How Leonie and Jonathan Kennedy survived their major renovation project, all the while living in their house and preparing for their wedding.
In this article, Leonie and Jonathan share how they went about their modern renovation and extension project, including:
- House hunting tips and where to get design inspiration for a modern renovation
- Reasons for redesigning the floor plans
- Details of rewiring and new pump for better water pressure
- Grant application for insulation with details of pumping the cavity walls with EPS beads
- Choice of wood burning stove and keeping the boiler
- New triple glazed windows with integrated vents
- Planning application process and need for new septic tank
- Tender process and choosing the right builder
- How to live on site during the renovation and build, including relying on a portaloo
- Structural issues unearthed and how they were dealt with
- Snag list and working with the builder
House size before: 103 sqm
House size after: 154 sqm
Plot size: 1.3 acres
Floor finish on 75mm screed on 150mm PIR insulation on concrete subfloor; U-value 0.132W/sqmK. Walls 350mm concrete block cavity work; rendered externally and plastered internally with 140mm full fill PIR insulation, U-value 0.142 W/sqmK. Pitched roof 150mm rafter depth fully filled with rock wool plus 62mm overall thickness insulated plasterboard (roof battened & counter battened); U-value 0.145 W/sqmK. Flat roof warm roof construction comprising 100mm PIR Insulation on 150mm rafter depth fully filled with rock wool, skimmed plasterboard, U-value 0.110 W/sqmK.
News windows and doors
Triple glazed uPVC in custom grey (RAL 7015); sliding door units timber aluclad triple glazed. Overall U-value on both 0.7 W/sqmK.
“When we were house hunting, our priority was for it to be conveniently located, near my hometown but also not too far from work,” says Leonie. “It took a while to find the right house, but we eventually did in 2016.”
“I work nights, doing shift work, and I need to be able to sleep during the day,” adds Jonathan. “So we were looking for a country house in a quiet area. Leonie was responsible for finding house; she has a good eye. She did the viewings with her mum and for this house she said I should come have a look so I knew it was a find.”
“I liked the house because of its orientation, with the living and kitchen areas south facing, and it had a mature garden,” says Leonie. “It had been architecturally designed in 1999 and the rooms are well proportioned, with vaulted ceilings. It was just different from other houses we’d visited.”
“Even though the inside was dated, there was plenty of potential and we bought it with a view of doing it up,” says Jonathan.
Leonie adds: “For inspiration we turned to a massive amount of magazines, and because we lived in a nice house in Co Wexford, we copied a lot of the design ideas for the kitchen we had there, such as the butler’s pantry and drawers at the island. From visiting people’s houses we took ideas with us too; my sister built her own home 10 years ago and she was a great resource.”
Living in the house
“We knew we would have to live in it for a while to make sure we were clear about what we wanted,” continues Leonie. “And after two months we decided to approach a local architect.”
“My sister had seen Mark’s website, it had a comprehensive list of all aspects of building a one-off house and he’s based up the road from us. We hired him for the design and to inspect the build. He also signed off on the stage payments for the bank, but we did the project management ourselves.”
“Mark redesigned the downstairs and there are only two rooms we didn’t touch: a bedroom and a sitting room, which meant we could live in the house while renovating.”
“We wanted an extra bedroom, walk in wardrobe, ensuite. Also a big kitchen extension, and a porch to act as a buffer because the hallway is so narrow.”
“There was an ensuite and small bathroom next to each other, which didn’t make sense because both were too small to be practical, so we merged them together. We worked on the drawings with Mark until we found a design we were happy with.”
“Living in the house we realised the showers weren’t strong enough so we wanted to add a pump for the entire house, we got 3bar pressure,” adds Jonathan.
“We also upgraded the electricity when the kitchen was done with new wiring, we changed all the windows, they were teak and leaking, double glazed and never looked after, draughty with some mould problems too.”
“We put in double glazing in the south facing kitchen for example but the bedrooms and north facing rooms are all triple glazed. The sliding timber aluclad doors are double glazed because we were afraid the triple glazed version would be too heavy to slide.”
“We got a grant for the insulation work; we pumped EPS beads in the cavity walls and the attic was reinsulated as well as all of the pipework to reduce heat losses. The central heating system was oil with radiators and the boiler was ok; we moved it closer to the radiators to reduce the pipe runs, again to reduce heat loss.”
“Because there is so much glazing we get residual heat, which is a treat in winter. And the wood burning stove is so comfy, we love using it, complemented by the two radiators.
“There used to be a stove with back boiler which we replaced with a regular stove to ensure it would heat the large space in the kitchen.”
“We considered a mechanical ventilation system but never heard back from the companies we contacted for a quotation and, as time was of the essence, we simply chose to have vents in the windows,” says Leonie.
“Because of the size of the extension we had to get planning permission which stipulated we had to get a new septic tank installed,” says Leonie. “Apart from that there were no issues.”
The build started in November 2017 and finished mid-July 2018. “For the building phase we got a contractor in; neither of us know anybody in the trades. Mark put the tender to local builders, three of them didn’t quote. The difficulty was mostly in getting prices back with a good level of detail; this was in the summer of 2017. Four tenders came in and one was a single figure, with no breakdown.”
“The builder we chose was the only one who came to see the project, the others priced it off the plans. We forewarned him we’d be living on site and he was amenable. We stayed in the bedroom, and when the kitchen was taken out we put in a countertop in the utility.”
“It was handy living here for any questions the builder might have, to look at things, no decisions were made over the phone and we think that did move the project along and ensured we got what we wanted out of it,” adds Jonathan.
“For instance the opening for one of the windows was the wrong size; thanks to our daily checks we spotted it early and it wasn’t an issue to resize. We spent a lot of time on site, we were here when the builders were here.”
“Building and renovating is a dynamic process,” says Leonie. “One day when we came home to walk through the front door we realised the side of the house was gone. That was a surprise, as there had been no phone call to let us know they’d knocked a wall down, albeit a good one.”
“There’s also a stressful aspect to living on site as there’s constant noise and the house was freezing when we opened it up,” says Leonie. “We only had a board and plastic protecting us from elements for a few weeks.”
“But overall they were really tidy builders, they made sure that it would be clean for the weekend. Initially we expected there to be some dust and we felt it was not so bad because we kept our bedroom door closed.”
“But towards end, when they had to cut the flooring (tiles and laminate) that kicked up some serious amount of dust. Yet, the only time we really had to move out was when we were doing up the bathroom.”
“We went to my parents’ house who live 10 minutes away. It was tough going at the time – we were about a month without a bathroom.”
“We had originally planned to have the ensuite finished before moving onto the main bathroom renovation so we wouldn’t need to move out. But due to the weather it was brought forward – that meant we had no bathroom, only a portaloo for six weeks.”
Expecting the unexpected
“With a renovation, you’re always expecting the unexpected and we did come across a structural issue in the kitchen,” says Leonie. “The barge on the kitchen roof was disintegrating and had to be replaced, it’s always worrying to come across something like that.”
“Then there was an issue with the bay window we replaced. We hadn’t been told we’d have to add metal posts to support it and this unexpectedly added to the cost.”
“But the main thing that we changed during the build were the finishes,” she adds. “The builder had given us a set price for the builder’s finish, and priced the rest (kitchen, bathrooms, wall and floor finishes, fixtures and fittings) with a PC sum.”
“Because his estimate for finishes was for the bog standard, we tripled the amount on paper. It isn’t an investment property, it’s our home for life and we wanted to get the finish we’d be happy with.”
“We spent a lot of time choosing the floors,” continues Leonie. “We love the look of hardwood floors but they mark after a while and because we have parties we were concerned that heels would eventually make an impact.”
“So we chose laminate, as there’s no upkeep and not much difference in appearance. We also learned from a friend of ours whose fantastic hardwood floor warped and she is now thinking of replacing it with laminate.”
“As for the bathrooms, they were going to be more traditional than what we ended up with because we chose to go with a luxury hotel style for a spa feel.”
“The kitchen then took up a lot of our time, central as it is to the design. My sister had also advised to design the kitchen properly – we spent many man hours on it and and we now have everything where we need it. It just works.”
“We have our induction hob on the island so when we’re cooking we don’t
have our back turned on everyone,” adds Jonathan. “This however meant we had to put the extractor in the countertop, as we didn’t want anything coming down from the ceiling. We had to pay extra to get it ducted to the outside because we had to drill out the floor which we’d budgeted for.”
“At the end of the build we kept a portion of money aside until the builder came back to complete the snag list, and it wasn’t too bad, there were a few things they tidied up like caulking around the sockets, it was all minor,” he adds. The result speaks for itself.
Source everything as early as you can to avoid rash decisions. Buying wall or floor finishes in a day to keep the builders going probably won’t result in the ideal finish.
The finishes will cost a lot. Even though we weren’t far off the mark with the budget there were some items that cost more than we’d intended to spend, mostly when it came down to the finishes. For instance we were a good bit out on the tiling; it’s important to remember that the price is per sqm so if you’re picking tiles a few euro dearer per sqm that will add up to a lot if you have a considerable amount of ground or wall to cover.
Be prepared to do some work yourself to save. We did all of the painting ourselves because we ran out of money at the end. The exposed steelwork was a nightmare to paint even though it just involved a roller paint and a brush. We had to use fire retardant paint and working above your head isn’t ideal. But we’re so glad we didn’t get it boxed in. We painted all the rooms in the house; panelling would have been a good option too.
Keep an eye on the tiling job. The grout on the tiles didn’t get washed off immediately and left a bit of a residue which we can’t remove now that it’s dry.
What’s your favourite feature?
As both of us enjoy cooking, the kitchen would have to be our favourite space. But the double apex roof in the dining area is really special too. It’s airy, relaxing and lends itself to mingling too.
What surprised you?
How difficult it would be to get quotations, especially for our windows. One company got back to us months later with a price as the actual windows were going in. Generally speaking we were limited in choice for companies on the west coast, and because the windows are so expensive we toyed with the idea of ordering them from Europe, but decided against it because we thought it would take too long. We did come across some issues fitting the windows, and now even though most of them are fine some of the windows we retrofitted presented some problems.
What would you do differently?
Only one of the sliding doors open and if we could wave a magic wand we’d probably get a double sliding door. Two sliders opening up would be nice so people can move about more freely in the summer. Outside we may add more hard landscaping and a larger patio area.
Would you do it again?
We’d do it again but because our problem was getting people to come back to us with a price, we would take more time researching suppliers
and tradesmen. We sourced everything with the builder which helped a lot with lead times. We don’t plan on moving out but do plan an attic conversion so we’re not finished just yet! The process is easier the second time around, but it’s a steep learning curve.
What advice would you give to a budding self-builder?
Communication is the key to a successful build. Learn early how to be comfortable with your builder, make sure you are on the same wavelength. You probably won’t be in your comfort zone and won’t want to come across like you’re telling them what to do, but at the end of the day you are the client and you need to get things done. Remember you’ll be the one living here so you have to be happy with it all.
Architect: Mark Stephens Architects, tel. 094 92 52514, MarkStephensArchitects.com
Structural engineer: Paul Cuddy, mobile 086 122 7039, pcaengineers.ie
Contractor: P Fallon & Sons Ltd, Swinford, Co Mayo, firstname.lastname@example.org, mobile 086 252 1272
Insulation grant: Better Energy Homes, seai.ie
Kitchen and window seat: Conroy Kitchens, Foxford, Co Mayo, mobile 087 6116100
Bathroom ware: Hursts Heating & Plumbing, Castlebar, Co Mayo, tel. 094 9023453, hurst.ie
Kitchen countertop: Silestone sourced from Stone Surfaces, Edgeworthstown, Co Longford, tel. 043 6671365, stonesurfaces.ie
Tiles: Inspire Tiles and Stone, Claremorris, Co Mayo, tel. 094 9372724, inspiretilesandstone.ie
Insulation (existing house): Brusna Insulation, tel. 096 37651, Corballa, Co Sligo, brusnaenergysolutions.com
Insulation (extension): Cavity walls: Xtratherm CavityTherm; Floor: Kingspan Insulation; Pitched roof: Knauf Frametherm; Flat roof: QuinnTherm and Knauf Frametherm
Artwork: Trisha Slowey Artist, trishasloweyartist.com
Wastewater system: Tricel, tricel.ie
Photography: Denise K. Images, denisekimages.com