The bestseller that solved a rural housing crisis
Jack Fitzsimons died in 2014 aged 84. The son of a farm labourer, he went on to become an architect, a prolific writer and a member of Seanad Éireann.
He is best known as the author of Bungalow Bliss, ‘the layman’s building bible’, a handbook that helped hundreds of thousands of rural people in the planning, design and building of their own homes.
Published in 1971, the first edition sold out even before there was time to advertise it. In all, 12 editions were published between ’71 and 2000, with more than a quarter of a million copies sold.
It was printed and reprinted, often a few times in the one year; the sixth edition needed three print runs in ’77, while the 12th edition needed four print runs in ’98.
The book was credited with, or blamed for, the mushrooming of bungalows all over rural Ireland. The title has been pilloried, played on and often ridiculed, with many variations of the appellation including ‘Bungalow Blitz’, ‘Bungalow Blight’ and the like.
The author himself wrote a response to some of the criticisms in a book entitled Bungalow Bashing.
Fitzsimons’ last work has just been published posthumously by his son and publisher, Kennas Fitzsimons of Kells Publishing. Bungalow Bliss Bias is a book that combines autobiography with a stout defence of the original publication and the housing it spawned.
In recent years, the rural bungalow has attracted the kind of urban opprobrium normally reserved for hare coursing, country music and ham sandwiches.
The wax-jacketed classes never cease to express their horror at their country cousins for abandoning the rustic bothán in the hollow for the white single-storey house on the hill.
Defending his book’s contribution to the dramatic improvement in the quality and quantity of the housing stock in rural Ireland, Fitzsimons recalls the appalling standard of housing that blighted the land of his childhood.
He refers in particular to the houses in which the rural labouring class found itself.
Born and reared between Trim and Kells in Meath, Fitzsimons (right) had direct experience of poor housing.
“For the first few years of my life, we lived in a small, two-roomed, mud-walled, thatched house rented at one shilling per week,” he wrote.
“There was a large vertical crack about two inches wide near ground level in the real wall. Beyond the wall were broken-down sheds on a patch of land overgrown with weeds, a breeding ground for rats that had easy access to the house through the crack in the wall.”
In poignant detail, he describes the loss of his baby sister. Born in November 1940, she died in January 1941.
“The cause of death is given as bronchopneumonia and cardiac failure,” he writes, “but I know the records are wrong – the cause of death was poverty.”
Fitzsimons (right) completed the Leaving Cert in 1949. Between ’49 and ’51, he worked all over north Meath on the ESB Rural Electrification Scheme, which, he wrote, “gave me a unique insight into existing housing conditions”.
The majority of the houses he visited were thatched, dark and damp where rain from the roofs made a quagmire of the yard. When it came to writing Bungalow Bliss, he resolved to solve these conditions with guttering, concrete surrounds and large windows.
Fitzsimons went on to work as draughtsman in the County Engineer’s office in Navan, where he was tasked with mapping all the labourers’ cottages in the county. This led to his being asked to draw sitemaps and plans for house extensions.
Using the specifications set out in the council guidelines, including the room sizes required for grant aid, he had the basis of the book that was to change his life and the lives of hundreds of thousands of his fellow rural dwellers.
He went on to work with the OPW and studied at the Royal Institute of Architects in Merrion Square. Ending up as clerk of works for a major housing scheme in Navan, he finally went into private practice and wrote Bungalow Bliss.
The book, covering site preparation, sewerage, layout and decoration, was an instant success.
Bungalow Bliss has always attracted strong reaction, from supporters and detractors. Many of the latter are members of the architectural profession.
Fitzsimons doesn’t spare them, accusing his peers of abandoning rural Ireland.
“The lacuna that triggered and sustained the book was largely, in my opinion, dereliction of duty by the architectural profession,” he wrote.
The bungalow is at the heart of many a debate about the nature and the future of rural Ireland. While the wisdom of continued dispersed/one-off housing and ribbon development is hotly contested, the bungalow is often singled out as the cause and continuation of both.
Fitzsimons did not think in terms of dispersed housing or ribbon development – as far as he was concerned, people needed houses and he crafted a comprehensive blueprint that covered everything from the foundation to the chimney pot.
Whatever the legacy of Bungalow Bliss, writer Dermot Bolger places it in exalted company.
In a piece for the Irish Independent in 1994, he wrote: “My back window overlooks an old house where James Joyce spent much of his youth, and in the long garden of which (in a curious linking of the two books that have done most to shape modern Irish culture, Ulysses and Bungalow Bliss) my neighbour, the late Chris Kelly, printed the first ever edition of that book of do-it-yourself plans.”
Bungalow Bliss Bias is published by Kells Publishing Company Ltd