Restoration – without the dramas

Older properties can be charming, full of character and period detail and often built along generous lines with more elegant proportions than many a new build. Furthermore, in today’s over-priced property market, a buyer aiming to trade-up can pick up a relative bargain if they are prepared to invest time and energy in a renovation.

But modernising an old house so it keeps its original charm – and doesn’t bankrupt you in the process – can be a challenge.

That was the task that faced architect Gareth Brennan of Brennan Furlong when he was commissioned to upgrade and extend an Edwardian house in Malahide village.

The original owners had downsized to a new build in their half-acre garden, giving their daughter, her husband and their four children the opportunity to revamp the former family home.

“I didn’t want to change it dramatically,” says the new owner. “There was a fondness for it and my parents were nearby, so we weren’t going to come in with the wrecking ball.”

Gareth has been involved in many a period restoration, so staying true to the logic of the old house suited him too.

“The Georgians were obsessed with uniformity and symmetry,” points out Gareth, “but the Edwardians and Victorians were self-made people and wanted to display their wealth. Their buildings became more unique, more asymmetrical. They say, this is what I’ve made. They want to differentiate themselves from the guy next door.”

In Malahide, for example, the front door sat to the side of the house with the reception rooms facing front and foremost and you moved sideways through the house. “That was how you presented your face to the world,” says Brennan.

“Social ritual involved bringing people into the drawing room for a drink, then moving to the other front room for dinner with all the food appearing as if by magic from somewhere beyond in the smaller spaces.”

It’s all very different from the big, open plan kitchen/living/dining rooms of a modern family home.

“It is important to understand where the logic of their layout came from,” he maintains, “and not try to impose that logic on the new areas or, conversely, superimpose our current way of thinking on a historic layout, particularly if you are introducing an extension.”

Adding 21st Century touches

However, while the owners wanted to be sensitive to the history of the house, they also wanted to update the basics.

“The house was in need of modernisation,” says Gareth. “The fabric, the bones were a 100-plus years old and the heating and plumbing had come to the end of their life. The owners were looking for a more family-friendly space – the kitchen needed to be a command centre so that the owner could see in all directions to supervise homework.”

The fact that the owner had grown up in the property was a huge advantage. “We knew the house very well,” she says. “We knew what would work and what wouldn’t work. We needed an extra bedroom – the little ones had been sharing. The house had to work for a family, it had to have storage, it had to be bright, and the rooms needed specific functions. We didn’t want to add extra space without using what we had first.”

Knitting the house into the garden was also important. The owner had inherited a beautiful, well-tended and much-loved garden from her mother and the site was surrounded by mature trees which they wanted to preserve. They wanted to be able to enjoy the view from the house, as well as sit out in a patio and courtyard space. And they wanted a planting scheme that would encourage biodiversity and work year round.

The design solution

Although the house dated back to 1912, it wasn’t listed, and so the owners and Gareth were free to reimagine the space.

The design solution he came up with was to add two brick-clad cubes to the rear of the house. They replaced a previous extension and opened up a new larger kitchen/dining space and a study up to the garden, gaving extra ceiling height and pumping light in. The kitchen became the hub with a large island – the “command centre”- and huge glass windows that seem to run into the garden.

The extra bedroom was added above the second cube, making it into a two-storey extension – and was clad in black Accoya timber – while all the working rooms, including a boot room, gym (which, says the owner, stole half her utility room), the utility room, and guest WC were grouped to the north side of the house where the ceiling height was lower and there was less light.

Upstairs, new en suites were added and all the rooms were internally insulated, which involved taking the walls back to the brick, before insulating, re-plastering and replacing picture rails and other period details, as well as upgrading the windows.

At the rear of the house, two concrete ring beams frame the separate cubes, and the concrete theme is picked up internally as a polished floor and bench, and repeated as power-floated concrete panels in the landscaped areas.

The pale brick is also exposed inside on the walls of the dining area and living room. Other recurring materials are vertical ‘fins’ of oak used as room dividers or decorative motifs, while the ceilings in the extension have exposed white-painted boards.

Where old meets new

One of the trickiest parts of a period refurb is marrying the old and the new. The two parts should feel like one house, says Gareth, not like you’ve lashed two styles discordantly together. They should complement each other.

In this project, Gareth used a number of techniques to achieve that. First, he matched the ceiling height in the extension to those in the original reception rooms so that they complemented rather than supplanted each other.

Next, he chose materials that would link the old and new. The windows and doors of the original house were upgraded and painted white throughout but maintained in period style. In the newer parts, Fitzpatrick and Henry, a firm of joiners, created modern windows and doors, again in Accoya timber, which were painted black.

The crossover point from old to new occurred in the dining room. “You had a period dining room except for one contemporary glass-framed black door. That is your first glimpse of a contemporary element in a period house,” says Gareth.

In some period refurbs, the original house can become “a glorified corridor” you use to get to your extension, warns Gareth. “The original house needs to be as comfortable to spend time in as the fully insulated, building compliant extension. So it is important to look at how you can bring the fabric up to meet the new fabric in terms of comfort.” This means upgrading insulation, airtightness, heating systems, underfloor heating.

But he points out that making the upgrade needs to be sensitively done. For example, if you’re insulating interior walls, cornices and skirtings will need to be replaced, and you can lose up to 100mm of wall space.

In Malahide, for example, the floorboards were lifted and up to four feet of underfloor space was filled to exclude draughts and install underfloor heating. All of these changes need to be carefully weighed up for their impact on the character of the house.

Bringing the outdoors in

Gareth worked with Eoin Gibbons of the Constant Gardener to integrate the hard landscaping with the house design. They created a patio area with granite slabs and a water feature to the side of the house, which links round to a second seating area to the rear, and is fringed with beds of perennials, shrubs and mature trees. Four acers that were planted when each of the owner’s children were born have been transplanted to Malahide. Happily, they have taken well.

The project took just under two years from the initial contact with Brennan Furlong to the owners unpacking their belongings.

“What I like,” says Gareth, “is that when you go up the road, you only get a hint that there is something else going on with the house. There is the black box set back from the front door. And then around the other side, the concrete courtyard ring beam that frames the living area. Neither of them is over assertive.”

For the owner, it’s a more emotional response. “It just felt like I had come home from the first weekend we woke up here.”

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