When we purchased our late 1960s semi-detached home, very little work had been done to the house in its lifetime.
The original condition of the house put off some other buyers, but my own project architect experience, together with the help of an excellent engineer, helped my wife Sophie and I to visualise its potential.
Ever before finalising the purchase, we had planned a design and I drew up an outline specification to work out what works would be required, such as rewiring, new heating, solar panels, refurbishing, and extending into the attic and to the rear of the house.
We used this to get an itemised budget from a quantity surveyor. This was essential, as it gave us a guide going forward and helped us determine which design ideas were wishful-thinking - and which areas we needed to prioritise.
It was also important to have a solid basis for our budget, to help convince the bank to give us a mortgage. After buying, we gave the house a quick spruce up, with some essential electrical and other upgrades, and moved in pretty much immediately after purchasing. We then took six months in residence to get to know the house, looking carefully at our real needs, and planning the budget and strategy for future works.
The final design saw us go into the attic with a bedroom, home office, and hot press, refurbish the first-floor bathroom and create an en suite with walk-in robe for ourselves.
Then on the ground floor, we planned to create a new utility room, bathroom, and extend out the back with a dining/sitting room extension and install a new kitchen.
However, due to school and work commitments we needed to be out of the house for the shortest possible time and so we decided to break up the works into two stages, doing the upper level works first, and then completing the ground floor and rear extension at a later time.
Doing upstairs first meant that we could meet our priority needs of having the extra bathroom and bedroom and also get the essential ‘messy’ work out of the way such as rewiring and replacing the heating.
With drawings and specifications prepared, we then went about getting the team together to carry out the work. From my architectural experience, I was able to draw on highly competent and professional builders, electricians, plumbers, and carpenters, who agreed on and succeeded in delivering on a tight budget and time schedule.
As a project architect, I was always able to respond to any queries promptly, and the team’s professional conduct was able to keep the project on schedule and, in the end, deliver below budget. We were very determined to get the best energy performance out of the refurbishment, which meant that we specified high levels of insulation to the fabric of the house.
This required a lot of thought and design to meet the new and stricter building regulations, but also to meet our tight budget requirements.
Going the extra yard to get the energy retrofit correct was rewarding when we saw the BER rating on the house go from an E1 to a B2 (a 68% reduction), but more importantly, we get great physical comfort and pleasure from being in a cosy house where we haven’t had to turn on the heating, or heat much water for showers because the solar panels provide you with a huge amount of free hot water, even in Irish weather.
We were able to avail of the SEAI’s Better Energy Homes grants as well as the new Energy Efficiency Incentive offered by Electric Ireland, which is a great benefit. There are also income tax credits available.
Apart from the obvious benefits, upgrading our house’s energy performance was important to me for professional reasons. Evan Finegan, my partner in Hiras Finegan Architecture (HFArch.ie) is currently completing a PhD in energy-optimal home design, whilst since moving back to Cork six years ago, I have been involved in the refurbishment of hundreds of private and local authority houses, both as an architect and energy consultant.
So providing low-energy housing combined with high quality design is a key business priority for us. We have been providing this energy consultancy service to personal clients as part of our other services for some time, but we also provide specialist energy advice to other architects and building industry professionals.
Architecturally, the house has turned out beyond our expectations. To begin with, we were very tight for space and budget, so a lot of thought went into the design to maximise our gain. The lovely full height stairs into the attic was created (at the expense of the old hot press and a corner of the bathroom) by putting a lot of thought into its details and the strategic placing of a roof light. We worked with our various trades and asked their advice, with great outcomes.
Simple elements, such as strategically placing larger than normal roof lights helped make the attic spaces feel light and spacious.
We also used fully receding sliding doors to separate the walk-through wardrobe from the bedroom and its en suite bathroom, maximising space, bringing daylight into the heart of the house.
In the bathrooms, we used large white tiles on the walls, with more intricate, mosaic-like tiles on the floor to create a sense of space and simple elegance.
By exploring the potential to build an extension of 40 square metres, the budget would have been in the region of €60,000 for a fully finished and fitted out extension - with no other works to the existing house.
Instead we have utilised the attic space, gained the 40 square metres and in addition have also been able to carry out the rewiring, replumbing, and installation of solar panels to the house within the same budget.
With any project, the greatest satisfaction is seeing the joy that it gives the users. The kids have plenty of space to grow, my wife and I have a great office in the attic to work from, (and to escape from the kids), and our private en suite and walkthrough robe has transformed our day-to-day comforts.
Finally, the living space with a highly efficient wood stove is the heart of our cosy (but spacious) home.
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