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Multi- Family Home Extension- A New Approach to Traditional Rural Housing

Rural families in Ireland have a strong tradition of building houses on family land. This goes to the core of rural life in Ireland; it can be extremely difficult to create the life you want in a sparsely populated rural area and all young people face a tough choice to stay or go. Having the space and permission to build an affordable rural home can tip the balance in favour of staying in the local community.

In late 2014, we were approached by a family who had lived in the same rural place for three generations. Our clients were a family of five: a newly married couple with a baby, and the parents of one half of that couple. They owned a house with a large garden which they all shared, they wanted us to extend and modify the house to create two separate homes under one roof.

Their concept was an intriguing variation on a familiar theme. All over Ireland, there are clusters of one- off houses built by successive generations of the same extended family, often on a “local needs” basis. Our brief was to create a complex house which could deliver comfort, independence, privacy and engaging architecture for three generations under one roof. The budget was far smaller than would have been required for a similar one- off house in a separate site.

An Alternative to “Local Needs”

Many rural families have enough land to build separate houses for their adult children or other family members, but others must purchase a site, or struggle to meet “local needs” requirements for planning permission. These struggles are familiar to all rural communities.

Typical Planning Challenges
On a basic practical level, some sites and locations just don’t physically work as sites for new houses.

It can be difficult to accommodate environmental systems (often septic tanks) in what is usually agricultural land. It is sometimes impossible to create new vehicular entrances on dangerous country roads or to create designs which suit the traditional visual character of an area.

Planning policy in most European countries reflects a history of industrial farming and massive urbanisation. We don’t have that legacy, but we our planning theory aims to avoid those same mistakes. Most people in Europe and the UK live in cities and their remaining scenic landscapes are a vital national resource for tourism and the enjoyment of all citizens.

Best practice in planning demands a clear line between urban and rural zoning. New housing outside towns would ideally be limited to existing villages and one off housing in agricultural areas should be almost entirely prohibited as “rural sprawl”. One off houses, dispersed through rural areas are also expensive to service with water and waste disposal, they create a dependancy on cars to access shops and schools, and most importantly they gradually erode the scenic quality of the countryside.

In this context, extending the family home to accommodate more than one family may be an excellent option for growing and supporting rural communities.

 Treading Lightly On The Land

From a social point of view, new houses in rural areas are an extremely positive sign of vitality for communities. However, local authorities are duty bound to limit their proliferation for planning and environmental reasons.

Simplified Planning Strategy
By extending one house for multi- family use, we re-used all pre- existing resources: one well, one waste system, a shared vehicular entrance and parking area, and one rainwater soak-away onsite. The extended house has similar visual presence in the landscape; only a narrow strip of land was needed for the extension. The external finishes were renewed and new trees were planted which aided the visual amenity of the area.

Balancing Privacy and Communality
This strategy was an excellent response to planning policy and the needs of our clients and their community, but what our clients really wanted was a luxurious home that met their needs and facilitated their lifestyles. Designing the layout and mass of the building on the site presented a unique design challenge.

This building is a single house which contains two homes. All members of the family had an input in the design process, and the nature of the links and separations between the two homes were teased out during a long design process. There is a shared west- facing courtyard with windows from both houses. The front driveway is shared, but there are separate parking areas for each home. Each home has a complete range of facilities, separate heating controls and systems, kitchens, bathrooms private garden areas and individualised front doors.

Internally, there is a single door linking the separate internal layouts, which may be locked, opened or closed. To “go next door” requires a conscious act, so the lines of privacy and communality are clearly drawn.

With this design, each family can live independently with as much privacy as they desire, but they are close to each other and share the valuable resources of the site.

Conserving Open Space by Stretching the Footprint

The original building, probably dating from the 1950’s, was a small local authority cottage facing the road at the front of the site. It had been extended twice into a long L-shape which created a complete separation between the busy road in front of the house, and the lush garden which opened onto rolling farmland. Our strategy sought to reuse as much of the existing structure as possible and to conserve the beautiful garden. We added a first floor extension, and widened the short bar of the “L” shape making space for new rooms. This “stretching action” increased the floor area to the extent that a four- bedroom home and a three bedroom home were created in place of the former four bedroom configuration.

The new space “clips around” the old house in section to extend the existing ground floor level, and creates a deceptively spacious first floor with expansive views of the landscape through long horizontal windows.

Reconstruction Challenge

Main contractor Costel Smocot met a great many challenges during the construction process. The part of the house planned for extension was found to be poorly constructed of 1990’s cavity blocks which were unlikely to support the new structure. The roof, masonry and floor structure were all found to be unsuitable for retention, and Costel’s engineer designed a new steel- frame structure to be stitched into the envelope of the old house. This was fabricated onsite by the main contractors skilled workers, and the clients received excellent value in my opinion. One home is essentially a new structure, and the other retains more historic fabric.

Design Process

The design evolved slowly; the clients gradually increased the scope of the project as the design process progressed adding new spaces and functions to an initially modest scheme.

The unique strategy of the multi family home presented new questions of ownership and finance for the project which took time to research and define.

During the planning process, the Local Authority required us to redesign the elevations which had the effect of adding additional space at first floor level. We used a fairly basic level of visualisation in our design process, with a large number of low resolution rendered images to test ideas and progress the design quickly in response to the client’s evolving brief and requirements.
Working Images From Design Process

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