Guest blog post for Cottageology, my view on the traditional Irish Cottage and working with them…

This was originally a guest post on Cottageology – a brilliant and highly recommended web site for lovers of the traditional Irish Cottage and all things Irish Cottage related. Here’s the original piece as it appears on Cottageology and also here you go below, ‘My view of the traditional Irish Cottage’ – enjoy:

My starting point for any project is always, “If this was my house, and taking the clients brief into account, what would be the best possible thing I can do?” As an architect I’m aware at all stages of creating an elegant, sustainable solution that the planners are going to like but the premise of “the best solution for the property” is one that holds well; if I don’t like what I’ve designed then how can I expect the clients to.

The premise of this post therefore is the proposals that if I were given a traditional Irish cottage then what would I do with it? We’ll need firstly to have a look at the design of these now neglected and Irish cottages and how they fit into 21st century living:

The vast majority of what you see as ‘The Traditional Irish Cottage’ fall into a similar design; usually with two bedrooms of a central living and cooking space. This central living space was the heart of the house which had an open fire for cooking and heating and frequently had a small ‘outshot’ which would house a small purpose built bed for Granny or Granddad to sleep in.

The cottage would have been built with whatever materials were to hand; stones for the walls, salvaged timber and thatch for the roof. Because of the scarcity of materials the house was only a single room deep and due to the tax on glass the windows would have been small and vertically orientated (the lintel over the window spanning a shorter distance).

The house would have been constructed by the owner with help from neighbours and friends. It is these characteristics that Ireland is now returning to in terms of new rural houses; the Cork Design Guide and the Mayo County Council Guidelines for Rural Houses both favour new houses that are a single room in depth (approximately 7-8metres), have vertically orientated windows and are constructed and finished in traditional materials.

But returning to our premise, what would I do if given a 19th century traditional Irish Cottage? Well, as you can see if the house is to be lived in for any extended period then the accommodation is insufficient by current day standards and the likelihood is that you’ll need to extend the property. Luckily the planners are happier when an existing property is extended (as long as all other planning factors such as road safety and site percolation are acceptable) rather than building anew. But what is the best way to sympathetically to extend a traditional cottage without losing its original charm and honesty.

Let’s assume therefore that your cottage has fallen into disrepair and firstly needs to be restored; we’ll need firstly therefore to tackle this before we can even consider extending it. As an RIAI architect accredited in Conservation (Grade III), the principle of ‘minimal intervention’ is the primary concern in work of this type; that is the minimal amount of work required in order to arrest the disrepair and to give the building a future for many years to come. This means using the correct materials and techniques to restore a building back to its original integrity. For a traditional cottage this means using lime mortars and renders for the stone walls, ideally repairing the original windows or secondly to install appropriately proportioned windows and doors that would be from the cottage’s period. The process of a house restoration takes time and care if you’re employing someone else to do it frequently a good sum of money due to the time involved. The gentle restoration of this type using the correct materials and construction is not a process to be taken lightly; it’s very easy to use the incorrect materials that actually increase the level of damp in a property rather than eliminating it. The biggest problem with stone cottages is the prevalent use of Portland Cement based renders on the walls that originally would have been finished in a naturally hydraulic lime based render. The problem with modern cement based renders on walls of this type is that water can penetrate any cracks in the render due to any slight wall movement (walls were frequently built on no or little or no foundations remember). This water then cannot find a way out of the building and crystallises as salt deposits on the walls; these deposits show as bubbled wallpaper or a salty crusts on the walls. The use of lime on walls allows the walls to dry out naturally and is therefore essential in restoring properties of this period.

Trying to obtain current levels of insulation in a traditional stone wall of this type is nigh on impossible; by drylining internally you will be drastically reducing the size of the rooms and insulating and rendering externally you’ll be changing drastically the appearance of the property. Instead (again with the premise that it’s my house and wanting to do the best that I could) I would be simply returning to the way the house was heated originally; by simply lighting a fire in the fireplace! You could however increase the thermal efficiency of the fireplace by installing a multi-fuel stove instead of leaving the fire open.

For more information on using Lime in your building, the book ‘Lime Works’ by Patrick McAfee is a brilliant resource on lime for render, mortar and floors.
So, you’ve carefully and diligently restored your lovely cottage but in what manner should it be extended?

I love tradition and the traditional Irish cottage is a great landmark in the collective history of Ireland (unfortunately tinged with oppression and sadness of this period) and it is for these reasons that it is essential that these landmarks are kept (rather than demolished) and if at all possible restored and brought back to their former glory.

Cobblers Cottage

Cobblers Cottage BEFORE

Cobblers Cottage Restoration Exterior

Cobblers Cottage Restoration Exterior - AFTER

But these houses are of a completely different time and period; and as such I feel that any extension that we make to them should be indicative of today’s time; that is of the 21st century. Doing this we rather than slavishly copying the old makes the building more honest, more legible and ‘easier to read’. The beautiful cottage is shown as ‘it would have been’ and the new bit is shown as something contemporary and of today’s time. Working in this way we actually enhance the original house rather than detract from it.

Rear Extension & refurbishment to Ballycastle Cottage

Rear Extension & refurbishment to Ballycastle Cottage

A good way of achieving a successful junction between old and new is to create a separation between the two, either through a step in elevation or through the use of a lighter material such as glass that creates a ‘separation’ between the existing and the new.


Glazing detail from recently completed house extension in County Clare. Here we see stepped glazing with inverted mono-pitch roof together with the 1.0m buffer zone.

The conclusion therefore is not to be afraid in commissioning a contemporary, elegant structure that connects to your lovely cottage; doing this actually ‘sets-off’ the old rather than detracting from it with a simple copy of the old.
If you have an Irish Cottage of this type and would like to discuss further how you would like to restore and/or extend it then please do not hesitate to CONTACT ME.
Mark Stephens RIBA MRIAI
Mark Stephens Architects
Rooskey, Foxford, County Mayo
Tel: 085 159 4084

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