Traditional Stone Cottages – Refurbish or Demolish

We have been involved in a couple of projects recently involving the re-use of existing vernacular buildings where we have had the chance not only to re-use existing buildings but also to salvage materials from demolitions and re-use them in new additions. This post will deal with the demolish or refurbish question. I will look at different methods for addressing the recurring building defects in traditional stone buildings and the re-use of materials in later posts.

In south Co Donegal we were asked to assess the potential for development or reconfiguration of a typical single storey stone cottage. The original two room structure dating back to the late 1700’s was extended and modified over the buildings lifetime ensuring continuous use and occupation. Modifications in the latter part of the 20th century were not carried out particularly well and the inevitable issues of rising damp, high heating bills and low occupant comfort came to the fore. The big question had to be asked by the current owners: Refurbish or Demolish and start again? In reality there was never any question. Being the 4th generation to have occupied the house the current owners felt a sense of responsibility to the place and to their family heritage.

From our point of view our first reaction when working with vernacular buildings in the Irish landscape is that the original building, regardless of its condition should always be retained and incorporated into the design, more often than not it should be the driver of the design. Most of these cottages were built by the owners from local materials who had an intimate relationship with the land and the climate that they lived in. Vernacular buildings are, almost without exception, located in the right place! Shelter was a priority and buildings, particularly along the west coast, have their gables facing into the wind and sit low and blend into the landscape. This is in stark contrast to the more recent fetish for building McMansions on hilltops with porticoed entrances facing onto the main road regardless of where the sun, rain or wind are coming from or where the best views are.

Local lore has it that when the cottage in question was being set out originally that a pile of stones was placed in each corner to mark the location of the intended structure and then left over night. However the family returned the following day to discover the stones had been removed. The house was set out again, with a small pile of stones in each corner, and the day after the same thing occurred, the stones had been removed. This is a reasonably common motif in Irish folklore and was taken as a sign that the house was located in the wrong place and work was being disrupted by the fairies. The location of the house was adjusted and the foundation stones laid out and the following day everything was still in place. This was taken as de-facto approval from a higher power that the house was now in the right location. While the prevalence of the ethereal planning consultations of the fairy folk has somewhat diminished over the last century it is difficult to argue with the value of their legacy!

The intimate relationship of traditional stone buildings with the landscape is not the only benefit to be harnessed from their re-use. Much work has been done recently (particularly by historic Scotland) which points to the environmental advantages of re-using historic buildings. It has even been claimed that the most sustainable building is the one thats already standing. The idea is that even though an older building might not be particularly energy efficient in its use, it most likely has been built using local materials and local labour and its embodied carbon is low and was recovered a long time ago. To put this in context it has been estimated that to knock down, for example, an existing stone cottage and replace it with a new energy efficient structure that it could take between 35 – 50 years to recover the carbon expended during the construction process. By making relatively minor interventions to an existing structure, which inevitably leads us to using natural breathable materials with a lower carbon footprint than their petrochemical based modern equivalents, we can reduce the carbon impact of the build in both the short and long term while still addressing the immediate issues of occupant comfort.

Finally there is a distinct planning advantage in the re-use of an existing structure for those planning to move to the countryside but finding it difficult to find a site that they can build on. Most, if not all, planning authorities in Ireland have recognised the devastating impact of ribbon development and what have become known as “bungalow bliss” buildings on our natural landscape. Development on virgin sites in rural areas has now been restricted quite severely and favours generally only those who have a proven association with the land. While these policies have halted or at least restricted a worrying development pattern the legacy of abandoned vernacular buildings (stone cottages, farmhouses etc) around the country is at risk. Many of these buildings were in use right up until the latter half of the 20th century and have basic facilities like on-site wells and septic tanks. Many Local Authorities are supportive of efforts to bring these buildings back to life as it can contribute to the reinvigoration of rural communities without placing strain on existing infrastructure or requiring the development of virgin land. Incorporating the re-use of an existing vernacular building into a project can facilitate a more positive engagement between the developer and the Local Authority.

If you are thinking of refurbishing a traditional cottage or farmhouse why not download our free guide here.

If you would like to find out more about the cottage refurbish project mentioned in this article please click here

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