Allowing All Semi Detached House Owners to Build in Their Gardens

In this article I am going to put forward a simple idea that would allow the population of Dublin increase by up to 250,000 with zero or very little investment in infrastructure such as roads, sewage, schools, shopping centres and electricity, while at the same time making housing affordable for young people. This same idea would also reduce the need for the elderly to go into nursing homes and provide ready access to child care and babysitting for young couples, as well as make a significant contribution to the fight against global warming. Big claim? Well let me set out the idea. Basically, the government should decide that as a matter of public policy, it wants to encourage owners of the classic Irish three and four bed “Semi D” with attached garage to turn the space occupied by the garage and a little bit of the back garden into another housing unit… Oh and this is the best bit. Even if only 10% of eligible houses were built per year, this would release €5 billion in “wealth” into the economy every year, not to mention €2 billion of primary direct spend with builders every year which, in turn, would generate secondary spend throughout the economy.
This new house would ideally be occupied by a son or daughter of the owners of the original “Semi D”, or the sons and daughters would move into the original “Semi D” and the parents would move into the new house. Okay, so right now some of you might be aghast at the prospect of “destroying” settled residential communities while others might see a host of practical problems ranging from neighbours objecting to sewage capacity. However, before I address these concerns, most of which are addressable with some innovative thinking, let me first expand upon why this would be a good idea if it could be achieved.

The pattern of development in Dublin, and other larger Irish cities in the sixties and seventies was the three and four bed “Semi-D”, with a density of seven to the acre. This resulted in large swathes of the inner Dublin suburbs such as Blackrock, Dun Laoghaire, Rathfarnham, and Cabra, as well as many of the older estates in outlying communities, being built to the “Semi D” with attached garage and large garden model. I estimate that there are up to 100,000 of these in existence in County Dublin. Many of them are occupied by older retired people who are probably delighted that their houses are worth a million Euro (or at least were worth a million Euro two years ago) but bemoan the fact that their children cannot afford to live where they grew up and are forced to commute into work from Gorey, Carlow or Cavan.

These days, planners would be appalled if a developer proposed a density of seven to the acre – not that a developer would – and view double that as desirable for all sorts of reasons most of them to do with furthering sustainable development. Well if fourteen units to the acre is a good idea for new build – what would be wrong if you could achieve something similar by some innovative redevelopment of those old “Semi-D” estates?

Think about it. These areas are usually well served by roads, buses, shops, pubs, churches, schools, hospitals, Garda Stations and all the other facilities that spring up to serve a community over 40 years. I could go on about all of these facilities at length; however the one that is most instructive to look at is schools. In the past few years, four secondary schools in the Dublin area have closed due to lack of pupils. By contrast, schools in the new commuter towns are bursting at the seams. In the opening paragraph I suggested that Dublin could accommodate 250,000 new people with limited additional infrastructure, well let me give you the maths behind this. Let us take the figure of 100,000 “Semi D”s as a starting point and assume that a lot of the residents in them are older. If we then build another 100,000 housing units in the same area and assume an average of 3 people to the new house, then we have our extra 250,000 people.

… Dublin could accommodate 250,000 new people with limited additional infrastructure.The beauty of the proposal is that these neighbourhoods were built originally to accommodate young families. Thirty years ago, there would have been traffic jams getting out of them in the morning as people went to work or to drop their kids off at school. This is no longer the case as the age profile has risen. If these neighbourhoods were reinvigorated by younger families the traffic would simply return to the levels they were at in the seventies when they were built. Then again, efforts to promote public transport might have the effect of reducing this. To take sewage as an example also. In the seventies the average number of Children was over four. It is now slightly over two. If we take this proposal forward and end up with a situation where two grandparents, a Mum and Dad and two kids, live on the footprint of an original Semi D, then the sewage requirements of these six people is equivalent to the sewage requirements of the original which should have been designed for over 6 people. The same argument applies to electricity and gas with the observation that both the redeveloped housing units would be much more energy efficient and thus reduce the requirements for these services. With regard to water, a condition of the development could be that rainwater is recycled on site.

So if these are the benefits, then what about the practicalities of making it work? Well here is how I see it happening. This kind of development would be governed by a number of principles. The first that would need to be applied is that this kind of redevelopment can only go ahead if the two adjoining neighbours agree. That is, two side by side garages must be redeveloped together. The second principal is that the redeveloped houses are two story plus dormer at the front and three story at the back with the back extending some way into the garden. Please see the sample floor plans for an illustration of how this would work. The third principal, and this is the key one, is that the design of the re-development is managed by the local authority’s planning department.

There are many ways this third principal could work but let me outline one in detail. Let’s take a hypothetical example of the Murphy’s and the Maguires who live beside each other with two attached garages in between them. They approach the local authority and tell them they wish to redevelop their residences. They pay a deposit to the local authority of let us say €10,000. This is to ensure that they do not change their minds later. The local Authority then runs a competition for architectural firms to design the redevelopment not just for the Murphys and the Maguires, but also for the entire estate. The idea here is that a single base design is desired for the entire estate to ensure uniformity and conformity of the development. If other neighbours in the same estate later use the design, they will contribute to the cost of the design later.

The architectural firms have to comply with a variety of development guidelines that are set both nationally and locally. Any number of architectural firms can submit proposals together with a price for the initial design. The local authority reviews all the design proposals and identifies those that pass a certain quality level. Let us say that in this case there are three. These three are then put to the Murphys and the Maguires who pick the one that they like best, based on the price and the proposed design. This design then becomes the approved design for the estate.

The Murphys and Maguires pay the Architects’ initial fee for the design. If any further houses wish to avail of the approved design, the overall fee payable to the architect goes up say 10% for every additional pair of houses and the newcomers, let us call them the Jones and the Smiths, pay this 10% to the architects and a balancing fee to the Murphys and Maguires to ensure that all four parties pay an equal share of the total outlay. To put some concrete figures behind this, let us say the Murphys and Maguires paid €10,000 originally, then the Jones and the Smiths each pay €500 to the architect and €2250 to each of the Martins and Maguires. In this way all four pay €2,750 each. If more people come on board then the same method applies with the objective being to ensure that all who avail of the design share the cost equally. Naturally, more than two people can originate the idea and further share the cost.

The winning design will outline exactly what can be done where two neighbours agree to move forward. Any pair of neighbours who follow this exact design will have their development considered exempt. That is to say, the development can proceed without the need to get planning permission. Each pair of neighbours will be allowed to engage a different architectural firm for project management services or other services if they so wish. If a pair of neighbours wish to vary the approved design, then they have to submit their design through the standard planning process.

So that is the idea in a nutshell but what kind of a house would could you build in this gap – and would it be worth living in? I am firmly convinced that many ideas will spring forward that will produce some lovely innovative designs. I myself am not an architect, but I have had the benefit of doing some thinking about this, so let me share some of my thoughts on what could be achieved.

I foresee an “L” shaped house three stories plus a basement at the back. The original house would also be extended extensively at ground floor level and would have its attic converted. I see nothing wrong with dormer windows at the front, even though these have been traditionally frowned upon by planners in an effort to keep housing estates uniform. My view is that what we are about now is creating a new uniformity more in keeping with modern higher density planning. The original house may also be extended at first and second story level depending on the impact upon neighbours. The piece of the new house at the back would extend 20 feet into the garden and be 15 feet wide. If this was achieved, the square footage of the new house would be over 1300 square feet and it would comfortably accommodate four bedrooms. I would suggest that a mandatory design feature would be provision of a lift well that could later be converted to take a wheelchair accessible lift. I also like the idea of putting a basement under the piece at the back, as this will have the effect of limiting the impact on the garden. If you think about it, a proportion of garden space is usually taken up by a garden shed and other storage, and if this can be put into a basement, then the size of the usable garden can be kept as large as possible. Naturally, as part of the granting of permission for the development, the original house would have to be insulated to the highest modern standards, and perhaps also fitted with solar panels or some such.

So that is it. The adjacent floor plans will give you an idea of what might be possible so two questions remain. The first is where did that €5 billion a year figure come from, so let me address this.

What we are talking about here is the perceived wealth that individuals feel they have created. If a son or daughter builds a house on the site of their parent’s “semi D”, the house will be worth notionally, and probably actually if we can restart the market, €500K; so €500K of wealth will have been created. If we take 100,000 as the potential number of houses, assume that 50% of them will be converted and that it takes five years for this to happen, then if you do the sums, it is a €5 billion a year stimulus to the economy. If we assume €200K to build each new house and refurbish the old one, then you have a direct primary spend with a builder of €2 billion per annum. A nice feature of this is that building these kind of houses requires significant on site work thus putting all those laid off builders back to work. This in turn then drives up demand right across the economy. We might even see demand for the builder’s breakfast roll being kick started.

Which brings us to the final question?
Do we have the imagination to do this?

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About sjkhayes
Exploring the best tools and methods for SAP implementations.

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