‘Many turning their backs on heritage farm buildings’ – architect

Irish people have a romantic image of farm buildings and rural life but when it comes to it, many have turned their backs on heritage buildings in favour of what they see as cleaner, more modern homes, according to Athy-based architect Vivian Cummins who is accredited in conservation.

“Policy objective 19 of the National Planning Framework 2040, in relation to one-off houses in the countryside, requires a demonstrable economic or social need to live in a rural area,” he said.

This strives to ensure, in providing for the development of rural housing, that a distinction is made between areas under urban influence – within the commuter catchment of cities and large towns and centres of employment – and elsewhere, the architect said.

In rural areas under urban influence, it sets out to facilitate the provision of single housing in the countryside based on the core consideration of demonstrable economic or social need to live in a rural area and siting and design criteria for rural housing in statutory guidelines and plans, having regard to the viability of smaller towns and rural settlements.

In rural areas elsewhere, the policy aims facilitate the provision of single housing in the countryside based on siting and design criteria for rural housing in statutory guidelines and plans, having regard to the viability of smaller towns and rural settlements, the Athy architect said.

County Councils are now utilising this policy objective to refuse permission for new housing to prevent the relentless and unsustainable suburbanisation of the Irish countryside.

“For most, the dream of a place of their own, down a country lane, will require the refurbishment and/or extension of an existing building,” Vivian said.

“This is also an opportunity to salvage many derelict agricultural buildings by finding new uses for them. Ireland is fortunate to have a wealth of vernacular structures, built for the most part during the last two centuries.

“Vernacular structures are concerned with domestic and functional use rather than being public or monumental buildings. Their basic simplicity and smaller scale also help to make them more attractive and sympathetic to their natural settings.

“Their appeal stems from their use of natural indigenous materials, for example: stone walls; slate roofs; and wooden windows and doors. These materials allow such buildings to assimilate easily into the natural landscape.

For farmers this is a great alternative income source. Buildings can be converted for downsizing, Airbnb letting or alternative uses.

‘Almost anything is salvageable’

“If you don’t use them, you will lose them as lack of maintenance will hasten their demise. The good news is that almost anything is salvageable,” said Vivian, who pointed to a recent project his firm undertook at Foxhill, just outside Athy.

“The structure on site consisted of an existing three-room thatched cottage with corrugated metal roof outbuildings dating from the early 19th century. The existing buildings were refurbished, and a contemporary zinc-roofed extension added to the rear. A glazed corridor links the new and old.

“The entire building was upgraded to contemporary standards with an A2 BER. The works were undertaken as a self-build project by three generations of its Ukrainian owners, utilising traditional skills such as manufacturing cob/clay bricks and applying lime render,” Vivian said.

“Unfortunately, a fire during the project destroyed the original thatch and it was replaced with a traditional style corrugated metal roof.”

Planning permission, the architect said, may be required for such issues as a change of use to residential or installing new septic tanks. Advice should be obtained from a registered architect, with a directory on www.riai.ie.

Protecting the buildings

“Most planning authorities in rural areas are supportive of reusing existing traditional dwellings.

Grants from €15,000 to €200,000 are available for eligible works from the County Councils’ historic structures fund. Depending on the proposed use of the renovated buildings, funds may be accessible through the Leader Partnership programme.

Vivian also pointed to the Heritage Council’s Traditional Farm Buildings Scheme, with applications to be returned by February 19. The scheme is a division of the wider Green Low Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS.)

“Owners need to check their county development plan if the building they propose to alter is a protected structure. This could be relevant even if it is on the site of a protected structure. Advice should be obtained from an architect accredited in conservation,” Vivian said.

“It is important that such buildings are protected from destruction and dereliction, considering their contribution to the natural landscape and visual amenity,” he concluded.

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