The pigeon house- Peek inside this Georgian home lovingly restored by architect
Seven years ago, Morwenna Gerrard and her husband, Kim, fell in love with a dilapidated house, which had pigeons nesting in its rafters. It also had a sitting tenant.
Published 11/04/2016 | 02:30
The first house that Morwenna Gerrard and her husband Kim bought together was a one-bedroomed bijou on the northside comprising about 1,000 square feet. That was in 2000; the second, bought nine years later, was a double-fronted, three-storey home in Blackrock, south Co Dublin, comprising more than 4,500 square feet.
Both houses were virtually wrecks when the couple bought them, and in both cases, they completely transformed them. Of course, taking on the second house was a vastly different prospect to the first in terms of scale, vision and cost; fortunately, in the intervening years, Morwenna had decided to study architecture, something she opted for as she hit 30.
However, this softly spoken Tipperary woman had always loved old houses, ever since her childhood, when she was reared in one. "My parents are from Dublin. My mum was a musician - a harp player - and my dad was a jockey when he was younger, and they moved to Tipperary to open a stables. It was in the midst of a financial crisis and it didn't survive," she says.
While her father often went abroad to work, the family continued living in Tipp, in the area around Lough Derg, and Morwenna, who is the middle child of seven, describes it as "a big, chaotic childhood in the country".
When it came to her secondary schooling, Morwenna went to boarding school in Dublin, first to Alexandra College and then St Columba's, before opting to study graphic design at Cork Institute of Technology - but she was never in love with the course she chose. "After a while, I felt it wasn't enough, and I started a business degree at night and began working in an office, in Davy Kelleher McCarthy, economic forecasters," Morwenna recalls.
From there she went to another office, but this time she found herself instantly engaged; she went to O'Donnell + Tuomey, the architects, as their office manager, and she immediately found the partners, Sheila O'Donnell and John Tuomey, inspirational; they allowed her to get involved in more creative aspects of their practice, rather than just office management. "I used to do a lot of their tenders, and after a while I ended up picking out furniture for cafes, that kind of thing. After a couple years working there, I said, 'You know what, I'm totally on the wrong side of this, I need to go back and do something more creative', so I applied for architecture in UCD and I got a place," Morwenna notes happily.
Fortunately her then fiance, now husband, Kim McClenaghan, whom she met 20 years ago at a Trinity diving club barbecue, was totally supportive. "We got married, we went to Kerry on honeymoon for a week, then I started in college," she notes with a laugh.
That was 2003, and over the following six years, Morwenna completed her qualifications. It's difficult enough going back to study after a relatively long period working, but to do so while also giving birth to two children is pretty amazing. Her eldest, 10-year-old Mia, was born at the end of her second year, while Ben (8) arrived the year after she had done her primary degree; most architecture students take this year out and work in architects' offices abroad.
Morwenna did take a year out and worked in an Irish architecture firm - heneghan peng - while also giving birth to Ben. Her youngest, six-year-old Oscar, was born two weeks after she finished her studies.
"It probably wasn't ideal, but that's how it all happened," Morwenna says with a laugh, adding: "It's amazing what you can get done when you really like something and you put your mind to it. I used to put the kids to bed and come down and start my college work. You become very efficient with your time. Kim was wonderfully supportive, fantastic with the kids," she enthuses.
During the years Morwenna was in college, the architecture profession was on a high and there was work for everybody. The year she qualified was the year everything stopped. "When I came out, everything had just fallen off a cliff," she notes, adding that she decided, as there were no jobs, that doing up her new home could be her first big project .
During her early years in UCD the couple had lived in the North Strand in a house she and Kim, who works in PwC, had bought while she was working in O'Donnell + Tuomy.
"We were looking for a house; we walked into it and fell through the floor. But it was a beautiful house, though completely trashed, and we totally did that up. We did most of the work ourselves; it was one of the things that sparked my interest in studying architecture. O'Donnell + Tuomey gave me a lot of help with it," Morwenna notes, adding that it was only one-bedroomed.
When the babies started to come along, they turned one of the reception rooms into a bedroom, but by the time of Ben's arrival, they knew they would have to move to a bigger house.
Their criteria were proximity to the sea and near enough to the city centre for Kim to be able to cycle to his office there - the whole family are enthusiastic cyclists, and must be one of the few families in Dublin with their own individual cycle rack in their front garden. Blackrock threw itself up as the ideal location, and they rented a house there initially.
"We lived nearby and, on my first night, I wanted to get my bearings, so I went for a cycle. I saw this house and I thought it was amazing. It was crumbling, pigeons flying out the windows, it was very romantic," Morwenna notes, adding that it had been derelict for years.
A couple of years later, to Morwenna's surprise, in 2009, the year she graduated, a 'for sale' sign went up, and she and Kim, as well as everyone else in the neighbourhood, went to see it. "There were pigeons nesting everywhere, people were using it to store furniture, walls were soaking wet from the damp, you couldn't walk into the garden it was so overgrown; it was comprehensively abandoned," Morwenna explains, adding, "but what this place did have, which I could see, was that it still had all the original features - we totally fell in love with it. It was great for me, I was at home with the kids, I knew I could manage the restoration".
Crucially, it also had a sitting tenant, who had lived in the basement for 50 years. "In our naivete, we fell so in love with the house, we decided we could take him on. I went to meet him, I liked him and afterwards said to Kim, 'You know what, I think I can live with him'," Morwenna explains. "We kind of went into it with our eyes closed".
However, as it happened the tenant died a few weeks after the sale, and so they got the run of the whole house - four rooms on each floor, so four reception rooms on ground level, four bedrooms, and four rooms in the basement.
The house is late Georgian and so it has beautiful Georgian features, including the high ceilings and 12-pane sash windows. "I grew up in an old house and I love them. I hate when people come in and over-renovate, so I wanted to keep the character. Conversely, it also had to be updated for modern-day living", Morwenna explains.
These days, conservation best practice dictates that when you are renovating you try and match materials where you can do so, but when you put in anything new, it has to be obviously new, so it' s a lot of work and, as it was her first big job, Morwenna had the support of a conservation architect.
She said Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown council were also very supportive.
Big jobs included the plumbing, heating and rewiring - but rather than gutting the house, she and Kim opted to repair most things; they repaired the valleys in the roof. They got a grant to keep the existing windows and repair them. They also kept all the floorboards - they sanded, oiled and waxed the boards; they repaired the mouldings in the ceilings.
Morwenna opted to put the kitchen in one of the reception rooms at the back on the ground floor, and she has recreated a wonderful, light-filled space.
"The garden level is very dark, and so I put the kitchen here because the light is so good. I am always trying to persuade clients not to put kitchens in basements. When these houses were built, they had servants; these houses weren't designed for basement living," Morwenna insists, adding that because it was a new use for the room, it was right for it to be completely modern. "I spent a lot of time getting the height of the units right. I designed them and Wabi-Sabi made them for me," she explains.
She also put in thoroughly modern minimalist bathrooms, furnished with Duravit baths and basins.
The other reception rooms on the ground floor are all beautifully restored, as are the bedrooms above, but little has been done to the garden level, apart from creating a utility room and an office for Morwenna - by the time she got to thinking about this level, business had picked up again and Morwenna was in demand, and of course her own home is a perfect example of her work - to show clients just what can be done.
To contact Morwenna, email email@example.com, or call (087) 275-4044
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
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