When a farmhouses or cottage becomes detached from its acreage, the complex of buildings that once served the house and farm is imperiled.
The cart-house, a privy, a place for wood, peat and feed, a B&B for a pig or two, stalls for the horses and cows — these shelters are often stripped of their relevance and eventually their roofs.
Walls fall, and what might have been a useful haggard (enclosed small yard) is also lost in time.
Traditional builds were generally carried out by the home owners using inherited skills with local field stone and available materials.
Rough but straight boughs of trees could be used as rafters, a few salvaged bricks set in as a decorative arch.
Standards certainly varied and vulpine design ingenuity is everywhere.
Buildings could be slipped into the fall of an awkward plot (the gable door to the loft delivered at ground level), windows left as slits for ventilation, the size deliberately modest, with fodder saved overhead.
Anna Meenan, is Traditional Farm Buildings Grant Scheme Project Manager with the Heritage Council. She argues passionately for the retention of even simple utilitarian buildings.
“Outbuildings and houses and parks — all these things are a physical manifestation of how your community developed and what makes one community different from another.
“They don’t build them like that any more and they never will — and once it’s gone the character of that community changes, that landscape changes.”
Sound outbuildings, overlooked for their heritage value are often cheerfully cleared away during a rough renovation or new build.
Coach-houses, stabling and bothies bolted onto fine Georgian piles tend to fare better.
With impressive cut and dressed stone, detailed with quoin corners and voussoir arches, rising to two stories and detailed to a courtyard — they have more show than semi-agricultural clusters around a middling sort of house.
Listing prescribes what can and should happen to more important Irish buildings and their demesnes.
More recently the GLAS grant payment limited to qualifying working farms, and handled by the Heritage Council (replacing a REPS scheme), has promoted the repair to conservations standard of period agricultural buildings still in use.
Right up into the 1950s, every home outside of a town centre was a self sufficient plot, many husbanding animals and growing at least enough food for the household.
During the Emergency, many diminutive piggeries and hen houses were built behind family homes.
In 1948, the Farm Buildings Scheme gave farmers assistance in constructing byres, sheds, barns and poultry houses.
The late folklorist, Kevin Danaher, is well known in academic circles for his recording of yard design and the diversity of rural buildings.
Danaher identified a range of patterns including the ‘courtyard farmstead’ a configuration of really one storey buildings in rough dressed stone and compacted clay floors, reaching back to the moated, defensive settlements of medieval times.
Many pretty 18th and 19th century courtyards with cart-houses, stables, and old iron framed sheds imported from Britain a century ago, survive throughout the country.
They appear confined to the small print with period cottages and farmhouse sales, the original fields they served, sheared off through generational changes. Sometimes the house itself has become a derelict ruin or a semi-agricultural building itself.
A shady, stone building to the north of the house may signal a dairy.
New builds in old styles look oddly bald without this pleasing variety in volumes ranged around a yard.
Anna Meenan, sees these outwardly unimportant buildings as part of the “hidden messages of the land and its people.” She
refers to ”‘the character, the sites, the smells”.
“Think of the time and money that they took to build. They were built to last, built as a statement that this was their property and it was going to be their children’s property their grandchildren’s property,” she says.
"The survival of these structures is propelled by an emotional response as much as by economic, environmental or heritage concerns, Meenan contends.
Henry Thompson, founder of the Old Builders’ Company now in Ballinalsoe, Co Galway, is a general contractor and conservation specialist.
He has carried out decades of challenging projects from modest cottages to landmark cathedrals, and his firm has a particular fame for their expertise with lime mortars.
He argues in favour of a fuller conversation by home owners bent on gentrifying outbuildings.
"These buildings are actually very much my favourite, especially when they retain the bits and bobs that were part of an active farm.
"While it’s nice to make use of these structures in new ways, I would be more a fan of retaining them as barns and sheds, rather than converting them.
“In reality the more primitive ones don’t make good living quarters. A fine coach house or stable block will indeed make a nice house or studio, but a cow shed looks great the way it is.
"Try just stabilising the masonry, keeping a simple corrugated iron or slate roof.
"Corrugated iron is not everyone’s favourite, but they [the roofs] have been around for over a 100 years and are part of the vernacular landscape.
“In order to make the more primitive buildings habitable, unfortunately one often has to make changes and repairs that will often reduce the ‘bocketyness’ that gives them their charm.
Conservation work is of course so much more expensive than new build.
“The argument I make is that you’ll spend far more restoring the shed than building a new studio, better perhaps to keep the charming shed as a shed and build a new building for the granny or paint brushes, she can then look after your chickens, back in the shed.”
Where owners do elect to convert a building to a habitable condition, even for day time use— dry lining is the go-to solution in Ireland, but often not the best answer for a formerly ‘breathing’ structure where lime traditional plasters and paints can cope with moisture exchange with easy grace.
Without vapour permeability and inevitably leaving entombed gaps where condensation can collect, it’s a dubious answer.
“It’s quite extraordinary that some professionals still recommend dry-lining,” Henry Thompson adds with a wry laugh, “I certainly spend a lot of time ripping it out of cold damp smelly houses and outbuildings.
"Our hemp-lime is not so much boards, as more a plaster. Its great stuff, though one needs to be very careful one deals with the source of the damp in the first place, unfortunately some people get the impression it cures damp.”
Anna adds that the ingress of water is the enemy.
“My mentor, the late Richard Oram, gave me one simple but profound piece of advice — “keep the water out!”
Two principle areas that need attention and are common to outbuildings are the roof and drainage.
Keep the water out and away. If you look after these two the building will serve you well.”
The satisfying honesty of the materials excites Anna and she points out another original role for these structures, as a protective adjunct to the homestead.
“I think the beauty of these buildings is a lot down to the materials they are built of, natural materials in the main gathered from the surrounding fields and locality.
"That and the ensuing patina of age brings a harmony that is hard to quantify, but oh so beautiful.
“On a very practical level if you see their layout whether it’s a country house with attendant outbuildings or a small vernacular group, the outbuildings often serve as a shelter belt to it.”
Sometimes time and well-meant enthusiasm can be the enemy of old buildings — presumptions and rush to change are a danger too.
“I used to works as a Conservation Officer,” reveals Anna.
“When I met the new owners of a protected structure I always asked that they, if they could, wait for 6 months before submitting any plans or proposals.
“Live in the house, walk the garden or grounds, get the feel of the place, the buildings first. It usually saved time and money in the long run.
"For protected and unprotected structures, another very current argument holds true.
“No matter how inefficient it is, you think of all the energy that it took to build an old shed, and all the energy that it takes to demolish and take it to landfill and rebuild you’re not going to save energy in the long run.”
There is a prevailing thought in architectural conservation, Anna Meenan concludes — “the greenest building is the one that already exists”.
Henry Thompson: www.oldbuilders.com
The Heritage Council (including GLAS grant applications): www.heritagecouncil.ie
· Consult your local authority conservation officer for advice on the repair of ‘listed’ farm buildings and any grant aid available for such work. A list of all officers nationwide is available at www.heritagecouncil.ie
· Continue to use old farm buildings where possible. Look into GLAS funding if your buildings are still in agricultural use.
· Avoid ‘gutting’ old buildings agricultural or domestic, as this erases much of their historic value
· Carefully site new buildings so as to avoid damaging an old yard
· When repairing old farm buildings, like for like should apply. Therefore similar materials to those used historically should be employed. These include stone, lime plaster and lime mortar, clay/mud, thatch, stone slates or flags, corrugated iron (round profile). Use a knowledgably contractor familiar with these materials.
· Retain old roof structures – these are all too easily lost during re-roofing
· Retain old windows and doors
· Protect buildings from fire by ensuring that electrical installation is to modern standards
· Keep all stone walls in good repair, using stone similar to that in the wall if it needs to be repaired, and lime mortar with flush or recessed finish.
· On older buildings, it is generally not a good idea to use cement-based mortar or render to repair or plug gaps in old walls
· Retain cobbled floors and yard surfaces where these survive
· Maintain and repair old timber and iron gates along with their piers and flanking walls
· Use traditional colour schemes and roof forms to help new buildings fit more easily into the overall complex of house and buildings·
Keep corrugated iron roofs and claddings in good order by painting with appropriate paints
From Henry Thompson: Structurally, lime mortared buildings are very robust and can deal with a lot of leaning and cracking.
If people have concerns about the structural integrity of their lime walls it’s important that they are looked at by a conservation expert rather than a standard engineer.
Repairs and stabilisation must be done using correct masonry techniques- outside the expertise of a masons used to building with Portland cement.
Steel outbuildings may stand without the appeal of a stone, brick or a fully-rendered shed, but as a material it’s quicker and cheaper than block and capable of delivering a fully insulated office, garden room, crisp garage or secure storage facility in jig time.
Look for condensation protected panels, and budget for a 4ft to 6ft deep concrete pad onto which the frame of the building will be set, and a poured floor installed after your shed is erected.
Try Steel Tech for buildings of 6mx3m from €2,350 (excluding installation, pad, electrics etc). www.steeltechsheds.ie
Wood is mainly used for tables and cabins and from animal housing to fully detailed studios, gyms and guest accommodation. It has a natural synchronicity to the garden.
It does come with some maintenance demands, but with a good quality of frame, you can choose anything you like from a rustic logs, to highly contemporary vertical smooth planed boards.
If you’re looking for the new trend in American-style barns for your gee-gees or car collection — try Horseworld Stables based in Bansha, Co Tipperary.
Oak frames are the top of the tree, but for longevity and an investment in a habitable building well worth investigation. Heritage Oak Frames in the UK is unsurpassed for design choices.
For a total alternative, pod-shaped dwellings, like upturned boats set in the landscape, resonate right back to the Dark Ages in stone hermetical buildings.
Wood pods have a pleasing line, and tailored for sleeping and storage are popular with eco-voyagers. if you are considering a self catering glamping enterprise.
A pod suited to two adults and two small children starts at €8,625 plus Vat and delivery from David Griffin at Pods Ireland, www.podsireland.com
Shepherd huts on wheels are a relatively new idea, and useful if you like the idea of moving your garden fantasy around.
Prices from €7,750 for a finished 3mx1.8m hut with iron wheels, www.irishsheperdhuts.com