Small home renovation: ‘There’s no point in adding floor area for the sake of it’

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Garden designer Ingrid Smyth brought a skilled touch when renovating the family home in Dublin’s Liberties

Some people dream of massive home extensions. Not Ingrid Smyth. The garden designer would prefer to have more room outside, but when it came to renovating the family home on Oscar Square in Dublin’s Liberties, she had to borrow space from the back garden. “Still, it was all worth it,” she says.

She bought the three-bedroom house with her husband, engineer Shane Torpey, in 2008 when their two sons were toddlers. “We didn’t do much with the house when we moved in because we didn’t have the money and it’s kind of pointless doing a fancy job on your house if the children are climbing over furniture and there are hand prints everywhere,” she says.

They finally bit the bullet in 2020 and embarked on a renovation. “These houses are 100 years old so even though they are small and mass concrete, the original windows were very cold and the heating system wasn’t up to standard,” says Smyth. The kitchen and living area was cramped and the boys were sharing a bedroom because she was using the third bedroom for an office. As they were entering their teenage years, more space was needed. But not too much.

“We believe strongly there’s no point in adding floor area for the sake of it because you have to pay for it and heat it and clean it,” she says.


The extension to the back and side of the house increased their floor area by 24sq m (258sq ft). They now have a more spacious kitchen and living area which is perfect for entertaining. “We can fit 10 people at the dining table and four at the kitchen counter – a big improvement,” she says.

They incorporated the side entrance into their living area and it now houses her office and moonlights as a games room in the evening.

The couple worked closely with Jim Lawler of Melted Snow Architects during the renovation process. She spent 18 years in an architect’s office and says her husband has a great eye for design. “We did all the fine detail in terms of the kitchen design, the floor finishes, the fitted furniture and the upholstery.”

Duffin Joinery in Wexford provided all the seating, kitchen units, shelving, wardrobes and office furniture while Chair Doctor did the upholstery. “The use of fitted furniture makes a big difference when you don’t have a lot of space.” The diningroom seating has generous storage underneath while wardrobes and shelving run to the ceiling to maximise storage space.

They also upgraded the insulation and heating. The underfloor heating works very well with the Forbo Surestep vinyl floor covering, she says. It looks like polished concrete “but it’s got a nice bit of warmth to it”.

The 100-year-old house still has the original balustrades and fireplaces. It now has a Ber rating of C1. If they bricked up the fireplaces, it would rise to B3, but she said it would have been a shame to do that.

What makes for a happy family life is that you are with each other but you have your separate zones. I love to sit at the window looking at the garden

The fitted furniture includes generous window seating looking on to the garden. She resisted the temptation to fill the space with furniture. “It’s a breathing space. Do you really need to have a massive coffee table when you can do Pilates there? My son does gymnastics and he could easily do a cartwheel here.”

She says it’s a nice place to sit reading or listening to a podcast. “There could be someone else at the dining table doing something and someone in the other room. What makes for a happy family life is that you are with each other but you have your separate zones. I love to sit at the window looking at the garden.”

And so to the garden, which is now about 50sq m (538sq ft). A bigger garden would have been nice but it’s a small sacrifice when Grafton Street is a brisk 10-minute walk from home.

The garden doesn’t get a lot of sun so the lawn was not thriving. They removed it, with the help of Noel Holmes Landscaping. The focal point of the garden is now a wildlife pond, surrounded by paving, plants and trees.

The 60cm-deep pool has frogs, goldfish and plenty of insect life. The rainwater runs from the paving into the pond and the aquatic plants keep the pond clean, “so it’s a natural ecosystem”.

She has installed hidden bricks behind the planting to help the frogs to get in and out of the pond. There had been a pond with a colony of frogs in the original garden and she feared they would never return after the renovation. “But, magically, they appeared again last year. It’s amazing how they persisted.”

She describes the garden as Japanese influenced, with four Japanese maple trees and Japanese forest grass.

“The key with planting in a small garden is to put height into it. You don’t plant horizontally because you will never get impact,” she says. “And you need varieties that aren’t going to get too big or take all the sunlight.”

Successional planting and evergreens give you something to look at throughout the year

Clever planting means that there will always be some colour, whether it’s coming from the white bark of the Betula jacquemontii, the alliums or the wood anemone. “There is a tendency for people to go for herbaceous perennials that are really colourful in summer, and they are joyous, but then you are left without anything for the rest of the year. So successional planting and evergreens give you something to look at throughout the year.”

And, going against every natural instinct, she is letting some weeds grow. “Last year I let a lot of wild carrot grow. They have a white colour to the blooms and they are absolutely magical. I’m getting rid of the weeds that are particularly invasive but being more relaxed about letting weeds have a chance to flower,” she says.

“It’s in our DNA as gardeners to get rid of them so every fibre in your body wants to pull that weed, but if you give it a chance for a few weeks to see how it goes, you could be pleasantly surprised.”

All told, they spent €220,000 on the renovation, including the garden, and she says it has transformed family life because everyone now has their own space.

This was not their first renovation and it might not be their last. She has no desire for a bigger house, but would eventually like a bigger garden for vegetables and trees. But that’s well into the future when the children have left home and retirement is beckoning.

For now, they are enjoying life in Oscar Square. The front garden is a suntrap and she says there is nowhere nicer to be on a sunny evening than sitting on the bench looking at the cherry blossoms in Oscar Square. “It feels like a small community here and it is really a very nice place to live.”

Biggest win

I think the Forbo floor is my favourite thing. It was a fraction of the cost of polished concrete and looks and feels great.

Biggest mistake

We have a radiator in the bathroom but if we were doing it again underfloor heating would have been nicer there.

Alison Healy

Alison Healy

Alison Healy is a contributor to The Irish Times