Tuesday 12 December 2017

Dereliction and duty: Peek inside a Victorian mid-terrace which is being lovingly restored

A house which has been unoccupied for years isn't always the worst thing, says Douglas Carson, who is slowly renovating a Victorian mid-terrace home in Dublin 6.

Architect Douglas Carson in his hallway. The original carpentry on the back of the staircase is left exposed and Douglas brings students around to explain how things were done in the 19th Century. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Architect Douglas Carson in his hallway. The original carpentry on the back of the staircase is left exposed and Douglas brings students around to explain how things were done in the 19th Century. Photo: Tony Gavin.
The walls of the bathroom are all threaded together; no screws or glue were used in their creation. The gap in the timber where a window can be seen can be closed over.
Douglas designed the kitchen units and had them made from offcuts of the timber that was used in the creation of the bathroom.
Blue and white are restful colours for a bedroom.
Every item in Douglas Carson's sitting room is carefully chosen, including the 1960s Jotul stove, which was owned by his wife Rosaleen Crushell’s grandmother. 'We light it every evening in winter,' Douglas says. Douglas occasionally plays the piano, which belonged to his grandparents.

If you look up famous architects, you will get a huge variety of opinions about the value of architecture.

However, the recently deceased Zaha Hadid - the first female architect, since our own Eileen Gray, to really make a name for herself on the world stage - put it very simply when she said, "Architecture is really about well-being . . . on the one hand, it's about shelter, but it's also about pleasure."

Simon Open Door, which takes place next weekend, could almost be based on the same sentiments. It's an initiative to raise money for the homeless - those in need of shelter - and how it works is that people who want to improve their homes, to take more pleasure in them, can have, in exchange for a fee of €70, a consultation with any one of a huge number of top architects who generously give freely of their time.

It can be daunting to consult an architect initially; we tend to assume that because they know all about designing beautiful homes, ergo their own homes must be shiny and sleek, so we can be shy of revealing ours.

Most architects, while they have the advantage of talent and training, are stymied by the same time and money constraints as the rest of the population, and, like the rest of us, have to find ways of dealing with these constraints.

Douglas Carson of Carson and Crushell architects, who will be taking part in Simon Open Door, is one such architect. He and his wife Rosaleen Crushell have chosen to restore an old house, and are doing so slowly. There's a strong sense that's exactly the way Douglas likes it. He doesn't want to rush things, because creating a home is too important to get wrong.

Douglas, who hails from Knocklyon in Dublin, and whose parents are medics - his father is a doctor, his mother a nurse - decided to study architecture because he was interested in drawing and making things. It wasn't until he started his studies that he realised how vital the discipline really is. "To me, architecture is the greatest art form; it's the greatest way of giving expression to our place on Earth," he says firmly.

Douglas studied at UCD and it was here he met Rosaleen - from Kenmare - who was in the same class. "Architecture is the longest third-level course you can do in a single subject. You spend a lot of time with your fellow classmates in terms of discussion and socialising. It's quite common for architects to become couples; our year was particularly incestuous," Douglas says with a smile, "There are six married couples out of 30 students in our year."

Douglas and Rosaleen, who now have three children - Patrick (3) and three-month old twins Emmanuel and Alice - didn't get together until near the end of their studies. They went abroad to different places during the year that architectural students tend to take out; in Douglas's case, he went to Boston and Australia. However, by the time of their graduation 12 years ago, they were a definite couple and they headed off to London together. While there, they worked in different companies, but gradually started doing joint projects, and when they came back to Ireland, they set up their own practice, Carson and Crushell, where both have specialities. Rosaleen went on to get a master's in urban and building conservation, and sometimes acts as a consultant in conservation matters to other architects, while Douglas also designs furniture. "However, furniture design isn't purely mine, and conservation isn't only for Rosaleen - we are both interested in conservation and furniture design," Douglas says.

While he admits that they specialise somewhat in high-end domestic work, he says he doesn't want it to be true. "I think it's dangerous for an architect to only specialise in one area; I don't think it's healthy. Architects who only do schools, or only theatres, or only fancy houses, tend not to be good," he insists, adding, "You get complacent."

A successful firm, Carson and Crushell have designed theatres, public parks and sports halls - but they've mainly designed beautiful homes.

Meanwhile, Douglas and Rosaleen's own home, dating from the 1840s - which they bought five years ago in Dublin 6 - is an ongoing project. When they first returned to Ireland six years ago, they rented a flat in the area, and used to stroll around in the evenings, looking at the houses. "We knew this cul de sac and we saw this derelict house and decided to keep an eye on it," Douglas recalls. Sure enough, it came on the market eventually, and Douglas and Rosaleen bought it. "It was cheap, and we could afford it. Since 1840, the house has had a chequered history. It was a tenement in the 19th Century, a family home in the 1920s, and then spent a few years in a state of dereliction before we bought it," Douglas notes, adding that they weren't put off by the state of the house. "People think dereliction is the worst thing. It might look bad, but good intentions are often the cause of the most significant damage."

On the plus side, the house, which is two-storeys-over-basement, had a good roof and because it is mid-terrace and gets heat from the neighbours, it wasn't too damp. However, lots of things in the house - which comprises a kitchen, a living room, an office and three bedrooms - weren't in good condition; the back windows - all original - had to be refurbished. There's a story to the front windows; the previous owner got the original sash windows of the house next door, which the previous owners there were throwing out.

The floorboards were not in good nick, but Douglas says he couldn't justify replacing them, so they're been strengthened and patched; the laths of the stairs are apparent, but the couple like the fact that they tell something of the house's history. "We quite like the laths. They tell an interesting story - we can show them to students and explain how stairs used to be made; this was how plastered walls were made before plasterboard. I'm not suggesting that I advise this to people who aren't architects," Douglas says.

At the moment, it's a house of extremes. Some parts, such as the stairs, are pared back to their most basic elements, and many of the walls are, as yet, undecorated. "We made a call about how we wanted to spend money, and if we couldn't do it well, we weren't going to do it. There's no hurry," Douglas explains pragmatically.

But many areas are beautifully restored. They've added light where possible by digging down - doing most of the demolition themselves - and replacing some windows with glass doors. They've made walls downstairs out of solid timber, and they made really unusual kitchen units from the offcuts of the timber. They've added a very high-end bathroom, which is lined in wood.

However, as Douglas would be the first to admit, it's far from finished: "Architecture is the single greatest human endeavour, it takes Olympian effort to create and maintain a home."

And that's something we can all identify with.

See simonopendoor.ie

See carsonandcrushell.com

Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin

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