Should you remodel your new home or knock it?

Builder Kieran McCarthy on the tricky question of whether to rebuild or renovate?
Should you remodel your new home or knock it?

It’s really a personal decision where you weigh up your affection for the old house against the allure of a shiny new living space. Picture: iStock

Hi Kieran,
My partner and I are looking at buying an old dormer bungalow. It doesn’t really have any character to speak of. We reckon it was built in the early 90’s and we feel that in truth there isn’t much we would really keep, apart from the front living room which has a nice fireplace and seems a good size. Otherwise the rooms are either too big or too small and it seems there is a load of space wasted. We have a generous building budget so my question is; should we seek to renovate and remodel the existing house or to knock and rebuild?

Regards,
Mike & Maura, West Cork

Dear Mike & Maura

Thanks for your excellent question which I get asked quite a lot and is a tricky one to answer. I once heard from a client that he asked an architect this question and they were told that if you are even considering this (and if you have the budget for a new build) then you should knock the house and rebuild. In truth, I feel the answer runs a little deeper than that, and it really depends on the back story, let me explain.

First of all, if yours is a period house (old Irish cottage, arts and crafts city-dwelling, Victorian townhouse, Georgian country manor) then it’s a definite renovation project where you are looking to connect with the history and style of the era and in many cases what you add (if anything) will likely be very sympathetic to the original. In fact, this may very well be the reason you bought the house in the first place.

Beyond the mid 20th century there was less classical and traditional influence in Irish house design as house-building techniques developed.
Beyond the mid 20th century there was less classical and traditional influence in Irish house design as house-building techniques developed.

Beyond the mid 20th century there was less classical and traditional influence in Irish house design as house building techniques developed. As the use of concrete blocks and a range of synthetic (though more cost effective) building finishes took hold, mass house building became possible and, though houses became more widely available to a growing post-famine and wartime population, we began to let go of the character of the 19th century and early 20th century eras.

Today of course houses are very different again. For a start, they are often designed by architects who design from the inside out (not the outside in as was the way historically). So you get a living space designed around you, your living requirements and your lifestyle. Typically an architect will seek to appoint suitable spaces for living, work (a growing requirement of late), utility, storage, bathrooms, plant, sleeping and circulation.

They will review your site in terms of access to morning, afternoon and evening daylight and orientate your house to best align with these in your living and primary bedroom spaces.

Where there is a scenic view, that needs to be considered. Finally, everything is neatly wrapped up and injected with the elusive element of spatial flow.

Kieran McCarthy: 'Building a new house will likely cost more as you will have a demolition to budget for.'
Kieran McCarthy: 'Building a new house will likely cost more as you will have a demolition to budget for.'

Next, a house being built today must conform with the NZeb Building Regulations so your house will likely be an A2. This means that not only will much careful consideration have been given to the spatial layout of your house but careful attention will have been given to the building fabric in terms of u-value, thermal bridging, airtightness, orientation, heating systems and ventilation. This aspect of a house is further improved about every three-four years as building regulations are reviewed and improved. In many ways this continuous improvement path is similar to how electric cars are now beginning to take over from the gas guzzlers of old.

As you compare how houses are designed and constructed today with respect to houses of old you may very well weigh up the merits of your existing house.

In truth building a new house will likely cost more (as you will have a demolition to budget for) and will take longer but you will end up with a brand new A2 Rated house (substantial renovations are generally targeted at a minimum of B2). Your new house will be designed exactly around your needs, without compromise, and as everything will be brand new, you will be in a stronger position from a warranty and maintenance perspective.

So, build or renovate? It’s really a personal decision where you weigh up your affection for the old house, either in terms of a personal or historical perspective, versus the allure of a shiny new living space.

It’s a little like coming back from a long holiday and looking into your wardrobe.

Do you long to don that trustee ensemble, or do you order a skip and head for the high street? There’s no right or wrong answer here, it’s a matter of your appetite for change.

  • Civil engineer Kieran McCarthy is founder, and design and build director with KMC Homes. He is a co-presenter of the RTÉ show Cheap Irish Houses.

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