Wednesday 18 September 2019

If you're looking for morespace, build out or build up

BUILD OUT: Want something more than a glass box? This innovative extension in Drumcondra doubled the size of a 1930s semi – and not a cliché in sight. Fran Power visits.

The extension twists away from the original house, adding space, shade, shelter and sun light
The extension twists away from the original house, adding space, shade, shelter and sun light
The design capitalises on the angles created by the site, and spills extra light throughout in clever ways
Front of house
The design spills extra light throughout the Drumcondra extension
Style is key to this Drumcondra extension
Drumcondra extension

Photos by Richard Hatch

When Vanessa O'Mahony and Ronan Ó Dúlaing were house hunting back in 2015, they had a very clear idea of what they were looking for. And top of the list was a place with a minimum of 2,200 square feet of floor space.

"They were quite analytical, they both work in tech and project management," says architect Gareth Brennan of Dublin-based firm Brennan Furlong, who viewed various properties with the couple before they bought. "They said they had been to see 'X' number of houses, and knew what worked and what didn't and how much space they needed."

That space needed to be able to accommodate four bedrooms, a play room, family area and a separate grown-up room, as well as downstairs WC, a large utility room, boot room, home office and plenty of storage for all the toys, sports gear, and other clutter that having four young girls involves. And as Vanessa hailed from Cork, they wanted enough bedrooms for her family to be able to stay too.

However, the 1930s semi that they eventually fell for in a quiet cul de sac in Drumcondra came to just 1,000 square feet - but it had acres of potential. Set at an angle on a wedge-shaped corner site with a large back garden, it had more than enough room for an extension that would tick off all the items on the couple's checklist, and double the size of the house into the bargain.

Making light of it

To some, the unusually-shaped site could have posed a problem. Added to that, the back garden was north-facing, an aspect that can be challenging in terms of bringing light indoors.

"It was a challenge to some extent," agrees Gareth, "but because the garden was so big we were able to overcome that. We always say that north-facing gardens aren't as bad as they are made out to be because they get westerly light later in the day and you tend to use your garden in the afternoons more."

Design for life

The solution to both issues turned out to also be its strongest design feature - an extension that twisted away from the front of the house to angle towards the light at the back. From the street, the house seems little bigger than its neighbours. The two-storey extension hugs the left side of the house from the front and wraps around the rear, stepped back in stages or accordion-like pleats that angle it towards the light, and create shade, shelter or capture sunlight.

"The form was going to be different to get the western light, it just evolved. The form was in response to the light," says Gareth.

The floor level was also dropped by 300cm, which meant that not only was there no need for steps - a plus for a household that has young children - but the building gained extra height and the roof could slant upwards on the west-facing side with room for clear openings that let in extra light.

All in the planning

For the architect, though, the main obstacle was not the design. "The biggest challenge was the planning," says Gareth. "We wanted to move the front door because it worked for the design of the house, but the planners were wary of that to say the least, so the compromise is that the original door is retained." The process took eight or nine months in total, adding precious time on to the build by Devine Construction.

But it produced an elegant compromise. Now, from the street, the original front door still seems to be the main entrance, but when you get closer, it is obvious that the main door is tucked away to the side in the new extension, while the old front door is now a window. Even though the exterior has been clad to improve its energy efficiency, the original Art Deco stonework door surround has been reproduced and so has the stone detailing so it is in keeping with other houses in the cul de sac.

House rules

Crucially, the change means that the new hallway is now a generous size and a series of ''working rooms'' designed to integrate much-needed storage - a boot room, WC and large utility room - have been added to the left of the hall. A new wooden staircase has been fitted, painted grey and walled off with glass, while a light well over the hallway keeps the space bright.

"A lot of the time what happens when you extend houses like this," says Gareth, "is that the scale of the original house seems pokey compared to the extension. And if it becomes pokey, it doesn't get used and just becomes abandoned and everyone migrates to the back of the house."

But Ronan and Vanessa were keen to use every inch of the house they bought as well as the space they intended to add. So the former hallway is now part of the front sitting room which is decked out with deep pile grey carpets, comfy velvet sofas and a big screen TV. It is most definitely the grown-ups' retreat.

Double pocket doors lead into a playroom which, in turn, opens on to a pretty triangular courtyard that serves two purposes - it brings natural light into the playroom and is the point at which the new house pivots towards the garden.

But the centrepiece of the refurbished house has to be the large kitchen/dining/living space that flares out to face the garden. "The question was how could we bring in the light and open up the views," says Gareth, "but not turn it into an amorphous glass box with no definition."

It has plenty of glass but is far from the cliché of the Celtic Tiger box. In fact, it's a wonderful space, with views in every direction. A large pivoting glass door leads out to a covered outdoor BBQ area to the right of the chimney breast, which is also where the family projector screens movies, while a second pivoting door leads off to the left and the wall alongside it is, for the most part, a sliding glass window.

Material gains

Concrete plays a big part in the interior - in the window seats that run along most of the windows and doubles as storage space and as a hardwearing material for the kitchen worktops. In fact, the couple visited Ballyroan Library with Gareth to check out the concrete panels used to such effect inside. Their own countertops and seating were hand mixed by Mike Ryan of Lyshna Design. "He makes amazing stuff," says Gareth.

The kitchen units are by McNally Kitchens and have an antique metal finish applied to a standard door. It is a clean industrial look balanced and softened by the pale, wide-plank oak flooring and warm blue chairs at the island and dining table.

Throughout the house, the palette is soft greys and the knocked-back shades of the pale wood floor or carpets. But there are bright splashes of colour - the bright yellow pocket doors, the deep orange pendant lights, the graffiti tiles in the bathroom, and Smarty coloured bean bags -that prevent the look being too sober.

The secret to a build that works from the front garden to the back wall? Ronan and Vanessa had huge input into the design, says Gareth, but also knew when to trust their team. "They assembled the team and they trusted the team."


The great outdoors

The garden was as central to the project as the house. “If you put in all this glass [into a house],” says Gareth, “and the focus is on bringing the garden in, you have to. It’s very disappointing if you’re standing looking out at a garden that is rubble.”

Vanessa and Ronan had definite ideas about what they wanted and with design input from Gareth, and garden know-how from Eoin Gibbons of The Constant Gardener, ‘‘the three-spoked wheel’’, as Gareth calls it, came up with a low maintenance space with clearly defined zones for play, rest, garden and storage.

There’s a grown-up play area in the sunniest southwest corner where a comfortable patio area is sunk into the ground. “That corner,” says Gareth, “is the real sun spot.”

Beside it sits the girls’ playground, a climbing frame and trampoline sunk into the ground, which, as a result, no longer needs netting sides. An ingenious idea. “It makes it much less intrusive,” says Gareth. “At the end of the day, Ronan and Vanessa have four daughters so this is a family garden. It has to work for kids, it’s not just an adult relaxation space.”

The garden is overlooked so they planted a row of pleached limes against the back wall which will soon provide a solid hedge. Garden tools, bikes and sports gear are stashed away in a block-built shed.

“People are starting to see their gardens as integral to the house,” comments Gareth. “They use their gardens much more actively and the use is much more defined than previously.”

Gareth Brennan’s guide to Making an extension work for you

Don’t double up - Look at what your house already has and don’t duplicate it. Make sure each room has a definite purpose or you will end up not using some rooms and won’t get maximum benefit.

Include the garden - Try and consider the house as holistically as possible. Your home stretches from the front garden to the back wall. The garden is intrinsic to the house, it has a real value and an important role to play in how your house performs for you.

Take inflation into account - From the outset, get as good advice as you can in terms of what your works will cost, and keep in mind that costs are rising by about 10pc or more year on year. If you get stuck in planning that will add 10pc to your budget, ie, if your budget is €300,000, delays will add €30,000 for the same works.

Invest in a smart team - A good team is crucial. Most extensions benefit from having a quantity surveyor, a structural engineer and an architect involved. And, while this is an increased cost, in the long run a good team may save you money in terms of making the right decisions.

Don’t rush to decide on design - Factor in enough time. It’s important to spend time considering your design because once it’s built, it’s built, and you’re not going to change it. The design process is intended to test ideas and see what works and what doesn’t because if you are spending a huge amount of money, you want to be sure you’re spending it in the right way.


BUILD UP: In a market where supply is tight, sometimes staying put is the best option. Anna Shelswell White reveals how to max your attic space

If you are dreaming of having more space but can't afford to fork out for a full-on extension, there's a cheaper alternative - an attic conversion. Revamping your attic brings a lot of pluses: it is kinder on the pocket, and quicker - the whole job shouldn't take longer than 12 days - as well as very effective.

Also, unlike an extension, an attic renovation shouldn't force you to rent temporary accommodation. Low-cost, speedy and less disruptive for the family. It's not hard to see why converting the attic is becoming popular in Irish homes.

Choose elegance with fabrics from Vanessa Arbuthnott
Choose elegance with fabrics from Vanessa Arbuthnott
Play with horizontal stripes in a child’s bedroom to create a trompe l’oeil effect (shown here by Farrow & Ball)
Highlight the eaves and gable walls in contrasting colours, shown here by Fleetwood, to bounce light and show off angles
Set off pitched roof with timber cladding, with cute cushions, throws and lampshade (
Niall Mulligan of Urban Architecture & Construction

"Due to the housing shortage in the last few years, there has been a big uptake in attic conversions," says David Mulcahy of Attic Masters (, a Shankill-based attic conversion company with many clients based in south Co Dublin.

"Many people are moving back in with their parents in order to save for a deposit. But, the main reason, in my experience, is that families are getting bigger. I've also noticed an increase in people converting their attics with an en suite to accommodate an au pair," Mulcahy says.

"Attic conversions can cost in the region of €850 per sqm," says Niall Mulligan of Urban Architecture + Construction (, a Dublin architectural company that specialises in commercial and residential projects from concept to completion. "The average cost for a simple attic conversion is around €25,000. This can increase to €45,000 if a dormer is introduced, along with an en suite," Mulligan adds. Of course, these figures would depend on the materials and finishes used, but this potential gold mine in terms of extra space could be the cheap and cheerful answer to your renovation prayer

Do you need planning?

If you're thinking of transforming your unused space into a bedroom, a home office, a den or a playroom, there are a number of things you need to get acquainted with before you start. Provided you don't need to change the exterior look of the roof, you could be exempt from planning permission. This is largely due to the fact that many attics in Irish homes don't have the height required to be defined as ''habitable accommodation''.

"The requirement for 'habitable accommodation' is that 50pc of the finished floor area is 2.4m (8ft) in height," says Mulcahy. "This does not take away from the fact that people routinely use the space," he says.

Many home owners add headspace by installing dormers, smaller roofed windows that jut out from the original design. This would change the exterior of the house, as well as add height that means it would now come under the label, ''habitable accommodation'', and you will need planning permission.

The same rule applies to the position of any new windows: "You will need permission to put Velux windows on the front and the side of your house - but not at the back," says Mulcahy.

What shape is your roof?

Once you're clear on whether you need planning permission or not, assessing your roof shape should be your next step. The overall form and profile of the roof will have a major bearing on whether the attic is suitable for a conversion.

"Ridge roofs, with gable-end walls, are easier to modify than hipped roofs. Usually, gable-end walls can support any new RSJs (rolled steel joists) that are required," says Mulcahy, who goes on to stress the importance of the correct RSJs. "The main reason for house sales falling through is problems associated with attics converted incorrectly - if they have undersized RSJ beams, for example."

Hiring a general builder to convert your attic and letting the work go ahead without the proper supervision of an engineer, is also where you can hit problems. "When selling a house, the lenders and purchasers will send an independent surveyor to inspect the conversion. If there is no structural certificate of compliance, the sale will not go through," Mulcahy advises.

Keep an eye on costs

With most home renovation projects, there's always the threat of surprise costs rearing their ugly heads - these can be a nightmare if you're keeping to a strict budget that has little, or no, wiggle room. There are three areas to be mindful of when it comes to keeping within budget and saving money in the long run - plans, insulation and learning about any grants/schemes you can apply for.

"With no plans drawn up, the costs will vary. If a homeowner has drawings prior to pricing and commencing, this will lead to an easier building phase," advises Mulligan. "Changes, during the project, can add a huge amount to the total costs. People may think plans are a waste of money, but getting them done will save them a lot in the grand scheme of things. An architect should always draw up the plans to be able to provide a more efficient layout."

Secondly, it's important not to skimp on insulation. For energy efficiency and cost-effectiveness, look to thermal insulation from companies such as Kingspan and Xtratherm, stresses Mulcahy. "Thermal insulation will have the single largest impact on reducing fuel costs year after year," he says, advising homeowners to avoid spray foam and fibreglass: "Spray foam can cause problems with condensation that can lead to dry rot. These materials don't meet the latest building regulations."

Thirdly, look into grant schemes. While your attic may not qualify as habitable accommodation - making it exempt from planning permission -that doesn't mean it is exempt from some grants and money-saving schemes. "Make sure your builder is VAT registered and has a tax clearance certificate," says Mulligan. "Homeowners can avail of a refund via the Home Renovation Incentive (HRI) through Revenue (," he adds.

"All of our work, since 2013, has been through the HRI. The work must be done by a qualified contractor," says Mulcahy. "The amount you can claim depends on the total cost of the work done, up to a maximum of €30,000, including VAT at 13.5pc," he says.

In addition, other grants are available through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), for items such as installing a new boiler or adding insulation.

Get an architect on board

As with any structural works, it's best to chat to a qualified architect (check on for one in your area), who is up to speed with all of the regulations - and do this well before you strike up a conversation with the builder.

"We have been told horror story after horror story about builders leaving people stranded, demanding more money or threatening them," admits Mulligan. "We have noticed that homeowners don't know where to go to find a good builder. People need to get references and view past projects of builders before they commit to anything."

Cheat with colour

According to Mulcahy, just 10pc of attics in Ireland, qualify as ''habitable accommodation'' due to height from floor to ceiling. With this in mind, get clever with paint when you reach the decorating stage.

The correct colours and combinations will ensure that smaller attics seem larger than they are.

Edel Nicholson, of Irish paint company Colourtrend (, has some advice: "A dark green or blue will create a feeling of height. Using a deep colour on the apex wall in an attic space won't dull the room. Contrast this richness with a soft greige for the rest of the walls and the space will be light and bright," Edel adds.

"I also recommend taking the paint finish into consideration when planning colour for attics. A soft sheen will help illuminate a dull room and bounce light around to further create that illusion of space," she says.

What we have overhead is often overlooked. Many Irish homes are blessed with nicely sized attic spaces and more homeowners are cottoning on to their potential. If you're squeezed for space but don't have the funds or space potential to extend, then seeing if your attic can play house might let you get some kip - literally.

Get the right advice, do your homework, and in less than a fortnight you could be blessed with an extra bedroom.

Your checklist

1 Do you need planning permission? - Some attic spaces won’t have enough floor to ceiling height to be defined as ‘habitable accommodation’, in this case, they will be classed as storage spaces. You can still convert these spaces, and provided you don’t change the exterior of the roof, you probably won’t need to seek planning permission.

2 Assess your roof’s shape - Do you have a hipped roof or a gabled roof? A hipped roof will have four sides that slide downwards to the floor. It will have no gables or vertical walls. A gabled roof will have four vertical walls that are topped with two sloping sides to create a triangular shaped canopy.

3 Draw up your plans - Hire an architect to draw up efficient plans that incorporate all your ideas. It’s important that they pinpoint where items will be located, such as the staircase, windows or en suite.

4 Shop around - Ask for testimonials and recommendations, from fellow renovators, before you commit to the first builder you meet. Make sure the company you choose is VAT registered and has a tax clearance certificate, so you can avail of the Home Renovation Incentive.

5 Think safety - Conversion companies, such as Attic Masters and Urban Architecture + Construction, will provide an engineer to assist the build and ensure any RSJs are inserted correctly.

6 Talk about money - With your plans drawn up, approach your builder and agree on a price estimate for all the works before beginning work.



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