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David Moran Architect
Interview with architect David Moran. Graduated from DIT Bolton Street in 1993.
18 years working as fully qualified architect. Full member of the Institute of Architects Ireland.
General and passive house architect for Dublin.
Q. What advice would you give to somebody renovating or extending their home?
A. The first thing I would say to someone considering renovating their home is to ask themselves what are their own particular needs? They have to think about their particular needs without reference to other projects. In other words, they have to consider their own lifestyle and what they need in their living space.
Q. What can be the biggest mistake people make when renovating or extending their home?
A. Taking an image out of a magazine can be a big mistake people make when looking for a house extension or renovation. The reality is you are picking a design that has been designed for someone else and it may not really suit your own needs. Their own needs include why are they building an extension? Is it because of energy conservation? Is it to increase space? Is there some other reason?
Q. Usually what is the main motivation behind a house renovation or extension?
A. Usually, the main motivation is more living space or more suitable living space. It could be the alteration of an existing house so that it affords them more living space.
Q. From some of your customers I've spoken to, they told me about how they have enjoyed the benefits of more living space and light in their homes?
A. Yeah, a lot of people in Ireland would have a requirement for additional light. A lot of older houses in particular are designed with smaller windows and are very dull and dark a lot of the time. The more light we can get into a space the better and that has two effects. Firstly, it can reduce energy consumption because more light can equal additional heat, though the main reason for additional light is that people can wake up in the morning and feel good.
Q. So if somebody has an image or idea in their head of a renovation project, extension or one-off build, how do you get from that idea stage to an actual architectural drawing?
A. Well if a client has an image in their head, it usually goes back to something they have seen. I like to get to know people and come up with my interpretation of what they need. After I?ve come up with a concept, then we can go back to something they have been looking at in a magazine. In my own years of experience, once I?ve come up with an image, a lot of the time we don?t go back to the magazine! At the end of the day, architecture is about real people, it?s not just about images. Everybody has different requirements. I try to find out what they want by talking to people in a relaxed way ? having a coffee with them in a restaurant, their own home or in my office. I try to get to know people, to find out what their requirements are. For example, finding out about their interests, whether they work from home or whether they are interested in model railways ? anything that might have an impact on the design of the building.
Q. Okay, nice designs, good space and plenty of light are all well and good but some people's ideas get blocked by planning permission issues? Can you tell us something about some typical planning permission issues people face in Dublin?
A. The main planning issue would be the effects a building project has on adjoining properties. Typically, these would include overlooking and overshadowing issues. These could result in objections from neighbours. Another issue is whether they live in a protected structure or not.
In discussions with the planning authority, their response to comments or queries can be considered guidelines. There are no guarantees and at times these guidelines may not be sufficient to guarantee a favourable planning decision. Good planning advice is based on an architect?s own experience together with discussions with a planning authority.
Q. Can you give an example of a typical overshadowing planning issue?
A. Well, a couple of years ago I was dealing with a semi-detached house with a west-facing rear garden they being the southern house of two. Their two storey extension was going to have a negative impact on the house immediately to the north. We designed a scheme, we spoke to the neighbours and they were perfectly happy for it to go ahead. We designed the two storey extension so that it went the full width of the house. We reduced the rear extent of that adjoining the property to the north in order to reduce the possible impact. There were no objections put forward by the neighbours, they were perfectly happy for it to go ahead, however the planning authority rejected it. Luckily, we had anticipated this and we had designed the alterations such that we achieved the client?s aims. Of course, they would have been more satisfied with the original proposal. Their expectations had been managed and they were very happy overall with the finished project.
Q. So you spoke to the neighbours anticipating any objections. Do you think all architects employ such a collaborative approach?
A. I would like to believe they do! An awful lot of the way I carry out tasks is a result of my training and my upbringing and a lot of credit goes to my parents. The reality unfortunately is that not all architects are as thorough. The boom times were great in some respects for architects in Ireland. But having said that, the last ten to fifteen years were not good for the architectural profession in Ireland. Many architects developed little or no experience in the domestic arena. Most got their experience in the commercial arena. Some have little experience of managing expectations of home owners. There is a very different focus when dealing with a domestic project as opposed to a commercial one. When working on a domestic project you are dealing with people and it?s a very human skill. I?ve honed that skill over the years. I enjoy dealing with people. I enjoy designing for people and I think that is a particular skill that is lacking in the profession at the moment. At the moment, most of the work in the Dublin market is domestic, so architects are gradually gaining the skill.
Q. How do you manage cost over-runs on a project?
A. Again, I think it?s about managing expectations. A lot of people come to me, they have a budget in mind, this comes from a perception of what things will cost. To prevent any cost over-runs you have to focus on their expectations at the beginning and advise them on what the budget should be. If they need to reduce the budget, then sometimes they need to adjust their expectations.
Very seldom do cost overruns occur without the client making a decision. The basic construction of a project is usually a fixed price, the variations are client decisions. For example, there was one case where a client didn?t want their garden upset in advance of the project going ahead. I suspected that there was a foundation issue and that the build area was on sandy soil and we would have to go very deep for a proper foundation but we were not able to carry out an investigative hole before the work began. I put in a contingency sum which is a figure that caters for a possible variation. It exceeded that variation because we did have to go down six metres. It did go over budget and the client wasn?t surprised because their expectations had been managed.
Q. How has energy efficiency of your average semi-detached suburban house in Dublin improved over the last 20 years?
A. The energy efficiency of your average suburban house in Dublin has improved without doubt because the quality of insulation has improved. The building techniques in which most speculatively built houses (i.e. houses built by developers) have not improved that much, but the materials being used have. Overall, there has been an improvement but not as much as it should have been. I?d say most houses built during the boom years were built with minimum standards and have been built without the due care and attention that you would get with the full involvement of an architect.
Q. Do you think the BER rating scheme introduced by the Irish government is a realistic benchmark for energy conservative design?
I wouldn't call it a benchmark, I'd call it an encouragement, it is based on the average house. It's based on the average performance and how that average performance can be improved. As it is based on your "average" house, if somebody has any particular requirements, for instance a very large living room, or if they wanted to go with a passive house, well the BER system can't really apply to them. For example, I finished a house last year which only achieved a "D-" under the BER system because it didn't have a zoned heating system, in fact it does not have a heating system at all. It does not need a heating system because it is designed as a passive house. It loses out on the rating because the heating system is not zoned. The other reason is the house has a huge family room which is a kitchen, living area, play area for the kids all in one big room. Big rooms that size actually reduce the rating. The BER system gives the impression that room will actually cost ?2000 a year to heat, when in fact it doesn't cost anything to heat. There is a ventilation system which redistributes heat throughout the house. The heat is through solar gain. If you switched the ventilation system up to its maximum, it would cost ?300 a year. The reality is most of the time it will be on half-power. So, even if it switched up to max occasionally, it's still going to cost less than ?200 a year. This is a tiny fraction of the cost an "A" rated house under the BER system. Now compare that to the house the family moved from, which was rated "C+", they were never warm enough in winter. With their new passive house, it is totally different. Last winter, it was -11C outside but 22C in their living room and that's with no heating on.
Q. A lot of Irish people seem to have the perception that a passive house is something you would only find in Scandinavia or elsewhere. Have passive houses become part of the mainstream or are they still in a niche category?
A. Passive houses are still in the minority. One of the reasons for this is the perceived cost. I've done an exercise with a particular design system of a passive house where the costs are very similar to a normal house. But the perception is that a passive house is much more expensive and, depending on how you build it, can indeed be more expensive. Most people who build passive houses tend to be very eco-focussed and being eco-focussed they tend to use timber from renewable sources, which means the timber has to be transported from 2000 miles away. But the perception is that if you have a wooden house, you're being eco-friendly - like the perception that, if you own a Toyota Prius, you're being eco-friendly. A wooden house is not always the most eco-friendly option. We have indigenous materials in Ireland and can build passive homes with them.
Q. What advice would you give to someone who wants to build a passive house in Ireland?
A. They should do a little bit of research themselves. They have to be aware they will probably come across several different claims about passive houses. For example, they will probably come across vendors who provide passive houses imported from Scandinavia. Their claims might be accurate but some of them might not. You have to understand that the technology might not be suitable for the Irish climate. Ireland can be a very tough place for buildings. So, I would then seek advice. I am not going to plug my own corner here but I would say seek advice from people who know what they are talking about.
My own interest in passive houses and low-energy buildings goes back years.
My thesis had a passive ventilation system in it, which at that time was not that popular. At the time, the question the lecturers put to me was "What's the point". They wouldn't ask that question today. They would require that I was doing something like that today. It's a long standing interest and passion. I have researched it extensively. I know which products work well in which particular environments and I know that if somebody looks out their window and sees other houses in the area the chances are they will be able to build similar to the indigenous houses in their area and make it passive. The reality is Scandinavia has been quite advanced in that area, it's actually easier to use traditional methods to make a timber-frame passive house than a concrete or stone passive house. It is not impossible to make a stone passive house. It might be more suitable to a particular environment but the leaning is usually towards Scandinavia or Germany because they have happened to develop passive homes earlier than everyone else. It does not make it the best option, it does not make it the only option, but the research does lean people towards the Scandinavian or timber-frame technology model.
Q. So how easily is the Scandinavian model for passive or timber-frame housing exported to a country such as Ireland?
A. Well, in fact, it is easier to export a building model from a country like Ireland because we have a dampness problem. Picking Sweden as an example, they have very dry summers compared to us and generally have dry winters. They don't have the constant damp conditions that we have here. Typically, the daytime temperatures here, even during the winter don't go below 5C. As a general rule, Ireland remains damp. The humidity doesn't go below seventy per cent and that is year round. The technology of building often relies on drying out time. We have to control where the moisture is in a building so that it evaporates or gets a drying out time. Or, if it doesn't evaporate, it gets a spill off zone that doesn't affect the fabric of the building. There are a lot of timber frame houses in Ireland and a lot of these have been incorrectly built and there will be damp issues and dry-rot issues, which can be very destructive of timber.
Q. And your 3 most important tips for a successful build of a passive house?
A. High-insulation, air-tightness and ventilation