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History in the making - old ways are best if you want to renovate stone buildings

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BEFORE: an old stone coach house renovation by de Blacam and Meagher

BEFORE: an old stone coach house renovation by de Blacam and Meagher

AFTER: An old stone coach house renovation by de Blacam and Meagher; lime render allows the walls to breathe.

AFTER: An old stone coach house renovation by de Blacam and Meagher; lime render allows the walls to breathe.

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BEFORE: an old stone coach house renovation by de Blacam and Meagher

Query: As a result of the pandemic, I'm thinking of converting an existing old outhouse on my farm to make an extra space for self-isolation. The property is stone-built and approximately 41sqm, with a slate roof, needing repair. What should I think about in converting an old building into a self-contained apartment?

Answer: There are wonderfully simple fundamentals to follow when working on historic buildings. The same international principles and guidelines cover all types of work, from a tiny thatched cottage in Connemara to City Hall in Dublin or the Colosseum in Rome.

In proposing to change the use of your stone outhouse, regardless of whether it is a protected structure or not, a guiding principle is 'as little work as possible and as much work as necessary'. A protected structure is one a planning authority considers to be of special interest from an architectural, historical, archaeological, artistic, cultural, scientific, social or technical point of view.

Owners are often a bit nervous about carrying out work to older buildings, mainly because of the construction and cost implications. However, the key is to engage an architect with proven conservation and design experience to provide a rewarding collaboration. Blind enthusiasm is to be avoided in conservation work.

The lockdown has forced us to question aspects of our main living spaces, and how we use them, including the quality of light, views, noise, comfort, connection to nature, storage, and the efficiency and adaptability of the layout.

Any proposed works could be simplified down to a few basic points: repairs to the building; the design to change its use; making appropriate interventions to allow for modern, comfortable and happy living.

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Internally, the living areas — the kitchen, living and dining rooms — benefit from the same traditional treatment but are smartly contemporary

Internally, the living areas — the kitchen, living and dining rooms — benefit from the same traditional treatment but are smartly contemporary

Internally, the living areas — the kitchen, living and dining rooms — benefit from the same traditional treatment but are smartly contemporary

Generally, stone buildings are long-lasting structures, so all interventions should allow scope for future adaptability as your family circumstances change over the next 50 years. Think about future uses such as occupation by elderly guests, guests with mobility needs or farm staff, or as a home office or holiday rental. This sounds broad but these possible uses could be incorporated simply by providing level floor access, an accessible shower, slightly wider doors, suitably located data and power outlets and some well-planned outdoor screening or planting to give privacy.

A common query is whether to expose the stone walls or to apply render and insulation. Here, think about factors such as cost, the end user and the compliance with building regulations. See the images of a coach house, built in 1865, adapted by de Blacam and Meagher Architects.

Many local coach houses or stables had their random rubble, beige granite walls exposed which, although aesthetically pleasing, is not how these buildings were intended to be finished as it exposes the walls to the long-term damaging effect of Irish weather.

The client in the restoration of this coach was advised of the practical benefits, including insulation qualities and aesthetic values of the correct historical approach.

So the building was rendered in a 30mm thick 'wet dash' lime render finish. Lime render allows the walls to breathe. Avoid a cement finish as it keeps moisture in the walls, causing damp to affect the rooms inside.

The lime render to corners were curved in the traditional manner which is a beautiful detail, while the crystalline molecular structure of lime causes a double refraction of sunlight making it glow. This is the reason architects often specify a traditional lime finish, an 8,000-year-old material, on modern buildings.

Internally, the walls were finished with a breathable lime plaster and insulation finish, again with soft curved corners. A section of the beige granite stonework wall was left exposed on an inner party wall and framed in oak as a piece of art referencing the building's fabric.

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Internally, the living areas — the kitchen, living and dining rooms — benefit from the same traditional treatment but are smartly contemporary

Internally, the living areas — the kitchen, living and dining rooms — benefit from the same traditional treatment but are smartly contemporary

Internally, the living areas — the kitchen, living and dining rooms — benefit from the same traditional treatment but are smartly contemporary

It is helpful to become familiar with other buildings like yours before undertaking a project. There are many fine public examples of conservation and renovation works. The Red Stables in St Anne's Park, Dublin, is a fine example of multiple uses, with striking yet sympathetic modern interventions. A registered architect, who would have proven design and conservation experience, would be best placed to advise on the overall implications of carrying out works to older or historic buildings, from craftspeople to the use of suitable materials, grants and compliance with planning and building regulations.

  • Do you have a design dilemma we can help you with? Email designclinic@independent.ie. Advice provided is for guidance only and readers are advised to seek professional assistance for any proposed project.

  • Consult a registered architect when considering changes to your home. Check on riai.ie, the registration body for architects for one in your area.

  • Lenzie O'Sullivan is a senior architect with City Architects in Dublin City Council and a RIAI Grade 1 conservation architect. He has previously worked with de Blacam and Meagher Architects and in the Dublin School of Architecture.

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