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Let there be light

Irish Times Magazine, February 2010

After 20 years of living in a gloomy Victorian house, this family decided it was time for a makeover.

The first thing that Mary Donovan used to do every morning as she arrived in her downstairs kitchen was to turn on the light.  Her dark kitchen faced north and was flanked by two thin extensions.

Now, as we sit in the naturally-lit room, with a vast skylight running across the ceiling, and look out to the garden through floor-to-ceiling windows, it is hard to imagine that it used to be so dim in here.  Yet Mary, her husband David Gillespie and teenage daughter Eva lived like this for many years.

The couple did some work on the house in Ranelagh, Dublin, in 1987 when they first moved in.  Before they arrived, it had been an architect’s office and it was floored in black vinyl which Mary stripped with Nitromors and “elbow grease”.  Even then, the couple could see past the decor to the beauty of the house.  “David said, ‘we’ll take it’ as we walked down the path after our first viewing,” Donovan says.  “I’ve spent longer buying shoes.”

Structurally, the house was sound.  They decorated the interior, put in maple floors and a new kitchen and pretty much left it at that for about 20 years, learning to live with the lack of storage pace and natural light in certain rooms.

When they decided to build an extension that would bring more light into the house they went to an architect, described what they would like and he said: “Whatever you want is fine by me.”

“That was the stupidest thing I ever heard,” says Donovan, who had faith that the right architect would not only give them the basics that they wanted – in terms of light and storage – but would be able to provide so much more than that.  “So I bought a copy of House magazine which had a nearby house by Aughey O’Flaherty Architects on the cover.  I was blown away by it, so I picked up the phone and spoke to Max O’Flaherty.”  She went to see the house on Leinster Road which, with two storeys over a basement, was in a similar style and faced similar issues.

“We wanted to keep the integrity of the original house.  There is no point in living in a Victorian house if you just gut it but we wanted the new bit to be a bit contemporary yet elegant.  Some extensions look as if they have been dropped in from the sky and I didn’t want a cold and clinical look.”

Having found an architect they trusted, David and Mary were happy to let him come up with solutions and the finished result reflects that.

To one side of the kitchen, behind a wall, is a utility space so that white goods, Wellington boots and other garden and family paraphernalia is not on show when the extension is viewed through the vast glass wall from the garden.

Where the extension runs up the side of the house – to accommodate a study on the first floor and a bathroom on the second – the windows have been placed in an alternating patter to avoid overlooking neighbours and to provide an interesting composition.  It is an example of the useful and beautiful being combined, something that William Morris advocated, and what should be the goal of all designers.  Other apertures also combine form and function, including the tall, thin opening flaps in the glass wall, “so that you don’t have to open the big door in this weather and get blown away by it”.  And presumably the dog finds it useful?  “Yes, it’s the most expensive dog flap I’ve ever seen.”

Mary and David have also been delighted by details such as how the outer brickwork on the extension is brought inside, into the kitchen.

These are the sorts of things she was hoping for from an architect, rather than being given exactly what she wanted.  “I watch television programmes in which people don’t listen to their architect and I say, ‘that’s silly.  Why are you employing them then?  They spent seven years training’.”

The couple did have strong ideas though.  David is a chartered surveyor “and knows property really well” – and Max did 20 versions of the plan for the house.  What they appreciated was that he could tell them the consequences that each of their decisions would have so “we always came to something with an understanding about why he had recommended it”.

Mary and David did choose the kitchen though, again – as with the choice of architect – sounding out one company and then going for another, from the Italian Design Studio in the centre of Dublin.  They opted for a cream worktop to bounce around the new light.  In fact, says Mary, much of the things they bought came from within walking distance of their home, including bathroom tiles from Lomac Tiles in Grantham Street and lighting from National Lighting in Erne Street.

The conversion also involved upgrading the existing house and putting in insulation and solar panels which provided all of the hot water for the house last summer.  The couple can feel the difference now their home is wrapped in a constructional duvet.  “The house is wonderfully comfortable now whereas it wasn’t before”.

This was a happy build.  The family moved into rented accommodation nearby for seven months and Gillespie visited the site every morning to talk to the builder Brian Leach, although Donovan says that chat involved a mutual love of rugby as much as structural issues.  “It showed how you can have a successful relationship between builder and architect and client,” she says.

It’s a comfortable – if smart – home, a reflection of the fact that they didn’t want a precious house.  “Because we have a dog there is a certain amount of wear and tear.”  The couple’s relaxed attitude extends to teenage socialising.  The house is a good party venue, something Eva has tested with her gatherings of up to 70 pals.

“The extension has exceeded our expectations in terms of how Max managed to blend old and new,” says Donovan, who likes the building because she feels that it looks timeless.  Which could be true but this brick and Iroko extension is also of its time.  Many designers have moved on from stark boxes and are creating softer buildings using natural materials that feel more people-friendly.