What you need to know before renovating an old house

From small, often dilapidated buildings, great things can come in time, writes Kya deLongchamps
What you need to know before renovating an old house
Jon and Mary Crease

From small, often dilapidated buildings, great things can come in time, writes Kya deLongchamps

Living in the Bridgend area of Wales, Jon and Mary Crease were looking for a home with at least an acre of land in Mary’s former home place in Ireland for over 20 years.

The couple’s two-up, two-downcottage is set in verdant rolling hills near Pedlar’s Cross, Clonakilty and they are making valiant efforts in a sustainable, sympathetic restoration and extension.

Having trebled the footprint, they are six months from a house warming of their 100-year-old house.

“We spotted the listing for the property with Sherry Fitz O’Neill in Clonakilty during a jaunt,” says Mary.

“It had been uninhabited for some years, but ticked so many boxes, and on viewing we found ourselves willing to compromise on its honest shortcomings.”

Jon and Mary Crease’s cottage in Pedlar’s Cross, Clonakilty, Co Cork, which dates from around 1890-1919. A part L-standard extension can marry to a period building in a number of styles. Here the Creases have gone for a classic rural look. Corridors and halls can be used to form sensitive conjunctions.

These included tiny dimensions, a bowing front façade, failing windows and slates, no hot water, and simple foundation stones with a butted slate acting as primitive DPC.

“We know some, but not all of its history,” she says, as we sit propped on a honed limestone windowsill in what will be the master suite.

“It might be a former council cottage bought by relations of the former residents, the O’Leary’s, who at one time had nine boys in the house.

“The house was liveable and it’s surprisingly dry,” says Jon. “My job placed me on building sites regularly, and I had a working knowledge of CAD, so I felt confident about the design aspect of the house, working with an engineer.

“We were excited at the prospect of being fully involved in the restoration and build, and while not wanting to do absolutely everything, we’re happy to act as labourers for contractors and trades, and grateful to have more experienced eyes looking over our shoulders.”

The Creases are remarkably unafraid, both clad in overalls, dusted lightly in lime plaster, glowing with undimmed enthusiasm after two years of loving, gentle attention to their house. A cement mixer sits proudly in the kitchen. Jon has even taken a career break to give his full attention to the project.

So what have these first-timers taken on?

Mary considers for a moment: “Hmm — the installation of windows, roof carpentry; the metal stud partition walling; raking and repointing; heating; plumbing; insulation; and plastering with sustainable lime-based products.”

In terms of energy efficiency, it’s tailored to be a remarkably tight house, front to back. A top-range geothermal heating system, rooted in three 200m horizontal arrays serving a Daikin heat pump, and Kensa thermal store, will feed underfloor heating throughout the house and extension.

Mechanical heat recovery ventilation manages air quality and humidity in the new quarters, while true breathing walls manage it in the older dwelling.

Front wall and front facade of the old cottage. The Creases have retained the lovely original front rubble stone/render wall on the boundary with its signature piers and will use stone saved from a chimney and other salvaged stone, to further enhance their acre.

Photovoltaic panels on an outbuilding will take the edge off the cost of running this and an electric AGA, one of Mary’s firm stipulations to complement bespoke oak cabinetry by HQ Kitchens on Forge Hill in Cork.

There’s the added comfort of a multi-fuel stove with a back boiler for the crueller months, but I suspect this will be a largely a romantic addition. The rafters are stuffed with natural sheep wool combed together with a synthetic binder.

In the original part of the house, (kitchen downstairs, master above), cork/lime insulation sits beneath a coat of lime plaster textured with hemp, delivering a fully breathing wall.

“We both took courses in Ty-Mawr in Wales, to learn exactly how to install the Secil Argamassas lime products,” says Jon. “Two 20mm coats of EcoCork (lime/cork acting as the aggregate), are applied to the interior stonework which is first levelled with a consolidated lime mortar.

“This heat-retaining layering is then topped with two 6mm coats of lime/hemp plaster.”

Regarded by devotees as pleasant, almost meditative labour, it’s still hard work and requires patience to allow for adequate drying between coats and before finishing in suitable clay paint (the Creases are vouching for Earthborn). The finish in softy textured hemp is exquisitely warm to the touch.

Jon Crease demonstrates the toughness of the 1970s concrete render over the old cottage walls. The couple have decided to painstakingly remove, rake out and repoint their cottage. They are adopting an intelligent, wait and see approach to the wall’s ability to hold off rain ingress. Permeable lime plaster can address problems when and if, they do arise.

“The building regulations demanded we raise the eaves to 2.4m to use the upstairs of the original part of the house, so the roof came off for a new ridge beam.

“At one point we were reduced to the front wall and the gables. The original chimney, and taking out the back wall, provided all the stone we needed and more.”

Jon and Mary are taking the 1970s Portland cement off the stone of the old house. Render free, raked and re-pointed, will it really hold out the rain?

“I think so, like some other parts of the build, it’s a wait and see,” replies Jon calmly, his smile broadening as the wind cuts across the site.

Jon & Mary's Best Tip: Communication with your team is crucial to keep the project moving.

Toby Sachsenmaier and husband Steve Mathieson live on the border of the Burren near Ennistymon in North Clare.

Her enthusiasm and persistence is a reminder that a period cottage is never truly ‘done’. Toby acted as runner for skilled trades and lived on site.

Toby Sachsenmaier and husband Steve Mathieson’s home on the border of the Burren near Ennistymon in North Clare.

“In the early ’80s we had a somewhat miraculous opportunity to buy a derelict cottage,” says Toby.

“It had been empty for 10 years, providing shelter to generations of cows and sheep. We closed in ’84, and I spent a year here doing the bare minimum renovations to make it livable. I was young, naive, and had no experience even in house maintenance, let alone renovating.

“The most urgent needs were to do some repairs to the Liscannor flag roof, to replace and stabilise part of the gable that had a bulge in it, to install water; plumbing; power; and an electrical system for the house; replace the doors and windows; to put subfloors under the flags that were just laid over soil; to put in drainage; a septic tank, and to get a rudimentary kitchen and bathroom.

“Oh, and heat — it needed heat. I found an old Black Stanley #9 a farmer had in his barn near Kilfenora, brought it by tractor to the (then) local forge, and had a back-boiler put in.”

There is an outdoor fireplace in local stone, Liscannor flagstone patio, cottage-style planting, and curved dry-stone walling.

Toby was inundated with opinions: “I should close off the fireplaces, lower the 15’ kitchen ceiling, and put in ’80s-style PVC windows.

“I had an infamous showdown with the lads when they uncovered an unexpected large flag about six inches below the surface near the fireplace in the kitchen.

“When we lifted it we discovered a perfectly square hole about 30 inches deep — I learned that when there were house dances, that hole created reverberations so the dancers’ boots would sound louder.

“The tradesmen wanted to fill in the hole, to make a better subfloor and every night they filled it in with rubble, to fill with concrete in the morning. Every morning before they arrived, I had dug the rubble out. Needless to say, I won.

“I lived in the cottage while the work was going on, in a sleeping bag in the sleeping loft above. I had no transport, and often would walk the two miles to town to get nails and other supplies.

“I tried to use local material as much as possible, so the replacement flags for my floors and roof came from the same quarry in Doolin where the original flags were cut.

Pre-renovation shot, 1984, with everything to do, no former experience and braving out living in a semi-derelict home, a very young, single Toby (seen right here), begins her adventure in renovation. The Liscannor flagstone roof and an unstable gable were in need of serious attention.

“I designed teak windows and had them made at the (then) local joinery in Ennistymon. I used the local forge, and local suppliers.

“There is so much more information and expertise and materials available now. There are things I would do differently now — lime mortar, sash windows.

“You can only do what you know and have, at the time you do it.

“I later retrofitted double-glazing, insulated, put in UFH (so the floor and walls act as a giant radiator), a fairly luxurious bathroom with a walk-in shower, free-standing bath, handmade sink, retaining the fireplace and large window.

“I had a free-standing kitchen made, keeping a beat-up old butler’s sink I found in the garden, and replaced ceilings and some of the wooden features that had suffered over the years.

“I lowered the floor of the sleeping loft to make it big enough to walk around and use as an office in 2005.

The house as it is today showing mature gardens and outdoor cooking area.

“As much as I loved my cottage, it was still hard to live in because it was essentially floating in a sea of mud, in the middle of a farmstead. It was time to do some landscaping.

“My garden was designed by Sarah Casey, from Lisdoonvarna, and she and her husband Gabriel brought it to life in an amazing way.

“Two brothers from Leamaneh did my stonework including a beautiful curved walls and outdoor fireplace designed by Sarah.

“I’m starting to think about the next stage of the renovation, which will unavoidably entail an extension that will finally change the footprint of the original cottage.”

Toby’s Best Tip: Don’t over rely on experts. It’s your house. Sometimes they are flat-out wrong.

Dealing with old builds

Firstly, always try to respect the integrity of the building while identifying and tackling problems. Repair rather than restore where you can.

Made of dry, permeable materials, old buildings are not generally 100% dry. Rain drives into the walls, and the wind dries it out, while the rest evaporates indoors. Cottage walls constructed in fieldstones often have a quite rubbishy (clay) mortar and pull water up from the ground. A degree of acceptance is required and then minimise moisture getting into the building.

Improving ventilation indoors can help moisture to move out. Open the windows when the weather allows.

Your builder may encourage you to dry-line without a second thought. Clad in Kingspan the house will appear to be dry inside, but beneath, moisture is trapped in an old outer wall. Wet and dry rot caused by mould spores can follow.

New builds are all about isolating the weather outside — old houses need to breathe. There are ways to create a full or partially breathing wall.

In late 1877, William Morris & Phillip Webb, of the Arts & Crafts Movement, instigated the Anti-Scrape movement and their advice still stands. Rubble stone walls were never intended to be bare. Removing old lime renders and cement renders can lead to wind-driven, rain penetration, even with careful re-pointing.

Resist the temptation to take Portland cement or Roman/Parker cement off exterior walls if the render is in good condition. It’s almost impossible to remove cement cleanly from brick. There’s still the opportunity to use breathing cork board and lime plasters indoors to deal with humidity while leaving this impermeable layer intact.

Where you are putting renders back, lime slurries form an overcoat rather than a plastic mac’, letting the whole building breathe when finished with appropriate sustainable clay paint such as Earthborne. You can have your render analysed by an aggregate supplier.

Drainage outdoors can help to keep the base of old walls dry (often there are only rudimentary foundations). Changing ground levels where the house is below ground level and/or introducing French drains or permeable footing like gravel can all do their part. Retain garden walling and outbuildings.

Faced with some signs of wet/dry rot, slender rafters (typical in cottages) and a ripple in the ridge, your builder may want to start from scratch with a new ‘proper roof’. Most walls and roofs have settled to some degree, but are still safe. Have a conservation engineer examine the structure, as limited chemical treatment and minimal repair can often put it right. Just changing the depth of the eaves (adding soffits) or lifting the roof up can alter the delicate geometry of a 19th century roof.

Good conservation practice does not lie. Adding an extension? Consider going modern (there are many styles from bold contemporary to classic looks). A steel frame/ glazed link between old and new is popular in architectural circles because it is so legible, and does not disturb the authentic roof profile of the original building. Extending can retain the cottage’s traditional, pleasing volumes.

Last and not least, get an architect or a conservation engineer involved in your project. Whether it’s a site visit by the hour or a whole project contract, they will help you to protect your home’s integrity and your financial interests.


With many thanks to James Bourke, of www.jbarch.ie{/url} RESOURCES:Conservation architects: riai.ie.

Conservation engineers. Joint Register between the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE) and is administered by ICE, engineersireland.ie.

Grants including The Better Homes grants system (solar thermal, interior and exterior insulation, heat pumps and heating controls) seai.ie

Home Renovation Incentive Scheme, revenue.ie/en/property/home-renovation-incentive.

Windows: chg.gov.ie/app/uploads/2015/07/Windows-A-Guide-to-the-Repair-of-Historic-Windows-2007.pdf. Check your local council about heritage grants for the restoration and repair of historic structures, including for windows and outhouses. Funds run out fast, so get in early.

For further information try the other PDF guides from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht online at chg.gov.ie.

For the real highs and lows, lively banter and argument of real Irish cottage lovers online, try Cottageology: facebook.com/groups/126850602991162.

Lime products, clay paints etc: Stoneware Studios, Pilmore, Youghal, stonewarestudios.com. Round Tower Lime, Innishannon, roundtowerlime.com. https://www.secilargamassas.pt/

For other lime services, start online but look for references on finished projects.

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