City coachhouse conversion is a real winner

No 7 Belgrave Avenue in the heart of Cork’s St Luke’s is a model conversion sure to attract big interest, Tommy Barker reports

For house-hunters looking for something even marginally different, come up to St Luke’s Cross for a simple look-see

IT’S like visiting an old friend, sometimes and playing catch-up - when you revisit a house that impressed on first viewing.

And, it’s great too to see how some things, like some people, don’t seem to age at all.

That’s the case with 7 Belgrave Avenue, a mews or a coachhouse conversion in the old, strong-beating heart of Cork’s City’s St Luke’s.

As it comes up for sale in 2012, its designer, architect Greg Tisdell of Duff Tisdell; recalls of his early 1990s design “it caused quite a stir in Cork at the time, the fact that people were going to live in what had been a shed or a garage”.

Since then a few more of the old sandstone-faced sheds out the back of the grand houses which face onto Wellington Road/St Luke’s have also been done up and converted to residential use. However, it’s likely only one or two has since matched (and surpassed) the quality of what was done here, almost 20 years ago, before the Celtic Tiger roared, soared - and got floored.

It’s depressingly salutary to realise how very few Cork mews conversions followed in the successful train of 7 Belgrave Avenue — put it down to local conservatism and caution, most probably. Boring, too, to think how many houses have been built and sold in the intervening two decades, and how very few of them raised their design heads above the parapet in any fashion or form.

So, thank goodness for the arrival every now and then of stuff of quality which react to their site, and make themselves right at home for future generations.

For house-hunters looking for something even marginally different, come up to St Luke’s Cross and a ‘shed’ conversion for a simple look-see.

No 7 Belgrave Avenue is new to market with estate agent Hugh McPhillips of Marshs who gives the distinctive, airy and health-inducing home a €280,000 guide price, and who has had the first trickle of impressed viewers through its doors already.

With a pleasant, Bohemian charm, the private Belgrave Avenue is home to the backs of some big period houses and some smaller terraces of well-kept homes, a sort of random collection that keeps its counsel to itself thanks to its cul de sac status: until you go looking for it, you won’t realise it is there.

The couple who came across it back in the early 1990s were a UCC academic and his partner who had interior design credentials, and they saw past the old sandstone shed walls to what could be made of its terraced setting, elevated, with back south-facing and rich in river and city views.

So, this house — which was an early architectural commission for Greg Tisdell —worked to the site’s constraints, and its open back views.

Thus, its front facade gives nothing away, bar the hint of a quality build beyond (builder was Donal Vaughan, who started it just prior to Christmas 1994), which is suggested by the smooth painted render and painted Rationel windows, with a porthole window in the door. All of the facade glazing is finished in an opal or translucent film, to let light through, yet to ensure perfect privacy from within, where there’s nary a need for a net, a blind or a curtain.

The openings/window placements in the facade correspond to the opes left from the building’s previous use as a lock-up, with panes in a sort of inverted ‘U’ shape as the main window, with the outline picked up by two narrower first floor windows overhead. Meanwhile, the entrance door with its porthole window has tall side and overhead panes for soft, northerly light.

The supporting heads above all this house’s windows and doors are in galvanised box steel sections, working like RSJs, giving it all a sort of heads-up still-contemporary/pseudo industrial/post-shed look.

Flick around to the back of the house and there’s a lot more to look at, and into.

The architects added the two-storey, heavily glazed stairwell to the back wall of the former sandstone coachhouse, with its panes of clear glass set into steel-frame supports on the south and east walls, while the gable/interior wall by the stairs is perfect for display of over-size paintings and wall-hangings.

This stairwell floods the interior with light, drawing it back into the main open-plan living area, and giving a crow’s nest seating perch upstairs on the landing for sitting, reading, view-taking and watching ships come and go to the city centre and Port of Cork HQ.

The views from up here are over the rooftops of the long terraces of Wellington Road houses, giving suitably aloof glimpses of other people’s lives and yards/gardens, and with views then to the crooked spire of Trinity Presbyterian Church on Summerhill North, and beyond to the river Lee, the Clarion hotel, Cork City Hall and the Elysian’s apartments.

Inside No 7’s all is quiet and calm, with a minimum of fuss, with an emphasis on materials that will stand (and have clearly so far stood) the test of time.

The main living space is open plan, with light coming in from the north and especially the south’s atrium, and it has a kitchen off over the blocky island with separate pantry/utility off, perfect for storage and the noisier utilities.

The cooker is a black Stanley range, with black granite worktops either side, and the kitchen wall is in sandblasted glass, with a couple of simple oak shelves, one either side of the centre range’s flue. There’s a ceramic, Belfast-style sink to the right, by the south-facing back wall window, while for quick cooking there’s an electric hob on the beech-topped square island.

Past the island and back into the main living area there’s a cast iron stove set on slate by a narrow chimney breast, with space for shelving for books, CDs and DVDs to the sides.

From memory, previous or the very first owners had these walls fully shelved with expensive Vitsoe shelves and ware from Mimo: this house’s first owners later swapped their city sojourn for a rural idyll in West Waterford, and the next owner was a property investor who bought and sold a number of top Cork homes a decade or so ago. It’s current owner has had No 7 a number of years, and it has been used by various family members, as well as the occasional rental, and it’s a testament to the design that it shines up once more for every new occupant.

There’s enough white wall space for individuals to display art, sculpture and favoured possessions, and the kitchen’s accommodating enough for serious cooks, while still looking kinda cool even when it’s not being used for feeding the masses at a party gathering.

Flooring in the main 20’ by 15’ room is a beige marmoleum (or quality lino), and 20 years on, shows just why lino was ever popular: it can go on forever looking good, with just the occasion rubbing up with Mansion wax.

The stairwell is a separate, lofty space directly off to the south, with an inverted or almost butterfly mono-pitch roof sloping back to the main roof, and steps are open tread, in oak, with a steel balluster and oak handrail, all the essence of simplicity.

Back in the main upstairs, beyond the floating (oh, alright, steel-supported) curved seating balcony), are the two bedrooms, each en suite. The main 13’ by 11’ bedroom has an internal window to the south, has a dressing room and bathroom on its opposite flank, with slender north-facing opalescent windows — so all views out are of passing shadows, like something from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

The second, or guest en suite bedroom, has a small upright window with clear glass on its south side, set into the retained sandstone back wall, and flooring upstairs is simple limed white deal.

Back downstairs, there’s just enough space tucked away under the steps for a small seating/dining spot, also with Marmoleum floor, and then outdoors, past the elevated stair annex is a pleasant, private back garden, stepped down, and easy to maintain, with brick-ringed planting beds, mature screen of greenery including some bamboo, and with a central gravel bed. There’s so much shelter here, and with all the hard surfaces, one can imagine it being a real heat-trap and heat-soak on a sunny day.

Roll on the summer: No 7 impresses even on a winter’s day, and it’s good enough to imagine it selling swiftly enough given the sheer shortage of mews conversions of this quality in the southern city.

VERDICT: Testament to the benefits of good design: what could have been a humdrum conversion has been elevated to a higher plane.

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