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Self-builds often mark certain milestones, such as starting a family, or in Annette Clancy’s case, entering retirement. These new beginnings are a great opportunity to express creativity – especially if your husband is an architect who is willing to co-ordinate a complete DIY fit-out! In a modern farmhouse along the coast of West Cork, no less…

When Annette Clancy planned to retire to Ireland, it was clear that it didn’t have to be in her husband’s native county of Tipperary. “We were open to any location on the island, and travelled quite a bit before discovering West Cork. We visited Ireland every two to three months from London for a week at a time, around Mayo and Galway, to take a break but also to do some site hunting,” she says. “In one year we made four or five trips and when we visited West Cork, we decided this was where we wanted to build. We found a small cottage to convert, agreed the sale, but then the price seemed to be going up €10,000 by the day! Then we found another home but it contained high alumina cement and we wouldn’t have been able to secure a mortgage on that as the cement attacks the reinforcing over time.” In 2003, they finally came across the right plot. “We found an old farmhouse which hadn’t been lived in for 10 years. The family who owned it lived nearby so negotiations weren’t difficult.”

From the very beginning, Annette relied on her husband Ed. While he managed the build, acting as architect, project manager and general taskmaster, she was, for all intents and purposes the client. “I designed this house for her,” says Ed. “She was a client I just happened to be married to!” His brief was to build a modern version of a farmhouse, and to install top of the range fixtures and fittings. “As a result of my past experience I decided to build a house from standard, readily available materials and spend the greater proportion of the build cost on internal finishes.” Ed is a chartered architect who has been involved in many house designs for private clients in the UK and in the Middle East. He also worked in Qatar in the late 1980s where he helped design a nationwide school system using inexpensive materials. “I drew on this experience to organise our own build,” says Ed. “I decided to put out to tender the shell, and core, and in order to save money, we took full responsibility for the fit-out, doing as much work as we could ourselves.” When they bought the farm in November 2004, there were five structures on site: the old farmhouse and two adjacent buildings – a roofless building previously used to keep cattle, which was dilapidated, and a stone outbuilding which was probably used as a chicken coop – plus a stable and a barn (milking shed) further afield.

Despite Ed’s efforts to retain as much as possible, the old farmhouse had to be demolished – if only to be rebuilt by incorporating the two nearby structures. “The house was very damp and really beyond salvaging. It also had no foundations, which is common for old buildings,” he says. “We tried living in it as a temporary solution, bringing in a fridge and cooker, but it was a bit like living in the middle ages!”

Ed’s plan for the main house, perhaps unsurprisingly, was greatly influenced by the rural Irish farmhouse. “The farm was built 150 years ago, and we used the same design principles. The old home only had one window on the north side – this was of course to keep the heat in and make the most of the sun to the south. As was the case 150 years ago, the location of our contemporary farmhouse basically dictated that the front elevation face south for the views, for light and for heat gains.”

The new home is now a third bigger than it originally was. “We built upon the footprint of the demolished farmhouse, so the design of the new building incorporated two dilapidated buildings as well as the majority of the old farmhouse,” says Ed. “The gap between two of the buildings was filled in to provide a balcony that provides views over the sea.” The site was slightly sloping so he had to build on that to link the two buildings. “We chose to build a split level house to follow the contours of the terrain. The living room is relatively small as a result, but it adds character, and it is well suited to our needs.”

Placing a strong emphasis on what could be referred to as the “vernacular” elements of the build, the planning application, which was made in August 2005, was relatively straightforward. “The Cork Design Guide, issued by the planning authorities, is an excellent document, providing examples of good and bad design principles in rural areas,” says Ed. “As the footprint of the new house generally followed that of the old farm buildings, planning was granted in November 2005 for the demolition of the existing farm house and its rebuilding, and for the conversion of the existing stables.”

Indeed, the first thing they did, in order to have a place to live on site, was to convert the stables into a studio. “Before construction started on the main build, we hired a local builder to raise the floor of the stable and put on a new roof so as to make it waterproof,” says Ed. Work on the stable began in October 2006 and finished in December 2006, which is when construction on the main build started. “We transferred the furniture and appliances from the farmhouse into the stable. During construction, I was living in the studio one week every month, commuting from London. It proved to be a useful space to store some materials too. As for the practicalities, we used a wheelbarrow to collect rainwater from a hole in the milking shed roof and this was our source of washing water. Drinking water was stored in a 10 gallon plastic tank filled by the local hotels!” The stables have solid stone walls four and half foot thick, and this space was ultimately converted from a site manager’s studio to an architect’s. “We now use the stable as an office,” says Ed.

Tender drawings were produced from January to May 2006 with Ed acting as the supervising architect and project manager. “My advice to others, especially in the financial climate of today, would be to produce a complete set of design documents and go to tender with at least four qualified contractors. If you have time to do some of the work yourself then finish the interior and purchase the finishes directly. This immediately saves at least 10% on all material costs as the contractor is not adding preliminary costs to these items. Labour savings will, of course, also be considerable.” While it’s often more difficult to follow your own advice than to give it, Ed did in this instance do just that. “A local builder won the tender for essentially a shell and core house, and the internal finishes were completed by me. This system saved considerable build costs as materials were sourced in England and Northern Ireland, where costs were lower and we gained on the exchange rate between euro and sterling.”

Ed issued the tender for the main build in June 2006. “We interviewed five or six contractors and only four were really suitable. Two of those by and large misunderstood the tender – they were asking for way too much and when I queried them about it they realised their mistake and blamed their quantity surveyor. I gave them a chance to amend their offer but I wasn’t convinced they really understood the build. People were very busy at the time, don’t forget this was at the height of the property boom!” Only one of the builders really fitted the bill. “He was on the ball from the beginning, and was upfront about costs and was very clear about his schedule. He told us he wouldn’t be able to supply the windows at a competitive price so we agreed that I would source them. The Irish glazers were dear at the time, so I looked at the UK and further afield and finally came across a Danish company which had a representative in Cork, and they really were able to offer excellent value. They halved the estimates we’d been given by the tenderers, and we paid just €24,000 for all of the glazing. These ‘like for like’ products were fitted by the glaziers, although our builder would have been willing to do it for us as part of the tender.”

At the time, Ed wasn’t quite convinced that renewable energies were up to scratch. “We installed an LPG tank in the garden to fuel our combi-boiler. For me that’s the most cost-effective and efficient means of heating the radiators and supplying the house with hot water because we get the water on demand. After all, storing hot water wastes energy!,” he says. “I tend to steer away from solar panels, not only because I think they can ruin the look of a home but because at the time I didn’t believe they could be more efficient than the combi-boiler. They would have made sense with a buffer tank, to pre-heat the water, but the combi-boiler heats the water instantly so there’s no tank. We have it on a timer.” Geothermal energy also failed to convince. “I have a neighbour who installed a ground source heat pump in his cottage, the equipment is quite voluminous, it takes up the equivalent of an average sized bathroom – space I couldn’t really spare in my home. I also thought it took too long to pay for itself. And with these technologies evolving so fast, I figured spare parts might be hard to come by. I might still install a wind turbine but I’ll wait for costs to come down.”

Indeed, Ed’s “green” agenda took a slightly different tack than what could be regarded as “bolt-ons” – instead, he focused on the building fabric and the services. “There was a well on site and we wanted to bring it back into use. As soon as we bought the home, we got the water tested to make sure it was ok. I sterilised a jam jar by boiling it and then took a sample and drove to Cork to get it analysed – the lab test needs to be done within three to four hours of collection!,” he says. “The well hadn’t been used in 10 years, and still the water was fine. We installed a pump but that was all we needed. Now we can switch to well water if there is a water cut off or if metering charges are introduced.”

Normally their water comes from the mains, which supplies them with drinking water. “We also have an external water tank as a back-up. In the recent freezing weather this was a good design decision as water tanks in the loft of nearby properties were subject to frost damage and many houses were flooded.”

“As we are next to a stream I considered a water treatment plant for the sewage, considering this would have enabled us to discharge the treated effluent into it. However the degree of purification required was quite onerous and would require extensive chemical treatment on a continuous basis. So I decided against this approach even though it would have saved considerably on digging costs.” In fact they opted for a standard sewage system; it’s handled by a septic tank and percolates into the three acres of land behind the existing milking shed on the site.

Ed was also keen to keep the site as unspoiled as possible. “During the construction phase I was insistent that all the existing mature trees be retained. Only one palm tree had to be removed to allow machinery onto the site.”

The home was built with blocks that boast very good insulative properties, another key eco-design feature. “We used aerated blocks, which are thermally efficient concrete blocks, nine inches deep. The builder laid them flat so as to double the wall thickness,” says Ed. “The walls alone were nearly sufficient to provide the required U-value but to be safe I included cavity insulation in the form of EPS board. The insulation only needed to be 12mm thick but we specified 50mm to further increase the U-values. The overall heat retention value of the walls greatly exceed the minimum requirements.” Ed retained the farmhouse charm by making sure the walls, at 530mm thick, would play their part through their thermal mass. “The splayed sides at the window openings increase light penetration so we didn’t compromise on brightness.”

As for the exterior appearance, the roof is standard slate. “I liked the idea of matching very high quality stone – we used Liscannor stone from the Cliffs of Moher – with a simple sand and cement render with a white paint finish. I thought if we put too much stone they would look fake, and the house not authentic. We also used the same stones to build the garden wall. After that, we used western red cedar cladding on the house and stable, but only in areas where it was structurally required.” The farmhouse conversion lasted a total of 13 months, including an extension of two months due to bad weather; it was handed over in January 2008.

For the next 18 months Ed, along with family and friends, completed the internal fit-out of the house and stable. “We only took on the very basic tasks. We had a plumber on call for any queries, he’s the one who installed our central heating system,” says Ed. “I’ve had years of experience in London doing up properties, doing general building work upgrading existing homes, which came in really handy when building our own.” They also left the electrical work to a qualified contractor, which is a legal requirement. “The internal lighting combines wall lights and ceiling downlights, mostly on dimmer switches as we found this more convenient to adjust to the light levels during the day – and throughout the seasons!”

Ed and his family fitted the floors, which are timber with a carpet finish in bedrooms, while exposed cherrywood flooring covers all of the living areas. “My wife was very involved with all the internal finishes and my niece and nephew came from England two or three times a year to help with the internal work and the conversion of the stable. We lived in the converted stable while working on the main house, then switched to the house to finish the stable.”

They fitted the bathrooms, which have travertine stone floor and wall finishes, and designed the layout of the kitchen themselves. “We got the fittings, cooker, fridge, etc., from England but the stove we found in a workshop in Cork that sells all sorts of antiques. It’s actually a ship stove from Holland, these are usually best used for baking bread or for slow cooking. The heat from it isn’t great to be honest, but we can get the kettle boiling!” They also chose salvaged teak furniture for the fit-out. “This comes from Malaysia and consists of reused old building and ship timbers. The nail and mortise joints are filled with teak and sanded to look as good as new!” In fact Ed and his wife not only bought repurposed furniture and fittings, they also hired some local talent to decorate their house. “I did some drawings of the view looking down the road to the house and asked a local artisan to make stained glass windows out of the design.” The stainless steel handrails and toughened glass balustrades were also sourced locally.

When asked if they would do it again, Annette and Ed say they don’t feel the urge. “There will be a planning application to demolish and rebuild the milking shed to provide garage space and storage. We may even install a wind turbine, as originally intended. But we’re going to get this build done turnkey!” Indeed, even though Ed will again act as lead designer, they’re not looking to get as involved as the last time around. “This design should be simpler to build, so we should be able to get a competitive quote when we go to tender,” says Ed. “In this instance, I may not be following my own advice of doing most of the fit-out myself, but there’s an exception to every rule!”

Site size: 3 acres
House size (including loft space): 330m2
Stable size: 70m2
Build cost (tendered work): €320,000
Cost of converting the stable into studio: €20,000
Cost of fit-out for both main build and stable: €135,000

BUILD SPEC

Build type: masonry (aerated concrete blocks), warm roof construction
U-values: The U-value for the external walls was 0.17W/m2K as compared to the building regulations’ maximum of 0.27W/m2K
Insulation: Expanded polystyrene (EPS) boards
Windows: Double-glazed, argon filled, timber frame; rooflights electrically operated

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About Astrid Madsen

Astrid Madsen is the editor of SelfBuild & Improve Your Home magazine. She previously held the same role in an Irish trade publication, before that she worked at the National Standards Authority of Ireland. She graduated with a BA in Urban Studies from Columbia University in New York and holds an MBA from the Instituto de Estudios Bursatiles in Madrid. France of origin, she now lives in Portarlington, County Laois, where she's taken on the task of renovating a listed building! Email astrid.madsen@selfbuild.ie

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