Conservation Group committee of Engineers Ireland and on the ICOMOS Ireland National Scientific Committee on Energy, Sustainability and Climate Change. She is a member of the Building Limes Forum of Ireland and the Dry Stone Walling Association of Ireland.

Related articles

Roaming right

Claudia Dalby
One Good Idea
Claudia Dalby
Eimear Arthur

Driving Ireland’s looping system of isolated rural roads, you'll spot a common sight: walkers decked out in hi-vis, singly or in groups, tracking the footpath-less edge, keeping out of your way and waving gratefully as you pass. Rural roads are the most dangerous in Ireland: the site of 71% of road fatalities in 2020, according to the Road Safety Authority (RSA) [1]. In that year, forty-four pedestrians were killed on Irish roads (the RSA didn’t differentiate between rural and urban deaths), more than passengers (thirty-four) and cyclists (eight) combined.


Pedestrians are vulnerable on rural roads, which may have limited visibility and lack proper footpaths. Image credit: Claudia Dalby

People may choose to walk because they can’t drive, because it is the cheapest option, or simply for walking’s sake. If those living rurally haven’t access to private land, a footpath, or a designated public route, their only option is the roadside, with limited visibility around bends, speed limits up to 80km/h or 100km/h, and the fear of distracted drivers.


But there could be options beyond the roadside. In Scotland, people have a "right to responsible access" [2], meaning the public can access most private land and inland water for recreation and other purposes, including walking. Sweden, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria have similar statutory rights of responsible access to all land, regardless of ownership. They don’t have to call ahead, or worry that they’ll be reprimanded for walking through someone’s property.


In England, where open access to 8% of private land is legislated, there is a growing campaign to move closer to the Scottish model. The Right to Roam campaign proposes that while ownership of the land may allow landowners to "take rent, mine, and make money from the land", it should not permit them to exclude the public [3]. Some farmers, in response, argue that the public doesn’t know how to use the countryside, and could impact agricultural production [4]. Farmers in support of the Right to Roam suggest it should be accompanied by a public education programme.


Access in Ireland is at the discretion of landowners [5], and may be withdrawn at any time, even when access has been agreed with the state, and even to sites on which public money has been spent [6]. 78% of land in Ireland is private, while 8% is public (the remaining 14% is unmapped, likely residential). Most of the private land is farmland [7]. A 2009 study of farmers’ attitudes towards allowing walkers to access their land found that 51% were opposed to any such scheme [8]. Those opposing public access usually had limited experience of walkers passing through their land and were concerned about interference with farming activity. Farmers who were familiar with walkers were more willing to engage with the scheme, and more willing to do so for free. In general, it was found that farmers were more supportive of creating public access if paid about €0.27 per metre of walkway, if full public liability insurance indemnification were provided, maintenance costs covered, and no permanent right of way established.      

Creating a legal right of responsible access in Ireland would open up the countryside to walkers. Image credit: Claudia Dalby

The question of liability is an important one. Under Irish legislation, landowners are considered responsible for those on their land, meaning concerns around public liability are justified, though recent changes to the duty of care have given more weight to personal responsibility [9].

The government’s National Outdoor Recreation Strategy acknowledges that access to the countryside rests on the goodwill of landowners [10]. The strategy vaguely aims to develop permissive access and "encourage innovative solutions". Creating a legal right of responsible access in Ireland would open up the countryside, allowing us to hop over fences and explore the land around us. Of course, for that to work, certain responsible behaviours would need to be normalised. Dogs should not be brought near to livestock, and walkers must respect the land, leaving no trace [11].

There’s a strong environmental case for making land more accessible to all. Studies have found that connection to nature increases people’s willingness to protect the environment [12]. 84% of people surveyed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2020 thought walking in nature benefitted their mental health [13]. More places to walk safely in the countryside could foster a rural walking culture. Health benefits of walking in nature include stress reduction, cognitive development, and lowered likelihood of cardiovascular disease [14].


This map of walking locations in Ireland shows clear gaps in public access to land. Depending on where you live, the nearest public walking route might be a drive away, and an alternative one even further. These designated routes allow you to get out, to move your body and breathe the air, but what about your curiosity, your sense of adventure, your wish to follow your nose or the call of a bird? Those desires cannot be met by the same stretch of land every time, or by planning a round-country day trip to a faraway route. With the right to roam, people could explore nature and build custodianship with the land. Why should this require a pleasant interaction with a landowner beforehand?

One Good Idea

Much of the Irish countryside is in private ownership, meaning rural populations without access to designated walking routes are relegated to ditches and roadsides. Legislating for responsible public access to private land could offer safety, health, and ecological benefits.


How we build now?

Michael Pike
One Good Idea
Michael Pike
Eimear Arthur

"Architecture has no meaning unless in relation to nature". 

— Alvaro Siza [1]


We used to build in quite sensible ways.


Before industrialisation in Western Europe, we mainly built relatively simple structures of load-bearing walls using materials sourced in the locality. These materials – stone, brick, earth, timber, lime, plant fibre – required very little energy to produce. The walls were generally formed of one or two materials and the craft skills required were passed from one generation to the next. These vernacular buildings responded to local climatic conditions, making careful use of volume, the sizes and positions of apertures, cross ventilation, the thermal mass of the wall materials, thermal buffers to the most hostile orientations, and rooms of differing temperatures, to moderate the climate and achieve a relatively comfortable indoor environment without requiring significant additional heating or cooling. The buildings worked with nature and made the most of the natural conditions.


The industrialisation of construction over the last two centuries has created a change, from buildings as assemblies of materials based on craft practices to buildings as sums of subsystems, elements, and specialised layers of proprietary products. This change from materials to products greatly increased the embodied energy of building, as the standardisation of products requires significantly more complex manufacturing. Bricks, once produced locally from terracotta and fired at low temperatures, now require homogenised clay, must be fired at very high temperatures to meet industrial standards, and are transported large distances from centralised production facilities. Wood is now subjected to shredding, gluing, and shaping under pressure to homogenise its properties in the required formats [2]. We have also developed an ever-increasing number of industrial materials – steel, aluminium, PVC, concrete – that need vast quantities of energy to produce.


Social housing units at 39 Salvador Espriu, Palma, Mallorca, promoted by IBAVI. Authors: Carles Oliver, Xim Moyá, Antonio Martín, Alfonso Reina, (architects at IBAVI) Miguel Nevado (structure). Photographer: Milena Villalba 2023

In parallel with these changes in construction, we have created a situation where buildings are increasingly isolated from the natural environment, relying on technology to achieve comfort, instead of working with the local climate and conditions, as buildings did historically. In this era of the hermetically sealed building, the architecture discipline has surrendered responsibility for the design of the internal environments to engineers and other specialists. Key architectural issues affecting the well-being of inhabitants, such as air-quality, temperature, and humidity, are delegated to specialists and handled by technology. These issues, which should be central topics of the architectural project, are treated as merely problems to be solved. The construction industry and design professionals have become obsessed with the idea that we can completely isolate the insides of our buildings from the natural environment, like habitable thermos flasks. Yet, as Kiel Moe describes in his book Insulating Modernism, Isolated and Non-isolated Thermodynamics in Architecture, this isolation is illusionary and denies the physical reality of the building and the way it acts in the world: "literal isolation is thermodynamically impossible to achieve in the context of buildings" [3].


Based on this flawed thinking we have developed policies and regulations aimed at ever greater levels of insulation and airtightness, pursuing the holy grail of zero-energy buildings. Passivhaus is perhaps the most extreme version of this, creating buildings so airtight that they rely on expensive and complex technologies to provide ventilation.


The goal of these policies is energy conservation above all else, drowning out any more balanced discussion about how carbon emissions can be reduced to combat climate change. A new industry of simulation and certification has been created to drive a massive technological upgrade of buildings, but the promised successes will never be realised in real life. We have rushed to encase all our housing in thick layers of polyurethane and other oil industry by-products without consideration of the destructive impact of this practice. We don’t consider that having the bulk of our energy generated via renewable sources will reduce the need to insulate [4]. We are caught in a mindset that believes that more and more industrialised production and technology will solve any cost, quality, or time problem in the construction industry while helping to resolve a climate crisis that is the direct result of industrialisation and technological growth.


In recent years an increasing number of architects have begun to realise that we are making buildings too complex to design, too expensive to build, and too difficult to operate. Worse still, we are slowly becoming aware that the indoor environments we are creating, the settings for an increasing proportion of our lives, are not healthy. We realise that buildings are not empty shells, that they are filled with air, in the physical sense, and that this air is the main source of nourishment for the human body.


Social housing units in Santa Eugenia, Mallorca, promoted by IBAVI. Authors: Carles Oliver, Xim Moyá (architects at IBAVI). Photographer: Milena Villalba 2023

Alarmed by these realisations, some architects are returning to first principles. They are beginning to study how vernacular architecture managed to create buildings that intrinsically required very little energy to heat in winter and that did not overheat in summer. A change of mindset is emerging, from the modernist isolation of the building and reliance on technology to a new sensibility about simpler, more robust forms of construction that engage in a dialogue with the natural environment.  


One example of this new mindset is the work of the IBAVI in the Balearic Islands. This government housing agency has developed a whole series of really interesting social housing projects that rediscover vernacular materials and construction techniques such as the use of the local Mares stone, and a seagrass called Posidonia as insulation. In their projects, thick stone walls and vaults are deployed to stabilise the indoor environment without needing any applied technology.  


These architects have been leading a rediscovery of how the fundamental spatial elements of architecture – walls, roofs, floors, ceilings, and apertures – can generate an environmental performance in which the building is not isolated from its surroundings, but instead takes advantage of the innate opportunities they offer to achieve comfort without the need for complex technologies. There is also a growing realisation that buildings inherently require a great accumulation of matter and energy to exist and persist, that they can never be zero-energy, and that a building’s success in ecological terms is characterised by its capacity to exchange and harvest energy from the natural environment. This emerging school of thought has the potential to establish a more coherent agenda for architecture and to reestablish its relevance and importance to contemporary society.

One Good Idea

The construction industry's response to industrialisation and the climate crisis has been to create increasingly complex sealed building systems which are extremely resource-intensive to produce. A growing cohort of architects proposes a different way of working that embraces vernacular wisdom and the natural environment.


Space healers

Eimear Arthur
One Good Idea
Eimear Arthur
Eimear Arthur

Picture the last hospital you were in – there are reasons it looked like that. At any moment, a healthcare setting is balancing the needs and priorities of patients, clinicians, management, and administrative and support staff. Efficiency, servicing, privacy, infection control, comfort, safety, and cost add further complexity. Design guides, evidence-based solutions, and building regulations are guide rails for the architectural process. But established processes often engender established solutions.

Now, picture an oncology day ward. A row of treatment chairs and drip stands separated by curtains, buzzing overhead lights, nursing staff filling notes on their knees. But what if those treatment chairs were more comfortable, more functional? What if jump seats [1] created useful spaces within a corridor, taking advantage of city views while maintaining required clear widths? What if instead of tired divider curtains, privacy came in the form of beautiful, artist-designed screens?

This is the kind of 'fresh perspective' design students offer, says Cathal Mac Dhaibhéid, doctor and 2022-23 Innovation Fellow with HSE Spark Innovation. HSE Spark is a frontline, staff-led initiative to improve healthcare using design principles and innovation methodologies [2], which has run many successful partnerships with students of design. Mac Dhaibhéid cites the example of Interaction Design Master’s students who whittled a 'fifty or sixty' page nursing admission form to just twelve pages, through a series of user interviews and prototyping. 'These students look at problems through a design lens', says Mac Dhaibhéid, 'and they’re not jaded by working in the public health system'.

Inspired by artist Sasha Sykes, Isobel Walsh proposed flower-embedded resin privacy screens. Image courtesy: Isobel Walsh

But up until the recent ‘Healing Spaces’ elective – delivered with TU Dublin School of Architecture, Building and Environment (SABE), the Mater Transformation Team, and the Mater Hospital’s Oncology Day Ward and Inpatient Unit – HSE Spark hadn’t collaborated with architecture students. Like many good ideas, Mac Dhaibhéid’s engagement with schools of architecture was borne of frustration. Galvanised by the spaces he encountered in medical practice – some illogically laid out, some poorly functioning, some merely uninspiring – and Christine Nickl-Weller and Hans Nickl’s 2013 book, Healing Architecture [3], he became increasingly interested in the therapeutic potential of space, and the missed opportunity that is unimaginative design. He says, 'You have all these advances in how cancer is treated, but where it’s treated hasn’t really changed'.

For Emma Geoghegan, architect and Head of Architecture at SABE, Mac Dhaibhéid’s proposal to collaborate was too good to miss. There are established postgraduate programmes in healthcare architecture, but a focused module on healthcare spaces is absent from most undergraduate architecture syllabuses. Geoghegan notes that this is a 'gap', saying the design of healthcare environments is 'not just about typology, it’s about how you engage with people'. User engagement is key to the profession of architecture, and though many final-year architecture students have worked in practice, few have much experience of engaging with end users – this task generally falling to more senior team members.

In designing and delivering ‘Healing Spaces’, it made geographical and ideological sense for Geoghegan and Mac Dhaibhéid to work with the Mater Hospital. The hospital is within TU Dublin's direct community, and 'Community Engaged Research and Learning' is a stated aim of the university [4]. Critically, the Mater is, according to Mac Dhaibhéid, 'fertile ground for doing things a bit differently', as evidenced by the existence of Mater Transformation, an embedded unit within the hospital that’s dedicated to working with frontline staff to co-design and deliver change [5].

Regularly collaborating with both HSE Spark and the National College of Art and Design, Mater Transformation has extensive experience of running collaborative problem-solving processes. ‘What we’ve done is set up structures that can bring people together,’ says Aileen Igoe, Mater Transformation’s Lean and Systems Thinking Lead. These structures were critical to tackling potentially sensitive issues related to working in a functional hospital, such as GDPR and access, says Geoghegan. 'Things that might normally be challenging, we were able to resolve very quickly' [6].

Healing Spaces 'definitely felt like something special', Igoe says. Students were tasked with the redesign of the Mater Hospital’s Oncology Day Ward and Inpatient Unit, which sits within a building that’s less than ten years old, and is, as Igoe – who studied architecture – points out, generally well designed and considered. But the service has expanded, and healthcare architecture is often constrained by budgets, timelines, and HBN (Health Building Notes) standards [7]. Whereas by listening very carefully to staff needs, and through them, the needs of the patients [8], the SABE students gained a 'nuanced understanding of service' that allowed them to achieve 'the attention to detail that you might see in a domestic extension'.

Geoghegan, Mac Dhaibhéid, and Igoe all stress that the project’s success would not have been possible without the enthusiasm and openness of the Mater’s 'fantastic' clinical staff. Alongside oncology staff consultation, the SABE students received expert advice from Jennifer Whinnett, Senior Healthcare Planner at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust; Ailish Drake, an architect and landscape designer at Drake|Hourigan Architects with extensive user engagement experience; and Clare White, Director at O’Connell Mahon Architects.

Nine students – eight studying architecture and one studying interior design – [9] worked collaboratively, each tackling different issues to develop a cohesive solution. Daniel Herbst considered how spatial efficiency could be maximised to create more staff workstations. Alannah Hayes redesigned the bridge corridor to incorporate glare-free recessed lighting and jump seats with views of the city. Balancing the therapeutic value of nature, against the maintenance and infection control issues that planting brings [10], Isobel Walsh proposed commissioning Irish artist Sasha Sykes [11] to make operable resin privacy screens, embedded with flowers. The breadth of the students’ thinking surprised and impressed Mac Dhaibhéid: 'The final presentation was incredible'.

Alannah Hayes reimagined an under-exploited bridge corridor. Image courtesy: Alannah Hayes

It’s likely that Healing Spaces will have a life beyond the module’s twelve-week duration, both in terms of the students’ actual proposals and in fostering future collaborations. Geoghegan says that within a few days of the students’ final presentation, Tracy Fitzpatrick, the Mater’s Directorate Nurse Manager for cancer, had sourced quotes for different aspects of the proposals: 'That really impressed me'. This being Mater Transformation’s first time working with architecture students, they don’t have established pathways for delivering architectural projects, but Igoe’s undaunted: 'We’ve manged it with NCAD in other design disciplines, and there’s various funds we can apply to'. She stresses that they’d like to keep the SABE students involved in some way, as the designs are theirs. Of working with Mater Transformation, Geoghegan says, 'It feels like a natural partnership for SABE. My hope is that we will continue to run an elective like this and build on it'.

As for the module’s first run, the SABE students have shown that, with focused, informed imagination, a healthcare environment can be both clinical and beautiful. An oncology ward environment can stimulate and comfort patients who may be there for extended periods, distressed, fatigued, or bored, awaiting or receiving treatment. There is so much energy and innovative thought in architecture schools, often applied in the abstract. Healing Spaces allowed students to channel their energy and creativity towards 'something really useful"', says Geoghegan.

One Good Idea

Taking architectural education beyond the speculative can transform real-world environments – and healthcare settings are ideal beneficiaries of student creativity and innovation.



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