The following is a guest post from Mayo RIAI (Conservation Grade III) Architect – Mark Stephens. Mark also publishes the daily newsletter ‘The Architect Mark Daily‘ I am delighted to get an Architects advice and opinions on renovating Irish Cottages and I hope you enjoy the article. Take it away Mark:
My starting point for any project is always, “If this was my
house, and taking the clients brief into account, what would be the
best possible thing I can do?” As an architect I’m aware at all
stages of creating an elegant, sustainable solution that the planners
are going to like but also that the premise of “the best solution for the
property” is one that holds well. If I don’t like what I’ve designed
then how can I expect the clients to.
The premise of this post therefore is – if I were
given a traditional Irish cottage then what would I do with it? We’ll
need firstly to have a look at the design of these now neglected
Irish cottages and how they fit into 21st century living.
The Traditional Irish Cottage
The vast majority of what you see as ‘The Traditional Irish Cottage’
fall into a similar design; usually two bedrooms with a central
living and cooking space. This central living space was the heart of
the house which had an open fire for cooking and heating and
frequently had a small ‘outshot’ which would house a small purpose
built bed for Granny or Granddad to sleep in.
The cottage would have been built with whatever materials were to
hand; stones for the walls, salvaged timber and thatch for the roof.
Because of the scarcity of materials the house was only a single room
deep and due to the tax on glass, the windows would have been small and
vertically orientated (the lintel over the window spanning a shorter
The house would have been constructed by the owner with help from
neighbours and friends. It is these characteristics that Ireland is
now returning to in terms of new rural houses; the Cork Design Guide and the Mayo County Council Guidelines for Rural Houses
both favour new houses that are a single room in depth (approximately
7-8 metres), have vertically orientated windows and are constructed and
finished in traditional materials.
But returning to our premise, what would I do if given a 19th century
traditional Irish Cottage? Well, as you can see if the house is to be
lived in for any extended period then the accommodation is
insufficient by current day standards and the likelihood is that
you’ll need to extend the property. Luckily the planners are happier
when an existing property is extended (as long as all other planning
factors such as road safety and site percolation are acceptable)
rather than building anew. But what is the best way to sympathetically extend a traditional cottage without losing its original charm and
Restoring an Irish Cottage
Let’s assume therefore that your cottage has fallen into disrepair and
firstly needs to be restored; we’ll need to tackle
this before we can even consider extending it. As an RIAI architect
accredited in Conservation (Grade III), the principle of ‘minimal
intervention’ is the primary concern in work of this type; that
is the minimal amount of work required in order to arrest the
disrepair and to give the building a future for many years to come.
This means using the correct materials and techniques to restore a
building back to its original integrity. For a traditional cottage
this means using lime mortars and renders for the stone walls, ideally
repairing the original windows or failing that, to install appropriately
proportioned windows and doors that are sympathetic to the cottage’s
The importance of materials
The process of a house restoration takes time and care. If
you’re employing someone else to do it, it can work out quite expensive due to the amount of time and care it can take to do the job right. A gentle restoration of this type using
the correct materials and construction is not a process to be taken
lightly; it’s very easy to use incorrect materials that actually
increase the level of damp in a property rather than eliminating it.
The biggest problem with stone cottages is the prevalent use of
Portland Cement based renders on walls that originally would have
been finished in a naturally hydraulic lime based render. The problem
with modern cement based renders on walls of this type is that water
can penetrate any cracks in the render due to any slight wall movement
(walls were frequently built on no or little or no foundations
remember). This water then cannot find a way out of the building and
crystallises as salt deposits on the walls; these deposits show as
bubbled wallpaper or as salty crusts on the walls. The use of lime on
walls allows the walls to dry out naturally and is therefore essential
in restoring properties of this period.
For more information on using Lime in your building, the book ‘Lime Works’ by Patrick McAfee is a brilliant resource on lime for render, mortar and floors.
Trying to obtain current levels of insulation in a traditional stone
wall of this type is nigh on impossible; by drylining internally you
will be drastically reducing the size of the rooms. By insulating and
rendering externally you’ll be drastically changing the appearance of
the property. Instead (again with the premise that it’s my house and
wanting to do the best that I could) I would simply return to
the way the house was heated originally; by lighting a fire in
the fireplace! You could however increase the thermal efficiency of
the fireplace by installing a multi-fuel stove instead of leaving the
Extending your Irish Cottage
So, you’ve carefully and diligently restored your lovely cottage but
in what manner should it be extended?
I love tradition and the traditional Irish cottage is a great landmark
in the collective history of Ireland (unfortunately tinged with
oppression and sadness of this period) and it is for these reasons
that it is essential that these landmarks are kept (rather than
demolished) and if at all possible restored and brought back to their
But these houses are of a completely different time and period; and as
such I feel that any extension we make to them should be
indicative of today’s time; that is of the 21st century. In doing this – rather than slavishly copying the old – makes the building more
honest, more legible and ‘easier to read’. The beautiful cottage is
shown as ‘it would have been’ and the new section is shown as something
contemporary and of today’s time. Working in this way we actually
enhance the original house rather than detract from it.
A good way of achieving a successful junction between old and new is
to create a separation between the two, either through a step in
elevation or through the use of a lighter material such as glass that
creates a ‘separation’ between the existing and the new.
The conclusion therefore is not to be afraid of commissioning a
contemporary, elegant structure that connects to your lovely cottage;
doing this actually ‘sets-off’ the old rather than detracting from it
with a simple copy of the old.
If you have an Irish Cottage of this type and would like to discuss
further how you would like to restore and/or extend it then please do
not hesitate to CONTACT ME.