Press Coverage - The Sunday Times

Niall Toner from The Sunday Times wrote an article on how to restore a derelict property into a home.

Pick Up The Pieces

Restoring a derelict property is not a job for everyone but, with some patience and the right builder, a pile of stones can be turned into a home, writes Niall Toner.

When Jeremy Irons breathed new life into the ruins of a 15th-century castle in Kilcoe, west Cork, he is reported to have said it left his own life in ruins. Even if the Oscar-winning actor was exaggerating, it is probably true that restoring one of the thousands of tumbledown properties scattered across Ireland’s countryside is not a task for the average homeowner or builder. Despite this, there appears to be some movement in the house-shaped-pile-of-stones sector of an otherwise moribund property market.

Steve Symes, of Green Valley Properties, an estate agency in the west of Ireland, says the sale of a couple of ruins has helped keep the wolf from the door. "They can be hard enough to find now because they were much sought-after by small developers, to renovate and sell on for a profit during the boom times," he says. "But the profit is gone out of that now and these days they tend to be sold mostly as a result of the death of an owner," he says.

Tight planning guidelines in rural areas helped fuel the demand for tumbledown properties in recent years. An existing building on a site increases the chances of planning permission being granted undermanyof the county development plans. A demand for second homes during the boom also helped. But ruins are sought-after for other reasons, says Symes. "There are spinoffs you just cannot put a price on, such as mature trees and stone outbuildings. You are dropping in on an atmosphere that might have taken a century to create, something you just won't get in a greenfield site."

And of course they are cheap. For as little as €50,000, you could secure a cottage in need of total renovation in a picturesque part of rural Ireland. The main downside, says Symes, is the cost of doing them up. "It is relatively cheap to renovate an old cottage up to a standard where you wear an extra jumper and keep the fire lit in the evenings, but to bring an old place up to a level where it will achieve a good building energy rating and be properly insulated, it is going to cost a lot more."

Even those hooked on restoring classics agree the enterprise is primarily a labour of love. "There are better things you could be doing with your money," says Chris Deakin, a serial restorer of ruins. He runs a website dedicated to the restoration of old buildings. Formerglory.ie lists properties for sale in a state of dereliction, as well as ones that have been restored. It also carries advice and links to the sites of restoration builders and craftsmen, and agencies concerned with listed and historic properties. Deakin set up the website in 2007 after spending two years restoring his home in Co. Galway - Bookeen Hall, a deconsecrated church he bought in 2005. He says a dearth of advice on restoration spurred him on to gather it all in one place.

In east Cork, meanwhile, Darragh Musgrave recently converted a ruined two-storey barn into a home for his family. The property, built in the 1770s, had been in his family for generations. "It had originally been a home but was converted for use as a barn in the 1880s," he says. "Half of one of the floors was taken out for the purpose. So we had to convert it back to a home." For Musgrave, there were distinct advantages in taking on a ruin, as it helped him navigate the strict guidelines of the Cork county development plan. “We had a need for a house and we wanted to be near our family. The existence of the ruin on the site helped get through the planning process," he says.

Musgrave integrated the old structure into a family home, adding a new wing and restoring the old part. "We were lucky to have an architect who was interested in conservation," he says. "Most of the builders we spoke to in the early days were either in favour of demolishing the barn, or they didn't have the experience of restoration so they were inclined to over-quote for the job. In the early days we were having doubts as to whether we should try to incorporate the old part or demolish it."

Undeterred, Musgrave asked a structural engineer to look at the barn - and the report was favourable. "Think of it like the Ardagh chalice," he says. "It will always look slightly battered and won’t have the precise symmetry you get in a new one, but if you made a new one it wouldn’t be the Ardagh chalice any more."

An environmental consultant by trade, Musgrave says there is a pay-off in terms of sustainability too. "There is a lot of embodied energy in an existing building, the energy expended to cut the stone, move it to the site and build the structure. Knocking it down would have meant more energy expended demolishing it and rebuilding it, plus the energy expended manufacturing the concrete blocks and transporting them to the site, and so on."

So what should you look out for if you are thinking of buying a ruin? "I've restored many old ruins and barns and have found that the best bet is to find an old house with the roof still on," says Nick Urwin, a master stonemason. "And that no water has got into the building. Even if the roof needs to be replaced, the walls will generally be sound. As soon as a roof deteriorates and starts to let in water, the house will go downhill very quickly, with walls leaning and eventually cracking."

It is important to look out for structural defects that will affect the viability of the supporting walls, he says. "You particularly need to check for cracks near the corners or on the gables. Once the roof starts to collapse and there are chimneys on the gables, the weight of these can cause the gables to lean out and become unsafe."

Urwin says trees or vegetation growing on or under thewalls can cause severe damage over time, particularly near corners. You should also check lintels above windows, doors and fireplaces, while long-term leaks around chimneys can cause washing out of old mortar and deterioration of walls.

"It is important to make sure all surrounding soil and land is below floor level to avoid dampness. Digging a French drain around the house will take the rainwater away to avoid dampness," he says. Urwin recommends always using breathable lime mortars and avoiding cement products, which he says cause moisture to get trapped in the structure and don’t allow buildings to breathe.

In terms of the cost of restoring a ruin, you are likely to spend about the same amount of money as you would building from scratch. Chris Deakin expects the total bill for the restoration of his church to be about €300,000. But he reckons patience is probably the most valuable currency when you take on a ruin. "You must be prepared to let it take as long as it takes," he says. "Our worst period was when we were waiting for the windows and the builder couldn't do anything else until the place was sealed off. Months passed by with little or no progress."

Musgrave agrees: "You have to be prepared to wait until you can find the right builder with the right experience, one who knows the methodology and can cost it correctly." Otherwise you’ll be dealing with another kind of ruin.

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