How to build or renovate your own house


Harrison Gardner is on a mission to bring people back in touch with their inner builder. Since 2017, the Aussie has lived in the west of Ireland outside the market town of Co Clare, Ennistymon, where he bought a ramshackle old cottage on five acres for £80,000 and started renovating it.

He had worked as a foreman for the American construction school Earthship Biotecture and had worked on projects in Argentina, Canada, Malawi, Japan and Australia. After finishing a job in Iceland and with a few months off, friends suggested she visit Ireland. He met Aisling Robinson and Luca D’Alfonso, co-founders of the Fumbally cafe in Dublin 8, and kept coming back, exploring the countryside each time. “Just 10 minutes from the ocean, the cottage felt like a safe place to invest some money and turn it into something,” he says.

By renovating and expanding the house, he has also created a business that shows the public, even those of us who have never lifted a tool in our lives, how to renovate and build our own.

He’s also turned that knowledge into a range of five-day courses, a new coffee table book called Build Your Own, and even an upcoming TV show.

In the age of Instagram feeds with handles like @CheapIrishHouses, @RomanticIrishRescue, @FormerGloryIreland and @SeasideIrishHomes all showing us abodes in need of what estate agents describe as “upgrading”, Gardner thinks most of us we can do at least some of the work ourselves.

His credo is that by being more hands-on you get a better understanding of the building process and in today’s housing crisis such improved skills could help you have a roof over your head.

It’s a clever and alluring premise that lets you put your own fingerprints, literally, on your home. What it really taps into are the needs of those of us on tight budgets, renovators who want to buy a doer-upper but can’t afford to outsource renovation costs, and homeowners who want to improve their home but who may not be anymore. eligible for a mortgage.

He says we can all grasp the basics from one of the five-day courses he and his wife, textile artist Erin McClure, run during the summer months from their Co Clare property.

DIY is big business now. This time around the medium is digital, with YouTube, Tik Tok and Instagram offering quick and stylish hacks for every room in the house. The target market is not age specific. What unites these tribes, from Gen Z to Baby Boomers, is that they aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.

Over the past three years, Gardner has hosted 250 students at this institution. They are between 16 and 72 years old. Teenagers come with their parents. Women make up 55% of classes, debunking the myth that women don’t do DIY. He hopes for 400 this summer.

“People make it sound a lot tougher than it is,” he says almost cheerfully. His parents built their own house in the early 1990s, and by helping out, they took a liking to building.

Self-build dream

Contemporary building regulations and bank lending restrictions mean the dream of self-build is no longer as simple as it was when Jack Fitzsimons’ Bungalow Bliss handbook was first published in 1971. The bank won’t lend unless you build a certain way, and contemporary self-build requires staggered sign-offs from an engineer or architect.

“We no longer have the owner-builder culture. If you’re not an experienced builder, you don’t know if the construction is up to standard,” says Gardner.

“It takes a little bit of confidence, but a lot of the work is hard work, repetitive tasks,” he says. “You learn a skill once, like cutting insulation to fit, and then you can repeat it a thousand times. Classes were born out of requests from people asking the same questions over and over again.”

Costing €700 for five days (excluding accommodation), Level 1 may be the best money you spend on your home, unless you invest in a Ber certification.

Harrison Gardner’s greenhouse at Ennistymon. Photography: Shantanu Starick

Here you can try stone stacking, masonry and building timber frame walls, as well as learn how to wash sheep’s wool to make your own insulation. Gardner also shows how you can use aluminum bottles and cans as base materials in the walls – these also have a decorative element and the technique is evident in his own greenhouse.

You will even learn how to install prefabricated windows and exterior doors, as well as hang interior doors. This means you can order windows on a supply basis only, which not only increases the speed with which they will be delivered, but can help reduce some of the construction costs by 30-40%, he estimates. he.

“It’s about agile construction,” he says. “The goal is to help people acquire the skills they need. . . to help them use what they have around them. In a market with shocking levels of materials inflation, this instills a sense of hope.

Classes are not just demonstrations. You are going to be hot and sweaty and have to work with strangers to complete tasks. You may not always agree on how things should be done.


For some, the practical course takes on its full meaning. For the majority, this leads them to reflect on the operation of their building. It imbues them with a sort of x-ray vision that now allows them to see beyond the plasterboard to get a better sense of the fabric of the building. Some of the romance of old buildings is lost, but on the positive side, he says: “It also helps them talk to their builder and allows them to be part of the process. It’s empowering to have had a literal hand in the work you do or have done at home.

This is an important touch and perhaps the biggest benefit of the Tier 1 offering. “Buildings belong to all of us,” he says. “As rents go up, the ability to buy becomes completely unattainable.” This provides a doorway.

From start to finish, you’ll complete a shelter in five days, including one with a roof. It can be a greenhouse, a shed or a garden room. This season you will build tiny houses on trailers so they can be transported, as there is no more space to build on their land.

While these courses offer a lot, renovation is still a numbers game. It’s more difficult for the solo buyer or renovator, because the most practical way to complete a large project requires some form of partnership, where half of the pair agree to take time off work, probably a year, to complete ambition. The other half should continue to work, advises Gardner. “You have to keep making money to buy the materials.”

It’s a big commitment, but if the holy grail is a small mortgage, land to grow vegetables, and a house that you really helped make, this is the way to do it. It will also help you build your confidence to take advantage of all those Instagram tutorials.

Full course details are available at Build Your Own: Use What You Have to Build What You Need is published by Gill Books


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