'There were holes in the roof... It was very damp' - Intrepid couple on their successful big house renovation in Dublin 6
There are certain qualities that people who take on big house renovations need to possess. Top of the list would have to be a certain mellowness - the ability not to be phased by problems that turn out to be worse than originally thought; a sense of humour when everything becomes horrific, as it inevitably does on such renovations; and a definite optimistic streak, which convinces them that all will, eventually, work out fine.
An optional extra is a sense of joy to carry one through such a project - the ability to be carried away with enthusiasm at the whole idea of what's happening.
Ed Coveney and Esther Gerrard have all of the above in spades. Not many people who take on a bit of a wreck, with tons of unknown pitfalls ahead, paint it in terms of an adventure, but that's what this intrepid pair say about the home they successfully renovated five years ago.
"There was a lot of rot and then, back in the day when it was being divided up into flats, the cornicing had been kicked out to make way for more pipes for bathrooms, and there were all these false ceilings. It was messy," says Ed. He adds enthusiastically, "On a more positive note, I did the strip-out, and it was like unwrapping a present, because all the treasures had been hidden. It was so exciting."
Their optimism and enthusiasm have been repaid a thousand fold, because not only did they get a lovely home, but they also opted to furnish it with furniture and lamps of their own design. These very items are now the basis of their recently established and increasingly successful business, Elements of Action. And, indeed, the house is a wonderful backdrop for their ideas and designs.
Both have separate, yet overlapping careers - Ed, who hails from Waterford, is a stonemason and a landscape architect. Tipperary woman Esther is a project manager on construction and a landscape architect - and now they have the furniture-design business, which is very much a joint affair. This suits them, as they like doing things together and have done since their schooldays.
"We met at boarding school, and we were very good friends there. We weren't going out at school, we got together when Esther came back from London. That was when the chemistry happened," says Ed with a smile. Esther explains that she did her primary degree in biology in London, before coming home to do a post-grad diploma in project management in the Smurfit Graduate Business School.
"Everyone was in the building trade in those days, so I did my post grad in construction and healthcare - the biology link - and I worked as a project manager in construction in the Mater," she says.
As Ed describes it, he fell into stonemasonry. "I always had a love for geology and stones, and I got a summer job doing conservation work in the Mourne Mountains with a guy I'd known for a long time, a family friend," he says. "It was just a summer job, but I enjoyed it, and went on and did an apprenticeship."
They worked at their respective jobs for some years, and then both decided to study landscape architecture in Writtle College in Essex, England.
"I decided I wanted to be more creative," says Esther, adding, "I was interested in the environment, urban design and city living, so I went back to college. In any case, it was 2010; there was no construction going on here."
Ed adds, "I got in on a portfolio - I had documented all my design work since school," he says. "We're a husband-and-wife team, we live and work together."
Writtle was Ed's first experience of college, and he loved it. "It was very different for me. I had barely switched on a computer before. I had used email, of course, but that was about it, so it was liberating and lovely, plenty of time to research and indulge in books. It was great," he says.
When they came back to Ireland, the work situation had changed, and there were plenty of garden-design jobs on offer. Quite soon after, they decided to look for a house - at this stage, they had their eldest son, Ruairi (six) who was born in Essex. He has since been joined by three-year old twins Rex and Axel, who arrived just before the renovation ended - so a somewhat fraught time.
The couple teamed up with Esther's brother and his husband, and decided to buy something that they could divide into several apartments. "We were looking at a lot of houses, but this house had something - it's like the house nearly finds you," says Ed. "It had an atmosphere, even though it was really wrecked. There were holes in the roof and pigeons flying around the place and pigeons' eggs everywhere. It was very damp. We dug a test hole in the basement, and it just filled up with water."
The house, which is in Dublin 6 and is early Georgian, had been a guest house since the early 1920s, though it had gone through different incarnations. "It had different names. At one stage it was called the Elvis House, and an Elvis impersonator used to stand in the window," says Esther with a smile. Ed says: "It had been empty since 2007, and it had a million bedrooms and en suites."
They got planning permission to turn the house into three apartments, and set about renovating it. There was a building outside which they stayed in while they did the work, though they then demolished it to give them more garden.
All the engineering work and roof were done by professionals. "At one stage, you could see from the basement to the sky," says Esther.
The work was more extensive than they originally thought - for example, they were able to salvage only a limited number of floorboards - but they weren't daunted, and they undertook to do some extremely painstaking work themselves.
"We worked in parallel with the builders, who were here for 12 months," says Esther. "We did a lot of the floors, and Ed did all the windows himself. He took every window back to the bare wood, every single pane of glass was taken out and put back in again. It virtually killed him, but every window is properly sealed now."
As they worked, they began to enjoy the house more and more, and it gradually dawned on them that they wanted to preserve as much of it as they could. "We wanted to give the house back its character," says Ed.
One of the things they resolved to do after stripping the walls of the many layers of wallpaper, was to keep the walls as they were, which means that they're not uniform; not all painted the same shade.
"We started off peeling off the wallpaper, and it was at that point that we came up with a decision to try to honour the house by keeping what we found underneath," says Ed.
Esther adds that not everyone seems to approve of their decision. "My sister is always asking, 'Are you going to paint the house?' Another friend said, 'It's such a good idea to not paint the house while the kids are small; a genius idea not to paint till they're older'. But that's not the plan at all," she laughs, adding, "It might not stay like this forever, but it interests us at the moment. There are a lot of textures, and once we paint it, they will be gone."
Ed and Esther's apartment consists of the ground floor - which has two lovely big rooms, full of light bouncing off the walls; the front of which is now the kitchen - and the garden level, which houses two bedrooms, an office, a utility area and two bathrooms.
There is a different vibe in each section. The ground floor has, as Ed says, "a touch of Henrietta Street" referring to the old house in the inner city which has been kept as it was in the 18th Century; while the garden level is very white and contemporary, with ultra-modern touches, such as poured-concrete floors.
They used a lot of marble throughout the house, having bought a lot in the North, and one of the bathrooms is fully covered in pink marble. "We had all this pink marble and we thought, 'What are we going to do with it?' Then we stayed in a hotel in Palm Springs and when we saw the bathroom, we both started laughing," says Esther. "It was covered in tiles the same colour as our pink marble, and we said, 'Why don't we do that with our marble?'"
Once they got the structural work done, they started thinking about designing furniture for the house, and together they came up with designs for dining, coffee, console and side tables, as well as lamps and mirrors.
"Our furniture is all about materiality, enjoying the materials and not over-complicating the design," says Ed. "Some, we co-designed. It's contemporary, it's not reproductions of an era, it has some elements of classicism and some deco elements." Esther adds: "And we like to build nature into our designs," pointing out the kitchen table made of spalted beech - the wood came from a friend's farm in Carlow. Fittingly, their range is called Elements of Action.
They are both full of praise for the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland, which has been tremendously supportive in helping them to set up their design business - Ed makes everything in his workshop behind the house.
They really love their home, and get tremendous joy from it. "The concept we wanted to create was a feeling that you're walking into a genuine house; it feels charming, but it's not perfect. The house is us. Everyone's house is an extension of themselves. If you don't like the house, what are you saying?" asks Ed with a laugh, confident that it doesn't matter, as they love it themselves.
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Living