Sunday 19 November 2017

Upside of downpipes: A passion for old buildings

Emmeline Henderson has a passion for old buildings, so cast-iron downpipes and salvaged brick took precedence over soft furnishings during the renovation of her home. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin

Conservationist Emmeline Henderson in her living room. The floor is engineered oak, while the pictures on the wall behind her are screen prints by the late architect and painter Patrick Scott
Conservationist Emmeline Henderson in her living room. The floor is engineered oak, while the pictures on the wall behind her are screen prints by the late architect and painter Patrick Scott
An office connects the living room and kitchen. Emmeline bought the picture over the desk, which was designed by Tomas, at a student art show.
Cabinet maker Vincent Croke - who made the kitchen units - also made the wardrobes in the master bedroom.
Tomas designed the kitchen, including the units. He took his cue from the 1950s and used furniture-grade plywood with Formica coating
The shrubs in the sunny courtyard are blooming. “Tomas just threw a lot of plants like montbretia at it and they’ve flourished,” Emmeline notes.

Emmeline Henderson is a picture of nurturing motherhood in our photograph above, and she enjoys the role of mother so much that she is looking forward with great excitement to the arrival of her second child.

However, her passion in her professional life is about nurturing of a completely different kind - she's an architectural conservationist and, as such, is all about old buildings and their conservation - preserving the style, the design, the entire fabric. "I can't look at a building without analysing what kind of pointing it has, what kind of slates, and the downpipes," she says with a laugh.

Fortunately for Emmeline, her partner, Tomas, is a kindred spirit; they met 10 years ago at a lecture about vernacular buildings at Icomas, the International Council of Monuments and Sites.

"He was very dashing. I thought he was gorgeous; typical architecture glasses, mad curly hair, sharp suit - they're all good at dressing, these architects, aren't they?" the bubbly brunette recalls with a laugh. "We got chatting and I thought, 'God, he's great'. And then I found out he played the guitar and he surfed and he's from west Cork and I thought, 'He's the man for me'. I don't share his passion for traditional Irish music but we do share a passion for the sea and old buildings."

Emmeline's love for old buildings goes back to her childhood in Dun Laoghaire, to the lovely period home with all its original features that she grew up in. Her late father worked with Guinness Peat Aviation and was obsessed with planes, to the extent that in 1998, he took part in the recreation of a historic 20-hour plane journey - the first transpolar flight undertaken in 1928 from Alaska, across the Arctic to Norway. Her mother, Shirley, works in film as a props buyer and so is steeped 
in old buildings and furniture.

Another key influence was her brother, Arran. "I idolised my brother," Emmeline says. "He was five years older than me, he studied History of Art and he used to bring me around the National Gallery on tours, which he gave".

Emmeline also studied History of Art, in UCD, then went on to do a Master's in Palladianism in 18th-Century Irish Architecture.

"I know, it's a mouthful. Basically, it was about old buildings, and we were based in Newman House - the lovely historic building on Stephen's Green -and we had the wonderful Dr Christine Casey, who has written the definitive account of Dublin's architectural history. I realised while I love painting and sculpture, the built environment is where my passion lay."

Emmeline went on to do further study on the built environment, including a year-long course run by the Civic Trust, then she did another Master's, this time on Urban and Building Conservation. Since 2003, she's been working with the Irish Georgian Society as the conservation manager, with a remit to promote and protect Ireland's heritage. "My work is all about conservation best practice and education. Every year we do a traditional buildings' materials exhibition, we give grants and we organise lectures on the A-to-Z of looking after an old house."

It's almost needless to mention that when Emmeline and Tomas -who is an associate in the Grade 1 RIAI Conservation Accredited practice, Shaffrey Associates - decided to buy a house in 2007, a priority was that it should be old. However, proximity to the sea was also essential - and they managed to get a lovely red-brick ex-corporation house in Dun Laoghaire, which dates from 1922. "It's a trade-off," Emmeline says. "The garden is so small, that it's more like continental living - like living in an apartment - but we're so grateful to be near the sea, and the People's Park and the pier are wonderful."

Even though the house had been renovated in 1970, it had been done with materials they felt did not suit the age of the house, so major work was required.

"'When we moved in, there was nothing here. Everything had been taken out, aluminium windows had been put in. There was an aluminium front door, and a 1980s porch," she says. "We went about reinstating what historic character would have been here. There are only three or four houses that still have the original timber sash windows; Tomas did surveys of them and got the joiner Vincent Croke to make up windows to match".

They took down the porch and, to repair the scarring, they went to the trouble of getting matching salvaged brick. All the cast-iron downpipes were gone and the couple also reinstated them. "Most people would get a couch for the money we spent on things like that, but when I look at my cast-iron downpipes, I know they are doing a really good job and are appropriate. I would be very upset if the downpipes in my house were plastic," Emmeline says.

It's a double-fronted house, but it was only one room deep and the rooms were small and dark, so the couple decided to add a contemporary extension, designed by Tomas. The rear is east-west facing, but Tomas oriented it so the kitchen is south-facing, and he put in expanses of glass and skylights where possible. "I'm a bit of a light junkie," Emmeline admits.

Upstairs, the house has three bedrooms - the master, the guest room and a room for their daughter, Maud, who's nearly three - and an en suite. They put the main bathroom downstairs. They have two living rooms, which are linked to the kitchen by a small, light-filled office space. The couple even have their own name for it.

"Note to self, don't say, 'we call it the transition space', or we'll be the laughing stock of our friends," Emmeline says, laughing. "We are very pretentious; we call it the transition space."

Throughout the house, to maximize the light and to create a sense of space they've painted all the walls white. 
The flooring in the living room is engineered oak, while they opted for polished concrete in the transition space, the downstairs bathroom and 
the kitchen.

The concrete flooring is made to the exact same specifications as the ground around the pier in Dun Laoghaire. "Tomas works for Shaffreys and they were employed by the harbour company to resurface the pier in Dun Laoghaire. They went to a huge amount of trouble to try and get something that would be in keeping with the local character and they used a lot of shells and stuff like that," Emmeline explains.

So the passion for the sea shared by the couple even extends into the home. Emmeline admits that her passion stops short of surfing. "I'm a Forty Foot swimmer, but I'm no good at surfing; I'm a bit of a wimp. I tricked him at the beginning. I used to surf with him, then after a year I realised it was awfully difficult and unpleasant and I gave it up, and he feels cheated," she jokes.

With the arrival of child number two, at least she will have plenty of excuses not to.

For details of the Irish Georgian Society, the grant scheme and courses, see

Sunday Indo Life Magazine

Promoted Links

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Life