Grand Designs architect offers his shipping container home for auction to help the homeless
Londonderry architect Patrick Bradley was so moved by the plight of homeless people, he decided to offer a night in his unusual and luxurious home, which featured on TV's Grand Designs series, to raise money for those with no roof over their heads. Lee Henry reports.
Never before has a Grand Designs participant offered up their house for charity auction, but with Christmas almost upon us, altruistic Co Londonderry architect Patrick Bradley is doing just that in the hope of raising money for Northern Ireland's largest homeless charity, Simon Community NI.
Bradley became one of Northern Ireland's best-known bachelors when his unlikely shipping container construction, built on family farmland near Maghera and subsequently named Grillagh Water House, featured on Channel 4's long-running home build series in 2014.
With his farmer chic flat cap, thick rural accent and inventive use of materials, Bradley stood out in the Grand Designs crowd.
Driven by a passion for sustainable architecture, he bravely ventured where no architect had gone before by designing a residence - rather than an office or business premises - by using four heavy steel shipping containers.
Transported from a yard in Bangor to a rocky, uneven outcrop on his family's working farm - and welded together to create a stunning two-story canonical, or perpendicular, edifice clad in pre-rusted Corten steel - the shipping containers provided Bradley with a cheaper, environmentally-friendly alternative to conventional block or concrete.
Grillagh Water House is a testament to Bradley's unique architectural aesthetic and willingness to rely on local suppliers, and unlike many other Grand Designs projects, it didn't break the bank, costing £130,000 to construct.
The building has two bedrooms and an office, from which Bradley now runs his fledgling practice, as well as an open plan kitchen/dining area and stunning views of the Londonderry landscape. It has won several industry awards - most notably a coveted Royal Institute of British Architects regional award for Northern Ireland - and was recently long-listed the 2015 RIBA House of the Year.
Now Bradley is giving two lucky competition winners the chance to stay in Grillagh Water House, meet the architect in person and share a bottle of champagne, as a means of helping those who find themselves destitute in Northern Ireland during the coldest, wettest, darkest time of the year.
"How anyone can manage to sleep and survive outside in winter is beyond me," he says. "While the rest of us are tucked up in bed at night, or spending the evening in front of the fire with a cup of tea, there are literally thousands of individuals sleeping in doorways, under bridges, soaked through with no food or means of staying warm, right across Northern Ireland. More needs to be done about that."
Inspired by his mother Anne, who volunteers tirelessly on behalf of several charities throughout the year, Bradley hit upon the idea of utilising Grillagh Water House to raise money for the homeless, and has since read up extensively on the work that Simon Community NI does in towns and cities here.
"Generally, I don't think the majority of people have a clue about the scale of the problem in this country," Bradley admits. "Last year, for example, Simon Community NI received something like 33,000 phone calls from individuals in need. How that is allowed to happen in 2015 is beyond me. It's absolutely ridiculous."
By asking entrants to donate £10 or more to be in with a chance of winning a stay in his luxurious home, Bradley aims to raise at least £3,000 for Simon Community NI. Contestants can enter the competition by donating via a JustGiving page at www.justgiving.com/PaddysGrandDesignDraw. Almost £2,500 has already been raised and the closing date for entries is Tuesday.
The prize also includes a second overnight stay in the nearby Ardtara Country House Hotel, and if the winner happens to hail from outside of Northern Ireland, Bradley has offered to pick them up from any Northern Irish airport, and drive them back, after their complimentary stay has come to an end.
"The guys at the Simon Community suggested I actually meet the winners, because, they argued, a lot of people might actually want to meet me. Being a country boy with no airs or graces about me, I think that's weird," Bradley admits, "but if I'm going to meet the winners, I may as well make myself useful."
Bradley launched his competition during the recent Homelessness Awareness Week which focused on the plight of the 'hidden homeless' who seek to disguise their circumstances by sleeping in cars, on friends' sofas or in disused, and consequently often dangerous, empty premises.
"For every man or woman you see sleeping in a doorway in central Belfast," Bradley explains, "there's another who has just lost their job and is forced to spend nights alone in their car, or in some empty building with no means of heat or warmth.
"Imagine trying to survive day after day in those kind of conditions at this time of year. It's a frightening prospect, it really is. But there are thousands of people doing it, and they truly need all the help they can get."
Simon Community NI was established in 1971 as a voluntary organisation to provide shelter, advice and community support for the homeless or those at risk of becoming homeless. The charity is named after the biblical Simon of Cyrene, whom the Romans ordered to carry the cross allocated to Jesus as he walked toward his crucifixion.
Jim Dennison, chief executive of Simon Community NI, says that homelessness is on the rise here, with the average family now just two pay cheques away from losing their homes compared to four pay cheques 10 years ago.
"We already know that Northern Ireland has proportionately the worst homelessness figures across the UK," adds Dennison, "but this is only the thin end of the wedge. While government collects statistics on those who have officially presented with the Housing Executive as homeless, there are many more who are homeless but do not show up in official figures.
"Simon Community NI is undertaking research to explore the extent of hidden homelessness in Belfast, with a view to extending this provincewide. If figures are not there to highlight the problem, government can ignore it. That's why we are taking a lead to ensure that they cannot sweep this growing issue aside any longer."
For his part, Bradley believes that homelessness can be eradicated in Northern Ireland if 'all parties' pull together, and has called on local government and landlords to work together to provide basic shelter for those most in need.
"There are a lot of buildings lying empty here that could be used to house the homeless," he points out. "There is no reason why they couldn't be, if government could pay a little toward repurposing them.
"Obviously, owners are concerned with squatter's rights, but they can learn from the likes of (former Manchester United footballers) Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, who recently granted a homeless activist group access to their boutique hotel during the winter months as it undergoes renovation. That's just human."
Bradley also believes that more can be done to educate the public, with many still viewing the homeless as "outcasts" to be shunned rather than "sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers" who should be given assistance in the struggle to get back on their feet.
"We all have our own problems. I completely understand that," says Bradley, "but I see people these days walking past homeless people and not even looking at them - they're not even a problem anymore, people completely ignore them - and that's not right. At the end of the day, they're just people who have run out of luck."
Although he stills finds himself single - "if I was good at getting women, I wouldn't have the reputation I have at the moment," laughs the 35-year-old - Bradley admits to being in a very lucky position himself, with the success of Grillagh Water House seeing his stock as an independent architect rise considerably in Northern Ireland and further afield.
He spends the majority of each year living and working from home, but currently visits London often as he sets up a joint venture with an architect friend in Chelsea and completes commissions across the UK. And in the New Year, Bradley is excited to expand upon his original shipping container idea with the launch of a new website that will enable clients to design their own single-unit structures based on his templates.
Bradley's company will then fit out, finish and deliver each unit, meaning that he can finally can go some way to supplying the unprecedented international demand for his creations since Grand Designs aired in autumn 2014.
"Grillagh Water House has allowed me to appreciate just how rewarding architecture can be," says Bradley, "both from a professional and personal point of view. I thoroughly enjoy living in the house, and am now very proud indeed to be able to offer it up to someone else, if only for a night, in aid of a very worthy cause."
- To win a night at Patrick Bradley's Grand Designs house, enter via JustGiving page at www.justgiving.com/PaddysGrandDesignDraw. The competition closes on Tuesday