In January 2016, we had met with Wexford County Council ("CoCo") planner James Lavin to understand whether they would be in favor of our project. We had done a lot of background research talking with other castle owners, to learn as much as we could. Every county has a different website and a slightly different process, although they all interact with the Dept of Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht - a national organization based in Dublin. Later in 2017 we met with the head of planning Diarmuid Houston and showed him some of our initial plans to get feedback. Both James and Diarmuid were very helpful and supportive!
We would like to especially thank Sonja and Kevin from Tullaun Castle in Tipperary for being so generous with their information, budgets, phasing, and general experience. We think of them as our castle mentors, and hope that we can do the same for others in the future! Sonja and Kevin are farther along in their journey and are now providing a unique Over-Knighter experience in their lovely tower...
Our work really started in mid 2017 when we met with David O'Brien, an architectural technician who had a lot of experience with Planning, although not with the major conservation needs of our project. He readily accepted the challenge, and drew up some initial floor plans.
We knew we would need a Conservation professional, so chose to work with Catherine McLoughlin of Stafford McLoughlin Archeology. Emmet and Catherine have been very supportive since before we bought the castle. We were attracted to their practical approach and interest in traditional building techniques, including cob! In addition to her archeology experience, Catherine had a Masters degree in Conservation, and we hired her to do both the Archeological Impact study as well as the Architectural Impact Study. Catherine worked with us through two rounds of testing, in November 2016 and May 2018, in addition to using the Geophysical Survey performed by JoAnn Leigh to understand the overall impact and approach to archeology.
We also needed some Engineering help, and worked with John Creed on structural advice, and Philip Lawlor (of the same firm) for advice about septic systems. The site was challenging since there is an abundance of clay, resulting in poor overall drainage. Initially we thought we would be better off with a very shallow but large drainage field, which we thought would lessen the need for archeology at lower depths. However, after we did the test archeology trenches in May 2018 and found some evidence on medieval occupation, Catherine advised a strategy that would reduce the footprint of the drainage area. Philip took this advice and redesigned the septic to be a sand filter with a significantly smaller footprint to reduce the archeology.
Our team was justifiably concerned with our limited budget. Everyone is - so are we! We learned that in Ireland there is a position called "Quantity Surveyor" which in the U.S. we would call an "estimator". We had some reluctance about pursuing this effort, since our project is so different from a normal modern build. We eventually decided to pursue the estimates, partially to reassure our team that we were not oblivious to the cost risk. We worked with Sarah Stafford, another local Wexford business, to estimate as best we all could, with limited designs and knowledge of the future. Not surprisingly, the estimate resulted in the dreaded "M" word, with the basic project, minus bells and whistles like kitchen cabinets, projected to cost over €1 Million - yikes! About 1/3 of the costs were indirect: VAT, contingency and various fees including general contactor. In Ireland Value Added Tax (VAT) is a whopping 23% for services and 13.5% for materials, so without a planned business to offset these taxes, it consumes a lot of our funds. We plan to do our work gradually, being our own project managers, while aware of some of the risk.
We realized there were large costs for certain elements like rendering. Michael Carroll suggested some training at the Traditional Lime Company. We met with Ed Byrne who has been another great help in this phase. With some training and advice, we understood we could do some of the work ourselves over time and pay for materials. We have always wanted to involve volunteers, be they friends, family or complete strangers in the project and hope this can offset some professional labor - of course being sensible about the approach.
Ed knows a lot about lime and other traditional materials. He also has experience and interest with hand working wood and related tools. We would like to use his ideas to do the tower roof...
We worked with David, Catherine, Philip and John for several months and were happy with our small, local team. It was easy for them to get together and discuss issues, and also visit the site, and this was a prime factor in our decision to hire them all. Occasionally we had challenges getting resolutions as an issue might bounce around for a while... An example of this was the floor levels- with the various sloping piles of dirt, fallen stones, remains of brick fireplaces, we had to determine what the future (modern) floor level would be. Catherine needed this to determine the impact on excavation. Eventually David did a survey and John did the makeup of the future floor composition. Even in the house section, the current levels vary by almost a foot. We are trying to minimize the need for archeological excavation by going down as little as possible, but neither do we want to compromise ceiling height and have to duck through doorways! Luckily it seems as though the 17th century house had about 8 foot ceilings which we hope to retain - at least that is the plan...
In late January 2018, David submitted our plans including septic (original design), elevations, floor plans, archeo and architectural impact studies. In addition to the submission, which is currently on paper which is then scanned into the county website, a newspaper ad and a sign had to be posted at the site - this to notify the public of our application. As we don't live nearby, we had to ensure the sign would stay up and be legible for at least five weeks. So we took great pains to wire it to a telephone pole, laminate it, and cover it with plexi/perspex. In addition we had an emergency second set made up in case the first one was taken down for any reason. Our neighbor Mod kept a vigilant eye out for us, and the sign stayed up!
We waited with bated breath from across the ocean, and in late March, about eight weeks after our submission, we got a response back from the council. The Dept had responded with a Request for Further Information, or RFI, which we had expected, and was deemed a positive sign.
The RFI had 17 different points requiring resolution and covered all three buildings. Methodology statements and specifications for materials were needed. Additionally, of the main observations was that our team did not have enough credentials/experience for the project, and thus we went on a quest for additional team members.
The search took a couple of months - we knew of several "conservation engineers", but our RFI specifically referenced a Conservation Architect or one of similar credentials, and we had no list of this particular skills. David and Catherine both helped us search and we interviewed three people, eventually deciding to work with Michael Tierney in northern Wexford. Michael had a lot of experience with historical buildings and planning. Michael had experience propping up towers, but not renovating them he said - we really appreciated his honesty in this regard!
All the team members were quite straightforward if they felt their experience was limited in a certain area (very helpful!)
We knew from other projects that the tower was the area of most concern to the Dept. and Council, and we had seen the detailed documents produced for other projects. So we asked Michael to team up with Bena Stutchbury who we had retained as a remote consultant on the project since our purchase. Bena has worked on many towers from planning, to design, to project managing the actual renovation, and we have always felt her experience to be great and her approach to be practical!
At this point David took more direction from Michael and Bena on the detail needed for the plans, including a lot more dimensions and call-outs. Also Catherine focused on the Archeo Impact revision as the Architectural Impact was handed over to Michael. The team went to work on the various RFI points, and it was more complicated since Bena was in France and Michael further north in Wexford. The emails, documents and plans were flying around, frequently maxing out Liz's email box. There were now multiple people with duplicate or conflicting opinions, and we often had one or two team members out of the loop. Liz tried to advocated for periodic conference calls with the whole team, similar to her normal work for international projects, but it was difficult to coordinate schedules and technology.
We had six months to submit the required response to the RFI, and time passed quickly in the summer. We nervously saw the September 6th deadline approaching, so rallied everyone to get their pieces done. After a few hours together with David and Michael, calls with Bena, Catherine, Philip and John, the response was submitted on August 28th. David sent us a photo of the stack of documents needed - six copies of everything! The sign got reposted too, and another newspaper ad was taken out.
This time the process required a response with four weeks, and on September 14th we got an excited text from David to look at the response - initial grant of permissions!😄
And there was great rejoicing! We were reminded that there is a "cooling off" period where people can still object to the project, so we kept fingers crossed and quiet about it for another four weeks. Since we were in Ireland in late September, we did take the opportunity to gather the team, and our supportive friends and neighbors, for a small celebration at a nearby pub. Since Bena was in Ireland for a visit it was great to have her there and meet the rest of the team which she had only met virtually!
On 17 October the Final Grant of permissions was posted to the Wexford County Council website!!
In addition to all the people mentioned above, we would like to thank these folk for being so supportive:
Michael Carroll and neighbor Mod (David Walsh) acted as our key-holders and were very generous with their time, opening the tower as needed for various visits and examinations. Michael would remind us periodically that we had owned the castle for over two years and hadn't actually done anything yet! That should change soon... Michael and Mod also rescued our hobbit door twice when it swelled and when the lock was jammed.
Liam and Lena Wright, farmers who arrange their animals and others on the land. Electric fences going up and down as we had work or events going on...
Neil Carroll who provided some useful quotes and provided advice about construction approaches.
James Grace for contemplating hand-hewn timbers and the tower roof, inspired by Ed Byrne.
Annabel and Brian Faulkner, who provided a lot of useful advice about processes and local contractors, and their experience restoring several buildings in the area.
And all the others who gave advice, let us look at their castles, and got us this far!