In Northern Ireland, a Couple Grapples With Renovating a Run-down Victorian

As they awaited the arrival of their third child in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Kerri and Neil Beggs encountered a problem familiar to families everywhere: They needed more space, but didn’t have the budget for the kind of house they wanted.

“What we found was that we were in a certain price bracket, and it was quite a large leap in price for the size of house we wanted,” said Ms. Beggs, 44, a health care professional. She and Mr. Beggs, 47, who runs a plumbing supply company, had been renting a narrow, four-story townhouse that sometimes felt like more of a big staircase than a home, and they wanted more space indoors and outdoors.

Fortunately, they had met Craig Hutchinson, the founder of the London architecture firm Hutch Design, through a mutual friend, and he offered to help them assess various properties.

When they visited a rundown 1907 Victorian that had been divided into three dank apartments and had outhouses in the backyard, it seemed too far gone to consider. “I was quite overwhelmed by it,” Ms. Beggs said, “even though I’ve always had a passion for older houses.”

Mr. Hutchinson agreed. “It was really in a terrible state,” he said. “There were holes in the roof, and on the ground floor there was rising damp.”

But that’s what made it ideal, he insisted.

“Craig was saying, ‘Well, there’s huge potential — you just have to knock it out and redesign it,’” Ms. Beggs recalled.

The couple decided to take a chance and bought the house for about 475,000 British pounds (about $600,000) in 2019. Then Mr. Hutchinson got to work.

The house is in a conservation area, so he planned a faithful restoration of the brick-and-lime-render exterior, with new double-glazed windows that resembled the drafty old single-pane ones. Inside, he was free to create an interior that blended modern and traditional elements.

“In Victorian times, it was a lot of closed-off, separate rooms,” Mr. Hutchinson said. But he knew the Beggses wanted something more open.

“Because their kids are quite young, they wanted to be able to see the kids from everywhere,” he said — especially when the parents are working in the kitchen and the children are playing outside.

As a result, the primary living space of the three-story, 4,100-square-foot house is now one large room that contains the living room, kitchen and dining area. Besides knocking down walls, Mr. Hutchinson cut through the floor above to create a soaring, 23-foot ceiling over a low-slung limestone fireplace. Along with a pair of French doors that open to the generous front yard, the cutout helps funnel light from the second-floor windows down into the living room.

Although most of the original architectural details were lost long before the couple arrived, Mr. Hutchinson aimed to play up the home’s age by installing traditional elements: arched and paneled doors, crown molding and chair rails, and jib doors that almost disappear into walls.

“Because we had lost so much of the Victorian decorative detail, we wanted to introduce some things to replace it,” he said.

To counter Belfast’s frequently overcast weather, three skylights help bring in natural light, which bounces off walls and ceilings finished in chalky lime paint. One skylight pulls sunlight into a mezzanine connecting the second and third levels, which Mr. Hutchinson created by cutting open a section of floor. Another illuminates a new curving staircase. The third is a round window directly above a walk-in shower, designed as a spiral of green tile.

To complete the house, Mr. Hutchinson redesigned the front and rear yards — yes, he removed the outhouses — adding plantings selected with the landscape architecture firm FFLO that provide a sense of lush green and privacy. He also helped the couple furnish the home with sculptural pieces: Chandigarh chairs by Pierre Jeanneret and a steel coffee table by Vogel Studio in the living room; art and decorative accessories by Irish artists and craftspeople; and shaggy wool rugs and nubby linen drapery and bedding.

The project took about a year and a half to design, including securing the necessary permits, and another year and a half to build. The family moved into their completed house last February. The construction cost was about £178 a square foot (about $227).

“It was a long process, and very stressful at the time, but worth it in the end,” said Ms. Beggs, who loves that the home has the character of an old house but the convenience of a new one. “It sounds cheesy, but it just makes me smile. It’s a restful, relaxing house to be in.”

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