If you’ve seen Home of the Year, The Great House Revival, or Bungalow Bliss, you’ll know that Hugh Wallace is an animated character, never shy about giving his opinion. That’s never truer than when you do it about the empty homes and buildings that fill cities and towns across the country. It’s a topic that infuriates and annoys a lot of people, but Hugh, a famous architect who hosts a TV show dedicated to bringing nearly abandoned properties back to life, is exasperated by the situation.
“If you go to any city or town in France, Italy, Spain or Greece, people live above the store, but that’s not a viable option here at the moment due to the level of regulation and restrictions.
“I drive around the country and there are so many vacant properties, especially on the west coast of Ireland. If you pass through Donegal, Clare, Galway, Mayo or Sligo there are hundreds of empty houses due to immigration. People have literally closed the door and gone to America, England or Canada, but the property is still there. Most of the time, the person who left is dead, but they still have title to the property. We have to solve what happens in these cases, because nobody can buy these houses because they do not have a title.
“It’s just small simple things, but it could free up a thousand homes. Then you do another little thing and that releases another thousand homes and all of a sudden you have movement. Every thousand properties you release helps provide sustainable homes.
“Look at Oliver Plunkett Street. It’s a bustling part of Cork, but no one lives on this street. If it was in Paris, they’d eat your hand. If it was London, they’d cut off your hand. We are pushing people further and further away from cities and towns and it is not sustainable. »
As an architect with a passion for the country’s built heritage, Hugh wants to see more old properties brought back to life, but believes we need to strike the right balance between protecting our history and allowing people to find a home in properties. which would otherwise collapse.
“I think we need to have a conversation about protection. Right now a building might just be protected, but there are plenty of buildings in the country that are protected and fall and disappear into the ground. This is largely due to people being unable to undertake the work the building needs due to the costs associated with a protected building. These buildings, so tightly protected, then disappear. We need to have a much more balanced approach to what you can and can’t do.
“We live in a time where we talk about sustainability, warmth and insulation and we just can’t do that on these protected buildings, but you should be able to. I’m just saying there’s a balance here, in terms of how you move forward. We worked on a project that was a very large, substantial house that was literally six months away from being so badly damaged that it would collapse. The customer wanted above all to heat the house and to put the radiators on the wall. They weren’t freestanding heaters, and the preservative completely lost track.
“I was just thinking hang, hang now, this building was about to have no roof, was about to not exist and you lose the plot because of a radiator appearing on a wall? You have to really that there is a sensible approach so that people can bring these magnificent buildings back to life.
Hugh’s passion for old houses is still evident when watching The Great House Revival. The new series starts tomorrow on RTÉ 1, it’s the first since 2020, and Hugh has spent two years visiting the owners. His joy in their projects and his admiration for the sometimes gigantic tasks they undertook are clear.
“What’s interesting about the different programs is that Home of the Year takes seven weeks to film in the summer and early fall, while The Great House Revival takes two years.
“This year we have six amazing properties, six amazing owners and I’ve been traveling the country the whole time to check in and see how they’re doing.
“What these people are doing is amazing. First of all, they are newbies and it’s not like they are architects, engineers or builders. They are just normal people who have found a dream home. The house of Passage West this series is owned by a computer guy, who does this amazing makeover and then there’s another lady who works in social media. We have a beautician, a hairdresser, a manager and a crew. They’re just a amazing group of people, who have passion and love for our heritage and my God, do they have a learning curve.
“I like to see their plans and how they are going to achieve it. Then someone will say he has a budget of €150,000 and that sounds outrageous but interestingly he almost always manages to pull it off.
“They roll up their sleeves and do an awful lot of donkey work themselves. They do all the house cleaning and demolitions. They are the workers on these projects and that makes a huge difference to the overall cost of the project.
Of all the TV projects Hugh has been involved in, The Great House Revival is the most engrossing. It feels like there’s real danger involved with the projects and you’re supporting the owners and what they’re doing.
“There are so many this season because of Covid and also, and I’m not being rude, because of the owners’ lack of knowledge and experience. They’re amazing people because they’re not only amazing creatively, but they’re so passionate. It’s just fabulous to watch.
Fans of all three of Hugh’s shows will know he gives great previews of the houses featured on his Instagram account, where his bio reads: Architect (yes, still designing). With his successful television career, it might be easy for people to forget that he still runs a busy firm working on amazing projects.
“I love it. I’ve been involved with a number of unique homes and really enjoy working with owners on their homes. I especially enjoy working on homes, which may be past their best before date, and to be entered, lived in and enjoyed again. I love to see them come back to life with families and children running around. Homes love to be loved and they give so much back when they are loved.
“I don’t have a particular style and that’s very important because the house is about the client’s style, not mine.
“But in my opinion, if you buy an old house, even if you have to bring the sleeping bag, you have to sleep in it first, because you will find that where you thought you wanted the living room, it is not really where you want the living room. You will understand what sunlight does. Sunlight is so important in Ireland, in the winter it is completely different to the light in the summer and I think you have to see it.
“A lot of people buy a house, hire the architect, do the extension, but haven’t really lived in the house. It’s my job to say no once in a while, that’s not what you need.
Hugh took on his own passion project this year. Together with her husband Martin, they are building on the site of an abandoned house near Clanbrassil Street in Dublin. Work has been delayed due to the pandemic, but they have started now and they hope to be there by Christmas.
Interestingly, Hugh will take a back seat on the interiors and give Martin free rein (although he laughs thinking he’s hoping to get his hands on a small room to be wallpapered from floor to ceiling).
“Martin also has great taste. The houses we have lived in are fabulous. Pretty simple, white walls, wooden floors, nice kitchen, stuff like that, but I’m hoping to get the wallpaper out somewhere. We disagree and I hope I get the spare part to do, but then I might end up in it! He and Amanda Bone would truly be the perfect bedfellows.
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