Table of contents
I’m building this page to collect my notes, research and resources on the restoration of traditional Irish cottages. It is a project I’m planning to do with some help in the future when we move to Ireland so I’m doing a lot of prep and research work in advance to be ready when we get to it.
I have experience in woodworking and carpentry but none in stonework, plaster and lime work or any other trade involved in the building and restoration of old homes but I plan on learning some of them as I go and collaborate with trained craftspeople for more critical matters.
Glossary of terms
Finding a cottage
The first step of this kind of project is finding the right cottage. There is plenty of them up for sale currently in different parts of Ireland, mostly in rural areas. You can find some in a states of disrepair, from needing a bit of finishing work to needing to be entirely rebuilt from a ruined state.
These two extremes and everything in between have some pros and cons. Getting a derelict cottage or a ruin will often be a lot cheaper, but necessitate enormous amounts of specialized work to be brought back to life. On the other hand, a good looking and inhabitable cottage can provide a good base for a restoration, or hide bad renovation choices and hidden problems that need to be dealt with (see the Irish farmhouse restoration blog ).
A good website to look for old cottages in Ireland is daft.ie
Inspection and survey
This is the step for which I have the least information for now. It is definitely a very important step and one for which selecting a trusted and competent professional is crucial. The report that will come from this inspection guiding the planning and priorities of the restoration.
Once planning permission has been acquired and the cottage has been well inspected in order to have a clear picture of it’s current state, the time for planning the restoration work has come. This part is crucial and many factors come into it. One thing being the time that every step will take, including the setting and drying times (which can be calculated in months) and whether the climate and weather of the season allows for the type of work to be performed.
The walls of cottages were commonly made out of stone or mud reinforced with straw and other material and then covered with a lime render. The walls are usually around 24" thick without any kind of insulation, the stones or dirt acting as some kind of damper for the cold / warmth.
Stone walls were made of local stone, fitted together and then pointed with lime mortar . After the pointing, which effectively smooths the surface of the wall between the stones, preventing water accumulation in what would otherwise be crevices, the walls are coated with around 4 coats of lime render (which can be tinted of different colors). The lime render is very characteristic of Irish cottages, as opposed to a lime wash
Using lime for this process of filling the gaps is important as it allows air and moisture to pass through the walls. When restoring old stone walls it is usually necessary to chisel out the old mortar which usually will have mostly crumbled away and to replace it with new lime mortar.
Sometimes stone walls were covered in concrete during the 60s and 70s, possibly in an attempt to lower maintenance of the external walls. This causes problems, since concrete does not breathe like stone and lime does, trapping moisture inside the walls and allowing it to spread to internal wooden structures, causing damp, rot and mold problems. This can be addressed by removing the concrete render on the outside first to allow moisture to escape.
Then, if a similar concrete render has been done on the inside, it can be removed at the bottom of walls (up to 2-3 feet) to allow more moisture to escape, it’s also a good idea to inspect the floor boards and beams at that point and if they are rotted, cut off a foot off the floor boards close to the walls to allow for more evaporation. It is always a good idea to get rid of all the concrete covering the stone on the inside and replacing it with a lime plater, there is multiple types of lime plaster available, some of them with additional insulating properties, which can help make the home warmer without building modern insulated walls on top of the original stone walls.
A note on insulation: contrary to modern best practices, in a house with stone walls that are 2 feet thick, the main source of insulation is the thermal mass provided by the thick stone and lime. Adding some extra membranes or insulation boards on the inside won’t do much of a difference but will definitely be very costly (because once again, this insulation material has to be breathable).
A lot of cottages had packed mud floors when they were initially built, other had large flagstones laid on top of the dirt.
More recently, a lot of those old cottages had a concrete floor poured inside of them to make a more level and isolated floor.
Nowadays, more options are available in terms of flooring, including some that allow for better breathing, allowing moisture out. One of these options is called limecrete, basically some form of concrete made with lime.
Traditionally a lot of the stone cottages built in Ireland had tatched roofs made with overlapping layers of straw (usually wheat, water reed or flax depending on the location). These layers are laid on rods of hazel and willow and pinned using various methods. Tatched roofs can last more than 30 years but the top ridge must be replace every 10-15 years since it wears out faster than the rest.
Stone or slate was also used for roofing in particularly rocky areas of Ireland, this method is extremely durable and if well put together and maintained can last for the life of the cottage.
In more recent years, a lot of these traditional cottages had their tatched roofs replaced by corrugated iron for cost reasons. They look quite bad usually and don’t last nearly as long as the other options, especially in a rainy place like Ireland.
Windows and doors
Irish cottages usually have very few (small) windows. My guess is that it made the house easier to keep warm during winter, the price of glass must have been prohibitive and also, because of the tax on windows .
The window frames themselves were usually made of wood and coated with linseed paint. Some of them were replaced with newer wooden frames coated in acrylic paint or even worse, by plastic window frames over the years. Window frames on Irish cottages are succeptible to the same problems as the walls, especially if the walls were rendered with concrete: they can trap moisture and rot. The reason why window frames were painted with linseed paint back in the day was that linseed paint allows for breathing compared to acrylic paint or plastic.
I plan on using old wooden double sash windows. There is a couple reasons for going with these over modern windows, first they can be found quite easily at architectural salvage companies for a fraction of the price than new windows (they will need to be custom built for a stone cottage because of the non-standard window holes). Old wood windows when maintained also proved to last over 100 years, which is quite a bit more than the usual 20 to 30 years a new window lasts. Another very practical reason for this kind of purpose build windows is that on traditional Irish cottages, the holes for the windows aren’t of any standard size and windows have to be custom made to fit.
They are also quite energy efficient when used correctly even compared to modern aluminium or vinyl windows. Victorian double sash windows were designed to create air convection, meaning that in summer, an opening is created at the bottom and top of the window allowing cool air to come in from the bottom and hot air to come out of the top, basically acting as passive air conditioning. In addition to that, windows would have removable screens and storms (glass panes), the screens would be put in place in the summer to keep bugs out and in winter they would be replaced by the storms, effectively creating more isolation by having two glass panels with air in between.
As for doors, there was different arrangements possible depending on the locality where the house was built. The front door usually faced south and some cottages had one door on each side.
Wood and peat burning in an open hearth was the traditional way of keeping cottages warm and fight the ever-encroaching dampness. Cottages were usually built with one or more large fireplaces, either on the ends or in the middle. Since there was no insulation and open fireplaces are not particularly efficient at heating up spaces it must have been quite cold still in these homes in the winter months, forcing people to gather around the hearth, cover themselves in blankets and tell stories.
Knowledge bases and books
- Knowledge base of the SPAB
- Heritage House
- Irish cottage history
- The Warm Dry Home
- The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher W. Alexander
- A Pattern Language, Christopher W. Alexander
- Drawing for Architecture, Leon Krier
- Get Your House Right, Marianne Cusato
Build logs and blogs
- Restoring the Avish cottage
- Irish farmhouse restoration blog
- Old Lawns farmhouse restoration
- Cottage academy
- old house restoration tips
- Designing a new old home