Reimagine Projects Around Ireland

Reimagine Projects Around Ireland

Pocket Guide 6

New Life for Old Buildings

Bernardine Carroll, editor

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New Life for Old Buildings is a project which focuses on empowering those who are turning Ireland’s vacant property stock into homes. In 2023, the IAF hosted a series of site visits aimed at sharing knowledge and building community among those who are bringing vacant properties back into use.

    Each site visit was hosted by a property owner who was undertaking their own project, and was followed by time and space to chat and share experiences, tips, woes and knowledge. This project is aimed primarily at owner-occupiers and those who are supporting them, by providing opportunities for learning, exchange and community building.

    Valuable architectural heritage around Ireland is being given new life through this non-traditional approach to housing. For many this is due to a passion for a particular type of architecture, a chance to live in a particular location or to have a particular lifestyle. What makes these often complex projects succeed, is a capacity to manage this process and access to specialist knowledge. Strong social-capital and peer-networks are extremely valuable – simply meeting and connecting with those who have worked on similar properties in their own region can unlock huge resources. This project builds these connections –  with expertise, with support infrastructures, and most importantly, with others sharing their journey.

    Why do people choose to bring vacant properties back to life? 

    During this programme, we asked owners about their reasons for buying and renovating vacant properties.

    Lifestyle: Many of the owners want the lifestyle an older property could provide. This could be a longer garden in a town centre property, or access to city and town centre offerings such as car-sharing, social outlets and an established sense of community. 

    Location: Renovating a vacant property allows a resident to locate in their preferred location. The location may support their lifestyle and work life, but may also maintain connections with family and allow them to stay in their community. Having a “convenient” location also meant children could pair independence with providing a space for their friends to drop in. 

    Lack of alternatives: There simply were no alternatives to buying an older property in some cases, due to a housing shortage. This was more evident in certain locations. Some people were also uninterested in the type of new properties being built, and would find it very difficult to get planning permission for a new build on a comparable site. 

    Opportunity: There was an element of spontaneity regarding some of the purchases – a property came available that they fell in love with. In some cases, they were buying from family or taking on a family property. 

    Love of architecture: The opportunity to own a piece of history or add to the architecture of their local area was a large appeal to many of the attendees. This fed into the decisions they made in renovating or restoring properties, and the time and consideration they put into each decision. Many attendees had become very knowledgeable about their housing typology. 

    Civic contribution/Being part of history:  They were interested in the heritage of the buildings, and saw themselves as guardians for the next phase of this building’s life. For those within towns and cities, they could see their home within the broader urban set piece, and their duty towards the community. 

    Sustainability: Many attendees were interested in sustainability as a reason for taking on a vacant property. There was an interest in sustainable materials, reducing energy usage, and circular economy. For some, there was a clear concern for the environmental impact of new construction. 

    Mentality: Most of the attendees seemed open to novel approaches and learning new skills. There was an openness to risk and challenges, which they acknowledged would be off-putting for many home buyers.

    Commercial to Residential Conversion

    • You will need a specialist – an Architect, Quantity Surveyor or Engineer from the outset. Plan your project well in advance, and understand the Go/No Go principle. Don’t just jump in because you need a home, or you have this romantic idea  – understand the cost and time involved in a project like this. 
    • Finance: Make sure you have an agreed source of finance, that you know where your money is going to go and that you are prepared for unknowns – some additional costs will pop up. 
    • Supply Chain is key to any projects, but particularly something like this. You need to know where you are getting your materials from, and can you get them on time. You need the right specialist and tradesmen to get this project across the line. Some people don’t want to work on these buildings, but some people love it and those are the people you want. 


    Living Above the Shop/18th Century Stone Building

    • You have to work hard, and get tired, and expect it to take a while, but it is very fulfilling. 
    • The most important thing in doing a renovation project of this type is to have patience and to recognise that you just don’t know what you are going to find. 
    • You should have a good contingency fund. 
    • Have a good knowledge of renovation practices and possibly even some skills.  I recommend maybe even learning how to do some of the things. 


    City Centre Living in a Georgian Building

    • You have to be patient and not be stuck on an idea or a vision that you want to materialise, You just have to work with the house, step by step, and just be grateful that it is in the city, and has a history, and not worry about it being picture perfect and ready for a renovation show on tv. 
    • Engage the right professionals from the outset. A project like this can grow legs, and with the right people around it can be made manageable with individual steps. 
    • It is very important to have a conservation architect that is aware that you have to live in these buildings in a comfortable environment, as well as preserving the fabric of these buildings.  
    • There is a lot of support out there at a local level, which people often think is not available – County Councils, Georgian Association of Ireland and Croí Cónaithe.


    Advice from Owners

    With thanks to hosts

    Nick Taaffe
    Caelan Bristow and Nick Ward
    Samira Kaissi and Frank Quilty
    Rachel Gaffney and Anthony Gaffney

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