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‘On Room to Improve everyone goes miles over budget - I just can’t’

After selling her Dublin city centre cottage, Gemma Tipton is renovating an old stone building adjacent to her parents’ home on the outskirts of the city

I have Kevin McCloud in my mind. He’s scratching his chin, the way he does on Grand Designs, and he is muttering: “What worries me about this build…”

What worries me about this build is absolutely everything, and a great deal of it is the fault of Grand Designs. Did they ever have an episode where everything went to plan? I can’t think of one. Instead, windows don’t fit, floods come, walls collapse and budgets spiral out of control. It’s a wonder anyone ever builds anything at all.

“But building is fun,” says Valerie Mulvin. Back in the days of Covid I had asked Mulvin’s husband and co-architect, Niall McCullough, if he might consider designing me a house. “I know I couldn’t afford it, but I didn’t want to not ask,” I said.

McCullough Mulvin have won a slew of awards, and they have a particular way with old buildings.

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“Ideas are more important than money,” he replied, surprising me with his enthusiasm. We had a short but [to me] mortifying conversation about what I meant by, “I don’t have very much money”, and away we went.

McCullough, who was one of the best and nicest human beings in the world, finished the plans for my old two-roomed cottage, which is adjacent to my parents’ house, just before he died suddenly after a short illness. It was a beautiful process, beginning from the moment he said, “Don’t think about walls and windows just yet, instead tell me what you like doing most, what you love, and how you like to spend your days.”

I told him I have more books than you might imagine possible, that I am a show-off when I cook, and that you mightn’t think it to look at me, but I generate an awful lot of mud. I also said that after decades of living on one level, I really wanted to be able to go upstairs to bed. It’s weird the things you come up with. Having rented for years, and then lived in a tiny house where I had no budget for anything save a lick of paint, it feels very strange to have a choice. I worry about turning into one of those people who obsess about lampshades.

As lockdowns lifted, McCullough came out to look, and laughed at the graffiti, which includes “Ring Mum”, as he stepped around the workbenches and motorbikes that were, at the time, living in the building. He ran his hands over the old stone walls and pointed out things I’d missed – how the walls were thicker at the bottom, giving strength and mass, and spotted the presence of timber now so soft you could put a finger right into it. He sent sketches, and ideas, drafts and thoughts. Even if we don’t build a house, I thought, I’m loving this bit.

The house he designed has a run of roofs at different heights, echoing the surrounding buildings. It does lovely things with light, and it might just appease the resident ghosts. Just to be clear: I don’t actually believe in ghosts, but I have a feeling there may be something going on. The building appears on a map from the 1700s, and when we knocked through one of the walls I got an extraordinary feeling in touching stones that hadn’t felt a hand on them for more than 300 years.

We wondered about where to make a hole in the garden wall for the site entrance; then my mum phoned to say that one morning it had obligingly fallen down. The same happened with a tree we didn’t want to cut, but which was definitely in the way. “Maybe,” I said, “if we bide our time, the house will build itself.” Still, for the good of my own superstitions, if not the feelings of imaginary spirits, I buried a jar of honey in the foundations, an apparent guarantee of future sweetness. Dad made jokes about what the ghosts are up to next.

After McCullough died, we waited a while. Then, after metaphorically wiping the tear stains off his beautiful designs, Mulvin put it in for planning. I told the neighbours I was going to build a 20-storey Shard, and no one objected to the gentle renovation and extension that McCullough had dreamed up. Planning is smooth, but there are an awful lot of forms to fill in at various stages of the process. I can’t imagine trying to do it without a team who know what they’re at. Mulvin and I try to stick as much as possible to McCullough’s design, but inevitably small things change. “Architecture is a process,” she says. It is indescribably sad that he died, but I find I love the idea of making one of his last designs a reality.

Not everything people say when you come to build is true. I’m told you can’t get builders – but you can, and nice ones too. We went out to tender, and four sent in quotes. John O’Shea is local, and is one of the few who didn’t immediately want to demolish the wonderful old stone walls and build with blocks from scratch. I’ve always found it funny when people say, “I’m building a house” or “we built this house ourselves”. I’m not – the builders are, and they’re absolutely lovely. I’m told the local authorities are awful to deal with, but Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council have been helpfulness personified, from planning notes to information on grants.

I had also been told that the grant schemes themselves are impossibly complex, but once you read the guidelines and answer the questions, it turns out to be pretty straightforward. I applied and was approved for the Croí Cónaithe grant for doing up derelict buildings, and a SEAI grant for a heat pump and solar. It is true that not everyone answers their emails first time but, on the other hand, neither do I. The ESB come out to look at connections, and Irish Water double checked about drains and followed up with an informative phone call about how it all works.

Two brilliant friends turned up with a van to help clear everything out. I have stuff stored everywhere, including in a container down where my brother lives. My brother is the most patient man, with a very helpful sense of humour. He is brilliant at being steady when I’m about to lose it.

Clearing the space turned out to be the greatest headache. I bought a last-minute necessary shed as a temporary home for yet more stuff, and discovered a hidden cupboard full of terracotta pots. Goodness knows how old they are. Mulvin brought in Joe Coughlan as quantity surveyor, and David Lynch as engineer, and I realise I don’t have to worry about things like drains and radon barriers, as they are all over it, so I am free to go off and worry about something else. There is still an infinity of things I can worry about unnecessarily.

We did a lighting and electrical layout and I added loads more sockets and switches. Coughlan suggested I take them out again. “They call me the destroyer of dreams,” he had said with a wry smile when we first met. What he actually meant is that he takes the whole staying on budget thing personally. It is a great relief. I have been saving and saving and saving, but now the euros are pouring out. It’s odd to spend so much money on things you can’t wear, eat or even see, as well as on substantial stuff like insulation and cement. In Grand Designs and Room to Improve, it seems to be a given that you’ll go miles over budget, but I just can’t. There isn’t any more to spend. We watch Selling Ireland’s Dream Homes and start making cracks about “where’s the music room and wet bar then?”

I’m learning to take things in stages, and to let people get on with what they’re best at. Both of these are hard for someone like me. The blocks have been laid and the roof trusses are on. A tender went out for the windows, and we chose NorDan. I like what they do, and their quote makes the best sense. Now it’s time for bathrooms and a kitchen. I find it tricky as things I like best on first look are often the ones I go off soonest, and there is the whole “very little money” thing.

I do know I hate that boutique hotel interiors look. Mulvin got me to measure my furniture so we can see how it will fit. O’Shea says he’s on track for finishing in summer, and despite the (literally) concrete evidence in front of me, I still can’t quite believe it’s real. Mulvin is right: building is fun, if you can remember to enjoy it. There’s something very magical about the privilege of being able to make a home.

To see how Gemma’s renovation project works out, check back in the summer (all going well!) for a follow-up article.

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