Aine Baker talks to Mary O’Brien about her family’s long journey from renting properties to finally achieving their dream of building a home of their own in West Cork.
A native of Donegal, Aine is married to Noel, who grew up on a farm in West Cork. The couple, who both work in the media industry, have three children and a dog and are nearing completion of their self-build on the family farm in Rossmore, just outside Clonakilty.
Although they came very close to buying in Dublin in 2009, Aine says the plan has always been to raise their family in West Cork, where they can live a more sustainable type of lifestyle. Aine is editor of a food website ‘biamaith.ie’ so being able to grow her own fruit and vegetables and stock the walk-in larder with chutneys, pickles and preserves is something she has long aspired to. She will also finally have a well-designed kitchen – with lots of counter space and natural light – in which to photograph her culinary creations for the website.
The couple have signed up to a not-for-profit scheme, run by charity initiative Trees on the Land (treesontheland.com), which gives them access to reasonably priced quality native tree mixes.
This beautiful new home has been a long time coming for the Baker family. Between waiting on planning permission, mortgage approval, finding the right tradespeople to build within their budget, water connection battles and weather delays in the form of Storm Ophelia and the Beast from the East, it’s taken five years to reach this final stage. For the past five months they’ve been relying on the kindness of Noel’s mum, who is sharing her home with them. While it’s not ideal (the family of five are sharing one bedroom and one living space) it’s helping them on the last leg of this house-building journey. The family hopes to be into their new home by mid-March.
“It’s one farm so we had to get through a lot of red tape at the start,” explains Aine “the transfer of land, stamp duty, applying for planning to get it rezoned…it was a very tedious process.
“You’re supposed to be given a decision within 12 weeks of your planning application but they tend to wait right until the end to ask for more information. So we were delayed the first time around by that and then we were refused so we had to start the process again.”
Although the couple went through the pre-planning process, there were no red flags raised at this point, so they were surprised and upset when they were refused planning permission. “There’s a good guide in terms of house design and plans on corkcoco.ie (cork rural design guide – building a new house in the countryside) so we kept as close to those guidelines as possible,” says Aine. “However, the planners felt the house was too exposed where it was situated on the site and asked us to move it into a corner. “Which is where I wanted to put it in the first place but my husband didn’t agree. So I was right…I love saying that to Noel,” she says laughing.
Aine and Noel hired an architect who specialises in passive homes, as having a house that’s easy to heat is very important to them both. “I’m from an island off Donegal, where even as a child you’ve always an eye on the weather forecast; and having lived in so many dodgy rentals in Dublin, I’m obsessed with not having drafts and damp,” explains Aine. “While our new house isn’t passive, it’s as close to it as we could possibly get within our budget.”
Aine’s advice at the design stage is to agree on a set fee with your architect and ask him to see the build through to the planning stage. “If you get your architect to set a fee for each phase you can decide afterwards if you want him to do the construction plans as well,” she says.
Once planning for the build was approved the second time around in 2014, the next challenge for the Bakers was getting mortgage approval.
“When you’re self-building, you can’t get a mortgage without planning approval so it’s a very tricky scenario, as you don’t know what amount you’re going to qualify for,” Aine explains. “While you might get planning for the house, you may then be unable to get the mortgage to build it. The system isn’t very user-friendly!”
With three children (each adding approximately €250 per month to estimated repayments), Aine being self-employed, little savings, and the project a self-build – Aine and Noel weren’t ideal candidates for a mortgage. “For two out of the three years of accounts I had to show the banks, I was on maternity leave, so that worked against us as well,” says Aine. When one bank refused them, which was a crushing blow (”It felt like a black mark against us,”says Aine) the couple decided to go through a mortgage broker. “It still took a while, but it definitely made the process easier, as the broker had relationships with all the banks,” she says.
The couple made the decision to start the build while waiting for mortgage approval, using their savings to fund the first stage. “It was a bit of a gamble,” says Aine “but we only built what we could afford to pay at the time.”
They put the build out to tender but in the end decided to use direct labour with Aine taking on the role of project manager. “We broke ground in April 2017…It was towards the end of the recession so we didn’t have any trouble finding tradespeople,” she says.
Aine and Noel received mortgage approval in August 2017.
One of the main issues they’ve had since starting the build is getting connected to the public mains water supply. “We’ve had a dispute with Irish Water,” explains Aine. “In December, the CRU (Commission for Regulation of Utilities Water and Energy) brought in a flat fee in the region of €2200 for every single dwelling. This was supposed to come into force on January 1, but there’s a transition period. If we apply now, we’ll get two offers, one under the old scheme, which is over double the new fee and one under the new scheme. If we want the cheaper offer, we’ll have to wait until April 1, but there’s still no guarantee that we’ll be connected close to that date. So it’s looking like we’ll be taking out a loan and going with the more expensive option.”
Organising everything from windows and doors to plumbers, electricians, painters, ordering building materials and so on, Aine admits that it’s been a very steep learning curve but she got lots of good advice along the way! “We were really lucky with the people working on the build and with our suppliers – they never let us down.
“West Cork Building Supplies has been a lifesaver,” she continues. “The team up there took me under their wing and Jim especially has steered me away from so many disasters. I wouldn’t really have managed without them. I priced around in Cork City and further afield and he always matched the price or came in better. If there were materials that they they wouldn’t normally have in stock – for example the air tightness membrane that we put on the inside of our walls (a relatively new product) – he priced around and ordered it in for me. I also got my Colourtrend paint from them and great colour advice from Jonathan. It’s nice to be able to stay local and use the same people for different products. Hegarty Lighting also really stood out in terms of service. Anne in Hegarty’s was so helpful…. I sent her examples from pinterest or instagram of the style lighting I was looking for and she always went out of her way to source it for me.”
Aine joined the facebook page Selfbuild and Renovations Ireland. “There’s a good community of self builders out there so don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations,” she advises.
Although they initially considered timber frame, they went with the less expensive option of concrete blocks for the build. “Looking back, we would have been in the house faster if we’d gone with timber frame, so we didn’t really save any money in the end,” says Aine “saying that though we’re very happy now with the soundproofing that concrete has given us.”
The house is well insulated with triple glazing on the north side and double glazing everywhere else. “We went with Scandinavian, aluminium clad windows and although we initially wanted triple glazed windows throughout the house, we needed to save money wherever we could,” says Aine.
The build also has pumped cavity wall insulation and solar panels. After extensive research, Aine chose an oil-fired heating system. “I know oil isn’t trendy but cost played a big part in our decision,” she explains. “After speaking to a heat engineer and someone who used to build heat pumps, we went with a 98 per cent efficient oil boiler (costing approx €1,500) and also solar panels.
“We would have had to pay €14,000 for an air to water system, which in cold weather becomes less efficient – why would you want a heating system that becomes less efficient when you need it most?” Maintenance was another deciding factor in the couples’ choice of heating system. “A friend of mine built a house in West Cork with an air to water system and when their heating sytem broke down in the first few weeks they couldn’t get anyone to fix it. That’s something I don’t want to have to worry about…I want to be able to call a local plumber if I need my heating fixed.
The infrastructure of Aine and Noel’s house will allow them to change or upgrade to another heating source at any time. “My preference would be geothermal and although it’s not in our budget right now, I’m hoping it will come down in price. My brother has the older system but it still works very efficiently.”
The Bakers decided on polished concrete floors, being both practical and aesthetically pleasing. “I like the industrial style of concrete and we also wanted to make the most of our underfloor heating,” Aine explains.
The upstairs floors will be finished in wood-effect tiles, again to make the most of the underfloor heating and for ease of maintenance.
The four-bedroom house was originally five but the couple decided to take out one of the bedrooms to make room for a proper stairs up to the attic. “Our attic was a nice surprise, as didn’t realise how big it was going to be,” says Aine. “When the house was built we realised there was an extra 980 sq ft up there, so we got rid of one of the small bedrooms and put in a proper stairs, which is easier to do now rather than later. It’s a storage space for now but I think we can make something more out of the space in five years time!”
A double-sided stove will break up the large open plan living room and kitchen space. Aine’s dream was always to have a proper kitchen with lots of counter space so the new painted kitchen will have an 8ft island with a countertop clear of clutter! There is also a walk-in pantry and a spacious utility room with space for hanging clothes. “Laundry is the bane of my life,” says Aine laughing, “I never want to see a clotheshorse again. We’ll have a walk-in have a walk in cupboard for towels and sheets and there is a separate small room for coats and shoes so the house will be super organised!”
The bedtime story nook was another key element in the house design. “The kids are always fighting over who’s room or bed we’ll tell the bedtime story in so we’ve made a little nook upstairs with a wraparound window seat and floor-to ceiling bookshelves.”
When it came to appliances, the Bakers decided to get the best of what they could afford. Aine bought ‘Which’ magazine, which advises on the best buys after expert testing. “I thought I wanted a side by side American style fridge freezer but when I started looking, I realised there wasn’t much space in them,” she says.
Always conscious of budget, she has been stockpiling accessories, occasional furniture, kitchenware and bedding over the past few years. “I knew that when we got to this stage we wouldn’t have money for the nice things,” she says. She bought some furniture and accessories locally in Sheehy’s, where they are being stored, until they move in to the new house. “It’s one of the advantages of shopping locally,” says Aine.
All going well, the Bakers will have their furniture delivered and be unpacking all of Aine’s hoardings by St Patrick’s weekend.
“I think one of the main things I’ve learned from this project is not to be afraid to ask for what you want,” says Aine. “Take the advice and expertise that’s offered on board but do follow your gut in the end.”