Behind the scenes in The Great House Revival

Behind the scenes in The Great House Revival
Fiona Kelly, owner of the house featured in episode one of RTÉ’s ‘The Great House Revival’, with presenter Hugh Wallace.

With the housing crisis, renovating a run-down property is worth considering if you have the inclination, time, funds and a good team of contractors around you, writes Carol O’Callaghan

ISN’T there a similarity between horror movies and home improvement shows? Episode two of RTÉ’s The Great House Revival on Sunday night had me fretting about the owners, with no idea about the amount of money, effort and problems ahead converting damp and dingy farm buildings into a modern home with three kiddies in tow.

But like all good horror stories, someone survives to tell the tale and can even reward us for endurance viewing with a happy ending. Spectacularly so when it comes to Fiona Kelly from episode one who took on a Georgian behemoth in Dublin’s Phibsboro.

If you haven’t seen it, get on RTÉ Player and witness the house gutted to a shell where two walls have separated and daylight peeks through, on top of the discovery that the house actually had no foundations.

Described by Ireland’s elder statesman architect, Hugh Wallace, as methodical and unflappable, Fiona, a programme director in the financial services sector, turned out to be the woman for the job.

“I knew the area and liked the idea of restoring a house of that era,” she says, having just returned from time abroad working in Chile and Texas.

Paying €435,000 for it, she got the keys in July 2017. “I then found an architect and a contractor, and a quantity surveyor who came back to me with a huge number — €800,000, which was €300,000 over what I budgeted,” she says.

“I decided to get involved with The Great House Revival as I thought it would be interesting to document what’s going to happen and it might be a chance to negotiate better prices from contractors.”

Work took 18 months with the film crew and presenter Hugh Wallace visiting regularly. “Filming was fun,” Fiona says. “I didn’t meet Hugh until filming and we got on really well. He validated the ideas in my head.”

Faced with the house’s protected structure status, on the upside she benefited from the Living City Initiative which allowed her to do the work and achieve the standard she wanted, with tax breaks over the next 10 years. “I wasn’t surprised at the work on the roof or lack of foundations,” she says. “The biggest surprise was how structurally unsound it was, but I had the best time working on it. After Sunday’s airing people have said, I know you said it was derelict but……”

Happily, it wasn’t all bad news from this house which hid so much, including how big it looks from the street when it’s only one room deep.

Even though many original features were gone, Fiona discovered original fireplaces in the bedrooms.

The ground-floor living room is painted in darker tones for a cosy feel and features one of the fireplaces reclaimed from the bedrooms.
The ground-floor living room is painted in darker tones for a cosy feel and features one of the fireplaces reclaimed from the bedrooms.

“They were covered in layers of paint and thrown in the skip but I took them out and had a good look thinking they might be wood or cast-iron,” she says. “It was actually black limestone. I had them cleaned and they’re in the living room and dining room now.”

In the basement, a kitchen extension was added with two guest bedrooms. A dining room and living room are on the first floor and two more bedrooms above that.

The kitchen extension added to the basement overlooks a garden, while internally the exposed brick links it to the original structure.
The kitchen extension added to the basement overlooks a garden, while internally the exposed brick links it to the original structure.

Now it’s complete, what’s next?

“This is a house for life,” Fiona says. “I couldn’t see myself living anywhere else. There are houses in the city which are derelict but they’re not beyond repair. My advice is don’t be afraid to challenge your team. Don’t take no for an answer.”

Hugh Wallace agrees.

“Old houses hide their structural condition so Fiona was lucky to be within the Living City Initiative,” he says. “Cork has it too and it takes in places like Shandon.”

As for the finished product, he says, “For me the wall panels are the standout feature.”

Years of decorating is exposed on the staircase and framed by new plaster to create unique artworks which tells of the house’s history. The old wall décor adds to the unique style of the house.
Years of decorating is exposed on the staircase and framed by new plaster to create unique artworks which tells of the house’s history. The old wall décor adds to the unique style of the house.

Here he references seven weekends of diligent paint peeling by Fiona to reveal layers of old wall décor now framed by freshly plastered walls. “She’s been brave with colour inside,” says Hugh. “Outside her choice solidifies the building so it looks like it did when it was built.”

And his advice for someone tempted by this kind of project?

“When the contractor says no, it means he hasn’t done it before,” he says. “Do your own research and say this is how it’s done. If you are willing to put in the grunt work, doing big items yourself like buying windows, the money you can save is huge. Make sure you have time. You’ll think you’ll be in by Christmas but it will be the following Christmas.”

This is a house for life. There are houses in the city which are derelict but they’re not beyond repair. My advice? Don’t be afraid of a challenge

The Great House Revival, RTÉ One, Sundays at 9.30pm

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