Friday 24 May 2019

In ship shape - Selina Gittens on living in a barn

Selina Gittens in the kitchen of her renovated barn
Selina Gittens in the kitchen of her renovated barn
A shipping container was used to create an extension
Selina's bedroom
The interior of the shipping container

Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin.

When Selina Gittens had to move house, she decided a barn, up until then a shelter for cattle, would be ideal. Her solution to the need for extra space was even more novel.

We see shipping containers every day as they travel to and from our ports and, if we notice them at all, we see them as boring, even ugly, structures. But for those of us who are interested in houses, they warrant more than a passing glance; many of them have been transformed into fun, chic, even spectacular homes throughout  the world.

For many devotees, the attraction of the shipping container is that they're easily slipped into foundations, because they're designed to be supported by their four corners; they're sustainable, and, best of all for many people, they're a cheap alternative to building a house or extension. These were the reasons why furniture-restoring entrepreneur Selina Gittens decided to extend her home by using one to add a den to her house for her son.

At the beginning, the single mother of two was just looking for a shed for storage, then, on the internet, she discovered all these lovely homes, particularly in America, which had been made of shipping containers.

"My son, Joey, was getting bigger and I thought he needed some space of his own. The shipping-container idea appealed to me 'cause it's recycling and there's no building - they can literally be transported and it's there," she says simply.

Selina is not your typical home-owner; the main part of her house was originally a barn - cattle were living in it up to the time she took it over. However she's a resourceful, can-do kind of person; she has studied both art and furniture making, and recycling and upscaling old furniture is her business.

Recycling is almost a way of life with her and has been since her student days in Stratford-upon-Avon in England, where she grew up.

Selina's parents - her mother is Irish and her father was English - were big into horses and ran a yard, breaking and schooling show horses. Sadly, when Selina was 14, tragedy struck.

"My father died of a heart attack, riding at the Dublin Horse Show," she says. After his death, her mother returned to England, but Selina and her brother spent the rest of that summer with her relations in Borris. His death at the RDS was traumatic for Selina but, rather than turning her against Ireland, it and the time she spent with her relations made her want to come and live here. "It was very strange, but I always wanted to come back," she notes.

After school, she did a variety of jobs as well as doing a foundation course in art and studying furniture design, and when she met her husband, Harry Harris, they came to Ireland and set up home just outside Kilkenny.

Harry found work with Barnstorm as a set designer and Selina also did some set design and set painting. They bought a succession of little houses and did them up. Selina then did a degree in art at NCAD, just before her son Joey, now 18, was born. She and Harry, who separated four years ago, also have a daughter, Abby, 13. She wanted to be with the kids when they were small, so she couldn't take on a typical nine-to-five job. "I did lots of things, including working with a friend, painting people's houses, doing different paint effects. Then I got the idea of going to auctions, buying pieces of furniture, priming them and painting them with a base colour. I thought for an interior designer that could be an interesting idea - they'd have a unique piece of furniture and they could add whatever colour their clients might want," Selina says.

This worked for a time, then six years ago, with a friend, she got her own premises in the Discovery Park in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny; she now runs her business, Eclectic Interiors, on her own. She also discovered Annie Sloan furniture paints, which have made her work easier.

"Somebody told me about them and I thought they were too good to be true, but then I did the painting course with Annie Sloan in Oxford - which is part of the deal if you want to be a stockist," Selina explains. "They're great - the fact you don't have to prime or sand is huge, and I love the colours." In her showroom, there are some vibrant orange and pink pieces, as well as some others which are in more subdued olive and cream shades.

As well as still selling the recycled furniture, she does furniture-painting courses where people bring their own piece of furniture and she teaches them how to paint it. "In the morning, we do loads of paint on boards, trying out different techniques, dry brushing, antiquing, distressing, that sort of shabby-chic look, then in the afternoon they do their piece," she says.

Selina still picks up the pieces at local auctions. "It's amazing what you can still find," she notes. "Industrial stuff is trendy, so that's hard to get at a reasonable price. I look for pieces that are a nice shape - not too huge - that will benefit from being painted and will look stylish. Ikea is great, but not everyone wants their house to be the same as everyone else's - you need a few pieces to be unique."

Selina's own home deep in the Carlow countryside is certainly different.

Selina and her family used to live in a cottage in nearby Bilboa and, when an acre of land complete with derelict cottage and barn, owned by Coillte the forestry body, came up for sale eight years ago, the couple bought it, and did up the cottage for her mother. When she and Harry separated, Selina decided to renovate the barn and make it her home. She didn't regard it as a hardship; she enjoys the work and the location is idyllic. "There are gorgeous walks and I love being surrounded by trees," she says.

They had to cut down some of the trees to make the barn family friendly, and of course they had to do up the building completely; the only original stone wall is the wall behind the cooker in the kitchen. Fortunately, Selina's brother is a builder - he's a lime-plaster specialist who has worked on a lot of old buildings and he helped her enormously.

"We spent a lot of time organizing the space, deciding which ceilings to raise, which to lower, where to put windows," Selina notes.

The house now consists of two bedrooms accessed via a spiral staircase, a kitchen, bathroom and living room. They got planks from an old house in Goresbridge, Co Carlow and used them as wall panelling, as well as for the doors of the kitchen units.

The floors are made up of new tongue-and-groove boards and painted by Selina. The furnishings are, of course, mainly auction finds, but Selina even made one of the wardrobes with her own bare hands. Her ex-husband Harry helped her with some of the furnishings.

The whole effect is of a home which has been lived in for generations, which is how Selina likes it. And the shipping container, a more recent addition, has its own charm. Complete with French doors and a deck, it's a dream den for a teenage boy.

Selina says we Irish are becoming more and more interested in DIY, so don't be surprised if you see shipping-container homes springing up all over the country. Though few will be as interesting as Selina's.

Selina's autumn furniture-painting courses take place at her studio, Eclectic Interiors, in the Discovery Park, Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny. For dates, see eclecticinteriors.net

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