Ali Grehan: the city architect on a retrofit mission – Architect's Journal

15 July 2022
Source:&nbsp Greg Dunn
Dublin’s city architect, Ali Grehan, tells Richard Waite about how a major building-reuse programme could help tackle the housing crisis
Can there be anyone, anywhere in Europe, in a better position to pursue a major retrofitting programme of existing council housing stock than Ali Grehan?
Certainly, as the city architect at Dublin City Council – Ireland’s largest landlord with 24,000 homes on its books – she knows the authority is better-placed than any developer or housing association in the country to roll out a mass retrofit initiative.
Grehan is one of a rare and dying breed of local authority chief architects as well as being an ambassador for the World Green Building Councils’ #BuildingLife campaign, and her vision for revamping Dublin’s ageing council housing is bold.
She also wants to go big, building boundary-pushing retrofit schemes that have more impact than easy-to-overlook, pocket-sized prototyping. She wants to ‘ramp up’ retrofit.
‘I’d really like us, in city architects, to lead on a large retrofit project,’ she says. ‘It would be good to do something at serious scale, something high profile and very visible, that we could all learn from.’
Grehan, who recently completed a master’s in climate change: policy, media and society at Dublin City University, knows there is much still to figure out.
‘We are all on a learning curve,’ the chatty 60-year-old adds. ‘But architects are good at learning curves.’
Grehan heads the largest team of in-house, public-sector architects anywhere in Ireland and the UK. Her division offers a full architectural service directly to other departments. Around 50 of its 90 interdisciplinary staff are architects with more than half of those working on housing schemes.
Almost all of the city’s new, council-backed residential schemes are based on feasibility studies drawn up by this team. The same team also takes forward a significant number itself. In 2018 the authority’s in-house architects completed the first phase of the regeneration of 1950s Dolphin House – a ‘deep retrofit’ of three existing housing blocks, creating 63 refurbished flats and 37 new-build homes. The council is using that overhaul as ‘a template for other similarly planned projects’.

Phase 1 of Dublin City Architects’ regeneration of Dolphin House, completed in 2018
Source:Ros Kavanagh
And there will be many, many more. According to reports last year, the council needs to spend €2 billion to bring 8,000 of its poorly performing flats, built at various times in the 20th century, up to mandatory EU energy standards by 2050 (Irish Times 01.02.21). Understandably, Grehan doesn’t want the retrofit drive to stop at a few pilot schemes, such as its revamp of Ballybough House, a protected structure.
‘[The word] pilot goes hand in hand with tiny,’ she says. ‘It’s like a small dog you pick up, pat on the head, and say is impressive before getting back to real business.’
To deliver its aims, the department is already collaborating with top practices, divided into two frameworks for large and small projects (see box below), and is putting its faith in them to come up with innovative solutions to its retrofit conundrums.
For example, the council has already handed the proposed overhaul of the three-block, 90-home Constitution Hill Flats to a team led by Grafton Architects. As well as retrofitting the original 1968 structures, the superstar practice, which has won the Pritzker Prize, the RIBA Royal Gold Medal and the 2021 Stirling Prize, will add extra homes that meet nearly zero-emission building (NZEB) standards.
Elsewhere, O’Donnell + Tuomey and Proctor & Matthews Architects have just started drawing up plans for new-build social housing on three sites. Meanwhile, Levitt Bernstein has teamed up with local practices, including ABK Architects and Scott Tallon Walker, on five projects – four of which will be built with offsite construction using Vision-Built panel systems.
‘Part of the solution for architects in addressing climate change is to rediscover the beauty and value of what’s there’
Grehan’s own journey with Dublin City Council began in 2008. The Irish capital has had a city architect since 1893 – save for a 20-year gap late last century.
Before joining the authority, she’d had stints in private practice, including at Greenhill Jenner Architects in Brixton where she worked on community development projects. Later she oversaw housing projects as part of the urban regeneration of Ballymun on the outskirts of Dublin, becoming the regeneration company’s chief architect in 2006.
She arrived at the council 14 years ago as the country plunged into recession. Ireland’s property bubble, fuelled heavily by overseas cash, had burst.
‘When I came in, everything was all bling bling. Celtic Tiger bling,’ she says. ‘So my mission was to promote excellence in the ordinary. [During the boom there had been] a pursuit of the singular and iconic. But that’s not much good if the day-to-day experience is poor. There was a lot of dereliction still and the quality of the public realm just didn’t seem to reflect this roaring Celtic Tiger.’
Her architects have been heavily involved in several street improvement and urban design schemes.

Phase 1 of Dublin City Architects’ regeneration of Dolphin House,
Source:Greg Dunn
And today, does she still have the same aims? ‘My mission now is the built environment and climate action,’ she says. ‘That’s not dramatically different – I haven’t U-turned. It’s actually acknowledging that the answer [to these issues] is almost certainly not what we get from disposable culture.’
She continues: ‘Part of the solution for architects and developers in addressing climate change is to rediscover the beauty and value of what’s there. We have to be like archaeologists, carefully peeling back the layers.’
Indeed, the council’s stock ranges from the mass blocks of the 1960s to the thousands of homes built by then city architect Herbert Simms from 1932-1948.
One idea that has stayed with her, although evolving over time, is the Dublin House concept. Starting in 2009 and originally conceived as a one-day architectural competition, the proposal looks at out how large, failed, city centre sites could be developed in small chunks by people wanting to design their own homes. The idea had the original strapline: ‘What if you could build your own house 5 minutes from O’Donnell Street?’
Grehan describes this customisable, incremental approach as one of the potential answers to the nation’s housing shortage when the ‘big bang solution doesn’t work’.
‘Maybe we could retrofit blocks to shell and core, and allow people to purchase them for a very low amount and restore them’
Dublin House addresses another problem too. As she puts it: ‘Nobody wants to live in apartments in Ireland because we don’t trust apartments.’
The concept has had, to put it kindly, a ‘long gestation’ period. Initially it was planned as a public-private procurement model. But that fell by the way.
Grehan is now reconsidering the notion for 2022 and beyond. Could the ideas be reused as part of the programme to upgrade existing stock?
‘Maybe we could retrofit [blocks] to shell and core, with all kinds of common areas, and allow people to individually come along, purchase them for a very low amount and restore them.’
Grehan’s local authority efforts are set against a backdrop of a country in the midst of a housing crisis. Need has outstripped supply; property prices and monthly rental payments have ballooned and single people are now eight years older when buying homes than they were in 2010 – the median age of a sole purchaser is 42.
The government’s target is for Dublin City Council to deliver 9,087 homes by 2026. Last year the authority completed 2,060 units and it has another 1,214 on site, more than a third of which have been designed by Grehan’s team. New-build housing will undoubtedly have a huge role to play in hitting these targets.
Making sure those new homes are energy efficient is imperative, and for Grehan that goes beyond merely looking at operational energy, also examining the carbon impact across a building’s entire life cycle.
‘[We have] got to look at the appropriate solution for today,’ says Grehan, ‘because we only have eight years to halve our emissions, and we’ve only got another 28 years to get them to net zero. And that’s within my lifetime.’
And her starting point, a mantra that she’s been advocating ‘for the last three or four years’, echoes that of the AJ’s own RetroFirst campaign.
‘If something has to be demolished and redeveloped, that has to be the last resort’, she says. ‘You have to try and retain and restore first.’
That message, she continues, has seemingly not yet sunk in with everyone. She says she still gets approached by architects who cry: ‘I could design you a beautiful all-new building from scratch’ if a particular site was cleared of its existing structures.
Grehan’s response to that is unequivocal: ‘I’m not questioning that they could design something beautiful. Absolutely they could. I’m just saying this is not the right time.’

New social housing for Dublin City Council by O’Donnell + Tuomey in
St Andrew’s Court, Fenian Street

Lot 1 (estimated construction costs under €15 million):
•  ABK
•  Carr Cotter Naessens
•  Cooney Architects
•  EML
•  McCullough Mulvin Architects
•  McGarry NíÉanaigh
•  Paul Keogh Architects
•  Séan Harrington Architects
Lot 2 (estimated construction
costs above €15 million):

•  Bucholz McEvoy
•  Coady Architects
•  Derek Tynan
•  Grafton Architects
•  Metropolitan Workshop
•  O’Donnell & Tuomey and Proctor & Matthews
•  Scott Tallon Walker and Levitt Bernstein Architects

Springvale housing scheme for Dublin City Council – designed by Levitt Bernstein and ABK Architects

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