Wednesday 12 December 2018

This architect turned a dilapidated Victorian villa into a breathtaking home

How do you add an extension to a coastal Victorian villa but keep its charm intact? And how do you take on board planning restrictions and a north-facing aspect but still maximise the views? Nathalie Marquez Courtney finds out

BEACH BLISS: From the rear the impressive North County Dublin restoration and extension project is all modern.
BEACH BLISS: From the rear the impressive North County Dublin restoration and extension project is all modern.
But from the front is all Victorian.
Architect Gavin Wheatley in the kitchen where raising the floor level improved the view.
A modern staircase at the North County Dublin restoration and extension project undertaken by Gavin Wheatley and his team at Plus Architecture
Maximising the views

Photos: Marie-Louise Halpenny Portrait: Tony Gavin

When it comes to house projects - and maybe it holds true for life too - sometimes the very thing that seems a huge obstacle turns out to be an enormous plus, even the transforming feature of a building. In the right hands, a challenge or constraint - planning restrictions, for example, or the orientation of a building - can trigger really creative solutions.

This is certainly true of the impressive North County Dublin restoration and extension project undertaken by Gavin Wheatley and his team at Plus Architecture, who turned a dilapidated Victorian villa into a creatively extended contemporary family home - with breathtaking views out to sea.

"We were approached in 2015 by the client, who was relocating from Scotland with her family and whose sister lives in the area," recalls Gavin. The late Victorian villa was derelict, with rain-soaked internal walls, a leaking roof, collapsing floors and very few period features remaining. "It was about to be listed as a Protected Structure, so we had to treat it as one, even though it wasn't a particularly fine example; it was enlisted more because of its age than anything else," says Gavin.

Many would have viewed it as a costly and off-putting challenge, but the homeowner saw serious potential - the back of the house faced onto a beach, offering striking views over shifting sand dunes, Ireland's Eye and Lambay Island.

The team set about brainstorming how to create an extension that would make the most of the scenery and the light. "In a way, having the existing building as a limiting factor there was something good to push against, to give us a starting point," says Gavin.

The result is a dramatic contrast between the two eras, the elegant Victorian entrance hall, complete with a cast-iron stove, giving way to a dramatic modern extension. The sloped, undulating Siberian larch-clad extension wraps around and 'hugs' the old villa in a soft, organic way.

"The shape of the new parts of the house were inspired by sand dunes, and how much the surrounding landscape shifts and changes," says Gavin. "By using a contemporary feeling in the detailing and materials, you get this beautiful contrast between the new and old."

Modern family

At the start of the project, the homeowner invited Gavin to visit her original house to observe how her family lived and how space was used. This was crucial to a lot of the design decisions, and meant the project reflects how the family really likes to live.

For example, though the extension is roomy and contemporary, Gavin and the team avoided just creating one big, open plan space, choosing instead to have separate kitchen, dining and living areas, so that the different family members, from teenagers to parents, have their own space as needed.

"It's important to build your house around what you actually do and what you think your kids are going to be doing," advises Gavin.

Creative constraints

Building an extension to make the most of the breathtaking sea views meant it would need to face north, which was another challenge for the team, who wanted it to be bright and airy.

"We had to wrestle with that," recalls Gavin. "On the one hand, you would be looking out onto these sunshine-soaked views, but be in the shade."

The solution? A series of cleverly positioned roof-lights and high-level windows that draw in light at different angles throughout the day. Each living space was positioned to make the most desirable source of natural light: the central open-plan area gives way to a kitchen to the east-west, which catches the morning light, while a separate living room across the way basks in afternoon and evening light.

Upstairs, two bedrooms benefit from easterly morning light, not to mention beautiful sea views.

A fresh complication arose when the local council required that any new elements be built over 4m above sea level, even though the existing house was just 3m above that level.

"Initially we were a bit put off by that, and thought it was going to be challenging to have all that [level] change within the ground floor," says Gavin. But the team was able to leverage this into an opportunity. "The more we thought about it and modelled it up, it actually made a lot of sense because it lifted the ground floor of the new extension, which allowed for direct views over the dunes. Something which we thought originally might be a challenge actually turned out to be a fantastic bonus for the project."

The large glass walls frame the now unrestricted sea views, adding to the sense of space and openness.

Period piece

The villa itself needed to be completely upgraded and re-insulated. The team removed the first floor over the hall, opening up the reception room and creating a striking entrance hall that still holds true to the property's original style. "We wanted to introduce a 'spacial' drama that wasn't there before," explains Gavin.

As soon as you open the front door, you can see straight through the house to the sand dunes at the back, a bold touch that draws you in and pulls you towards the modern back extension.

Picture rails and other original details were restored, and soft colours that were both Victorian in style, yet modern, were used.

"We wanted to make it feel like a restored Victorian house, not completely contemporary, so that you had that contrast as you move to the extension," says Gavin. The exposed stone of the original back wall was left to highlight the difference in the age of the house as you move from one space to the next.

Opposites attract

Gavin is a big believer that "whatever you do should be of its time", meaning the team leaned into the contrast between old and new in a big way. The new extension is unapologetically modern, both in design and materials.

It features dramatic tall ceilings, polished concrete floors, granite worktops and custom-built white-stained shelving.

The hues used are muted and quiet, the greys and whites inspired by the exposed rear wall of the Victorian villa.

"I'm really pleased that we achieved the same calm palette throughout," says Gavin. He credits the homeowner - who has an engineering background and even built her own 3D model of the house - with how polished and consistent the finished space is.

"I can't say enough about how much work she put into it, she was so attentive to detail," he says. "She really pushed us to get the right results and find solutions, and she found a lot of solutions herself."

  • For more on this architectural project, and other design stories, check out the latest issue of 'house + design', published by the RIAI, the Royal Institute for Architects in Ireland, out now, €4.75.

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