Harrison Gardner is on a mission to get people back in touch with their inner builder. Since 2017 the Australian has been living in the west of Ireland outside the Co Clare market town of Ennistymon, where he bought a run-down old cottage on five acres for €80,000 and started to refurbish it.
He had been working as a foreman for the US-based building school Earthship Biotecture, and working on projects in Argentina, Canada, Malawi, Japan and Australia. Having just completed a job in Iceland and with a few months off, friends suggested he visit Ireland. He met Aisling Robinson and Luca D'Alfonso, co-founders of the Fumbally cafe in Dublin 8, and just kept coming back, exploring the countryside each time. "Just 10 minutes from the ocean the cottage felt like a safe place to invest money and turn it into something," he says.
In renovating and extending the house he has also established a business that shows the public, even those of us with who have never lifted a tool in our lives, how to renovate and build our own.
He has also parlayed this knowledge into a range of five-day courses, a new coffee-table book called Build Your Own, and even a forthcoming TV show.
In an era of Instagram feeds with handles such as @CheapIrishHouses, @RomanticIrishRescue, @FormerGloryIreland and @SeasideIrishHomes, all showing us abodes in need of what estate agents describe as "modernisation", Gardner believes most of us can do at least some of the work ourselves.
His credo is that by being more hands-on you get a better understanding of the building process and, in the current housing crisis, such upskilling could help get a roof over your head.
It’s a smart and a seductive premise that allows you to put your own fingerprints, quite literally, on your home. What he is really tapping into is the needs of those of us on tight budgets, renovators who want to buy a doer-upper but can’t afford to outsource the refurbishment costs, and homeowners who want to upgrade their home but may no longer be eligible for a mortgage.
He says we can all grasp the basics on one of the five-day courses he and his wife, textile artist Erin McClure, run during the summer months from their Co Clare homestead.
DIY is big business now. This time round the medium is digital, with YouTube, Tik Tok and Instagram offering quick and stylish hacks for every room in the house. The target market isn't age specific. What unites these tribes, from Gen Z to baby boomers, is that they're not afraid to get their hands dirty.
Over the last three years Gardner has had 250 students through the place. They range in ages from 16 to 72. Teens come along with their parents. Women make-up 55 per cent of the classes, debunking the myth that women don’t do DIY. He’s hoping for 400 this summer.
“People make it sound a lot harder than it is,” he says almost blithely. His parents built their own home in the early 1990s, and by helping out, they got a taste for construction.
Contemporary building regulations and bank lending strictures mean the self-build dream is no longer as straightforward as it was when Jack Fitzsimons’s Bungalow Bliss manual was first self-published in 1971. The bank won’t lend unless you construct in a certain way, and the contemporary self-build requires staged sign-offs by either an engineer or an architect.
“We no longer have a culture of the owner-builder. If you’re not an experienced builder you’ve no idea whether the build is to standard,” Gardner says.
“It takes a bit of confidence, but a lot of the work is grunt work, repetitive tasks,” he says. “You learn a skill once, like cutting insulation to fit, and then you can repeat it a thousand times. The courses grew out of requests from people asking the same questions over and over again.”
Costing €700 for five days (excluding accommodation), Level 1 may be the best money you spend on your home, bar investing in a Ber certification.
On it you get to try stone stacking, bricklaying and building timber-frame walls, as well as learn how to wash sheepswool to make your own insulation. Gardner also shows how you can use bottles and aluminium cans as base materials in walls – these also have a decorative element and the technique is evident in his own greenhouse.
You even learn how to fit pre-made windows and exterior doors, as well as hang interior ones. This means you can order fenestrations on a supply-only basis, which not only increases the speed with which they will be delivered but can help reduce some of the build costs by 30 to 40 per cent, he estimates.
“It’s about agile building,” he says. “The point is to help people with the skills that they need . . . to help them use what they have around them.” In a marketplace with shocking levels of inflation on materials, it injects a sense of hope.
The courses aren’t just demonstrations. You are going to get hot and sweaty and have to work with strangers to complete tasks. You may not always agree on how things should be done.
For some, the practical course makes complete sense. For the majority it gets them thinking about how their building works. It imbues them with a sort of X-ray vision that means they can now see beyond the plasterboard to get a better sense of the fabric of the building. Some of the romance of old buildings is lost but on the plus side, he says: “It also helps them talk to their builder and allows them to become part of the process. It is empowering to have had a literal hand in the works you do or have done to your home.”
This is an important touch and possibly the biggest take-away from the Level 1 offer. “Buildings belong to all of us,” he says. “As rents go up the chance to buy is becoming completely impossible to attain.” This offers a way in.
From start to finish you will complete a shelter in the five days, one with a roof. It might be a greenhouse, a shed or a garden room. This season you will be building tiny homes on trailers so that can be transported around, for there is no further space on their lands to construct.
While these courses offer a lot, renovation remains a numbers game. It is harder for the solo buyer or renovator, because the most practical way to get a big project done requires some form of partnership, where one half of the duo agrees to take time off work, most probably a year, to realise the ambition. The other half should keep working, Gardner counsels. “You need to keep money coming in to buy the materials.”
It’s a big commitment, but if the holy grail is a small mortgage, land to grow some vegetables and a home that you genuinely had a hand in making, this is the way to do it. It will also help grow your confidence to take advantage of all those Instagram tutorials.
Full details of the courses are available on harrisongardner.net. Build Your Own: Use What You Have to Build What You Need is published by Gill Books