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‘We wanted it to last for another 100 years’: the families transforming period houses

Working on a listed or period property may be a daunting task, but these homeowners are drawing the benefits

For Maria O’Gorman Skelly, the age of her house was one of the reasons she fell in love with it, and why she and her husband, Ciaran, bought it back in 2006.

Built in 1890, the red-bricked four-storey building in Limerick city centre had the ideal location for O’Gorman Skelly and her husband and their two children, Suzanne and David.

After enlisting the help of Noel Kerley Associates architects, they set about turning the old building into the perfect family home.

“Noel Kerley did a wonderful job in the renovation and extension of this period house, which was in need of a huge refurbishment and modernisation,” she says. “In his design and extension, he was very sympathetic of the period of house throughout, and we were able to retain many original features, shutters and the original sash windows at front. Then, while extending the house, we duplicated the period feel throughout.


“I really love our drawingroom to the front, which has a beautiful bay window which fills the room with wonderful light – this room also still has the original fireplace, architrave and shutters. We are very fortunate to have lovely mature trees in our back garden, along with off-street parking – so it’s wonderful to be in this house and neighbourhood, which is also so close to the city centre.”

O’Gorman Skelly is like many homeowners who are smitten by old buildings with original features and a unique, quirky style. But, while such properties offer a look and feel which sets the house apart from its more modern neighbours, it can require a lot of work to ensure the building is equipped to deal with modern living requirements.

John Culligan can attest to this as, together with his wife, he bought a three-bedroomed house in Co Dublin which, at almost a century old, was in need of a lot of TLC. The previous owner had occupied it until her death in 2018.

But, while they were aware that much work needed to be done, they weren’t deterred by this and set about renovating it to a modern standard, while retaining some of the character that had attracted them to the house.

“The previous owner had lived here all her life, and when she passed away it lay empty for a few years,” he says. “It was in quite a lot of disrepair and needed to be rewired, with new bathrooms and kitchen put in. It also needed to have part of the roof replaced and the staircase was a bit of a hazard as it seems to have been there since the start.

“We enlisted the help of a conservation architect as, while it was obvious that a complete overhaul was in order, we wanted to keep the essence of the house and some of the lovely old features, but at the same time, we had to make sure that it was practical – and more importantly, safe.”

I can fully relate to the importance of making sure an old house is equipped with modern fixtures which comply with health and safety regulations. I recently stayed in a 17th century town house in Bruges, Belgium, with an original spiral staircase spread over three floors. The house was undoubtedly characterful and beautiful, but the stairs were an accident waiting to happen, and I felt lucky to get through the short stay without injury.

Culligan says this is how they felt about their home renovation, as they wanted to keep as much of the old house as possible, but, like the house in Bruges, the stairs were not fit for purpose.

“The fireplace, floor tiles and some of the wooden floors came up beautifully during the restoration, but the staircase, although made with fabulous old oak, had worn away in parts and you had to tread very carefully on them,” he says. “It didn’t make sense to try to fix it as it would have needed so much work, so, sadly, we had to take it out and put in a modern, sturdy replica.

“We also had to replace the boards upstairs and a couple of the joists which looked as though they had some sort of woodworm or decay starting to take hold, and the chimney in the downstairs sittingroom also needed to be completely rebricked as it had eroded over the years.

“It was a long and quite expensive job, but we wanted to ensure that we did our best by the house and that it would withstand the elements and everyday living for another 100 years.”

‘Not to be taken lightly’

According to Ken Anderson of Holly Park Studio Architects, restoring a period building can be an incredibly rewarding experience, but it is not a project to be taken lightly, particularly if an extension is being built on to an existing building.

“Older buildings tend to be heavily compartmentalised and were not designed for how we live our lives today, so it is important to look at the spaces available, as they may not meet your needs,” he says.

“Much of the charm of period buildings comes from the features such as fireplaces, cornicing and sash windows, and it is important in renovation or remodelling to retain as much of the original as possible. Damaged features can be restored or replaced, while the opportunity may exist for upgrading, such as using an insulation render on the walls or double glazed units in the windows.”

According to Anderson, extending a protected structure is possible, especially if it has been previously extended.

It is important to recognise and accept that an old building will never provide the same comfort levels as a new build – although this is usually outweighed by its charm and space

—  Ken Anderson, Holly Park Studio Architects

“However, it’s important to ensure that any new structure does not overpower or dominate the original building. Extensions are more likely to be accepted if they are built on to the back of the building and can’t be seen from the front – and how any extension is linked to the original building needs to be well thought out to avoid removing any historic walling. Ideally, an existing doorway should be used to link the old and the new – and the materials used on the exterior of any extension should also reference the original building.”

The Dublin-based architect says it’s critical when working with an old building to “understand how it was constructed, how it was meant to work, and the effect alterations and additions have had on the original structure”.

“Knowledge is key,” he says. “It is also important to recognise and accept that an old building will never provide the same comfort levels as a new build – although this is usually outweighed by its charm and space.

“However, as long as the correct procedures are followed and the project is taken stage by stage, there is no reason for it not to be immensely rewarding and for the project to achieve with great results.”

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in health, lifestyle, parenting, travel and human interest stories