Home Improvements – Ask the Expert – Des Ewing

As published in Ireland’s Homes Interiors & Living Magazine, May 2018…

Current trends and what clients want:

  • Many older properties have layouts which just don’t suit modern living, with a maze of smaller, separate rooms, linked by dark corridors, with small hallways and long narrow landings all commonplace. So it is no wonder that many renovators choose to remodel these internal spaces to create a freer flowing, open layout. Doing this means removing walls, which in some cases is a simple job. However, when the wall is load-bearing and plays a significant role in the structural integrity of the rest of the house, then it can be a little more complicated.
  • The main criteria clients ask for is space and a better use of it. They want a higher quality specification finish with much more integrated joinery items. Something that is often requested is a better connection with the garden and external areas, with maybe a covered space with outdoor heaters and smaller suntrap patio. External garden lighting is necessary to make the space look as good as possible in the evening and clients are spending an increasing amount of semi-mature planting which is now more readily available at a reasonable cost.
  • Nowadays people and especially children have so much paraphernalia that adequate storage is essential. American ‘mud rooms’, which are attractive storage areas accessed via the back door, are a recent import but go down very well in N. Ireland.
  • Clients are currently tending to stay away from natural stone and instead are using larger format tiles which look like stone but are cheaper and more durable.
  • The days of the safe-tones of grey house appear to be fading with colour and texture making a comeback. Traditional favourites of salvage terracotta and terrazzo are becoming more and more prevalent again.

 

Tips:

It is important not to view a renovation project as a chance to live out your house dreams unfettered. A series of extensions and renovations that not only towers over the original but takes away all its character will look wrong in scale and not work as a house. In such a scenario it would be better to consider a new build — indeed many renovation design schemes become so grand that the homeowners conclude it might be wiser to knock it down and start again (saving 20% on the VAT).

A well thought-out schedule of works is absolutely vital to the success and smooth running of any renovation project. Without one the whole process can become chaotic, with tradespeople overlapping and many jobs that could have been carried out at the same time to save on costs being done separately. A schedule basically lists what work needs to be done to the house to get it complete, and in what order. Everything should be included, right down to the tiniest detail.

A significant number of renovation and extension projects won’t need planning permission at all. These include internal improvements that don’t affect the external look of the building and extensions of a small scale. These are classed as Permitted Development and you can guidance on what works fall under this category on your local planning authority website https://www.planningni.gov.uk/pps07_addendum_annexb_permitted – in N. Ireland. Other larger scale renovations will require planning approval in the usual way. It is essential to take into account any designations that might exist where you live, e.g. Conservation Areas, Areas of Townscape Character or Outstanding Natural Beauty as these could really impact your plans and your need for Planning Approval. If your home is listed or is a protected structure, you will require Listed Building Consent as well as Planning Permission.

One of the easiest ways to ruin your house whilst actually trying to improve it, is by getting the windows wrong — wrong materials, wrong proportions, wrong position, wrong furniture, wrong glazing. If you are renovating a house that has the original windows still in place – likely to be timber or metal – then do all you can to rescue them before you even consider replacing. Avoid replacing period windows with plastic versions — they will never look truly authentic in a period context. Draught and noise problems can be improved by fitting sashes with new seals and secondary glazing is also an option. In some extreme cases the cost of repair work does not practically make sense and you may need to consider sympathetic, matching replacements.

When opening up internal spaces, changes in floor level often have to be taken into account and are common in older properties. Bear this in mind when considering knocking two rooms into one as getting the floors level will add to costs.

Extensions:

A good design starts in many cases with a good survey of what you’ve got and what state it is in. There’s no point in building an elaborate extension if you are going to have to carry out disruptive work to the drains beneath the floor later on, for instance. So take stock, and get a surveyor in as part of the early design process.

Ground conditions, site access, location and proximity of services, design and size — all have a big impact on what the cost of your extension will be and for this reason, it is difficult to give an exact idea of costs. However, extensions always tend to be more expensive that people think so keep it simple and small.

All extensions require Building Control Approval. Building Regs. are there to ensure that minimum design and construction standards are achieved and cover things such as fire safety, insulation, drainage and access.

Extensions can be in keeping or in stark contrast to the original house — either can be a success as long as it is well designed and considers the original building. Pay attention to the issues around the changing roofline, and of course ensure that the materials (particularly claddings, coverings and windows) have coherence to them as a whole house, rather than treating the extension as completely separate.  Consider include plenty of glazing in the form of aluminium or timber windows or folding sliding doors. Letting more light into the space you have by means of larger windows and particularly roof lights can make spaces feel larger and happier and don’t cost much for the return.

Design-wise, it often makes more sense to build a contrasting extension that proudly shouts about its status as a new addition, yet complements and draws out the best elements of the existing building. Sometimes adding large extensions can be to the detriment of the remaining space as it can block light making the spaces less pleasant. In N. Ireland successful residential architecture is about natural light and proportion, making it elegant and beautiful. Clients often worry about how to overcome privacy issues yet still get light into their extensions. There are lots of great alternatives to traditional windows. Banks of rooflights, roof lanterns, glazed doors (both internal and external), rows of windows set just below ceiling level and above the eye level or alternative types of privacy glazing are all possible solutions.

Matching extensions are arguably much more difficult – and often expensive – to get right compared to contemporary extensions, making an extension appear as though it has always been there takes skill and attention to detail. In order for this style of extension to work, not only must the materials you use match the originals as closely as possible (using reclaimed or local materials is key), but you should also aim to copy the main design elements. These include the roof pitch and details such as the brick bond and even the mortar colour. Windows are also massively important, in terms of materials, style and size — make sure their proportions are in keeping with the rest of the house too. Matching bricks for many is the most difficult challenge but also essential to a ‘period’ extension’s success and don’t forget to match the mortar.

One of the most popular, least disruptive and cost-effective ways of adding another room to a house is to convert the existing loft. Much of the mess and disruption associated with other extensions can be contained with a loft conversion, with rubbish often going straight out through a waste shoot. The only form of major disruption comes with the fitting of the new staircase on the floor below. A straightforward loft conversion, carried out by builders or a loft conversion specialist, should only take around four to five weeks. The main area which can incur extra cost and time is the plumbing and electrics. Most loft conversions fall under Permitted Development rights however you will require Building Control Approval. Building Regulations state that if the loft is to be converted into a bedroom, playroom, study or bathroom, there must be a permanent staircase.

Using underused spaces like garages and formal dining rooms is an economical way to add useable space at little cost. If your home comes with an integral garage, you might find that the space is better served as additional living accommodation than for the storage of bikes and tools -as they are never used for cars! Integral garages are usually located near utilities and can be extended into as pantries or enlarged kitchens.  Work does not tend to need planning permission but will need Building Control Approval — there are also some fire safety issues to consider. One of the key tasks is to level the floors (garages have to be at least 100mm lower than the dwelling’s usual level) and can usually be made up by adding a damp-proof membrane if required and sufficient floor insulation. As your existing garage wall will likely have single leaf construction, you will need to apply a compound or waterproofing breather membrane to the walls, along with insulation which can be hidden behind plasterboard as part of an inner leaf.

 

Sourcing an Architect:

The scale of your project may be such that the services of an Architect are just not needed, but if you are extending or carrying out major remodelling work, you should not underestimate what an Architect could bring to the table. They have the experience and expertise to get the very most from your space and your budget and could well offer ideas and solutions beyond what you had considered possible. They will also have connections with local tradespeople and may have a relationship with the local planners — as well as some knowledge of what they are and aren’t willing to accept. They will also be able to submit your plans and advise you on any red tape surrounding your application. A lot of an Architects job is to not get it wrong -to help the client avoid making mistakes and wasting money.

Selecting an Architect is difficult as you don’t really know if you will work well together until you get started. Go for one that loves to do residential work and is enthusiastic about the project. Experience is important but hard work is essential. It is always beneficial to go on the recommendations of others, particularly if you are impressed with their completed projects however a useful starting place maybe to contact your local professional body for architects, so either the RSUA or RIAI to search for registered architects in your area. Here you will find all the necessary contact details and websites to help you create a shortlist of possibilities.  Prior to commencing any project, it is imperative to understand the need to perhaps also employ other consultants such as a Structural Engineer or Quantity Surveyor to work alongside the Architect to ensure the works are carried out as proficiently as possible and to budget. The number of other consultants recommended will vary depending on the scale of the project and the inclusion of any specialist items but it is something to be wary of and consider from an early stage.

 

Des Ewing

 

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