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The disappearing monoliths of Ireland’s bogs

Joseph Kavanagh
16/1/2023

Present Tense

Despite a rich cultural, economic, and architectural legacy, many of Ireland’s former peat power plants have been demolished. In an age where the re-use of existing structures is increasingly necessary to combat climate change, how can the country’s remaining industrial infrastructure be repurposed in a way that protects both our natural and built landscapes?

Collage of peat plants within their natural landscapes

What remains is a shrinking repository of industrial buildings and a dwindling memory of Ireland’s harnessing of its bogs.

As the remit of Bord Na Móna has shifted towards a new era of sustainability and carbon sequestration [1], it leaves behind a significant legacy of energy generation and industry, perhaps most notably represented by the construction of several peat power plants, many of which have already been eradicated from the Irish landscape. Seven of the nine peat power plants that were once operated by the ESB have been demolished; only Lough Ree and West OffaIy remain, though they have been decommissioned as of December 2020 [2]. What remains is a shrinking repository of industrial buildings and a dwindling memory of Ireland’s harnessing of its bogs.

Map of Ireland noting location of existing and demolished peat power plants


It could be argued that these monoliths have served their purpose and are now redundant; yet Ireland has previously embraced and celebrated its industrial relics. The Ardnacrusha hydroelectric dam has been celebrated by many and even provokes a certain degree of national pride. The history of Ireland’s peat plants demonstrate they’ve added much more than just power to an ever-thirsty grid and warrant as much attention as their hydroelectric counterparts.


What’s more, in an age where the counting of embodied carbon is an ever more prevalent means of assessing existing structures, the following questions emerge: what determines the current life cycle of a building and how do we, as a society, maximise the longevity of this cycle?


The Irish Free State at the start of the twentieth century saw the rapid development of infrastructure across the island. The First Dáil of 1919 set up a committee that was to explore the feasibility of peat and water harnessing for power generation. Fifteen years later, the government established the turf development board in 1934, the predecessor of Bord na Móna. The turf board took responsibility for the vast boglands of Ireland [3]. This is when the mass exploitation of Ireland’s bogs truly began.

Graphic deconstruction of 1964 ESB journal image of Ferbane peat power plant


The board implemented a shift from traditional methods of harnessing bogs towards industrial-scale techniques, the repetitive nature of which left distinctive marks on the Irish landscape. The measure of this impact remains, for example, in the repetition of drainage ditches, always spaced exactly 15.4m apart. This was accompanied by the construction of a network of peat power plants and the infrastructure to go with them [4].


Despite modernising the traditional system of harvesting peat to satisfy the growing appetite of these power plants, the process still required an immense supply of manual labour. Thus began a long relationship with peat plants and employment for Irish citizens. The demand for workers became so great that housing was commissioned by the board in the 1950s for their growing workforce. Workers’ housing developments required architects, which resulted in a number of well-known and regarded schemes, such as those designed by Frank Gibney. The housing that accompanied the peat plants is an extension of a wider built landscape, as without these industrial giants, the communities that developed in these areas would not exist [5].


The importance of peat plants to Irish society and culture goes far beyond their immense presence in the landscape or the employment they offered. Peat plants helped the ESB to stabilise energy prices during shortages in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The plants’ role in keeping the lights on for the Irish people emphasise their importance to our collective history and heritage [6].


These power stations’ historical role is certain, but their future, for those that have yet to be demolished, remains unclear. How can these massive structures, built with a very specific role, be repurposed?The ESB has begun to explore possibilities as it will find itself with a number of redundant plants by 2050. In 2020, the ESB released a statement saying that they had reviewed a number of redevelopment options. Suggested examples included the transformation of these structures into energy stores. There is an expectation that this type of battery storage will become more common as we try to keep up with peak demand periods while trying to achieve lower carbon emissions [7].

Sketch of West Offaly peat power plant


For further inspiration, the ESB could look to our European counterparts. We are not the first country to find itself with redundant industrial buildings. In Berlin, on Köpenickerstraße, sits a former heating plant which after years of dereliction found a new lease of life as a night club and has undergone extensive renovation to become a cultural space for exhibitions and events. An hour south of Berlin, you can find the world’s largest indoor beach and rainforest within a former airship-manufacturing hangar. Not only does this approach demonstrate sustainability by maximising the lifespan of these industrial giants but its protects existing built heritage; this hangar is the largest free-standing hall in the world.


While it is understood that maintaining or reusing elements of our built environment is vital to achieve a more sustainable future, it is clear from the above that it is also a way of maintaining a link between a society’s past, present, and future. Buildings hold varying levels of cultural relevance as well as architectural significance. Embracing infrastructural heritage or maximising existing structures for the benefit of the environment is a clear way in which we can protect our natural and built landscape in a way that celebrates both simultaneously.

The housing that accompanied the peat plants is an extension of a wider built landscape, as without these industrial giants, the communities that developed in these areas would not exist.

Present Tense is an article series aimed at uncovering perspectives and opinions from experts in their respective fields on the key issues/opportunities facing Ireland's built environment. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact info@type.ie.

Present Tense is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.

References

1. B. O’Halloran, “Bord na Móna Records €22m profits last year, its first since 2017”, The Irish Times, 21 July 2021.

2. E. Toner, “Power From Peat-MorePolluting Than Coal-Is On Its Way Out In Ireland”, Science, 12 December 2018.

3. M. Manning and M. McDowell, Electricity Supply in Ireland: The History of the ESB, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1985.  

4. G. A. Boyd, “The Architecture of the Bogs”, in Art and Architecture of Ireland Volume IV: Architecture 1600-2000, by R. Loeber, H. Campbell, L. Hurley, J. Montague and E. Rowley, (eds.), New Haven, Yale University Press, 2016, pp. 264–266.

5. F. McDonald, “Ambition and Achievement By Fergal MacCabe: Rescuing Architect Frank Gibney”, The Irish Times, 20 October 2018.

6. “Using Turf for electricity generation”, ESB Archives, [website], 2017, https://esbarchives.ie/portfolio/using-turf-for-electricity-generation/, (accessed 13 September 2022).

7. C. McCormack,“Farmers Call for ESB to repurpose closed peat-fired power stations as anaerobic digestion plants”, Farming Independent, [website], 23 November 2021, https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/forestry-enviro/environment/farmers-call-for-esb-to-repurpose-closed-peat-fired-power-stations-as-anaerobic-digestion-plants-41080263.html, (accessed 13 September 2022).

Contributors

Joseph Kavanagh

Joseph Kavanagh is a M.Arch Graduate from UCD who is currently working for COADY Architects in Dublin. He is apart of their Healthcare and Education team working on large scale projects across the country.

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This is the standard: barriers in practice

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Graduates of architecture in the Republic of Ireland are facing a new significant barrier to accreditation, much discussed among affected individuals for the past year. What is a long journey to becoming an architect has, since the beginning of 2023, become implausibly longer again for many students as one of the two universities that offer the Professional Diploma in Architectural Practice in Ireland (PDAP – legally labelled the Professional Practice Exam, or PPE) decided to cease its offering to new applicants for at least three years – up to 2026 at the earliest [1]. This reduced the number of places available from a previous average of roughly 140 per year to the seventy places remaining at the only other university in Ireland which offers the course. In September 2024, this number will reduce again, as the remaining university removes twenty-two places from its offering. With five Irish universities producing roughly 200-250 graduates per year, combined with the number of expatriates working in Ireland in the architectural profession and requiring professional exams – this has resulted in a situation where there are, at the time of writing, around 400 expressions of interest vying for forty-eight places for the single PDAP course. This means that only one in eight to ten applicants will get a place, with the possibility for further growth to these numbers year-on-year.

The Architect. Image credit: Georges Reverdy

In April 2024, while the RIAI issued an updated statement on the dwindling capacity problems, with the welcome proposal of facilitating the PPE themselves from 2025, they did not specify how many graduates this course would accommodate, nor give any indication how much it would cost [2]. The problem is inevitably clogging the system with graduates, who have project and salary expectations that are determined by the timeline within which they complete the PPE. The current delays consequently are affecting their plans of a rational timeframe for career progression. Employers, too, will be directly affected, as they become encumbered with graduates who cannot progress through the system reasonably, and who they thus cannot expect to charge for as registered architects, or whose CVs they may not use to their full potential to win work. What should be even more alarming for the renowned richness of the profession in Ireland is how the backlog is delaying the beginning of the careers of potential sole-practitioners, previously a significant proportion of practising architects. In facing the current delays in starting the PPE, all graduates objectively must contend with a lag before they are provided the opportunity to contribute their ideas, ability, and energy to the industry in Ireland. Professional roadblocks could, and are, becoming repercussive personal reckonings for many, that arguably conclude with emigration to countries with more responsive registration systems as the only viable solution.

While legal protection for the title 'Architect' has been a persistent part of the RIAI’s two-fold aim of protecting and promoting members since 1885 [3], the role of the architect and the associated PPE was only legislatively defined by Part 3 of the Building Control Act 2007, which also bestowed upon the RIAI with the legal responsibility to manage accreditation of that title [4]. Part 3 of the Act was not “intended to exclude anybody, but, rather, to include all those who meet a defined minimum standard” [5]. In the current climate, the backlog in achieving accreditation has become so restrictive that graduates of the industry are potentially being prevented, legally, from working independently in it. This hard-won and necessary tool to protect the profession is now rendered as the means by which its reputation is tarnished – through exclusion of new members.

Architecture students. Image credit: Julio Gonzalez, SLU

The situation reveals a functional issue within the increasingly fragmented structure of the pathway to becoming an architect. The industry’s typically younger members, who have studied as long and as hard as those before them, have danced through the same rules but have reached a surprise stumbling block right at the very end. These members are becoming extremely frustrated with the slow pace of any resolution to a worsening problem. The immediate function and future of an industry cannot and should not subside because of the decision to close one course, and improved access to the profession should be increased in line with demand for university places and PPE courses to secure its future. The welcome development of a new course by the RIAI should be the beginning. Members of the industry at all levels should also galvanise government support for the formation of new courses that maintain sustainable access to the PPE. After all, as noted in the RIAI’s statement, architecture’s importance in the symbiotic development of the built landscape with the abstract social values of the people it shelters exists in governmental policy [6]. High-quality design of the future built environment, and surely by consequence, the place and skills of its future architects, is in its heart.

Update 04.05.24: UCD is reopening the Professional Diploma (Architecture) next January (2025) with a limit on forty places. A process of random selection is being applied for these places. Further details are available here.
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In this article, Laoise McGrath discusses the barriers facing graduates of architecture in attaining professional accreditation in Ireland. Among the lucky few to have a place in a diploma course, Laoise also discusses the relevant factors at play in enabling colleagues and friends make informed choices about where they may want to live and practice in the near future.

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The office is hibernating

Séamus Guidera
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The last decade had seen technology companies grow at a rate at which commercial property developers cannot keep up [1]. The majority of office space had been designed on a speculative basis. Build a ‘Grade A’ office, and they will come – but this is changing. Demand no longer exceeds supply, and the way we work has changed, while the way we occupy our offices is changing too. With lower occupancy and flexible working, the role of the ‘HQ’ has arguably become more important in its physical presence for larger companies. An office location, design, and provision of amenities are the bricks-and-mortar branding an organisation often requires. The machismo associated with office buildings of the past is no longer the best means to externalise one's values. Hugh Pearman once described Wilford & Sterling’s No. 1 Poultry as “exuding an astonishing sense of power and purpose” [2]. Kevin Roche, decades earlier, used similar power and purpose to make the workers of the Ford Foundation feel important. In an Irish context, Arthur Gibney strove to make the user feel important in Merrion Hall (1973), introducing his client to the Burolandschaft concept of office interiors, and an "exercise in the geometry of the module" [3] in both building and landscape terms, accentuating the structure of the pre-cast concrete frame. The theory goes that these important workers tended to be happier, more productive, and stay with the company longer. However, the design of these workplaces is changing again, and the changing culture of work is the first reason why.

The second reason is the elephant in the room. According to the UKGBC, 80% of buildings that will be occupied in 2050 have already been built [4]. 85% of Irish office buildings are below a B rating [5] and c. 15% of commercial buildings in Ireland are vacant [6]. We have an increasing amount of low-grade office space, bound for obsolescence – the dreaded stranded asset again. A change of use to residential makes perfect sense for some buildings, but not all. Site values, and potential return on office developments still hold more value than an occupied block of apartments in central locations. The structural design of more recent office buildings also limits the potential change in to residential. The office building of twenty-first-century Dublin, with small atria, deep floor plates, and bulging plot ratios are not well suited to change of use. If we believe in a future for the office, then we need architecture to ensure existing buildings can become offices of the future.

Nos. 4-5 Grand Canal Square, by Daniel Liebskind & MDO. Image credit: MDO Architects

What does this mean in design terms? Simply put, this is about design either side of the facade, while the facade remains. Feature facades have become ubiquitous with high-end new build offices – leading to monikers such as the ‘Cheesegrater’, ‘Gherkin’, etc., which all add to the value a potential tenant puts on their choice of building. These building exude a company’s core perception of itself, and its place in its community. Fit-out design, and place making give tenants a real ability to make staff feel important, and, of course, to be good neighbours. The opportunity for a cloud-based company to drop anchor and show their staff, and indeed their community, that they care is most often done through building. The best building to do this in, is one that already exists.

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TEST SITE

Ailbhe Cunningham
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Throughout Europe, contemporary best practice approaches to urban development strive to balance complex and urgent social demands with heightened requirements for climate mitigation and ecological repair. Initiatives such as the European Urban Initiative exist to lead in the definition, funding, and guidance of such practices [1]. Although evidenced in emerging policies and strategies at both EU and national levels, processes of urban development largely preclude the meaningful participation of urban inhabitants and lead to arduous disputes during regeneration projects. While socially engaged architectural practice is evident in Ireland [2], formal structures for community participation in built environment regeneration projects remain inadequate [3].

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Expert-by-specialism knowledge is primarily leveraged in making decisions concerning long-term urban development strategies in the built environment. Decisions are predominantly informed by quantitative data sets such as that gathered by sensors and monitors. Expert-by-experience knowledge, also referred to as lay or community knowledge [5], can exhibit heterogeneity when acquired through collective explorations such as living labs. Within urban neighbourhoods, living labs are projects that occur amid communities, incorporating collaborative and participatory processes. These processes involve a spectrum of diverse and underrepresented spatial experiences, providing essential insights for achieving urban development that is both equitable and resilient.

In her novel Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Potawatomi botanist, describes the shifting responses and actions of students to scientific instruments during academic botanical field trips – how they recurrently shy away from their own senses and become heavily reliant on the readings of scientific instruments [6]. Through a series of grounding and landing activities, Kimmerer guides students to return focus to understanding and trusting their lived sense of place and not just the measurements and readings of the scientific equipment employed.

The intention behind activities undertaken at TEST SITE could be considered as an urban equivalent to Kimmerer’s field trip grounding activities, moving from a reliance on policy and quantitative data alone towards knowledge building that includes engagement with complex and varied hands-on comprehension of the urban built environment. The project works from the position that the human experience of urban inhabitants is a valid and crucial source of data in need of robust and formal consideration in relation to the long-term strategies for sustainable and equitable urban development.

Ecology Mapping Participatory Knowledge Mapping Workshop with Niamh Ní Dhuill. Image credit: TEST SITE

Lived experiences are fleeting and ephemeral. In order to be drawn upon in a formal capacity, it is crucial to capture and translate the lived experience of the protagonist of the built environment into spatial knowledge [7]. TEST SITE is undertaken from the informed position that a socially engaged practice of architecture can capture ephemeral and complex socio-spatial qualities of the built environment, as experienced by urban dwellers. With this comes the need to develop processes that capture the situated learnings that emerge through hands-on experience of a place.

One such means is to co-produce socio-spatial representations [8]. Tangible and lasting lessons emerge from temporary spatial activations once a structured process of reflection and representation is instigated to complement ongoing activations.

Through TEST SITE we continue to test methods that encompass the contributions of wide and varied voices; be they regular contributors, collaborators or once-off visitors from extended civil society. Ultimately intending to expand the complex web of knowledge that can shape long term strategies and approaches to sustainably developing our local built environment.

Returning to and concluding with the writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer, she describes the importance that the Potawatomi elders place on ceremonies as a means of “remembering to remember” [9]. Perhaps temporary activations of vacant, derelict, and public land can act as a form of ceremony and learning in the built environment; a means of remembering to remember and value the lived experiences of a city's residents when formulating plans and strategies for its future.

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