There will be clashes, but not with me - Hugh Wallace on new house restoration show The Great House Revival
It kicks off Sunday at 9.30pm on RTE One
Fresh from deciding the winner of Home of the Year 2018, architect Hugh Wallace returns to RTE on Sunday night with a new house renovation series, The Great House Revival, which is, he says, 'very different' to both Home of the Year and RTE's flagship Room to Improve.
Two years in the making the series charts the trials and tribulations of six homeowners who have undertaken to transform derelict properties into comfortable, modern homes.
It's Room to Improve times a hundred as they strive to save properties that are in some cases literally rotting to the ground from a 100 room country estate in Mayo to a Cavan schoolhouse to an inner city Dublin Victorian townhouse.
“What the homeowners have done here is each and every one of them has saved buildings that were either about to be demolished or were in the grave. These buildings were gone and they have pulled them out of the ground,” Hugh tells Independent.ie
He hopes the programme will encourage people to seek out and restore more of the buildings like the old primary schools, Georgian houses, and farmhouses which are dying in our cities, towns and rural areas.
"The councils have a remit to preserve and save and ensure our architectural heritage isn’t lost and it’s being lost today," he says.
"There are only 2,500 thatched cottages left in Ireland and they’re disappearing at a rate of probably 50 or 60 a year. They’re a dying species. The thatched cottage, unless somebody does something fundamental, will be gone."
A thatched cottage features in the new series.
"It’s pulled out of death by the owner. The roof was gone, the walls were crumbling and the homeowner, with her conservation architect did an extraordinary job of bringing it back," reveals Hugh. "They could so easily have put it in the bin and built a bungalow."
Another homeowner saves a little primary school which was just two weeks away from being knocked with a bulldozer.
"These buildings want somebody to save them," says Hugh, who is clearly passionate about them. "I think buildings are quite interesting, they want to be loved and buildings will be forgiving. They will say I want you to really succeed. These buildings want to survive.
"All of these owners have taken properties that would have been gone. Some of them are spending millions, some are spending €50,000 but all of them have saved our architectural heritage. They are all custodians and caretakers of these buildings."
For many people the dream of restoring an old property is scuppered by the fear of plunging their hard-earned cash into an unpredictable money pit. However, Hugh reckons it's not the budget-chomping, head-wrecking endeavour it used to be, particularly if you're willing to do much of the hard graft yourself.
Although you may be battling inferior building materials in a Georgian house or a complete lack of foundations on a cottage built in the 1860s, there are ways to work around those issues.
"One homeowner is rescuing a 1840s Georgian house in Dublin and he basically does it for €50,000," reveals Hugh. "A lot of the owners rolled up their own sleeves and did the work themselves and that actually makes the building affordable.
"A restoration or restoring of an old building funnily enough is more about time and labour than materials, because it all takes time to take the plaster off, to dig up the floors, and if you’re willing to do that you can work within very tight budgets. You’ll see that in this programme."
Building methods and conservation methods have also drastically improved in the last decade.
"For example, lime plaster, which was a pain to put up, now you can do it by literally spraying it on and it’s as good as the lime mortar plaster used 200 years ago. The difference is now you can apply huge areas of lime plaster that will include hemp or cork by way of insulation," explains Hugh.
"So the way we think about conserving buildings and how we can do them has changed dramatically over 10 years - it’s much more effective and there are better value methods."
Although he's an architect, Hugh is not playing a Dermot Bannon role on the programme - he's simply there to observe and present. However, he laughs, "I do open my mouth on occasion - whether they listen to me or not is another thing!".
There are clashes, however, although not between Hugh and the homeowners. When it comes to houses which are protected structures and homeowners have to deal with conservation officers and vice versa, there can be issues.
"Then you’re into a different area of complication," says Hugh. "But you have to understand that the councils want to, and will, do everything they can do to assist you.
"But they’re between a rock and a hard place, first of all because there’s a lack of conservation officers in a lot of councils around the country. They only have so much time.
"Also, their concern is that if they give you a decision that you can do something then they set a precedent and everybody can do the same. That’s the conundrum.
"The conservation officer in the council is saying, ‘It can’t happen on my watch because I’ll get shot’. It’s not that they don’t want to help. So, it’s very important how you establish a relationship with your conservation officer. A lot of it is to do with trust, because they’re afraid. They don’t want to be a headline in a newspaper."
It's not just the conservation officers who may lock horns with homeowners. There are representatives of other concerned groups who will have their own guidelines on how a particular project should be tackled.
"There are a whole rake of other people who come in and are screaming, ‘But you have to do it this way!’. I think that there’s that whole discussion that needs to take place," says Hugh.
He gives an example; "I know of one building in Dublin where it’s an old Georgian house, very fine, and 20 per cent of the original fabric is there in terms of plaster work, door frames, the original mouldings, but some of the rooms have nothing - all of the plasterwork is gone.
"And the council is sort of saying, ‘In this room you have to restore it and put back the moulding’ and the client is going, ‘But there’s nothing there. I saved this building, the outside of the building, I’ve restored the windows, I will conserve and restore any element of the original fabric that is there, so why can’t I plaster a room in plaster and paint it white?’
"It goes back to the conservation officer saying, ‘If I do that it’s a precedent and everybody will run in and say the same thing to me.’"
It can be quite a fraught process but not one any of the homeowners have undertaken lightly whether it seems complicated or relatively straightforward.
"When you take on a building like this you do your homework," says Hugh. "And it’s amazing what information is available. You can find out when the building was bought, whose land it belonged to, the history and heritage. You can look up Census records and see who lived there. It’s amazing stuff. And by doing that it gives you a bit of context for the building."
The first episode Bede Tannock travels from Perth to Mayo, where he hopes to rescue Ballinafad House.
It was built in 1827 and is derelict, but Bede hopes to live in it with his partner Sandra. In the first phase he also hopes to rent it out as a venue having restored the entrance hall, stairwell, two drawing rooms of the old estate house, in order to fund the second phase of the project.
He will also restore the large dining hall, assembly hall and chapel as well as the 12 room wing known as the priests' house and this is where he and Sandra will reside throughout the restoration. As a qualified architect and cabinet maker he'll be getting hands-on on site. But it's an epic project - there are 110 rooms and 70,000 square feet of floor space.
Hugh says he was massively impressed with all of the homeowners' projects, as he was with the homes on Home of the Year.
"I think we’re very good at it. Irish people have a natural talent in terms of creativity when it comes to lighting, music, colour, art and I think that our creativity shows in Home of the Year or in this restoration programme," he says.
"Some of the finishes here are to the owners’ taste and they might not be to everybody else’s but they’re fabulous!"
The Great House Revival kicks off on RTE One on Sunday night at 9.30pm.