We need a defined national strategy for Empty Homes

The Hardware Journal has taken the opportunity of speaking with Hugh Wallace, Award Winning Architect, Director of Douglas Wallace Consultants, TV Presenter and Chairman of The Hardware Show Innovation Awards ‘Dragon’s Den’.

I don’t think there’s anyone in this country who wants our housing crisis to continue. And the only way we’re going to make it go away is to shake things up a bit. Living above the shop is nothing new. We’ve been doing it for centuries – it was the old-fashioned version of working from home!

Hugh Wallace speaking at The Hardware Conference in Kilkenny in March. Photo David O’Shea © David Oshea Photography – www.osheaphotography.com

The arrival of suburban retail parks, shopping centres and local convenience stores has slowly eroded the commerciality of our cities. Add to this the unpleasantness of traffic congestion, the trudge of a daily commute along with the rise of the out-of-town business centres and the unceremonious slow death of our city centres is unsurprising. And then came Covid-19. Need I say more? The only antidote for this sad demise is people. Our cities, towns and villages need people….And our people need homes.

Hugh, you have long been an advocate for rejuvenating empty homes and re-populating our town and city centres, what changes have you seen in the last few years?

It certainly has been an interesting few years, hasn’t it! We’ve gone from the heady days of the boom into the depression of the bust and just when we thought we were out the far side, we find ourselves launched straight into a global pandemic. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted by it all! And as my mother used to say, change is as good as a rest! So, whatever were the changes in the past few years, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing some real change in the future.

And we’ve never been more prepared. It’s refreshing to see new life being injected into fantastic initiatives like the 1994 Living Over The Shop scheme (LOTS), which as you know has been transformed into the Living City Initiative, and which you also know, I’m a huge fan of. As the name suggests, this is exactly what you said, all about bringing life back to our towns and cities by encouraging property owners to refurbish the often-dead space above their premises into modern, comfortable living accommodation.

The government are doing this by offering significant tax reliefs on the refurbishment costs. I was delighted to see that not only has this scheme been opened and its qualification criteria expanded, but the government are finally telling people about it, so it’s not the big secret it once was. The second initiative which I also think presents a fantastic opportunity to homeowners is the Vacant Property Refurbishment Grant. There’s been a lot of talk about this in the news recently with the announcement that since it was established in Sept 2022 there have been 2,868 applications received, of these 1,019 have been approved and 183 have been rejected. But the number everyone is getting upset about is that only four grants have been issued. But what people don’t understand is that the grant will only be paid once the work has been completed! These works aren’t just paint jobs, more often than not they involve fundamental structural refurbishment and will by their nature take time, so really, I’d expect that number to substantially increase over the next quarter.

The point I’m making here is that opportunity knocks for those brave enough to take on a refurbishment challenge that will, I have no doubt, bring life back to our towns and cities.

Hugh Wallace, Louth County Council’s Director of Housing, Paddy Donnelly and Martin Markey CEO Hardware Association Ireland all presented at the
Empty Homes Roadshow in Dundalk in February

And what are the main obstacles to Empty Homes rejuvenation?

Once you get over the challenge of completing the highly technical forms – it’s no joke, they really are very difficult and would explain the high number of rejected applications – the biggest obstacles for both the Vacant Homes and the Living City Initiatives are our outdated planning system and building regulations.

If the Government is serious about these initiatives, and I genuinely believe they are, then there has to be a major overhaul of our approach to the planning, conservation, regulating, and refurbishing of these properties. These aren’t new buildings.

They were built at a time when our attitudes to health, safety, fire, and access were substantially different. To try and make them fit into today’s standards is nonsensical. We have to be sensible, in order to make their restoration viable.

Innovations in building methods and materials as well as in fire prevention and detection have made tremendous headway over the last number of years. The extent of new and more sophisticated technologies on offer at The Hardware Show and Innovation Awards last year are a testament to this and clearly offer solutions to some of the challenges this kind of repurposing faces. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, so I say, why not innovate, think outside the box and find the balance between what’s achievable and what’s feasible.

Of course, there is always an alternative. And the alternative here is to do nothing. What then? Demolish and rebuild? Not very environmentally, never mind sustainability, friendly, wouldn’t you agree?

Access – with many shops there tends to be no access to the upper floors – from the ground floor how do we overcome this?
With old buildings, there will never be a one-size-fits all. You have to consider each opportunity separately and tailor the approach to suit. It’s never going to be impossible; it just mightn’t be that easy! But I’m a firm believer in there’s always a way, you just have to think outside, inside and sometimes under, the box! And that philosophy doesn’t just apply to the architect and the engineer, it applies to the conservationist, the planner and regulator too.

Realistically some older buildings will simply never be accessible on all floors, nor will they ever be triple A rated. We need to accept it, get over it and move on.

What are the benefits of rejuvenating Empty Homes?

Where do I start? Aside from providing the homes that are needed to address the housing crisis that has been on-going for over a century, homes mean people, which means families and communities, which means commerce and prosperity. And that means life. Rejuvenating these empty homes means bringing a vibrancy and security back to the streets of our towns and cities. I mentioned it briefly earlier, but we cannot escape our responsibility to the environment and the impact our actions have on it. Refurbishing our buildings might not be the easiest thing to do, but it could be the most responsible thing to do from a sustainability perspective. Listening to reports of sweltering heatwaves all over the globe and hottest temperatures ever recorded, one certain benefit of rejuvenating our buildings is that it’s the right thing, even if it’s a small thing, to do for our planet. The longer we wait, the longer we leave these buildings to decay. A consequence of which will be more time, effort and money needed to revive them. Now is the time to take responsible, intelligent, and sensible action.

I’ve said this so many times before, I don’t mind saying it again! We need a defined national strategy, an explicit instrument that will start conversations and enable professionals to make informed and consistent decisions. I’d like to bring our various sectors’ best minds together, the planners, conservationists, architects, developers, politicians, and those looking for a home to refurbish and restore, to explore the possibility of change.

Hugh Wallace has over 40 years’ experience in the Architecture / Interior Design Industry and is renowned for his insight and knowledge as a leader in design industry in Ireland. As the founding director of Douglas Wallace Consultants, he has a great depth of knowledge in delivering award winning developments such as Dundrum Shopping Centre, Winner ICSC Europe Shopping Centre, Ashford Castle Development Master Plan and The G Hotel, Galway. Hugh is a judge on Home of the Year 2015 on RTE, now in its ninth series, and presenter of The Great House Revival where he is finishing the fourth season to be aired in the spring of 2024.

Hugh was delighted to be awarded “Lifetime Achievement Award “for his contribution to the Design Industry in Ireland in 2014. As a past president of the Institute of Designers in Ireland he has used the opportunity to promote the importance of design and promote that clients use architects and designers to deliver tangible results.