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I’ve just spent a whole day researching the history and semiotics of pebbledash. Ciarán Cuffe will be proud of me.

It’ll probably end up as one line in my third novel. One bloody line.

(Adopts growly “Masterchef Greg” type voice): Crime fiction research doesn’t get tougher than this.

A reconstructed facade of a pebbledashed home, from the exhibition "Beyond Pebbledash"

A reconstructed facade of a pebbledashed home, from the exhibition “Beyond Pebbledash”

Pebbledash. It can be hard to avoid in Dublin. Many of our corporation houses built from the 1930s to the 1960s were caked in the stuff.

At the time new housing schemes were sprouting up in the fields around the city, new working-class estates from Cabra on the northside to Crumlin and Ballyfermot on the southside. All part of the Corpo’s slum clearance and rehousing programmes. Pebbledash homes everywhere.

These well-planned, outlying estates of terraced and semi-detached houses were laid out around green areas, often in the shape of a crescent or oval, with distinctive corner houses addressing street junctions. Three model house types were developed: Mk 1, a two-bedroom mid-terrace house, Mk 2, a three-bedroom mid-terrace house, and Mk 3, an end-of-terrace house which usually had three bedrooms.”
– “Dublin Civic Trust

I guess many people either love/hate pebbledash. It’s a bit like Marmite or brussels sprouts.

Either pebbledash is seen as functional, down-to-earth, part of what we are and where we’ve come from. Or it’s ugly, cheap and tacky. Ticky-tacky.

Oops. See what I’ve just done there. It has made me think of “little boxes, all made out of ticky-tacky”. See how a tiny meme – the Malvina Reynolds song “Little Boxes”, aka the theme tune to Weeds – has begun to burrow into my unsuspecting brain?

Somehow a pebbledash finish is either (a) a symbol of uniformity and sameness, much like those little ticky-tacky boxes, or (b) it’s absolutely unique. Up close, no pebbledash patterns and textures will ever be quite the same.

Moss Reid and pebbledash

I’ve been trying to figure out my PI character Moss Reid’s attitude to pebbledash. To the very surface and texture of so much of the built environment in the everyday city around him. What adjectives might he use to describe it?

“Rough” for a start. Not rough as in “rough areas”. No, rough as in all those childhood scratches and grazes, You could easily scrape a hand or leg on the stuff when playing games around your mate’s pebbledash council house. Rough? Some sandy-gritty pebbledash finishes were worse than sandpaper.

Rough. Yet “smooth”. Pebbledash was also supposed to be smoothed onto the walls of the building.

That’s one of pebbledash’s strange love-hate qualities. It can be one thing and another. Complete opposites, both at the same time. A bit like Schrödinger’s cat, the one in the box that was both dead and alive (the cat I mean, not the box. Imagine if a box were alive as well as dead).

Pebbledash is both ancient (the rendering process can be traced back to Roman times) and modern (as in all those supposedly future-looking housing estate built in the new Irish state).

The construction of tens of thousands of ‘pebbledash homes’ represents one of the most visionary, ambitious and successfully enduring legacies of the Irish state, it literally imagined and, critically, delivered, new living possibilities.”
– Paul Kearns and Motti Ruim, “Beyond Pebbledash: …And the Puzzle of Dublin (Gandon Editions, 2014).

So pebbledash came to symbolise the new, the brave, the forward thinking. Yet it also came to be seen as retro, old-fashioned, a bit naff – like houses “with wood chip on the wall”, as Jarvis Cocker might say – or folky, folksy even.

The Arts and Crafts movement sort of adopted and championed pebbledash from the late 19th century onwards. At the same time as it was being plastered onto working-class housing in Britain and Ireland, it was also being used on the homes of the rich and the avant-garde.

Try googling for Edwin Lutyens’s stately home at les Bois des Moutiers, Varengeville-sur-Mer, France, or for academic papers on the semiotics of pebbledash, or “Material That Talks: Material Use of Architectural Surface in Semiotic Implications” (it’s a PDF).

So pebbledash can be both humble and fancy.

Cover-ups and physics

My Moss Reid series is crime fiction. So I can’t help thinking how pebbledash also symbolises a big cover-up, right? Used not only for decoration or weatherproofing but also to conceal poor quality brickwork in many of these housing schemes. Slapdash pebbledashing, rushed jobs, a quick way to hide a lack of skilled bricklayers or God knows what.

Pebbledash is cheap (much cheaper than painting), utilitarian and functional. It’s either brilliant or bad.

Then I looked at its physical properties. All those bumpy pebble textures are supposed to make the rain fly off rather than dripping down and causing damp problems. These textures with all their tiny twists and turns also create a far greater surface area than a smooth wall, so when it is wet it will evaporate and dry more quickly.

As weather protection goes, pebbledash might seem solid and sensible, hard-wearing, long-lasting. The perfect icing on the cake for that quaint seaside-cottagey look.

And yet an opposite take on those very same physical properties is that the surface will soak up all that rainwater like a sponge, soon generating patches of dark grey or green and increasingly mossy grunge.

Trapped water can freeze, causing the render to fall away in sheets. Salt crystallisation may also occur around cracks as water evaporating here leaves a build up of salts, causing salt crystals to grow in the substrate.”
– “BuildingConservation.com

Another bit of physics: maybe the rough surface of the render also “drains” the light from around the house, making it look cold in summer and even more dull in winter.

Row upon row of depressing houses, just dour enough for crime fiction or an episode of Taggart, a suitably drab grey rather than perfectly seaside fisherman-cottage white (and pebbledash can be quite hard to paint, so once it’s painted you don’t do it again that often). This pebbledash lacks even the warm clay colours of a redbrick terrace.

Pebbledash and muck

The thing is, like it or not, pebbledash by its very nature is mucky, coarse and sort of slapdash. I don’t mean all that in the metaphorical, judgemental or even aesthetic sense (though some people do).

I mean it has to be –  literally – a rough mixture of coarse things. To your quicklime (and sometimes cement) you add sand, grit, small gravel, pebbles, seashells even.

Architect and builder-speak alert: strictly speaking “roughcasting” incorporates the stones or shells within the mix, while “pebbledashing” adds them on top, but let’s ignore such niceties here.

This mix is then slapped or dashed (thrown) onto the walls, in a semi-smooth fashion if possible, in order to get that unmistakable stippled effect.

Pebbledash and class

In the end, pebbledash now symbolises the future and past, class and status, the push and pull of market forces on the pages of a property website.

As one wag put it in an online forum:

What other coating could you put on your house that costs €3,000 and will instantly devalue your home by four times that amount?

Half a century ago the pebbledash render and the PVC windows would be the first things to be added in a house renovation project. Nowadays they’d be the first to be subtracted.

Check out the “before” and “after” shots of the old council houses being done up in all those home renovation shows and House and Home magazines. The “imaginative” renovation will involve three essential steps:

  1. Gut the interior, make it more open-plan, possibly with an extension out the back
  2. Get rid of that “horrible” exterior too, unpebbledash it, till there’s little left, its history and class origins suitably erased
  3. Clients argue with architect and sack him, it’s now 10k over-budget and Mrs Client is project-managing everything while expecting her first baby half-way through the grand design with no roof over their heads

Meanwhile as part of the research I’ve just been to an exhibition called Beyond Pebbledash at Collins Barracks in Dublin (see pic at the top of the page). There’s more about the show in my other blog about “Moss Reid’s Dublin“.

And you know what? What’s the betting that that bloody line in my novel about pebbledash ends up as a short and sweet “Her house was pebbledashed”?