Restoration without the period drama – how to convert a Georgian office block back to a home
With office rents down, and a change in the bedsits law, converting substantial Georgian buildings back into homes is an attractive prospect – but how do you do it?
Architect Tom McGimsey outside No 38 Northumberland Road. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
City centre offices in period houses no longer command the rental highs of the boom years. The second-home tax and the recent law requiring pre-63 property investors to convert all of their units to ensure each one has a separate bathroom attached, has pushed many landlords out of the game.
The availability of down-at-heel grand dame homes has drawn a new type of househunter into the market – and they’re buying big – investing in doer-uppers that need levels of work that would make Sarah Beeny blanch.
They’re returning these large two- and three-storey over-basement properties back to their original use as glamorous residential homes. For many of us the idea remains a day dream but what is the reality for those that take them on?
“Because of the sharp drop in office rents there is an emerging trend in buyers seeing good value in these comparatively large properties, close to the city centre, and they’re falling for their undeniable charms and returning them to their original residential use,” says Simon Stokes, managing director of Stokes Property. At the height of the boom office rents in these properties would have reached €40 to €50 per sq ft. Those rentals have flatlined so there is a return in residential interest.”
Number 7 Northumberland Road, Ballsbridge, is a three-storey over-basement end-of-terrace Georgian building in office use but with obvious residential potential.
The house has a 50m west facing, back garden and has vehicular access onto Percy Lane. It is €750,000 through Stokes Property Consultants and Simon reports strong interest in the 325sq m (3,503sq ft) building, all from residential purchasers.
Conservation architect Tom McGimsey of Mesh Architects lives in a Victorian house in Clontarf that was in bedsits when he bought it. A serial period-house renovator, he has done up 20 such buildings and lived in five of them.
“The benefit of chasing a property set out in offices, as opposed to pre-63 flats, is that you don’t have multiple bathrooms and kitchenettes to deal with,” he says knowingly.
“You have to ask yourself why you’re buying a home like this,” he counsels. “You won’t get a big eat-in kitchen, dining room and living room on the one level. If you don’t want to do stairs then don’t buy this type of period property.”
In 7 Northumberland Road, just three steps separate the reception rooms from the mid 20th century concrete extension on the return. McGimsey suggests razing it and building a single-storey kitchen extension that doesn’t obliterate the natural light that pours into the well-proportioned back room.
This reverse living, mainly in the rear of the house, takes advantage of its westerly aspect. It also allows you to live in the good rooms of the house rather than in the basement, he explains.
Another house in offices, at 38 Northumberland Road, is rich in period features. Asking €750,000 through agents Savills, the two-storey over basement mid-terrace property measures 247sq m (2,658sq ft) and has a large yard to the rear with access to Lansdowne Park where there is potential to build a mews.
In a house this size where do you put the kitchen, the heart of the home? “The traditional approach has been to install the kitchen at garden level,” McGimsey says. “This means you do the lion’s share of your living at this level which is nice if the house is actually at the garden level and not underground. It does however separate you from the sitting rooms, which is a terrible waste in houses like these.”
There is a new school of thought gaining traction. In a property on Northbrook Road, on the advice of their architect, Stephen Tierney of Tierney Haines, a contemporary conservationist, the owners installed their kitchen in what is generally considered the dining room. One compromise McGimpsey suggests is to install the kitchen on the hall return, beside the reception rooms.
Energy efficiency is another big issue. Homes like this will never achieve an A1 BER rating and you’re not required to but rising heating bills mean everyone is looking at the bottom line, McGimsey says. By insulating the roof and windows you can reduce heat loss in period houses by 50 per cent.
He suggests hemp and lime plaster inside as a breathable option. “If you take on a project like this it will take 50 per cent longer than the average refurbishment and you’re going to find other things wrong with the building once you get under its skin but that shouldn’t faze experienced builders and architects,” McGimsey says. “To cope you will need a financial contingency of at least 10 per cent of the budget.”
When decorating don’t try to make period homes look like a new house, Tom cautions. “You lose their character. For this to work you need some things to look old.”
Finding original features is one of the hardest parts of this type of refurbishment, says Emma Cormack, owner of Castle Oliver, a baronial mansion of more than 100 rooms in Co Limerick, that they’ve just put up for sale.
She and her husband, Declan Cormack, had a lot of their work done overseas, in England. While she’d rather not say how much the refurbishments cost, she does advise readers to get craftsmen to demonstrate small samples of their work before agreeing to commission them. “Then set a price and stick to it,” she says.
“These period houses offer high ceilings and big windows in a mature setting and even allow you to time travel – you are living in a building that is as much as 300 years old. Enjoy the experience,” says McGimsey.
FIND THE EXPERTS
Word of mouth is best , says Tom McGimsey of Mesh Architects. “Ask to see a craftsperson’s work and get references from their clients. Knock on the doors of neighbours who have already had work done. Ask who they used and what they thought of their work. This requires a lot of legwork. You won’t get good, sensitive work done cheaply. Good craftspeople can’t cut corners. If they do you won’t be happy with the work.”
The Georgian Society has a list of craftspeople qualified in all areas of period restoration (01-676 7053, igs.ie).
Where to get advice
Start by talking to your city or county council’s conservation officer, says McGimsey. “They have a lot of experience with architects who are expert in this field.”
Any physical changes require planning permission, including changing the use from office to residential.
The Heritage Council (056-777 0777, heritagecouncil.ie) has information in relation to national heritage structures and regulations.
Your local authority will confirm the exact status of your property, and the Department of the Environment (1890 202 021, environ.ie) offers general information.
On its website the Department of Arts and Heritage has advice on energy efficiency in traditional buildings and repair of historic roofs, windows, wrought and cast-iron and masonry (ahg.gov.ie).
Choosing an architect
For a sensitive restoration that meets planning guidelines you will need a grade one or grade two conservation architect.
The Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland (01-6761703, riai.ie)
practice directory lists all qualified practitioners registered with them.
When choosing an architect McGimsey suggests you look on their website to see the kind of work they’ve done. “Then ask them about their work,” he says. “Conservation architects love to share what we know so you may get a lot of free advice. See if you like the sound of them. If you do, ask them to price the job. If they start to suggest a big extension at the back run a mile.”
How do you save money?
The easiest way is to do some of the work yourself, McGimsey says.
The Dublin Civic Trust runs courses and seminars that provide skills in the repair and maintenance of historic and traditionally built structures. While aimed at building professionals, members of the public are also welcome.
Courses include traditional slate roofing, treating damp, repairing windows and mixing lime plaster. They cost €170 a day ( dublincivictrust.ie,
What will it cost?
According to McGimsey, services on a full Georgian renovation – wiring, plumbing and drains – will cost between €40,000 and €60,000. Slating and such on a roof will cost between €20,000 and €30,000. Simple plasterwork repairs cost upwards of €1,500 per room.
Repairs of intricate plasterwork can cost from €3,000 to €10,000 a room. Weather stripping sash windows will cost €600 to €800 per window. Replacing windows will cost €2,00 to €3,000 each. A new kitchen costs from €10,000 to €50,000.
Sourcing original features
It is becoming harder and harder to find original Irish features. MyAntiques.ie lists local and national auctions and antique dealers most of whom have websites listing their wares.
Salvo.co.uk allows you to upload wanted ads as well as preview upcoming fairs, items for sale, get demolition alerts and find dealers. It might be cheaper to rent a van and travel to the UK to pick up several pieces in one go.
Period Houses: A Conservation Guidance Manual by Frank Keohane is available from the Irish Georgian Society.