From faded to fabulous: Bringing a Belfast home back to life

Sheelagh Wright and her husband used creativity to overcome challenge of renovating new home

When Sheelagh Wright saw the house that she and her family now call home, she knew that, although it was in a bad state of disrepair, with a little care, attention, imagination, and good old-fashioned elbow grease, it could be a beautiful place to live.

So in 2017, she and her husband Andrew bought the six-bedroom home in east Belfast and set about renovating it into the perfect family home. They moved into it just before the first lockdown in 2020.

“We were the only bidders on the house, which is just over 100 years old and had been split into three flats in the 1950s,” she says. “The ground floor was in continuous occupation, but the two flats upstairs had been rented out in the 1960s and hadn’t been occupied (or renovated) for many years, so were in very poor condition – with the only access being via a precarious outdoor fire-escape across a flat roof. It was a daunting challenge and a huge undertaking, but I had a vision for what this handsome building could become, and I love a challenge.

“We were the only bidders, as it was immediately clear that there was a lot of work to be done to restore it back to its former glory. But we loved the original features, which were still intact, and could see the potential of the space and light in the building. It was just crying out to be turned back into a family home and I could visualise what a wonderful property it could be.”


Great satisfaction

Sheelagh, who previously worked as a project co-ordinator with a firm of architects in Dublin, says she gets great satisfaction from seeing run-down properties restored to their former glory and had some previous involvement in this herself.

“I transformed my first home, with lots of help from my parents, and renovated my husband’s first home to sell before we got married,” she says. “Also, he and I had undertaken a year-long renovation of our previous home, which, when we bought it, had trees and ivy growing through the floor and roof of the kitchen. But we could see the potential and I project-managed that renovation myself while working full-time in public relations for a firm in Belfast.

“I learned so much from that experience and gained so many useful contacts with specialist trades. When we bought this house, it had been 10 years since we completed our first renovation, so it felt like the time was right for a new challenge. But this time, we had three children – Rebecca (12), Ella (11) and Ben (8) – along for the ride, so after camping out in the downstairs flat for a year, we decided to move into temporary accommodation while we undertook the work.

“Over the course of a year, our builders, JB Bentley & Sons, took the roof off, slate by slate, [and] insulated and restored it using the original slates and some reclaimed ones. They took the whole back off the house in order to reconfigure the layout and add a two-storey extension for the new open-plan kitchen, living, dining area and an additional bedroom. It was pretty terrifying to arrive on site after the first couple of days of demolition and see the extent of the teardown before we started to rebuild. To stand in the hallway and look up through three floors to the sky beyond or out to the back garden as there was no back wall was fairly sobering.”

Roof space conversion

In addition to the extension at the rear of the property, which is situated close to Stormont, the couple made the decision to add a roof space conversion to incorporate two en suite guest rooms in what was previously unused space in the attic.

Sheelagh says that one of the most satisfying aspects of the build was working with specialist tradespeople to restore original features, such as cornicing, sliding sash windows, stained glass and unusual carvings and joinery.

“While for many people, choosing finishes and designing interiors can be one of the most overwhelming aspects of a building project, that was an aspect of the renovation I really enjoyed,” she says. “So much of the budget had to go on structural work, so we had to be creative when it came to sourcing furniture and interior pieces. Fortunately, my hubby shares my passion for vintage, and we love rummaging through charity shops and antique stores to find bargains. It makes for quite a quirky eclectic home and our kids are often horrified by the things we pick up – although I’m convinced they secretly enjoy helping me restore and upcycle things.

"I've loved the experience of this renovation and it has led to an unexpected career change as I started sharing our experiences on Instagram and found many were struggling to find the right tradespeople to work on older properties. Then people started asking if I could advise them on their renovations and help them source one-off pieces for their interiors, so I started a year ago and have had the pleasure of working with some wonderful clients to transform their homes.

“Helping other people with their projects also has the added benefit of scratching my constant renovation itch without having to move again.”

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris

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