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Cartoon by Maeve O'Keeffe
Cartoon by Maeve O'Keeffe
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Joy (and pain) of renovating home

THIS year’s Simon Open Door initiative is currently under way.

It began last Saturday and runs to Friday, May 19, and for a €90 donation, which goes directly to the Simon Community, an appointment can be booked for an hour-long consultation with a certified Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) architect.

I did this a few years ago and it led us to adding an extension to our three-bedroom, one-bathroom bungalow.

With three children, we longed for a second toilet. We had to face the fact that our children were growing bigger and that some day (horror of horrors), we’d be sharing this cramped abode with three grumpy teenagers, respectively banging on our solitary bathroom door.

We’d talked and dreamed of another loo. Surely we could fit one somewhere? And find extra storage to hide the Hoover and dirty laundry?

I’d heard celebrity architect Dermot Bannon on the radio promoting the Simon Open Door initiative and thought, why not? Maybe a chat with an architect could provide a solution to our space-challenged problem?

I duly logged onto the website www.simonopendoor.ie, plucked an architect’s name from the list and paid the money.

The confirmation e-mail advised me to bring a photo and/or plan of the house for maximum benefit from the meeting.

Damn — we didn’t have a dimensioned house plan, we never got one when we bought the place.

Not to worry, as I am also a cartoonist, I’d sketch a rough outline. I then took photographs, shifting bin-liners and boxes out of the camera shot so our gaff wouldn’t look too untidy.

“Are you selling the house?” daughter demanded when she found the developed pictures.

“Are we moving?” asked Junior.

“No, no,” I assured them and explained about the Open Door appointment. It was good, though, to see their reaction to the prospect of possibly leaving. I mean, would we be better off selling up and buying a bigger place without the hassle of building onto our existing one?

I received another reminder from Open Door to bring as much information as I could to the meeting, e.g. photos, rough measurements, etc. My sketches were definitely rough, with not a dimension in sight.

My husband was collared into measuring walls and nooks, while the kids were intermittently ordered to help hold the tape. And not lose an eye if someone let go of the metallic measure as it snapped past noses back into its holder!

Next morning, armed with our list of ideas, sketches and photos of our 1970s time-warped home, we presented our case.

The architect looked, listened and outlined an extra bathroom and bedroom on our makeshift plan, suggesting we knock some interior walls to use wasted hall space.

The exterior blockwork and roof wouldn’t therefore be affected and planning permission would not be required.

Alternatively, we could add on extra rooms — bathroom, bedroom and utility (OMG, pure heaven!), but that would entail three months’ planning permission.

My imagination was now running riot, envisioning voids and velux windows to maximise light. Sure, why not raise the roof beams and bung in a minstrel gallery too?

But the time was up and our limited budget banged me back to reality. However, we now had concrete suggestions and ballpark costs.

Meeting the architect was great and it started us on a long journey of chopping and changing ideas.

Should we embrace open plan — knock the dividing wall in the kitchen, break through the hall and thereby incorporate the ‘good’ room that we never used?

I trawled though ‘home decor’ brochures and became familiar with architectural buzzwords like ‘flow’, ‘function’ and ‘form’. I kept an eye out for any Ideal Home type events or presentations (preferably free). I even met Dermot Bannon at the DFS Sofa showrooms where he was giving a talk on house design, and got feedback on those initial Simon Open Door ideas!

He looked at the drawings I’d shown the architect and advised me to move our kitchen/living area from its east-facing location to the opposite side of the house, availing of evening sunlight.

The husband freaked out when I told him. “There’s no way we’re going to the expense of ripping out a perfectly working kitchen<“ he retorted.

And when I said that Dermot suggested we apply for the Room To Improve programme, he hit the roof.

“No way — I’m not going on the telly. Forget it!”

So I lost my chance to get a Dermot-designed home.

I defy any couple to tell me that building a house or extension doesn’t test a relationship. “Can’t you agree and get on with it?” pestered Junior, “I’d love a room of my own. I’m sick of (bigger brother’s) smelly feet!”

Fate prodded us into action. Our 30-year-old south-facing windows began to fog up internally. We’d have to replace them. More expense.

With daughter starting 5th year, it was now or never. We couldn’t tear the house asunder during her Leaving Cert.

We applied for and obtained planning permission, found a builder, and began work before Christmas.

It wasn’t plain sailing. We (I) agonised over demolishing internal walls, choosing new windows, tiles and flooring. I learnt to sand, grout and wore a path to the paint shop.

Sweet Jesus, I thought I’d never see the end of it. However, after a bleak winter/spring of hardship enduring bare concrete floors, dust and watching telly perched precariously on a rickety chair, our dream came true.

The Open Door scheme has opened the door to many, like ourselves, for home improvement. And it highlights Simon Community’s great work, which will hopefully help to house those who need it most.