Right now, we are changing the way we live, and what we want from the spaces we live in. Rooms where we normally spend few waking hours have come to encapsulate our entire existence. Our homes have simultaneously become offices, makeshift classrooms, meeting rooms (via video conferencing) and gyms.
And as we continue to shelter it’s not just the décor, layout and lighting that have come in for scrutiny. How energy efficient and sustainable our homes are is also under the spotlight. Our outdoor spaces too are being reassessed for what they can offer and how they function.
With restrictions set to be in place for the foreseeable – and the autumn drawing in – we talk to architects, interior designers and energy efficiency experts and get them to share their ideas and advice on eight strategies to reshape our living spaces for the cosiest ways to live in the new normal.
Embrace broken plan living
While open plan living has made it easy for us to stay home with our partner or kids, it has also made it difficult to stay separate: and practically impossible to quarantine someone who has the virus. Architect Colm Doyle of Dublin-based DMVF recommends sliding or folding doors to create broken-plan zones that can accommodate different functions throughout the day.
“Some kind of dedicated office space is crucial; squeezed in under the stairs, on the landing or inside a wardrobe in the kitchen that can be closed up at the end of the working day,” he says. If budget and space permits, Doyle suggests investing in a garden room that will allow you to, “get out of the house to work. That physical work-life separation is so essential for our mental health right now.”
Let in the light
Studies show that natural light increases productivity and can help to maintain a positive mood; with more of us at home it makes sense to do all that we can to maximise it. In one 2018 study conducted at US university Cornell, those working in optimised natural light reported an 84 per cent drop in symptoms of eyestrain, headaches and blurred vision.
"Consider swapping out solid internal doors with glass ones, changing windows to full-height double doors that give an uninterrupted view and greater connection to the outdoors and incorporating roof lanterns," says architect Denise O'Connor, Optimise Design, Dublin.
“Other simple décor tricks include a wall of floor-to-ceiling mirrors in the hallway to visually double the space and bounce light around the room and a mirrored splashback in the kitchen; it will pick up the light and views from adjacent windows and is nicer to look at than a blank wall.”
Invest in your air
Just about everything is being viewed through the lens of contagion at the moment, which is why a cleaner, healthier habitat is key. “In terms of interior design, there’s a growing trend for incorporating touch-free tech. Think sensor flush toilets, bins that open and close automatically, smart control taps and automated window treatments,” says O’Connor.
For anyone undertaking a deep energy upgrade, David Flannery, home retrofit advisor at SuperHomes, Tipperary, suggests investing in a mechanical ventilation system. Sure, it's an investment, but according to Flannery the benefits are, "a healthier indoor environment; fresher, cleaner air, reduced condensation and moisture build-up and no nasty odours from cooking or other household pollutants."
Improve your home’s efficiency
With winter looming, niggling issues like condensation on windows and cold floors are becoming real problems. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) is predicting a surge of interest in government-funded grants for home energy improvements. "Getting a Building Energy Rating (BER) for your home is crucial. It's as complex and comprehensive as an NCT and will help you to prioritise your upgrades," says Tom Halpin, head of communications with SEAI.
"Switching to LED bulbs, draught-proofing windows and doors and plugging gaps in floorboards are quick, low-cost fixes," says Val O'Brien, chartered building surveyor. In older homes, he suggests insulating the attic as a priority. "It can be done in a day and will improve your home's heat retention immediately. The job will cost from about €2,000 upwards; less if you're a competent DIYer.
"A boiler service, from around €100, thermostatic valves on radiators, from €150 each, and power flushing your system, from €600, will go a long way to improving your current heating system," says William Connell, product manager at Heat Merchants Group.
If your boiler is older than 10 years, he suggests replacing it with a high-efficiency condensing boiler which are up to 98 per cent efficient. “Consider too fully integrated smart heating controls that can be adjusted remotely; keep the hot water and heat separate also.”
Invest in green energy
With stay-at-home households facing a huge hike in energy bills, Dublin architect André Negri of eco architecture practice, Studio Negri, advises investing in green energy – in particular, heat pumps. "Drawing energy from the ground or air via a heat pump is up to 400 per cent efficient and up to 60 per cent less costly to run than traditional fossil fuel boilers," he says.
“Prices have come down significantly in recent years with the cost to supply, install and commission a retrofit solution for an average three-bed semi around €15,000-€20,000, with an SEAI grant aid of up to €3,500.”
Generate your own electricity
Of course, living off-grid means no energy bills at all. “Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels can generate electricity from natural daylight, and any excess can be automatically used to heat your water,” says Flannery. “A solar system on its own will not power all of your energy needs but it can produce up to 70 per cent of your annual electricity if you also include battery storage. It’s most efficient on south-facing rooftops, although there are solutions for any orientation.”
Expect to pay around €15,000 (with full €3,800 SEAI grant) for a 20-panel system with battery. “A bespoke system will ensure that your payback period is as short as possible,” says Flannery.
Restyle your home as a haven
The notion of home as a haven has had a new and profound meaning since lockdown. As the outside world becomes less touchable we're turning to décor details to create comfort. It's a simpler, more achievable way to create a home you'll love to live in. "In terms of design, colour, good lighting and tactile fabrics are perfect for creating a cosy sanctuary to relax and unwind, says Carol-Anne Leyden of interior design consultancy CA Design.
“There’s definitely a greater emphasis too on decorating with pieces that are unique or have meaning. We’re appreciating inherited items and embracing sustainability in design, whether it’s upcycling something old or buying pieces made from sustainable materials.”
Create quality outdoor space
The garden as an extra room is a trend that's been growing since lockdown. Google searches for backyard ideas are up 200 per cent. "The pandemic has placed a greater importance on the quality of our outdoor spaces, both private and communal," says Alan Burns, director and co-founder of Bright Designs Architects.
“As we head into winter it will be interesting to see how homeowners continue to make use of their gardens. There might be a temptation to replace natural lawns with AstroTurf, though that should be avoided at all costs as it has serious consequences for biodiversity. Storage and some sort of covered area for dining or sitting outside, in the sunniest part of the garden, will prolong enjoyment. The growing of vegetables too will force continued interaction.”