Small is beautiful as architect owner opts for simplicity

WHEN architect Emmet Scanlon bought his 1930s Dublin house, its vendor, Maureen Bolger, wistfully said: “I presume you’ll come in and knock everything down and build a big extension.”

If, and when, she returns for a look-see at the recently finished make-over at her old family home of decades past, she may be favourably surprised: she might even feel at home.

Extension mania gripped us during the boom, and, even now, despite the building slump, still holds sway. Magazines are devoted to extensions.

Enter Emmet the architect, and his proud boast of “the best extension never built.” Note, that’s NEVER. Unusually, he’s a pro who didn’t do the ‘Grand Design’ thing in his own backyard, who knew when enough was enough, and that was 1,500 sq ft, plenty for two people.

Emmet and his partner, Philip, a painter, bought this Sandymount semi-d in 2002, when property values were rising exponentially. At the time, Emmet — who’s from Cork — worked for award-wining Grafton Architects on major commercial schemes, and even small-tier design practices were routinely adding on ‘mother-ship’ extensions to modest homes.

Emmet, who heads up CAST Architecture, in Dublin, and Philip deliberated over what to do. They looked at trading-up options, extensions, did models and sketches — and then did very little, just enough “to open the house to itself. We wanted to do the minimum, for maximum gain, to make it suitable for contemporary living, for our needs. We didn’t need more space, we just needed the existing space to work better,” Emmet says. Thus, the best extension that never was.

Changes were made, but modestly, understated, in keeping with the house’s heritage, even though Emmet says 1930s architecture is an under-appreciated style. The house — which, in its 65 years, had only been lived in by one family — had distinctive features, including ceiling coving, tiled fireplaces, a bread oven, old Bakelite electrical switches, and service bells to the scullery.

Key to its retained architectural integrity was the decision to replace the original, steel windows with modern replicas, made by the same UK company that made the originals, Crittall. Philip had tried to preserve the old frames, painting and stripping them, but the house’s proximity to the sea meant they were shot.

The replacements are true to the period, but have the additional benefit of being double-glazed. Notably, though, Emmet and Philip’s house is the only one on the street to now have steel windows; every other house has them replaced with alternative materials.

Money wasn’t needlessly squandered: when a neighbour threw out their old front gates, the lads commandeered them and they now hang in pride of place at number 36, painted a muted grey to match the refashioned double garage doors, the front door, the rainwater goods, and, yes, the windows. It all looks rather cool, in a timeless, timepiece sort of way.

Out the back is where changes are most evident, though. The dividing wall between the rear dining room and the mid-section breakfast room, off the narrow kitchen annexe, was taken down, and the newly-created opening was framed in oak board by builders John Keogh and PJ O’Shea, of Carlow-based Smart Build, distinguishing the new intervention and material from what is original to the room.

Because the opening doesn’t stretch all the way to the ceiling, each space retains a sense of being a room, but light flows through and the space is made more social and useful. The changes make for long, diagonal views and fluid internal connections, as Emmet says. They include an oak-and-glass screen that draws the eye through back rooms to the sunny, south-east aspect back garden — another triumph of gentle reworking, complete with cedar-framed glasshouse.

Ground-floor windows/French doors at the back are done in cedar, treated on the inside with Osmo oil, but left to weather naturally outside, where all will eventually turn to soft shades of grey, as will new decking linking across the back, to the long, narrow kitchen annexe.

Almost anyone else would have flattened this and started again. Not so here. The annexe — just about 6’ wide — has been insulated (externally, to save precious inches of space inside) and the exterior is wrapped in warm-looking, vertical cedar boarding.

Inside, the entire room — walls and ceiling — is lined in panels of birch ply, and the timber-boxed window sills are extra deep, thanks to the external insulation add-on. Joiner Brendan Kavanagh did all the kitchen work.

The only extra space in the make-over was garnered by upgrading a side passage, which the previous owner had roofed over with polycarbonate: it meant there was now space for an improved ‘wet-room’ ground-floor bathroom, giving the house more flexibility for life-long occupation.

The upper-floor bathroom was upgraded, insulation standards overall were increased, especially in the attic (where there is still future extension potential) and heating and wiring were improved.

Floors were replaced with quality oak boards. In all, about €150,000 was invested in making the house relevant for a new generation of occupants, but this doesn’t include a €30,000 further spend on the Crittall steel windows — the reinstated eyes of the house.

Emmet says that “there was also that pressure, culturally, about whether to work on the house or to move to a bigger one. It was actually very liberating to decide to stay and work with it, it is a great place in which to live.”

Maureen Bolger would, one suspects, agree.

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