Thursday, July 9, 2015

Building a courtyard classroom

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Here is a look at my latest outdoor classroom project I completed recently. 
In early 2015 Scoil Mhuire National School in Lucan, Co. Dublin put out a tender to commission a creative outdoor space for the students to utilise for years to come. It was commissioned under the government's 'Percent for Art Scheme' which allocates 1% of the building cost of any public building to the installation of an art project.
The school prides itself on its commitment to sport and creativity. Drama and music are very important in the school, and the school wished for this to be reflected in the submission. It was also essential that the children were to be involved in some aspect of the work. 
Having consulted with the children they had recommended that the project have something uniquely Irish. The design must be site specific, and be sympathetic to the local geographical and historic context, with reference to local heritage.
Taking all this on board, my design was based on a space that is both functional as well as sculptural, a structure that is visually inspiring from both the outside and the inside, a place for children to get excited about being in the great outdoors as well as learning about it.
Uniquely Irish.
Two ancient and iconic features of the Irish landscape are the dry stone walls that knit much of the landscape together and the ring forts that perch on many of its hilltops.
This outdoor classroom pays homage to both.
Structure Description
The main structure consists of a 6 meter wide circle with two entrances with curved timber seating lining the walls. The walls are constructed of dry stone walls that slope in height from 0.5 meters up to 1.2 meters. A second two tiers of seating protrude out from one half of the circle creating additional seating for larger classes as well as creating tiered amphitheatre style seating for events like class plays and class photos. The walls of the outer tiers descend in the opposite direction to the inner walls creating flowing sculptural shapes.

Building the courtyard classroom

Built during the spring of 2015 almost every weather condition imaginable was experienced. Fortunately one of the many benefits of building walls dry (free of any mortar) is that you can still work even when it's raining. 
 One major challenge in this project was the fact that it is a internal courtyard in the school, meaning that everything coming in and out had to be transported by wheelbarrow through the school corridors.
An estimated 60 ton of material had to be wheelbarrowed into the courtyard through the school. About half of this was the limestone used for the walls.  The walls were built with the help of Ken Curran, a fellow dry stone waller from Co. Tipperary. 
Another challenge was building the walls themselves due to their shape. Putting a 'batter' (tapering the wall in) on a curved wall is a challenge in itself, but this project had the added dimension in that the wall was also tapering down from a height of 1.2meters down to 0.5 meters. As a result of this the foundation of the wall gets narrower as it goes along. 
The dry stone walls of this project are limestone and come from Mike Kelly's quarry near Knockcrockery in County Roscommon. All the stone was handpicked and bagged at the quarry. Most of the rounded cope stones were shaped in the quarry to reduce the amount of waste material being shipped to the school. Approximately 32 tons of stone was used in the construction of the walls.     
'Leamhcán' A river runs through it.
 The river Liffey plays a vital role to the creation of the Lucan village as many of its early settlers would have arrived here travelling up the river. In the Irish language, 'leamhcán' means 'place of the elm trees'.
The name probably comes from people that travelled by river, as Lucan is the first place that elm trees are encountered if travelling inland from the Liffey.
The paths that lead up from the double doors at either end of the courtyard are inspired by this, made up of leaf shaped patterns that are laid in a flowing pattern to give the effect of elm leaves flowing down the river Liffey. 
This pattern flows from either end of the courtyard, swirling around in the centre of the circle where the two streams meet. The leaves that make up the floor of the classroom are a combination of mosaics made by the students and hand cut leaf shaped stone engravings.  
The brief required that the children were to be involved in some aspect of the work. This provided a wonderful opportunity for the students to have their own stamp on the classroom.   
The leaves that make up the floor of the classroom are a combination of mosaics made by the students and hand cut leaf shaped stone engravings. All 414 students in the school got to make their very own leaf tile. 
The inclusion of a number of large metal flowers by Irish artist Jack Harte bring additional colour and interest into the space throughout the year.
The beautifully crafted curved timber seats were made by West Cork master carpenter Noel Burke  
Click on the video below to see the making of the project from start to finish.

It was wonderful to get to build another outdoor classroom project for students to enjoy. You can see some of the other public projects I have worked on in the "Commissions" section of my website here 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Stone Festival season has begun! Stein und Wein Austria

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Well the stone festival season is well and truly upon us. 
This year I started my festival season with a trip to Austria's largest wine-producing town, Langenlois. The wine however was just a indulgence and not my main reason for traveling here. And as much as I like a 'dry' white wine, it was in fact the 'dry' stone I was here for. 
Gartenbauschule Langenlois
  But before I can reminisce about hot weather and cold wine I have to go back to The Gathering of Stones 2013 to when we met Helmut Schieder. 
Helmut attended The Gathering of Stones event in Ireland back 2013 and like many others he left the Gathering of Stones hungry for more. About six months later a number of us from that event were contacted by Helmut and invited to instruct at his 'Stein und Wein' (Stone and Wine) festival in Langenlois.
ˈVegetation, dry stone walling and geologyˈ Touring the local vineyards of  Heiligenstein with Martin Scheuch  
The festival was spread out over an area of the vineyards at Heiligenstein and the grounds of Gartenbauschule Langenlois horticultural college nearby where Helmut works.
The first day of the week long events was a day of talks and presentations by various esteemed academics, architects, engineers from all over Europe as well as a number of talks by various wallers.
The only barriers at this event were dry stone ones we built, as live translators turned wild Celtic ramblings into coherent Germanic talks and vice versa for us English speaking symposiasts. 
Helmut was keen to open the eyes and the minds of students, teachers, landscape gardeners and architects from across Europe to dry stone walls and also demonstrate that there is more to stone walls than function and aesthetics.       
Some of the instructors team (from left) Sunny Wieler, Kenneth Curran, Helmut Schieder, Nick Aitken, Pat McAfee and Sean Adcock. Missing from this photo is Eddie Farrelly and Rainer Vogler
On the second day we got stuck into some serious walling.
There were five different builds on over four days, with groups of students from all over Europe rotating each day to a different wall.
Nick and Eddie deciding who gets to lay the first stone
 Nick Aitken and Eddie Farrelly worked on a large double sided boulder wall
 The double sided boulder wall was built using local marble rubble and stretched over 22 meters in length. 
They somehow even found time to add two special features. A 'sheep creep' (or a 'lunky' if you're Nick) and a 'stile'.

Students learning about Irish walls and Irish stout
It was a unusually hot week for the time of year while we were there, peaking at about 36°C. Fortunately there was plenty of shade and this lovely natural swimming pool on the grounds to keep us cool.
Just up from the natural swimming pool Ken Curran and myself were instructing students on constructing a 10 meter section of a traditional Irish 'Feidin' wall using a mix of reclaimed building stone of various stone types.  
Fedin walls are not only aesthetically beautiful but they are also a wonderful wall to build with groups. For those of you unfamiliar with Feidin walls, they are a combination wall of a double wall for the first lift with a single wedged wall on top. This type of Feidin here is know as an Aran Feidin and is particularly poetic with its names for the components. The large uprights are called 'máthair' or 'mother' stones. The small stones between them are 'na páistí' or 'children' with the large vertical stones that protect the top of the wall called 'athair' or father stones. 
Ken Curran inspecting the 'mother' stones
Sunny Wieler inspects the 'children' stones in preparation for the cover stones
First 'father' stones going on the wall

In another area in the gardens Pat McAfee began work on a 15 meter long wedged retaining wall using the local 'gneiss' stone. 
A Pat doodle
Wedged retaining wall
First course going in
Students frantically build shade as the master mason is shielded from the sun with an umbrella.  
Pat tests the taps
Working in that heat and dust sure is thirsty work. One hot evening we were treated to some creamy pints of 'dust remover' (AKA Guinness) that Helmut brought in especially for the Irish masons.  
The Clawdd
Just up the hill from Pat's wall, Sean Adcock was building a epic 30 meter long Clawdd (roughly pronounced as clouth). A Clawdd is not to be confused of course with cloud computing! I know no one really understands where that data goes but I assure you it is not in a Clawdd. 
A Clawdd is a type of stone faced earth bank commonly found in North Wales consisting of tightly wedged small stones. For this Clawdd Sean used local river rock.
Here we can see the wall climbing over half a 'Brenda' high
A section of the completed Clawdd
The final build undertaken by students was the reconstruction of the walls at of the vineyard at Heiligenstein.
The Heiligenstein is one of Austria’s most famed vineyards. This hillside vineyard was first mentioned in the Zwettl abbey register of 1280 as “Hellenstein”, or hell stone, because it was a mountain on which the sun “burns like hell”.  It was later renamed Heiligenstein, or “holy rock”, in possibly in an early form of political correctness.ref. [1]

The Heiligenstein is a unique geological formation – a geological island – within Europe, dating to the Permian period some 250 to 270 million years ago, comprising an extrusion of desert sandstone with volcanic and carboniferous conglomerates. 
Here in the vineyard, Austria's 'Mr Stone' Rainer Vogler instructed students in building the local traditional retaining walls with that local stone as well as building a new seating terrace with a special feature around the natural spring that runs there even on the dryest summers.
Here students built more than 40 meters of wall over the week.
Traditional vineyard hut built by students under Rainer direction a few years ago. 
It is easy to see that like many locals, Helmut is proud of his regions rich culture and heritage. This was the second major driving factor in organising this event, as he wished to show the people from Germany, Switzerland, France, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and those from other parts of Austria who attended the event the rich and colourful heritage they have here. Not to mention some seriously tasty wines. 

During the course of the week as well as on the last day of the festival we visited a number of the local wine makers and vineyards for some wine tasting and tours. 

The Domäne Winery
One of the trips made on the last day was to The Domäne winery in the Wachau. The Domäne is deeply rooted in the Wachau region. Close to 440 hectares of vineyards are cultivated by the members of this quality-oriented cooperative – that makes 30 percent of the entire Wachau vineyard area.  These vineyards are found on steep terraces reinforced by old dry stone walls that are part of a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.
There is a long tradition here in the vineyards of tapping pins to the face of the wall to stabilize stones being pushed out by the forces behind. This tradition seems to has passed over to their new builds as well where pinnings in the face of the wall are common practice. 
Climbing the old dry stone terraces at the The Domäne vineyard
And it was at the top of these steps that our tour ended as not long after our tour guide Rainer told us about the freak downpours of heavy rain and massive hailstones that sometimes happen here. We got a live rendition and got completely drenched from head to toe.
  And with that our festival came to a close. With over 220 tons of stone used during the week by participants from right across Europe, the festival was a huge success. It was also a quite unique festival in that students got an opportunity to work on such a variety of projects over just one week. 
With that I would like to thank Helmut and the team at Gartenbauschule Langenlois for putting together such a fantastic event and for looking after us all so well. And we all hope to be back again in the near future. 

Let the festival season continue. 

The weekend after Stone & Wine was the Tír Ċonaill Stone Festival in Glencolmcille, Co. Donegal. 
Unfortunately I was unable to make it due to work commitments but the festival was a huge success.
You can read more about the festival here
Some of the great work done during the Tír Ċonaill Stone Festival 
A few other festivals I look forward to attending this summer are:
Modern Builds, Traditional Skills Stone event- 25th - 26th July at Caravantasia, Crohane, Killenaule, Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Full info and bookings here

The annual pilgrimage to Féile na gCloch (Festival of Stone) on Inis Oirr on the Aran Islands will be on 17th - 21st September this year. More info on this here
And to round it off for the year I will be going to The Dry Stone Walling Association of Canada's dry stone festival from September 25 - 27th on Amherst Island in Lake Ontario, Canada.
You can find out more about this event and register to be there with us here