When Sheelagh Wright saw the house she and her family now call home, she knew that although it was in poor condition, with a little care, attention, imagination and the right old fashioned bend, this could be a nice place to live.
So in 2017, she and her husband Andrew bought the six-bedroom house in east Belfast and set about renovating it into the perfect family home. They moved there just before the first lockdown in 2020.
“We were the only bidders on the house, which is just over 100 years old and had been split into three apartments in the 1950s,” she says. “The ground floor was in continuous occupancy, but the two upstairs apartments had been rented in the 1960s and had not been occupied (or renovated) for many years, so were in very poor condition – the only access being through a precarious way exterior emergency exit on a flat roof It was a tall order and a huge undertaking, but I had a vision of what this beautiful building could become, and I love the challenges.
“We were the only bidders as it was immediately clear there was a lot of work to be done to restore it to its former glory. But we loved the original features, which were still intact, and were able to see the potential for space and light in the building. It was just screaming to be a family home again and I could visualize what a wonderful property it could be.
Sheelagh, who previously worked as a project coordinator at an architectural firm in Dublin, says she is very pleased to see dilapidated properties restored to their former glory and that she herself has been involved in this before.
“I transformed my first house, with a lot of help from my parents, and renovated my husband’s first house to sell before we got married,” she says. “Also, he and I had been undertaking a year-long renovation of our old house, which when we bought it had trees and ivy growing through the kitchen floor and roof. But we could see the potential and I managed the renovation project myself whilst working full time in public relations for a firm in Belfast.
“I learned a lot from this experience and had so many useful contacts with skilled trades. When we purchased this home it had been 10 years since we completed our first renovation, so it seemed like the time was right for a new challenge. But this time we had three children – Rebecca (12), Ella (11) and Ben (8) – with us, so after camping in the downstairs apartment for a year, we decided to move into temporary accommodation while we undertook the work.
“Over the course of a year, our builders, JB Bentley & Sons, removed the roof, slate by slate, [and] isolated and restored using the original slates and some salvaged slates. They removed the entire back of the house to reconfigure the layout and add a two-story extension for the new open kitchen, living room, dining room and an additional bedroom. It was quite terrifying to arrive on site after the first two days of demolition and see the extent of the dismantling before starting to rebuild. Standing in the hallway and looking across three floors to the sky beyond or to the back garden as there was no back wall was quite disappointing.
In addition to the extension to the rear of the property, which is located close to Stormont, the couple made the decision to add a roof space conversion to incorporate two en-suite guest bedrooms into what was previously an unused space in the attic.
Sheelagh says one of the most satisfying aspects of the build was working with specialist craftsmen to restore original features, such as cornices, sliding sash windows, stained glass and unusual carvings and millwork.
“Although for many people the choice of finishes and the design of interiors can be one of the most overwhelming aspects of a construction project, this is one aspect of the renovation that I really enjoyed”, she says. “A large part of the budget needed to be spent on structural work, so we had to get creative with sourcing furniture and interior parts. Fortunately, my husband shares my passion for vintage, and we love rummaging through charity shops and antique stores for bargains. It makes for a pretty quirky eclectic home and our kids are often horrified by the things we pick up – although I’m sure they secretly enjoy helping me restore and recycle things.
“I loved the experience of this renovation and it led to an unexpected career change as I started sharing our experiences on Instagram and many struggled to find the right craftsmen to work on larger properties. Then people started asking me if I could advise them on their renovations and help them find unique pieces for their interiors, so I started www.kensingtonhousedesign.com a year ago and I had the pleasure of working with wonderful clients to transform their homes. .
“Helping other people with their projects also has the added benefit of scratching my constant renovation itch without having to move again.”