Home of the Year 2021 winner shares design secrets: Here's how to have a house like Jen's

Ask yourself how you actually live and not how you would like to live when creating your dream home, says Jen Sheahan
Home of the Year 2021 winner shares design secrets: Here's how to have a house like Jen's

Jen Sheahan at her home in Rathmines. Pictures and video: Moya Nolan

The ingenious design behind the 2021 Home of the Year intrigued the judges and viewers alike from the word go.

Jennifer (Jen) Sheahan, who received the trophy on Tuesday night’s RTÉ’s One show, completely renovated an artisan cottage in Dublin in what has been hailed as “a masterclass in tiny-house living” by longtime judge and architect Hugh Wallace.

 Jen Sheahan with her rescue dog Perry outside her house in Rathmines. 
Jen Sheahan with her rescue dog Perry outside her house in Rathmines. 

So, what can we learn? Just how did Jen fit so much into her renovated late-1800s property which has such a small footprint?

“People had so many questions about the design!” says Jen, a project manager, originally from Killaloe, Co Clare.

But the good news, she adds, is this type of dream home is attainable: “I saved and saved for years and years. It’s doable for the majority and I think that’s what resonates.” 


In January 2020 builder Jason Doyle “broke ground”.

The dream team behind the revamp also included Jen’s friend and interior designer Caroline Maguire, who lives nearby, and architect Denis Gilbert.

 Inside the hall door of Jen Sheahan's home.
Inside the hall door of Jen Sheahan's home.

The house needed a lot of work as it was damp, had no central heating and the toilet was outside. Jen did a complete renovation, knocked all internal walls, dug up the floor and lowered it, and added an extra floor to make it a two-storey house.


 Structure and layout were Jen’s starting points.

And this structure would include some of those wonderful storage features.

 The dining area with banquette seating.
The dining area with banquette seating.

As Jen says “not a square inch is wasted”, with storage built into walls and even beneath the eaves of the house.


Jen makes the classic point that if you create storage for the sake of it you will “fill it with stuff”.

“I really get a kick out of things that are dual usage or maximising space as much as possible — putting in these little storage areas and cubbyholes," she says.

 An ottoman with storage.
An ottoman with storage.

All the dining area seating has storage underneath, as does the couch/ottoman.

“There isn’t a square inch wasted in this house — we’ve made use of absolutely everything,” she says.

“I was really quite critical. I am not into clothes. I am not into shopping, so that freed up a bit of wardrobe space!" 


And this simple but key question sounds obvious but is crucial: “Ask yourself how you actually live, what you actually use and do — and not how you would like to live,” says Jen.

"You might want your hallway to look a certain way but then what if you’re fond of mucky sports and you have dog?" (Jen moved in to her home with her new buddy Perry, a rescue dog.) 

The same applies to other rooms including the kitchen. “I had pictures of what I thought would be my ideal kitchen and my kitchen consultant Dawn Guidera of Savvy Kitchens said not to do that. 

"Instead, she asked if I bake or fry more, and that’s how we thought things out,” says Jen (who is a keen baker).


Jen notes that the kitchen is the “focus” in every house.

“I really didn’t want to have an upper cabinet; it was a personal thing, I just don’t like overhead cabinets,” she says.

But this was a tall order in such a small area. Jen made up for the lost space with one big floor-to-ceiling wall cabinet with pocket doors: “I am so glad I did it: things I use are within reach, and I get out the stepladder to access things I don’t need every day — not everything has to be immediately accessible.” 


Many of Jen’s everyday items like cookware and crockery are on display.

“My pots and pans, glassware, and teacups, for instance  — it’s storage doubling up as display!” she says. “And….it sparks joy! I have all my nice things around me.” 

The dining and seating area also doubles up as storage space — including the banquette and ottoman.

“Cillian Finane of Finline Furniture a friend from college gave me the idea for the ottoman couch,” says Jen.

With banquette seating, she has more space than she would have with chairs, she says.

“And underneath there’s room for my Hoover and drill!” added Jen.

 The seating at the dining table.
The seating at the dining table.

“You lift the lids from the top, which means things are so much easier to access than if they were in a drawer.” 


Jen’s favourite spot, the private outdoor courtyard, features a foldaway table and vertical garden. “I love being out here; it makes me smile every time I see it,” she says.

Also sparking joy is the now-famous disco ball in Jen’s downstairs bathroom.

It’s what made her house groove into the spotlight and catch the eye of the series producers.

“Someone from ShinAwiL saw it on my Instagram page. I love Home of the Year — but never in my wildest dreams did I think my house would be on the show,” she says.

 The downstairs bathroom complete with a glitterball overhead light.
The downstairs bathroom complete with a glitterball overhead light.

The raspberry-coloured downstairs toilet is “a little gift of a room”, adds Jen.

“I really thought, this bathroom is a space you can go crazy in.” 


Some aspects of a build cannot be changed so make a list of your must-haves, says Jen.

“I wanted two bathrooms which was a tall order so my architect had to figure it out,” she says.

“You’ll need a list of priorities and a list of compromises.” 


The chimney converted into a source of light was a hit with viewers and judges.

“My architect Denis came up with that idea,” says Jen.

 The patio area with vertical planting and an array of mirrors.
The patio area with vertical planting and an array of mirrors.

“We were going to take the chimney away anyway and we had had a few thoughts about adding a skylight or porthole. Then Denis said, 'We already have a hole in the roof', so we made use of that."

Jason, the builder, thought of using glass internal doors, so the bathroom, beside the chimney, benefits from this light source.


 Lighting is a “powerful” way of transforming your space, Jen says, adding: “You’re halfway to decorating the house with nice lighting.” 

Many people leave it until the end, she notes, “but my architect advised me to think about it from the very start, so I did lots of lighting research.

“I got really obsessed with not having overhead lighting, it’s unflattering and makes everything look really shadowy.

“With diffused lighting, I feel everything looks better and again, this was tricky when I didn’t have a lot of space — I wanted to fit in nice wall lighting that didn’t jut out but was flush with the walls, and that was quite hard.” 

Jen conceded to one pendant light over the dining table (low wattage, of course!) and overhead lighting in the kitchen, bathroom and above her desk.


 Jen says she was lucky that her builder is also a talented joiner.

“I have really decent cubbyholes in both bathrooms, every last inch available is used in the house,” she says.

The view from the main living area.
The view from the main living area.

“We also made use of the crawlspace left under the eaves, which is now a handy storage point for paint cans and laundry.” 


And while colour is key to her playful interior style, only two of the rooms are painted in bold colours, she says, with most of the colour coming from accessories and accents in the other rooms.

“All the rest of the walls are a subtle Colourtrend warm grey,” she says.

 Jen Sheahan at her house in Rathmines.
Jen Sheahan at her house in Rathmines.


"I had not known before that I could have different colours inside and out on the front door and window frames. When the painter suggested it, I thought, isn’t that so clever! So, I went with navy on the outside and a warm mustard yellow inside.

"Likewise, the pocket doors on my kitchen cabinet have a pop of colour. I love it!”

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