A Farmhouse Reborn

While too many of our lovely vernacular houses fast disappear into ruin, there are a few happy exceptions. This is the story of a typical traditional farmhouse in Donegal – last modified in the 1990s with concrete chimneys and cement render.

With sweet and simple proportions it looks well – yet its unknown what lies beneath until cement is chopped away.

The restoration was undertaken by Sean Brogan and his team at Tir Chonaill Conservation 

It soon became clear the building had been weakened by the weight of oversized chimneys and other terrible ‘repair’ choices, such as block surrounds on windows which were not tied in.

Originally built in the early 1900s from what was available: volcanic rock taken from the nearby shore. Hard and slippery, this isn’t ideal stuff.  A hot lime mortar mix was made with earthy gravel. The gable shows itself to have cracked masonry.

Worse, it was discovered that redbrick repairs inside had rotted and simply fallen out when render was removed.

The team set about their work with patience. ”Old houses need happy workers” Sean says ”to coax them back to life.”

Brick chimneys of appropriate size and weight were built. Then a new roof of reclaimed slate, with lime barges and attic windows.

To prevent walls from bowing, the structure needed to be tied from front to back with steel-tie bars, which is an traditional method of strengthening buildings.  Helical bar stitches were applied to the gable..

Ten or more long bars were used to reinforce cracked gable masonry.

Using NHL 3.5 to re-point the exterior – a weaker NHL 2 was used for interior work

See this extremely interesting breathable floor system which uses several hundred empty glass bottles. This is an old technique which was used in piggeries to keep animals snug.

Beneath the bottles are layers of geo textile, perforated pipe, and rounded riverbed gravel

All is then covered by coarse sand. The stick markers are what shall be finished floor level. This clever and environmentally expedient system has a high insulation value.

100ml of limecrete NHL 3.5 completes the farmhouse lower floor

The original staircase was saved once treated for woodworm

A Douglas pine mantel for the kitchen fireplace – and a very fine single slab of Inishowen slate completes the hearth.

No Atlantic gales will disturb the warmth of this houseUpstairs you can see wall-plate tie-down straps, their swallow tails tucked into joints. These were individually crafted by blacksmith Michael Connolly in Kinlough, along with other works brackets.

Green builder Johnny Toner transforms bedrooms, now healthy living spaces with all natural, breathable materials.

Filled with light – and the air smells clean.

Note the cast iron anchor plates where the building is tied through with steel bars.

What a wonderful example of traditional skills and good conservation practice..

A credit to Tir Chonaill Conservation – and equally to the owners, who made a choice to properly protect this farmhouse for future generations.

We wish them many years of happiness beneath it’s roof.


25 thoughts on “A Farmhouse Reborn

  1. Nice to see you have kept integrity of the building intact as old buildings need some respect to bring them back to their ‘former glory’
    You were fortunate to have a Builder who respected that and knew what he was about. Well done!!

  2. What a lovely conservation project to match your equally lovely blog. Well done to you and all those involved with the project. May their roof never fall in and those beneath it never fall out!

  3. This is very heartening to see.
    And another excellent post showing the importance of the steps undertaken and explaining the reasons for each.
    That slate slab in front of the hearth is a joy to see – it can’t have been easy to transport and manipulate.

  4. Was there a reason for not using a hot-lime mix for internal plastering? From my recent reading and having been on a few courses it’s now considered the most vapour permeable/lime rich mix and best suited to conservation work.

    I’m planning a restoration of a not too dissimilar house in Co. Down, in far worse condition unfortunately, and was keen to use Hot-mix lime mortar throughout.

    1. Certainly Brian the hot lime mixes are enjoying a long deserved revival and I highly recommend Nigel Copsey’s book on the same:
      https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hot-Mixed-Lime-Traditional-Mortars-ebook/dp/B07NHF221C. I’m aware of surfacing research which has found NHL to be too hard for certain conservation jobs.Copsey has done excellent research on this.

      In terms of answering your question on behalf of this practitioner, Sean, he states that often the choice is based on practicalities such as bags being easily carried and stored, children being near the site, and safety while working – especially since he has only one eye.

      Wishing you the best of luck with your restoration – please let us know how it goes!.

  5. Louise this floor is a delight. The “received wisdom” is that NHL 5 is the best choice for the floor-screed and I have been reluctant as my instinct was for 3.5. Also I believe the weaker NHL 3.5 will be enough for the exterior. Difficulties in delivery of recycled glass bead to a difficult mountainside site has been another weight on my mind. Arranging with a local restaurant/pub/neighbours to take their empties resolves the “insulated lime floor”. As always, kudos and thanks to you Louise for generously sharing conservation information through your superb photography.

    1. Thank you – when you think of the energy consumed to melt down and reconstitute glass into insulation – it seems kinda daft when we can recycle it directly in it’s present form. Of course it is the spaces inside each bottle trapping air which makes the difference, as well as the glass itself. Green insulation materials are also v. expensive as well.
      I’m told that tests are currently being done in England on comparative values of various ‘green’ insulation and it will be interesting to see what results…

      In terms of the floor needing NHL5 we are becoming more aware of how overly strong mixes can effect buildings, and floors need flexibility.
      Having said that (please don’t quote me because I haven’t got the paper to hand to check detail) some recent research shows there may not be too much difference between NHL5 & NHL3!

  6. Hi Louise

    I am currently restoring an old cottage while adding a kitchen dining room, I am installing a heat pump and under floor heating, this will require good insulation and good air tightness, what insulation can I use on my external walls as these are 2ft wide, but insulation will be required



  7. A lovely job in a part of the world where conservation is almost unheard of.. My only comment – such a pity there are ugly plastic windows where there should be timeless timber.. I guess it’s a budget thing.. perhaps in the future ? Well done – great approach to have taken… You are right on the NHL – we won’t recommend it any more – the Scottish Lime Centre have done a lot on this, and the 3.5 / 5 argument is firmly on the too hard, unbreathable side now. We only use hot mixes if we can. Nigel (copsey) is a great chap for pushing this – Tim, at Eden Lime similarly.. Would love to link to this on our facebook page – (we’re http://www.heritage-house.org) and I use the sheepwoolinsulation guys a lot… 🙂

    1. Nigel Copsey – what a great work of research in his latest book, and you are right about this corner of Ireland where things tend to arrive a wee bit later than other parts. It is still a lovely job, and the windows I think were already installed and not a big priority given the rest but suspect they’ll be replaced in time. I look forward to visiting in a few years time to see how it has settled in.
      Please do link away and I shall add you the blogroll here for the information of all. Thanks for stopping by Peter.

  8. Hello Louise,
    I’ve stumbled upon your blog after learning that a cottage that I am purchasing in County Clare is older than I had expected and is indeed stone built. It was confirmed by a survey done by an engineer. Also revealed , to my dissapointment, is the fact that they had used the construction”improvements” of cement render, dry lining, and concrete floor. I was wondering what you thought of leaving the concrete floor for a time while I deal with the walls and save some funding or should I tackle that first

    1. Hello Kevin sorry for the delay in replying. Generally the floor is left until last in renovation. Consolidate the walls first to take the weight of a new roof, if the roof needs replaced. I heard lately that some people are compromising on breathable floors, by using what they call ‘semi breathable’. This seems to be a method of leaving a breathable (limecrete) margin of a couple of feet surrounding a concrete floor. Good luck with the good work and please feel free to share any photos.

    1. This old method makes great eccological/economic sense, especially when you think that certain glass based insulation involves breaking down and processing old glass bottles and reconstituting them into expensive insulating stuff!

  9. Hi there,
    Very nice pictures of renovation. I have a similar house that needs renovation. I have wide stone walls and lime render just wondering about heating the house what is being used at the moment is it all underfloor and oil?


  10. Hello,
    I am very interested in your glass bottle floor insulation. I study architecture and am currently planning a partially self-sufficient experimental building with ecological construction in Thuringia, Germany.
    I would like to use glass bottles as floor insulation as well, but for that I have to show the professor examples or literature where this technique works. Could I use your pictures as a reference? And do you by any chance know where I could find more about floor insulation like this?
    Kind regards,

    1. Hi Charlotte
      Please do use the pictures which are by the builders from the project, and contact Sean Brogan project manager for more detailed information on the bottle insulation. His number is 00353 868987647 he would be happy to help. Very best wishes with your studies.

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