Monday, 10 October 2011

UAHS Hard Hat Tour: September 2011 - Part 2 of 2 (McMaster Street)

On Wednesday 5 October we blogged about the recent Ulster Architectural Heritage Society’s (UAHS) hard had tour of Templemore Baths. Following the tour of the Baths the UAHS in association with Hearth Housing led the group around the McMaster Street area to explore the ongoing restoration work.

McMaster Street (30 Sept 2011). Photo by Gary Potter.

Hearth Housing Association was established in 1978 and now manages around 100 houses and flats across Northern Ireland. According to Marcus Patton of Hearth the organization aims to restore without ‘gentrification’. The organization can access housing funds and operate at lower market values to restore buildings that may otherwise be unviable to a commercial developer. On Friday 30th September one of Hearth’s four staff members (of which two are architects), Siobhan Brown led the UAHS tour around the old terraced ship workers housing which is now a protected Conservation Area.

McMaster Street (30 Sept 2011). Photo by Gary Potter.

Many of Belfast’s old terraced “two-up, two-down” streets have since disappeared but McMaster Street survives and is being given a new lease of life by Hearth. Over ten years ago Hearth acquired numbers 22 and 42 McMaster Street for restoration. Hearth’s in-house architects with McNally Contractors (Randalstown) Ltd restored the two one-bedroom houses between 2000 and 2001 with assistance from a Housing Association Grant and their own capital.

History of McMaster Street from Hearth Housing...
McMaster Street was developed by John McMaster and designed by J Frazer & Sons in 1898-99. Nos.2-14 and the odd-numbered side of the street had been developed by 1901, but it was not till 1908 that the remaining houses were erected.

The McMaster Street houses were "two-up two-down" terraced houses. Such houses would be either "Kitchen" houses or "Parlour" houses, the former having a kitchen and a bedroom on the ground floor. McMaster Street was of the better quality Parlour type with the front ground floor room being a Parlour reserved for good occasions, and the back room the Kitchen where food was cooked and eaten and much of the everyday life of the house took place. Beyond that was a single-storey return containing the Scullery or Working Kitchen with the jaw-box sink and a timber worktop. There would have been a larder and a meat-safe where perishable food would be kept cool and ventilated. In the tiled yard at the back there was an outside toilet and a coal house.

The house did not originally have a bathroom; the family would have filled a portable tin bath in the Kitchen with hot water drawn off the range, or gone to the nearby Templemore Avenue Baths. The two bedrooms upstairs might have housed quite a large family, the parents probably in the front room, perhaps with a baby, and older children sharing a bed in the back room. It would have been not uncommon for a family of five or six children to be brought up in a house like this. Since McMaster Street was built towards the end of Belfast's rapid development phase in the 19th century, the houses were built to a good standard with wide streets and back entries, running water and flush toilets.

The McMaster Street families were skilled artisans, able to afford the comparatively high rent of the houses. In 1909 the trades represented in the street included moulder, engineer, rivetter, engineer, fitter, plater, rivetter, brassfinisher, painter, joiner, caulker, craneman, cabinetmaker, blacksmith, boatman, upholsterer and fireman, all of whom could have been employed in the shipyards.

Numbers 22 and 42 had been vacant for some years and the worst of the two had been badly vandalised due to a fire lit in the first floor which damaged the roof timbers. Unfortunately the houses had also lost their original doors, windows and chimneys due to a Housing Executive “enveloping scheme” in the 1980’s.

Hearth believes that one of the most important elements of restoration is putting back a more sympathetic design of window. Sash windows and panel doors were put back (this time in double glazing) to fit the brick openings.

The decorative brick which had been painted over
throughout the years was restored and new windows
installed. Photo from Hearth Housing.

During restoration the dividing wall between the Parlour and Kitchen was put back, traditional balustrades added to the stairs and architraves restored around doors and windows. However the outside toilet was not reinstated. Instead the two homes were brought into the 21st century with gas central heating, insulation to external walls, a new bathroom and modern standards of wiring and plumbing. A compromise between full restoration and modern living ensures that Number 22 and 42 are fit for modern living for years to come. 

At the opening of the two homes in 2001 by then Belfast Lord Mayor Sammy Wilson a representative of the DoE's Environment and Heritage Service (EHS), Michael Coulter, stated that "you don't need to sacrifice 21st century comfort to maintain 19th century Victorian style"

McMaster Street is a designated Conservation Area.
Click here for more details.

Michael Coulter (EHS) continued..."Hearth is to be congratulated on this high quality restoration programme and showcase of good building practice. This type of project greatly assists in the preservation of Belfast’s very fine collection of Victorian terraces and will ensure that late nineteenth century working class housing at its best continues to be represented in the city." Lord Mayor of Belfast, Cllr Sammy Wilson added that "it is wonderful to see the traditional terraced housing that Belfast is so famous for being carefully restored. This type of housing symbolises Belfast’s role as one of the great Victorian cities and major industrial centres".

McMaster Street. Image from Google Street View.

Fast forward around ten years and Hearth have now acquired a further six houses from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Numbers 20, 22, 31, 32, 33 and 37 had been neglected for some years and had lost many historical features during various ‘improvement’ works. Work on the latest scheme at McMaster Street is being carried out by Hearth and QMAC Construction with funding from the Department for Social Development and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive

McMaster Street (30 Sept) 2011. Photo by Gary Potter.

Siobhan Brown (Hearth) believes that McMaster Street will demonstrate that historic buildings can be low energy consuming. The street is also a good ‘test bed’ for measuring the performance of a variety of materials and systems. Monitoring of the houses will provide invaluable data to improve and develop conservation and sustainability in historic buildings.

Outlining some of the issues that Hearth must consider when taking on a new project Siobhan notes the materials, technology and right people as key. It is also important to consider the impact on the building and the environment and be aware of the value for money and future maintenance costs.

“These questions must all be asked to ensure that we do the right thing”, explains Siobhan, “…as it is important to adopt systems that work with the existing building”. Air tightness in historic buildings is an important consideration and can inadvertently damage the building over time. It is important to consider how wet or dry a building is before deciding what materials and systems to adopt. Hearth are employing a variety of innovative materials on McMaster Street to deal with the issue of moisture in historic buildings. Sheeps wool insulation is an environmentally friendly solution which absorbs and releases moisture (used in 22-24), whilst magnesium board (made from recyclable materials) acts as a robust and breathable alternative to plasterboard (no plasterboard is used on the scheme).

A variety of insulation techniques have been used such as Uponor underfloor heating (all houses will have underfloor heating), Magnaline superslim insulation (10mm is the equivalent of 50mm of rigid insulation) and Hovatex, which is a 100% recycled woodbased insulation that allows the building to breath and has a slower rate of heat loss than other systems (can be fixed directly unto the existing wall). Phase change material is also used and consists of ‘in-sheet’ foil pockets that can absorb heat and release when the room temperature drops. 

Insulation. McMaster Street. Photo by Gary Potter.

Four main types of insulation are used on the McMaster Street scheme and Siobhan hopes that when restoration is complete funding can be found to carry out detailed monitoring to determine which works best and provides value for money. It is also necessary to ensure that the interventions do not cause deterioration of the walls as the more insulation provided increases the risk that walls are unable to dry out if they get wet.

As with the first two houses Hearth restored on McMaster Street in 2000 the next set currently on site posed similar questions relating to windows. Hearth wanted to put back sash windows but sustainability concerns and listed status meant that a compromise would be required. The decision was taken to introduce Slimlite double glazing to the front of the properties and ‘Secure by Design’ double glazing to the rear.

This house is currently under restoration by Hearth Housing.
Image from Google Street View.
All the houses as part of Hearth’s second scheme on McMaster Street use green and recycled materials were possible. Magnesium boards are used as an alternative to plaster board and they are fitted with a whole house heat recovery system. Clearly this scheme looks further than the basic social and economic value in conserving historic buildings and a lot of consideration has gone into the long term impact of the restoration works on the structure. Issues of sustainability and energy efficiency are also clearly at the fore in this scheme.

McMaster Street (30 Sept 2011). Photo by Gary Potter.

Hearth will now seek funding to carry out the detailed monitoring of the materials and systems used in McMaster Street...

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