It might seem odd to hear an architect say that the more you leave an old house alone the better, but Nicola Ryan of Studio Red Architects has long experience of what is best for conservation projects.
"There's a certain amount of having to open up and explore what's there and find out what is the right thing to do for the original build," she says, "but mostly it's about letting the building continue to do what it has always done."
This was the approach she took with a 400-year-old farm cottage in Co Wicklow that had been in the owner's family for generations. "Gavin's grandparents used to live there and his own dad lives on the far side of the farm here. He has vivid memories of growing up here - 10 of them were raised here - and nights of card games by the fire and neighbours popping in and out. There was a really strong connection there," says Linda, who, with her husband Gavin, commissioned Nicola to restore and extend the building.
"The cottage was sitting idle for a good 10 years," she says. "It still had the walls and wasn't a complete ruin. It had windows and was sealed and we used it as a store room, but it needed a lot of work to bring it up to standard and modernise it and make it habitable."
Linda and Gavin had strong ideas about what they liked and had decided to do the work without an architect. Then they happened along to the annual RIAI Simon Open Door event at which architects donate an hour's consultation to the public to raise funds for the charity. "I'm so glad we did because from that point on there was no question of not having an architect involved."
The brief they gave Nicola was to keep the character of the original cottage - the old hearth where Gavin's grandfather liked to sit was to be restored - but to add on a light-filled living space that a family with young children would need.
"Nicola had a very clear vision of how to marry the two," says Linda. Her design preserved the original house but simplified it by demolishing a jumble of rooms that had been added over the years. The cottage roof and floor were replaced and double-glazed sash windows installed, while a large kitchen was fitted out by Linda's father and brother who run Oak Lodge Kitchens. Off it is a little parlour where the kids like to play.
But the hearth was the lynchpin. "That entire cottage culture of the hearth being the centre of the home where you cooked, baked, heated and gathered around, it's so Irish," says Nicola. Gavin had worked as a stonemason and knows all about traditional building methods so he rendered and limed both the hearth and the cottage walls himself.
"Where you're working with old types of building where there is solid masonry and mud walls," says Nicola, "you just have to respect that that wall needs to breathe, the floor needs to breathe, the roof needs to breathe so it's really about specifying materials properly to do that."
This is where specialist knowledge is important to avoid problems such as damp and mould in the future.
"It's more complex to join an old house to a new house, because the original walls are lime plaster and thick but it is possible to bring the whole house to a spec that works and is very comfortable for modern living," points out Linda.
Adding the new
The extension sits at right-angles to the original and steps down from it via a glazed link. Sited on a slope, it had the height to rise to two storeys at one end and contains a large and airy living space, utility and boot room, a reading gallery and the bedrooms.
The new part offers two very different views. "On one side we're looking at the farmyard," says Linda, "and then, on the other side, it's the converted barn and the orchard. Gavin enjoys being able to stick his head out and check the farmyard."
Traditional Irish cottages were usually built to take advantage of the shelter of a particular spot, and so sited in a dip, or with a hillside behind them, rather than because they commanded a big view, points out Nicola. The materials used in the build were typically found locally and in the landscape. This means the house belongs to the landscape - there's a special connection there..
What to budget
Undertaking the renovation of a traditional structure is definitely not for the faint-hearted, according to Nicola. She points to the RIAI (riai.ie) cost guidelines for undertaking extensive renovation works of around €2,000 per sqm at a minimum, but every project will present with its own scope and requirements.
It's also important to set aside a 5-10pc contingency for any items that crop up during the works, as they inevitably will with a heritage property.
The couple worked in phases to make the most of their budget. "But you need to choose wisely as to what you can do at a later stage versus what can't be changed," says Linda. They prioritised the things that were fundamental to the design, such as the windows. "To get the right style of windows in a cottage and in a build was a really crucial thing and we were prepared to invest in the glass - it was more affordable than we expected."
Gavin's skills in rendering and conservation also saved money on the build, as did the decision to use galvanised steel for the extension roof instead of zinc, which had been the original plan.
"It's very Irish and that's the look we wanted. We wanted it to be reminiscent of the farm shed, we have them literally surrounding us. It was a massive saving.
"Essentially, there is no real saving here in comparison with undertaking a new build," says Nicola. "However, what you will get is to live in a house that is deeply rooted in the landscape and in our cultural heritage - and that privilege, some would consider, is priceless."
You only do it once
The couple learnt a lot in the course of the build. "We learnt you only do it once!" laughs Linda, but adds: "I would say don't be afraid of taking on an old house. It is, of course, challenging but if you're working with an architect who understands both old buildings and new buildings and how they can work together, I think it's a really good way to preserve our built heritage and still get the living space you want without having to compromise too much."
She also pared back her design ideas to something much simpler. "I'd say, try to stick with one palette or form of design that suits the build as opposed to trying to do everything in one building.
"It's the history that you feel in an old building whether you're connected to it or not," she says. "There's something in old structures that is just quite special."
"Vernacular cottages and farmhouses form such a big part of our social and cultural history," says Nicola.
"It's a really noble thing to protect them, to take one to heart and mind it for the next generation."
ARCHITECT NICOLA RYAN’S PROJECT TIPS
1 Seek advice from a building professional such as an architect, engineer or surveyor who has experience dealing with conservation or older properties. The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) has a list of registered architects working on this type of project, riai.ie
2 Ensure rainwater is gathered properly from the building — this includes making sure the roof is watertight, gutters and downpipes are sound and drainage is sufficient. “I’d recommend installing a French drain to the perimeter of a traditional structure,” says Nicola. “This will reduce damp levels at the base of the wall. A leaking gutter over a long period can do terrible damage.”
3 Get informed about the best approach to older properties. There are a number of helpful booklets available to guide you published by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht along with the RIAI, spanning roofs to window repairs to energy efficiency and everything in between. They are available free to download at chg.gov.ie/heritage/heritage-publications/ or riai.ie. Pick up a copy of Irish Period Houses: A Conservation Guidance Manual by Frank Keohane, it’s excellent, while stonemason Pat McAfee’s books on Lime Works and Irish Stone Walls are a mine of information for dealing with traditional structures.
4 It is essential that materials used within a traditional building should maintain the breathability of the old fabric. Nicola recommends Ecological Building Systems — good for advice, products and assisting with specifications; ecologicalbuildingsystems.com
5 Commit to a regular maintenance programme to ensure the property is kept in best condition. A leak will never fix itself.