17 Mar 2022

The Self-Build Diaries: Caoimhe and Charlie Connolly

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As an Interior Designer, it was always a dream of Caoimhe Connolly’s to build her very own home. Sharing that ambition with her husband, Charlie, the pair were recently able to make their homebuilding goals a reality.

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RK: What inspired you to embark on your own project rather than buying?
CC: Building was always the dream for my husband, Charlie. He is the youngest of eight siblings, six of whom have built on his family’s land. As an Interior Designer, it was always a dream of mine too. Luckily, both of us have been able to make our dreams a reality!

We met while living in New Zealand (we went out separately for a year and came home together after six!). I am from Dublin, and Charlie is from the countryside in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. We knew when we moved home at the end of 2014 that we would have to weigh up our options when it came to deciding where to settle. We considered Dublin and, as much as I love a city lifestyle, the option of a countryside self-build made much more sense. We had a fabulous site gifted to us by Charlie’s family, with beautiful surrounding countryside and plenty of outdoor space. We would get a lot more value for our money and our budget going the self-build route as opposed to trying to get on the property market in Dublin.

RK: What was the vision and inspiration behind your new home?
CC: We both wanted a home that was spacious, comfortable, liveable and welcoming. Living in the sticks, we wanted the home to complement our surroundings and maximise our views, so lots of windows were essential to allow for this – and plenty of natural light. We chose to build a future-proof home that would allow for flexibility and adapt with us as our family grew, and one that could accommodate friends and family to stay. It was important that they could feel at home and comfortable in our house.

RK: How did you approach finalising your design brief?
CC: This area of our build is slightly unusual in that planning permission was already granted on plans designed for our site before I met Charlie. So, when we came to begin the build, there were some changes that we wanted to make that hadn’t been considered when the plans were initially drawn. Still, we didn’t want to make any changes that would mean reapplying for planning and result in a massive delay. Because I am an Interior Designer, I had a clear vision from the outset of how I wanted the interior to look and feel, so that part of the brief was always very clear. Thankfully, Charlie gave me free rein in this area of the build and trusted my judgement on the finishes. In terms of the spatial layout of the house, I did make some changes before we began the build to maximise our space and make sure the things we wanted from the interior areas would be possible. This included reconfiguring the kitchen, living and dining area to be more open-plan spaces. This meant that we could have a large, open kitchen with a big island – this was something we did not want to compromise on. The existing plans would not have allowed for this.

We also decided to add the apex window in the sunroom before the build began. This area was planned as patio doors originally, but the views from that side of the house are spectacular. It made more sense to maximise this by adding the window onto this gable, and we have never regretted this decision. It completely elevated that room from ordinary to extraordinary! The views from here are breathtaking; we can see as far as County Fermanagh and the Blue Stack Mountains in County Donegal. It also floods the sunroom with natural light, extending into the kitchen area. We moved the patio doors to the sidewall of the house, which directly leads to our patio and is closer to the kitchen. This is ideal for when we we’re barbecuing or entertaining in the garden.

RK: How long did it take to gain planning permission?
CC: Approximately 12 months.

RK: Were there any challenging aspects to the project and build?
CC: The biggest challenge was our mortgage getting pulled when we had the house at roof level! We had started the build and brought it to that point by using our savings. We had mortgage approval in principle from a building society. When we began drawing our first payment, they withdrew our approval because we had a shared access lane to our property (the first half of our lane is shared with Charlie’s parents’ home). Fortunately, we secured our mortgage with a different bank after a short delay. It could have been a lot worse.

RK: Did you project manage the build yourself?
CC: Yes, we did. Self-building is a considerable undertaking, but there is a vast amount of money to be saved by going down this route. We were fortunate to have the help and guidance of Charlie’s father, brother and brother-in-law, all of whom have experience in the construction industry. They had all been closely involved in the other self-builds that Charlie’s siblings had undertaken. We were both working full time when we started the build and planning our wedding, and I was also studying on a postgraduate course part time, so it was very full on! So, we were hugely grateful to have their support and guidance.

RK: How did you approach material and product specification?
CC: Our builder guided us when it came to the blocks and other building materials. We selected a high-spec slate for our roof for longevity. We also ensured the house’s insulation was high spec to guarantee that the house was as energy efficient as possible. We really see the effects of this now as the house holds heat very well. The stonework was very important to us. We wanted it to complement the surrounding countryside. The double porch and two sides of the sunroom are finished in a local Donegal sandstone that we selected so that it was close to the stone on the land.

RK: Did you install any renewable systems?
CC: Our heat source is a Panasonic air-to-water heat pump. We find this extremely cost effective to run. We have underfloor heating throughout the house.

RK: How long did the project take?
CC: We broke ground in September 2016 and moved in on 22nd December 2017. So, a 15-month build, which we are very proud of. We worked hard to ensure we were always organised and three or four steps ahead of the build in terms of ordering materials and lining up contractors and tradespeople. This provided the smooth running of the process and no big delays.

RK: Did you remain within the original budget?
CC: We did remain close to our original budget. The highest unforeseen costs were a large payment at the start of the build to get connected to the electricity – we hadn’t expected this payment to be as big as it was. We also had to replace the septic tank at the end of the build so that building control would sign the house off – the tank that had been fitted was not what had been specified on our plans, and this had been missed by the builder. It was a bit of a headache, but we had to replace it to get the house signed off by building control to draw down our final mortgage payment.

RK: Please provide an overview of the interior and exterior finished space.
CC: We completed the interior to about 90% within a month or two of moving in, which is not always the case with self-builds. We moved in with one shower and one toilet working in separate bathrooms, no kitchen, just the utility room, a fridge and a George Foreman grill, two deck chairs and a spare room bed! But within two months, we had everything completed to a liveable standard – the kitchen, bathrooms, living room and guest bedrooms. We made a massive push for this as it was essential for us to have friends and family to stay after so long of not being able to. The only room we left unfinished was the second living room. We didn’t need this space at the time, and it has since become the playroom for the foreseeable. We are so grateful to have this area now for our boys, so I would say to anyone self-building to only push to complete spaces you need and know you will use at that time. Close the door on anything surplus to requirements until you find a use for it.

As an Interior Designer, I had a very clear vision from the outset of how I wanted our interiors to feel, and I think we have achieved that. The spaces flow seamlessly together and complement each other. Overall, it’s a modern interior that’s spacious yet warm, comfortable and inviting. A mix of textures and patterns helped to accomplish this. My personal style and taste is very simple and understated. When people hear the title ‘Interior Designer’, I sometimes think they expect extravagance. This was not the brief for our own home – it’s just not our style and wouldn’t suit our lifestyle. It was so important that it reflected how we are and our personalities. I believe this is a hugely important piece of advice to anyone renovating or self-building – whether you are designing the interiors yourself or hiring a professional – make sure always to stay true to yourselves and how you want your home to be. It’s something I always say to people I offer advice to.

RK: Is the final property everything that you hoped it would be?
CC: Yes, it is. There’s very little about the structure or layout of the house that we would change – and that’s the bones of a successful design.

RK: What’s your favourite thing about your new home?
CC: I love our stonework and how you can see it from the road (our site is set quite a bit off the roadside, so it’s a nice distinguishing feature). The apex window is also an identifiable element as it faces the road. I couldn’t imagine our house without this now. Changing it was the best decision we made.

RK: Would you do the whole thing again?
CC: I would! I don’t think I’d build to move house, as this is very much our forever home, but I would love to build or flip houses for resale.

RK: What advice would you offer to anyone looking to self-build?
CC: Save, save, save! Be patient. Don’t compromise on things that will add value to your home – i.e. your kitchen, bathrooms, tiles, heating system etc. Be organised and stay well ahead of the build to avoid delays as much as possible. If possible, avoid a shared access lane.

Be mindful of your interior layout, think about how you will use each space day to day and make sure it is efficient as possible. Seek the advice of an interior/spatial designer early to move walls/windows/doors before you begin to build so that they don’t inhibit your dream kitchen, for example, or prevent you from using the space as you imagine. Make photocopies of your interior spaces, take a pen and draw the traffic routes you’ll walk every day within your home – make sure nothing is obstructing a free flow of people traffic. This is a straightforward but effective exercise.

Also, utilise Instagram and Pinterest etc.; they are huge sources of information and inspiration. But know your saturation point. It can become overwhelming. Keep your vision, your space, your budget in mind. Be realistic and when you find a style you like, stick with it and stop looking.

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