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Room to Improve review: Inside revamped Kilkenny farmhouse 

Over 200 years ago, this farmhouse in County Kilkenny became a family home for the first time. Now six generations later it has emerged from dereliction to become a home yet again.

It’s been upgraded and extended — yet thanks to the devotion of its owners it’s the same house it always was.

“When you’ve got a beautiful old farmhouse that you’re conserving but you need to add an extension on to it the last thing you want to do is destroy the building,” says Dermot Bannon in the opening episode of the 15th series of RTÉ One’s Room to Improve.

The architect meets Gráinne Murphy and Ivan Williams who have wanted to renovate Ivan’s forefathers’ old farmhouse, near Urlingford in Co Kilkenny, for over a decade.

Dermot Bannon arrives onsite at Ivan Williams and Gráinne Murphy's farmhouse.
Dermot Bannon arrives onsite at Ivan Williams and Gráinne Murphy’s farmhouse.

Gráinne is a schoolteacher and also teaches yoga and Ivan is a full-time farmer. They have been dreaming of moving into the house, given to them by Ivan’s grandparents, with their two sons, Senan (6) and Luan (10).

“It’s my family farm and I’m the sixth generation,” says Ivan.

When Dermot first visits the house, which dates back to 1798, Gráinne and Ivan have started renovating its exterior with a limestone render, with the help of a local council grant. Inside, they are working on the preliminary demolition in their spare time.

“It’s a really traditional farmhouse — two up two down — and when you walk in you feel all the generations that have been there before you,” says Gráinne.

The farmhouse as it originally looked.
The farmhouse as it originally looked.

“We want to restore it rather than come in and demolish everything.” 

The couple want a four-bedroom residence and a new extension to the side “with a modern, bright kitchen because that’s where we spend all our time”, according to Gráinne. “Everything else I can be flexible on.”

However, the budget — €200,000 — is particularly tight on this build, say architect Dermot and quantity surveyor Claire Irwin.

The farmhouse pre-renovation.
The farmhouse pre-renovation.

“They have a big budget to their minds but €200,000 could easily be swallowed up. That house hasn’t been touched in 220 years,” says Dermot. “To bring this up to current standards it will need a lot of work.” 

He adds: “I mean, the house is in absolute bits. it needs to be rewired, it needs to be plumbed and every single window needs to be replaced.” 

After: The farmhouse and extension.
After: The farmhouse and extension.

Quantity surveyor Claire agrees: “This is not your everyday project — Dermot’s taken on a lot with this one.” 

GRANTS 

One of the many aspects of the project they can’t afford is a quantity surveyor — at least not in an official capacity.

Claire Irwin advises in an unofficial capacity. “You could spend the €200,000 easily on the existing house — on doing it up,” she tells Dermot.  

The kitchen.
The kitchen.

Between €20,000 and €30,000 could be availed of in SEAI grants, says Claire, while another source of funding is also potentially available she points out.

“There’s a brand-new grant: If it’s your first house and if it’s a derelict building — so if it’s vacant for more than two years you can get up to €30,000 and if it’s a derelict building and needs structural work done you can get a top-up of €20,000, so that’s €50,000 on the derelict house scheme,” she says.

Gráinne and Ivan manage to attain the vacant homes grant because the farmhouse had not been lived in more than two years. Given that the house needs structural work they can attain a top-up, as well as an SEAI grant. 

The bedroom with original beam.
The bedroom with original beam.

DIY 

Five months in and the couple have been working on the project themselves, with Ivan stripping away cement render himself to save on costs.

“My poor kango hammer is nearly burnt out, I think,” he says.

Welcome news comes in July 2023, after 13 months of restoration that the government is to up grants available to renovate vacant homes — so the couple will have an additional €70,000 dereliction grant added to the €24,000 energy retrofit grant.

Ivan and Gráinne have requested a larger extension with seating under a covered area.

Claire returns to help the couple move on to the tendering phase.

As Gráinne and Ivan add a further €50 grand to their mortgage the bill goes to site for €344,000 or €250,000 after grants.

Enter builder Tony Doherty and his crew who finish restoring the farmhouse and constructing the adjoining new build.

Because of budget constraints, the couple are realistic — for instance when it comes to choices such as the roof.

“I’d love a zinc roof but I don’t think we’ll be able to afford a zinc roof,” says Ivan.

This is the roof that will “cover the extension like a canopy”, as Dermot puts it.

It’s also a roof that gives the architect more than a few sleepless nights as the couple wait to make a decision on it and rain lashes the build.

A steel roof option is “pretty much on budget”, as is an aluminium one.

“It’s lashing. We’ve got to get a decision on this roof because this has been going on for months,” says Dermot.

Finally, the knight in shining aluminium armour arrives in the form of roof fitter Paul — and the aluminium choice comes with no extra costs, as Dermot points out.

“I’m so happy but I don’t think I can let go of all that stress,” says Dermot.

In the 14 weeks to the finish, the team brings the size of the residence from 145 sq m to 219 sq m.

The interiors keep aspects of the original farmhouse, down to the original beam in the bedroom and the old doors.

The extension makes the most of the views of the nearby castle and it features the kitchen.

“The kitchen’s just amazing — it’s huge we’re going to fit all our of our friends and family in and I can’t wait to get cooking in here with the boys and get them to enjoy all the space,” says Gráinne.

FINAL BUDGET 

While the couple sacrificed certain elements, including the walk-in wardrobe, and the budget did “go over”, says Grainne, Dermot congratulates them on creating a home there for another generation to enjoy: “It wasn’t easy.

“They reached for the stars in what they wanted but they never gave up on the dream. You get what you put in and I think they’ve achieved something amazing.” 

  • The four-part series of Room to Improve airs on Sundays at 9.30pm on RTÉ One and is on RTÉ Player

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