A totally redone, inside-out job in Sunday’s Well house

New owners of elevated Sunday’s Well house opened it up within, instead of extending, says Tommy Barker.

A totally redone, inside-out job in Sunday’s Well house

WELCOME to the extension that never was — a house whose owners resisted the temptation to add on, and chose, instead, to work with, improve, and do an energy-efficiency update all in the one project.

In upping the quality and comfort levels, they reduced the number of ground-floor rooms, down from five to three, but, smart move,what a difference.

This was already a good, well-kept home, and it had been extended down the years, with a portion to the east that was 19th century, and the other half 20th century.

In fact, we featured this house in these pages, as a ‘Cover Story,’ when it was for sale at a sub-€600,000 two years ago.

Back then, it was being sold by a down-sizing owner, after her family had flown.

It had huge charm, great gardens (space for a tennis court on its lower tier), a superlative setting in Cork’s greater Sunday’s Well area, and was directly south-facing, to boot.

All it needed was upgrading: it now has got that, and more, right across every one of its 2,600 sq ft.

It’s extraordinary now going back and revisiting the ‘same, but utterly different’ house.

Two years ago, it was cosily presented and kept fully heated, presumably at a considerable cost, and there were rooms (such as a formal dining room) that no longer served a daily purpose.

Now, the house feels bigger (although it isn’t) — it’s far brighter, and is fresher in look and in air quality and is fit-for-purpose for its new, younger family-of-four occupants, who saw the modernising potential, and utilised the sensible principles of location, aspect, size and scope.

Furthermore, they quite sensibly lived in the house for a year before tackling any major changes, getting to know its quirks, its strong and weak points, where the sun and the light played at different times of the day, as well as the points that had the best of the views — which are extraordinary by day and more so by night, down over Sunday’s Well, the old gaol, the city and suburbs, UCC, the Mardyke, distant hills, the works.

The purchasers subsequently made contact with Tipperary-born, Cork-based architect, Paul McNally, working with him on renovations, plans and a brief to improve energy efficiency in a healthy, more open-plan home: the owners had plenty of ideas themselves as to what they wanted.

Apart at all from his design skills, and 14 years of working in Australia and Ireland, Paul McNally has an expertise in passive design and performance: he has an MSc in advanced energy and environmental studies: has Passiv Haus Institute accreditation, from Germany, and has a fully certified, passive-standard commercial building in Tipperary, a pharmacy, only the country’s third (after a Waterford Tesco store and an Iarnród Éireann station.)

The work here was done over six months in 2014, and involved stripping back the house to its bones, opening through compartmentalised rooms for a more open-plan layout, insulating the shell to exceptional levels, and then putting all the pieces back together again with a new functionality.

As the rear of the house backs onto a public road, these external walls were insulated internally, and the plan is to insulate the front, south-facing wall on the external facade, as it has just recently had its cloak of ivies and climbers stripped back.

On the Irish Examiner’s February revisit, it looks shorn, but it’s in a temporary or transitioning stage.

Particular attention was paid to the insulation lining of the old back wall, as superficial or standard upgrades merely involve walls slabbed with insulated plasterboard. This can lead to significant moisture and mould-forming problems where the two ‘skins’ meet.

“It’s critical, when insulating old buildings, to address the behaviour of water in the wall construction, and this is best done in consultation with the insulation supplier,” note architect Paul.

On this project, he and builder Finbarr Falvey (Grouville Developments) used Gutex Thermoroom, which is a wood-fibre insulation, a natural and breathable material “which works well with water vapour, when correctly installed,” says Paul of the 120mm insulating layer.

Advisor was Niall Crosson, of Ecological Building Systems, who did what Paul says was “an absolutely critical Wufi (dynamic condensation risk) analysis, and advised on the application of the system; the result is a robust construction, which allows the walls to continually dry-out over time”

As the work was all internal, no planning permission was needed, and the main, external visible changes were the windows, triple-glazed in alu-clad frames, certified to passive standards and supplied by Munster Joinery, and fitted to high air-tightness standards.

The existing roof was good and needed no intervention, bar 450mm of loft insulation and attention paid to wind-tightness at the eaves, to stop what’s called ‘thermal bypass’.

Key to day-to-day success, as a family home, is the reconfiguration of the living spaces, in particular, with walls removed for a full-depth penetration in the main section, where ceilings have an extra height.

And, where the ceiling height drops to a more standard depth, in what had been a separate reception, a sort of canopy extends as an inverted, floating imprint of the original room’s footprint, creating a space above for display of art, and acknowledging the height difference in a positive, creative way.

It’s the sort of extra touch an architect can bring to a problem, creating a positive feature from a possible negative.

Heat comes from central-heating sources, via some very stylish radiators, as well as from a wood-burning stove fitted into an old brick fireplace in the family living

space, and the owners went for a simplified, stripped-down finish palette, with smoked-oak flooring and matching, smoked-oak breakfast counter worktop teeing into grey-gloss units, from Kube Kitchens, in Cork.

The owners took a strong hand, too, in the interior design and look, sourcing much of the finishes, from bathrooms to kitchen, lighting, tiling and flooring, and paints are organic, or at least using healthy, low VOC (solvents) paints.

The result is cohesive and calm, and there are still lots of original house features left, too, from the hall ceiling’s wood-sheeting to the unusual bifurcated stairs, which serves the two upstairs ends of this very wide house.

The upgrade of the building’s fabric included the installation of a fresh-air circulation system, which also removes moisture, (this initially at least seems counter-intuitive, given the attention to air-tightness) and this has passive inlet/intake vents, while the extract function is mechanical.

On the day the Irish Examiner visited, mid-afternoon of a cool February day, and even though the heating had been off since 9am, the house felt comfortable, with superior air quality notable too.

Making sure the house’s structure stood up to the removal of walls and replacements with critical load-bearing RSJs was engineer, James Kelly, and he and the builder, Finbarr Falvey, worked to very detailed spec from architect Paul McNally, who did 23 pages of drawings and a specification document for the refurbishment — that’s a lot of design for a building that was not getting any additional floor area or elevations.

“We did that in order to ensure that as many issues as possible were foreseen and allowed-for. We did extensive opening-up works to study the existing structures and had asbestos and rot/damp surveys carried out by specialists,” Paul says, adding “this led to a relatively smooth construction process.”

The total cost of this job hasn’t been revealed, but a figure of €88 per square foot is indicated for the full renewal, and that appears pretty competitive, given that refurbs and upgrades often work out dearer per square foot than building from scratch.

They did find some unexpectedly rotten timbers in a bedroom’s floor joists, going into a gable wall, during demolition works, “but there were no significant surprises. The project came in on-budget, allowing for a few client changes on fittings and finishes,” adds McNally.

The job included reordering/reconfiguring bathrooms, and they’re done to a very high spec, while the house’s sheer amount of privacy and setting means little overlooking from neighbours, reducing the need for curtains or blinds. That means starry nights, with a light-studded city below, and rising daily with the sun, to the world beyond.

Now, the house feels bigger (it isn’t).

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