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Urban Cottage for a Writer, The Liberties, Dublin

Budget: €38,000 Location: The Liberties, Dublin 8.

This was the smallest construction project we have done in the last few years, but as it unfolded over a few short weeks, it was perhaps the most enjoyable. Our client had an excellent visual sense and a clear vision of how the cottage would work and feel. We introduced her to a builder with an excellent set of skills, and we facilitated their collaboration with clear drawings and gave them the benefit of our recent experience working on historic structures.

The result is a complex living and work space with a unique aesthetic and sense of history. 

Revealing the Story of the Cottage with Sensitive Construction Details

The visual appearance of the original cottage had a well worn quality; a very distinctive patina resulting from a century of maintenance and use. While many new owners of historic labourer’s cottages seek to completely reconstruct and remove all references to the humble past, we treated the cottage as you would treat a building of great historic importance.

We sought to retain and reveal the parts which most contributed to its historic charm, while conducting repairs and adding new components to ensure the cottage will remain useful and comfortable for many years to come.    

In practice, this meant that new additions to the structure are crisp and properly finished to modern standards, whereas older parts are clearly legible with original finishes and signs of wear. We decided not to re-skim the existing plaster, or to cover the old varnished floor boards, but to add new, highly efficient materials to achieve the clients goals as elegantly as possible. 

Functional Brief

Our client wished to create a comfortable space for one person in which to live, sleep, work and entertain. This tiny hundred year old worker’s cottage needed repairs and careful redesign:

  • To use the entire volume of the building by creating a new mezzanine level
  • Use the existing bedroom area as a separate work and dining zone, for work- life balance
  • Conserve the original sitting room and fireplace
  • Merge the various rooms into one volume to create a rich spatial experience
  • Add roof windows for light, air and a secondary fire escape route.
  • Upgrade bathroom, and make minor repairs to the kitchen and floors
  • Replace roof covering, repair roof structure and install insulation.
  • Fit book starage into all residual spaces

Site constraints

The house completely fills the plot, with the exception of a small outdoor yard, measuring just 2-3 metres square, so a more conventional house extension strategy wasn’t an option.

The terrace of houses are all single story with a consistent ridge line. While there are many two story houses nearby, adding a second story would have been contrary to the general standards of the development plan and it would have been an unwelcome planning challenge.

Design Process

The design was discussed in one or two meetings in the space with the client and builder. We then spent a few days in the office creating a BIM model, and developing the design through sketches.  

Sleeping Mezzanine

The cottage had quite high ceilings and a small attic. We decided to exploit the entire volume of the building by exposing the underside of the roof. We reduced the ceiling height of half the building to a standard 2.4 metres and were able to create a mezzanine floor. 

Our client chooses to use this space as a space for sleeping, but strictly speaking it can only be certified as a storage attic due to the reduced ceiling height.

Fire Safety and Application Interpretation of Building Regulations

A completely open plan layout like this one isn’t usually possible under the building regulations; it does not provide a protected escape route in the event of fire. However the various “travel distances” to fire escape routes were very small which minimises risk in this project. Also, the pre existing design was completely open plan, so the redesign did not increase risk in this regard, but reduced it with a number of small remedial steps.

This building is not as safe as a modern apartment, but new work is compliant and the overall home is safer than it was. The roof windows were designed for fire escape, and a proper fire detection system was installed. We briefed the client on how the house would likely perform in a fire, and how to escape safely.

Stairs Design

The stairs meets minimum requirements for overall size in a modern domestic space, as such it is quite a large addition to this tiny cottage. We wanted something sculptural, which presented itself as a collection of different parts and materials, not a large monolithic element that would dominate the space.

The budget was so small, that it wasn’t possible to appoint a fabrication subcontractor who would make the stairs off site. We discussed the possible options with our main contractor and the client, and created a design which could be built onsite with the skills and budget at our disposal.

The stairs (as photographed) is not currently suitable for domestic use because of the open balustrade and risers, but a glass or mesh balustrade could be added easily. The client accepts this risk and prefers the reduced visual presence of the stairs without proper safety barriers on the side.

Structural Upgrades and Repairs

The original cottage walls were formed from cast in-situ concrete. We found the concrete had been mixed poorly during the original construction, and not enough cement was used. The structural strength of the walls was variable, with some strong patches and some weak areas. The front structural wall had suffered damage from water ingress, so we repaired and consolidated the crumbling walls with several layers of high strength concrete with reinforcing mesh.

Revealing the Chimney as  Sculptural Element

The house contained a cast concrete chimney “half arch” which coupled with another half arch in the adjoining cottage to support a shared chimney. This unusual design allowed the fire to be located in the middle of the two room cottage, and acted as a large “thermal mass” which absorbed heat from cooking and released it slowly which helped regulate the temperature of the house.

The chimney needed to be treated with care because it too was built from poor quality concrete. It could not accept any new loads, and if it collapsed it would damage the adjoining house. In effect, the chimney was a complex party structure.

We exposed this wall as a sculptural element in the space, consolidated it with some new concrete and fitted the feature stairs around it, without any new weight being imposed on it, or any foundation works for new columns, which could have caused damage.

Structural Gymnastics

When we added the mezzanine, we wanted to avoid adding structural columns in the limited ground floor space. To avoid this, we hung all new structures from above. We created a strong structure at roof level, which transferred the load to the existing structural walls evenly, and hung the mezzanine floor using tie elements site formed from timber and steel.

 

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