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A reconfiguration of your living space, with a few square feet added, may seem like small change, but it can wreak as much havoc as adding a full extension! Ciara and James Rockford of Co Antrim learned this the hard way…

The only way to tell if a house performs well is to live in it. “Even though we had four big bedrooms upstairs, the house felt bottom heavy. We wanted to balance it out,” explains Ciara. “The funny thing about it is that what sold us the house was the atrium and gallery, yet that was exactly what didn’t work for us!”

“The focal point of the house was the sun room in the middle, which we used as our dining room,” continues Ciara. “The glazed roof with windows below acted a bit like a conservatory, it was hot in summer and cold in winter. We only got a nice temperature half the year, and even then it seemed cooler than it should have been. We also had some issues with leaks, which we’d dealt with but that too was a concern.”

Upstairs, running half the length of the dining room, was a minstrel’s gallery that was never used. “It wasn’t a practical space, in addition to the temperature swings it got too noisy and couldn’t work as a bedroom or study. Also, with young children you’re always concerned about them climbing over the railings.” 

At first they thought of either replacing the windows or removing the atrium altogether. “We weren’t sure what to do so we decided we should seek advice from an architect. But we didn’t know how to go about finding one,” says Ciara. “Then we saw there was a fundraiser for the lifeboats association (RNLI) which gave us the opportunity to consult with one. We wanted to find a cost effective means of achieving what we had in mind.”

Initial designs were drawn up to the delight of Ciara and James. “Above all, we didn’t want a stuck-on extension, it had to blend in. The new dormer fits in so well with the existing house and the new grey windows and zinc roof all tie in really nicely,” says Ciara. “It looks like it’s always been that way, which is exactly what we asked for.” 

One wall was knocked to create an open plan kitchen, dining and living area whilst a recessed  steel beam in the ceiling provides structural support for the master bedroom. Extending the gallery allowed them to add a master bedroom upstairs; an ensuite was built onto it by taking up some space from the original master bedroom. 

“There was a lot of discussion among our children as to who would get our old bedroom!” 

Tender time
“Planning went through no bother,” relates Ciara. “The changes were all at the back of the house; also we get on with our neighbours really well, so well that they threatened to put in an objection for a laugh!” 

They tendered out to five contractors and three came back with prices. “One was much higher than the other two, I think they were pricing themselves out. The two others were close in price, and we met both at the house. We talked to people who worked with them, and we decided we felt slightly more comfortable with the builder our architect had worked with before.” 

The contract was fixed price for the building work, but the bathroom and kitchen were sourced separately. “The builder was really helpful, we knew very little and he would advise us if there was a better way. Our architect was also on site on a regular basis. But our inexperience caught us out occasionally, one example is having to source products in time.”

The windows required quite a bit of research, with the architect’s guidance. “After some deliberation we chose to change all of the windows in the house so we had a large order to place. We narrowed it down to two manufacturers and went to see some jobs they did to make our decision.”

“We had white uPVC double glazed units before and the grey is so much better with the brick,” continues Ciara. “Also some of the windows could be hard to close and we felt they were losing a lot of heat.”

Dust and dirt
“This was the first time we’d done anything like this,” adds Ciara. “We’d never built a house or extended any of our previous homes.” While this build was completed on budget and on schedule, and ran smoothly, it still had the hallmarks of all building projects! 

“The reality of turning our house into a building site quickly sank in!” The works started in September 2013 and finished in March 2014.

“The lowest point was in January, after we returned from a Christmas break skiing. The kitchen had been taken out and due to the big window being boarded up we were living in a cave! At the height of the destruction I couldn’t see how it would be put back together again. At that stage, I wished we‘d never started.”

Ciara and James didn’t give much thought to moving out of the house during the renovation as it wasn’t technically necessary. “We won’t be making that mistake again! But as with all things there was a positive side and that was the fact that we were always around. It did help move things along, decisions could be made on the spot.”

Ciara and James actually adapted very quickly to their new digs. “It took us a week to adjust to not having a kitchen, our neighbours were so helpful inviting us around for dinner and family and friends also lent a hand. We had the sink in one place, cutlery and kettle in another corner while the plates migrated somewhere else! We lived like that for six weeks but that was fine. What I didn’t expect was the amount of dirt and dust that gets absolutely everywhere, despite the builders being really good at tidying up.” 

“When our architect told us we were on track and doing well, we believed him but it was hard not to think about the lovely house I’m sure he was going home to! You just get fed up after a while.” Despite these feelings, Ciara couldn’t be happier with the finished product. “I’m so glad we did it and am so thankful we had the right team on board. What was a challenging experience could have been a nightmare.” 

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Master plan
Although new to building, Ciara did get to design her kitchen before she moved in. “The house was built in 2000 but the kitchen hadn’t been fitted so when we purchased our home we got to install a new one. At the time I went against my inclination, which was to go for an island, so when another opportunity arose during this refurbishment, I didn’t hesitate!” 

The island is in the middle of the kitchen with a hob, which Ciara says is very practical, although it did take time going round to various kitchen suppliers to find the right design. But it was all worth it as Ciara now has exactly what she wants; in fact they spend most of their time in the open plan area. “We can live communally without being on top of each other; it’s the room we use the most.” 

One change they undertook during the build had to do with their new bedroom. “In the master suite we hadn’t realised, it was our builder who pointed it out, that the new vaulted ceiling wouldn’t carry through the entire room. We hadn’t appreciated how it would attach to the original flat ceiling; the two ceilings would have looked quite strange together as there would have been a big step down.”

“So we started thinking of how to best use the space, to reflect how we would be living in it; the room isn’t big enough to accommodate a lot of storage and I wanted to find a way to conceal the ceiling difference. Our inexperience meant we were unable to visualise it so James learned how to use Google Sketch Up to model the room and it was brilliant to see it in 3D. It became clear we could corner off a walk-in wardrobe to hide the flat ceiling,” she says. 

Fruits of labour
Despite the apparently minimal changes on the floor plan, the renovation made a huge difference in terms of style and comfort. “The house is definitely warmer and we are using less oil,” states Ciara. “The wood burning stove makes the living area really cosy. This part of the house is warmer than the rest, or at least the rest of the house seems colder because we just don’t use it as much.” 

The connection between old and new was an important one, and to make it seamless they decided to retile the floor. “We chose tiles that resembled what was originally in the kitchen and dining hall.” The rectangular layout helped with the furniture and design but it took them time to find the sofa. “We went to so many places and couldn’t find one that would fit,” recalls Ciara. “We ended up getting one made to our specifications. It’s U-shaped and fits perfectly. Purple in colour it gives a charge to the room, I really like it.”

Connection to the garden from the new sun room is via bi-fold doors. “With boys in the house the garden consists of a football/rugby pitch! We added a patio area with BBQ to enjoy the good weather when we get it. There is a glass screen for shelter though!”

While they didn’t extend by much in floor area, approximately 120 sqft (10 sqm), the transformation couldn’t have been any more dramatic. So much so that it spurred them on to do more work on the house! 

“We’ve started doing up the other rooms, and changed all of the internal doors,” says Ciara. “It takes so long to get everything done the way we want it, we run out of steam every so often, take a rest, and then start again. I doubt we’ll ever be finished but we’re taking our time and enjoying the process.” 

Plot size: 1/3 acre
House size: 3,750 sqft
Build cost: £80,000 including main building works and kitchen

Build Spec
Construction: steel beams, brickwork to match existing, zinc standing seam roof and walls, timber frame with external cement board on walls and painted smooth render.
Insulation: 60mm phenolic board insulation on walls within timber frame construction and 60mm phenolic board over studwork, roof 100mm PIR between rafters with 37.5mm insulated (PIR) plasterboard underneath, floor 100mm PIR. 
U-values: floor 0.15W/sqmK, roof and walls 0.18W/sqmK
Windows: triple glazed alu-clad, U-value of units 0.79 W/sqmK; bi-fold doors 1.2W/sqmK


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