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"It surpassed all of our dreams" - This Donegal home is a heavenly retreat into nature

As part of our Dream Home series with Allianz Insurance, we look at a gorgeous and sustainable home in Donegal.

HOME IS WHERE the heart is.

It’s where you go to sleep, where some of us work five days a week and where you relax and unwind. It’s only right that we care deeply for it and that love will be returned over the years. 

We’ve teamed up with Allianz Insurance to showcase some of Ireland’s loveliest homes to demonstrate the care and love we put into them. 

The third home in this series is all about working with natural landscapes and sustainable materials to make a home that stands out and no home demonstrates this more than The Forest House.

The Forest House

“The house becomes a way of life rather than just a house.”

Paul Doherty, a wedding photographer from Donegal, stumbled upon the dream location for his home when he was just a child. From the moment he saw the small site in a dense forest on his family’s land, he knew this was the place. 

DJI_0031 The house shown from above.

“I used to be up here running around as a kid through the woods, and it was always a special place for me,” Paul said.

“I just always thought this would be where I would like to live. I used to sit up here and just watch the wildlife, run around and climb trees. So when I wanted to build, this was obviously the first choice in the matter.”

To make this childhood dream a reality would take five years of work and planning. Paul’s heart was set on a home built sustainably, that blended into the incredible surroundings and used local materials and local contractors. To begin the process, Paul and his wife Brodie got in touch with Declan McCabe Architects, who asked them to employ an unusual and creative method to assist in designing the house.

One of the first things the architect said was before he designs anything, before we do anything, he wanted us to spend three weeks to analyse what we do every day. And then start thinking about how that can be improved. So the house becomes a way of life rather than just a house,” Paul said.

This, alongside a normal brief with sample pictures, would help shape how the home came to life. As well as the design, the architect managed planning permission too, and the house came together over three years of consultation before building commenced.

6S2A0061 Paul & Brodie in front of the home.

Paul felt some modern homes felt cold, which was not what he wanted. Paul and Brodie’s vision was a warm and cosy Irish home that was also self-sufficient. This was achieved by placing windows strategically around the house, obtaining the latest sustainability technology and using lots of insulation.

We’re 100% heated by the sun from March until October and then for the rest of the year, we have just a heat pump. The architect developed a three-stage process for us, because, budget-wise, we couldn’t do everything at once. The next stage was to put in solar panels and start generating our own electricity, which we’ve done. The guy who did the BER said that we are a generator now, we actually generate more electricity than we use throughout the year, and that goes back into the grid,” Paul said.

The home’s location acted as a guide for what Paul could do for his home. The house sits into the landscape and is often visited by deer, hares and other wildlife that can roam around the garden and the surroundings as before. Whilst Paul loves how the home is akin to a wildlife sanctuary, it does drive his dog mad!

6S2A1832 Hype the Springer Spaniel.

Not impacting the locality was a key part of the building process for Paul and harked back to wisdom from his grandfather.

“Because it’s in a woodland, we wanted to leave as many trees as possible,” Paul said.

“My grandfather would have been an environmentalist before the word was coined. He used to say people go to build a house, and they cut down all the trees, and then they plant trees and wait their whole life waiting [for them] to grow. We wanted to leave as many as we could and got a tree survey done. Someone came out and managed which trees we could keep, which ones had to go and which ones would be able to survive once we cut back.” 

The timber cut down was used again and again. From cladding outside the home to the furniture inside, the trees are given new life within the house. Almost every table and even the vanity units were made with the salvaged wood. A tree from less than two miles away was also incorporated into the home in the form of a new bath.

I got as big a tree as I could get. It came from just about two miles up the road. We carved it out so it’s just like a big log. It’s a take on an old way they used to make canoes, you hack out the inside of a tree, turn it into a big canoe and now it’s our bath,” Paul explained.

Untitled-7 The open plan space.

Not satisfied with reusing just the trees, Paul and the architect employed traditional stonemasons to carefully take apart some low stone walls on the site. All of the stonework that you can see around the house came from these stones, breathing new life and purpose into them instead of throwing it away as excess. The concrete inside comes from the same stone as that elsewhere in the house. These details came from the architect, who urged Paul to use the same stone and wood throughout.

Even the bath had to be in the same family of timber. When I told him I was going to make a bath, he told me ‘oh you need to use this kind of timber’,” Paul said.

Aside from the building materials used, the home’s sustainability credentials are boosted by the positioning of the house. It benefits from optimum solar gain, with windows streaming in light every day in a carefully considered way.

“When the architect showed me the plans originally, he showed every window and explained the purpose of every window in the house. He showed us that you start off your day at the breakfast bar in the kitchen. He said you’re going to sit here, you’re going to have your breakfast and the sun’s going to be shining in this window. During the day, you’re going to be sitting in this, and the sun shines in here and in the kitchen all day, your live and work in space. Then in the evening time, the sun changes round to the second room and catches some in the bedroom just at last light as well. You move around the house with the sun. As he says, every window has a purpose. It’s not just there for the sake of being there,” Paul explained.

The result is a home that is always warm in the right places, saving money on expensive heating bills. It’s sitting in front of these windows during the day that Paul and Brodie enjoy the most. With a beautiful landscape to gaze out into, and the chance of seeing wildlife canter past, it’s no surprise they’re so fond of it.

005PD The windows offer amazing vantage points.

We have a favourite place for the morning, a favourite place for the evening, you move around. I must say that it surpassed all of our dreams and expectations,” Paul said.

With a recent addition to the house in the form of a newborn, this home will continue to grow and change and evolve with what Paul and his family need. However, it will continue to be the warm, cosy and sustainable home that Paul dreamed of when roaming the woods that he now lives in. 

Allianz p.l.c is regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland. Standard acceptance criteria, terms & conditions apply. Quotes for properties are subject to our acceptance criteria as we may not be in a position to cover this type of risk. Visit here for a home insurance quote today.