What do you do when you’ve outgrown your house, but you want to stay in the area because the schools and university are just down the road? Esther and Stephen Waters found a novel solution to this predicament. They built a house in someone else’s garden.
The couple loved their small 1950s house in Deansgrange, south Dublin but, with two growing teenagers, and Esther trying to do her interior design work from the kitchen table, they realised it was no longer feasible. “We only had one shower over the bath, so it was just chaos in the mornings,” she recalls. “And I really needed an office so I wouldn’t have to pack up all my samples and mood boards all the time.”
Quotes to convert the attic and extend downstairs were coming in at €250,000, and scaled-down plans that would have slashed the budget were not appealing. “It’s a beautiful house with a lovely 100-year-old apple tree in the garden and I felt if we started to make compromises, we would have destroyed the integrity of the house,” she says.
Then, a contractor she had worked with mentioned a corner garden site he had purchased in nearby Foxrock. He had received planning permission for a detached three-storey house. It was the solution they had been looking for. They sold their home in October 2020 and moved into their new home in May 2021.
Conscious that their children may never be able to afford to buy a house in the area, they planned a home that would accommodate them as adults for as long as needed.
The children, aged 17 and 18, share the first floor and have en suite bathrooms while Esther and Stephen’s bedroom and bathroom are on the top floor. “If they could use the house as a space that allows them to save for a deposit then we’d love that, and the house will have served us well,” Esther says. “Maybe I’m naïve but I honestly think that I could live with them bringing home a partner and starting from here.”
The couple funded the house from the sale of their old house, topped up by a small mortgage. “We didn’t have the money to turn the house into a magazine spread. We’re in our 50s so we didn’t want to be stuck with a big mortgage. But I do firmly believe that you should put the money into the important bits like the plumbing and floors. Some people want a home to be magazine-ready when they move in, like a show house with the right pictures in the right place. But the decor can be added over time and it’s a much richer look than the Instagram ‘ready to move in’ look,” she says.
Her previous home was inspired by her years living in the Lake District in England, and featured chintzy furnishings and cosy lamps and fireplaces. A book-keeper with the National Yacht Club for 20 years, Esther returned to college to study interior architecture and design in 2016 – something she says she should have done years ago. She now works with thedesignteam.ie, and was keen to use her knowledge to create a different look.
“A minimalist, sort of mid-century look appealed to me,” she recalls. “So we got rid of everything in the old house.”
And when she says everything, she means everything. “Every stick of furniture, every ornament, every picture, all my Stephen Pearse pottery, even bedclothes. We divided the house contents into charity, recycle and keep, and the kids literally had a crate each for things they wanted to keep.”
Their new home doesn’t have a garage, shed or attic, “so we knew there would be no place to store bootees from the day you were born in the hospital. All of that had to go.”
Some people might be slow to part with items that hold a sentimental value but she was pragmatic. Her mother had entered a nursing home before they moved, and Esther had cleared out her possessions. “I had seen all the stuff she had kept and no one wanted it,” she says. Most of Esther’s siblings live abroad, and they had no need for the cast iron saucepans or hundreds of photo frames. “It really made me think about why we accumulate all this stuff.”
Their first item on the wish list for their clutter-free new home was to have an A-rated house and they achieved this, getting a Ber rating of A2. They installed a mechanical ventilation system which uses the warm air generated by cooking and showering to heat the incoming air. “There’s a lovely constant temperature so you never have to tell someone to shut a door. It’s an absolute joy to live in,” she says. “It’s not cheap though, when it comes to the electricity bill, but we have the electric car on the bill too, so it’s not a huge increase.”
The house was so heat efficient that she was able to sell her tumble dryer. A small laundry room and hot press on the first floor is equipped with a heater for drying clothes, while the mechanical ventilation system removes the dampness. “It’s invaluable. We were tripping over clothes horses all winter long in our last house.”
Polished concrete covers the ground floor and she finds it very easy to maintain, even with the dog. “All it needs is an occasional damp mop over it, and no cleaning products.” She also ensured the floor was the same level from the front door to the garden, in case mobility issues should arise in the future. Still thinking ahead, she installed a softwood timber staircase with a view to replacing it with a lift if needed.
When she was planning the kitchen, she was shocked at the prices being quoted. “I really don’t understand how people can spend €100,000 on a kitchen. No one can see the carcass. It’s only the doors on display.” She opted for MDF and painted the doors green. “I will respray these to change the colour in time,” she says. But she did splash out when it came to the appliances and has no regrets. “This Miele oven heats to 200 degrees in about three minutes,” she says. The Falmec extractor fan was chosen because it is extremely quiet – useful for when people are trying to watch television in the living area.
The drudgery of washing dishes is alleviated by the view outside the kitchen window. Faced with looking out at a blank wall, she commissioned visual artist Kayde Middleton to paint a colourful and vibrant mural.
Behind their front wall, they built a curve of hidden storage, to compensate for their lack of a shed. The house blends in with the street’s architecture but also stands out, thanks to her decision to write the co-ordinates on the front of the house. “I had noticed how in Scandinavia they don’t put numbers on their houses, they use co-ordinates, so that’s what we did. People comment on it a lot. Someone wondered if we were afraid our pizza delivery would get lost.”
Esther enjoyed the building experience so much that she relishes the idea of doing it all again when the family’s needs change. “I’ve learned so much from this,” she says. “I’m bursting with ideas. And if I don’t get to do it for myself, I will be looking to do it for other people.”
“It might be small but the laundry room is my favourite room in the house.”
“It’s not a mistake, but because we wanted an A-rated house, we couldn’t have an open fire and I really miss that. I’m burning through so many candles, just to see that flicker of light.”
Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone