One morning in mid-July 1971, a man named Jack Fitzsimons left his home in Kells, Co. Meath. The trunk of his car was filled with self-published books. He drove trunk roads to major cities in the Midlands, South and West, selling copies to newsagents, petrol stations and contractors.
On the front page were printed the words: Bungalow happiness. These publications contained 20 designs that could be used to build a house inexpensively. They were ordered from Fitzsimons by phone or mail. The drawings were sent for a small fee, put through the planning process and built.
Before this book was published, the options for housing in rural Ireland were inheritance, housing listing or emigration.
Bungalow happiness became an instant bestseller. The second edition came out within 12 months, and soon after, the third and then the fourth edition. The book was expanded and reprinted many times in the 1970s, 80s and 90s until a 12th edition was published in 1998, and reprinted until 2001. A quarter of a million copies have been sold in those three decades, which amounts to about one for every second household in the country. Up until the late 1970’s more than 10,000 of these unique bungalows were being built in rural Ireland each year.
Land costs were low, as were building costs, and the plan area of each design in the book fell below the 116 square meters, which qualified a homeowner for government aid of just over £300 (about 10 per cent of building costs at the time).
My father was a consulting engineer from the 1980s through the early 2000s. From his office (a converted garage at the end of our house) he prepared countless building permits for clients near our home in the Midlands. He recently told me that he would “inherit” his filing cabinet with house plans to me. This contains no speculative designs, no sketches, no proposals – each tracing paper layout is an architectural drawing and each points to a building that exists or once existed on the property. Many are bungalows and follow what has become the slang in Irish farming: that is, they were built to Jack Fitzsimons designs Bungalow happiness. This will be the case in engineering and design offices across rural Ireland.
Growing up, I took these drawings for granted. Then, in 2009, after turning 30 and giving up my career as a civil engineer to pursue one in writing and fine arts, I began to revisit the catalogs and delve deeper into the landscape I grew up in. After about a year of this research, I contacted Jack Fitzsimons to see what he had to say.
I ended up visiting Jack and his wife Anne at their home a few times during the summers of 2010-12. Jack passed away in 2014. He was in his early 80s when I met him and although he seemed frail at times, he was always happy to talk to me. Our conversations were often interrupted by phone calls from customers seeking planning advice.
In the early 1950’s Jack began working as an electrician for the Rural Electrification Scheme. He laid wires and installed electrical inputs and outputs in countless types of housing and learned in the process. He rose to become senior draftsman for the Office of Public Works in Dublin. Then he grew tired of the capital and became a clerk at Meath County Council, where in the late 1960s he was inundated with inquiries from people asking him to design individual houses. In response, Bungalow happiness seemed the most natural. He believed that living conditions in rural Ireland should be improved.
Jack made it clear to me that this housing project was not created out of entrepreneurial urge. Bungalow happiness filled a gap in the domestic housing market at a time when, in his opinion, designers had left rural areas. It was not just that architects were not interested in unique homes for rural builders or that their fees were too high, but there was simply no culture in rural Ireland in the 70’s and 80’s of hiring an architect to design buildings commission house.
Most architects in Ireland at the time were middle or upper-middle class aesthetes, and they spoke and thought differently than many people in rural Ireland who wanted to build an uncomplicated, functional home. These architects were urban modernists who saw the land as a creative dead zone and the people who lived there unsuitable for their ideas. Linked to this, I believe, a large majority of the rural population viewed “architecture” as an unnecessary, intangible extravagance.
So, Bungalow happiness created an accessible, practical and soon to be fashionable bridge for the prospective country homeowner to bridge a number of crucial issues. Should we hire an architect to design our home? Will this architect give us what we want? Can we afford it? And also: What do we want?
That Bungalow happiness Houses are one of the most important building works of the modern Irish state, but no architect has given serious thought to the subject. What I’ve tried over the last ten years while writing my book on the subject, Small Republicsis intended to outline the social changes that led to such a boom in housing construction.
One thing that has come to my attention is that if Jack brought the drafts and rationalizing governments of the ’60s the overarching, albeit patchy, rules, the people, the country folk, brought the interpretations and materials. The bungalows then suddenly became, for me at least, a precise and fascinating prism through which to view the networks of late 20th century rural administration, housing and life.
Adrian Duncan’s Little Republics is available now from Lilliput Press
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/emigrate-or-inherit-how-bungalow-bliss-revolutionised-rural-irelands-housing-options-42062107.html Emigrate or Inherit: How Bungalow Bliss revolutionized housing in rural Ireland