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  • Writer's pictureby Liz @ EMF

The excitement of renovating a 19th century home in 21st century Geneva

Updated: Feb 1, 2019

A 19th Century Gem

For the last few months, I have had the good fortune to be working with a client on a project for the renovation of a small village house originally built in the late 1800s that is located on a tiny lane and has no garden or land. The plot is delimited by the building’s four walls and it is contiguous on three sides with other homes.

Skillion roof renovation Geneva
Example of a skillion roof, also called a pent or shed roof (photo: Gabrielle Ward)

The house itself is situated in the old town of Collex-Bossy, a commune in the Canton of Geneva which was first settled in 1258, and although the building itself is not classified, it sits in a Zone 4B heritage-protected neighbourhood. This means that the renovation is subject to relatively stringent regulations with regards to the type of transformation we can make and the materials we will be allowed to use to convert this currently uninhabitable space into a cosy family home.

Among the countless regulations we must decode, and the multiple cantonal departments to be satisfied before the works can go ahead (e.g., national heritage and energy to name just two), there are a myriad of conflicting rules that make this renovation project one of the most challenging to date on the EMF client list.

The Brief

In addition to completely gutting the existing 60m2 ground and first floors, we will be building out the attic to increase the living space by a full third. The second floor rear original brick wall under the skillion (lean-to) roof soars to 4.2 metres! On that level, we plan a large open-plan parental suite with a lounge area, enclosed bathroom and walk-in shower. A free-standing bath will be installed on a mezzanine platform against the high wall, which will have oodles of storage under its base.

The first floor will house 2 bedrooms, a full bath and a laundry/storage room. The ground floor will be open with a single row of kitchen wall cabinets and a parallel island for the sink and dishwasher, including a raised bar overhang with just enough space for two stools. There will be an adjacent dining area, sitting room, visitor’s toilet under the stairs plus two small technical rooms tucked into opposing corners.

The walls and foundation are traditional masonry typical of this era, meaning large rocks, rubble, earth and sand meant to allow the building to breath.

Bring in the Light!

While the owner dreamed of creating a small enclosed roof balcony to substitute for the lack of outside space, we knew from the outset that planning permission would never have been forthcoming. In order to bring in a maximum of light at the top of the house, we will resort to roof windows and in the end will likely only receive permission for two installed linearly and taking into account the original beam structure—all of which must be replaced thanks to a wood worm but which must be reconstructed in exactly the same configuration and dimensions as the original roof structure. We must replace like with like so all three floors will have wooden beams, some exposed.

How to Heat

Another pressing question was how to replace the no-longer-authorised and energy-consuming electric radiators throughout the house given the lack of a cellar or sufficient technical space for a larger furnace and boiler installation. What is more, modern energy regulations in Geneva require that any roof that is reconstructed (remember, we will have to replace the timber roof truss and insulate to 21st century standards) must be augmented by the installation of solar panelling at a minimum for heating water—another internal space zapper.

Luckily, after a full and technically-challenging energy audit, we have decided to go forward with a wood pellet heating system with underfloor on the 1st and 2nd floors, and radiator units under the ground floor windows. The latter was a compromise as we do not have the ceiling height necessary on the entry level for in-ground insulation plus an underfloor installation.

What is more, we have found a compact modulable pellet storage that will be installed in the very back of the ground floor in an existing technical room which is large enough to minimise the number of deliveries needed throughout the year. The automatic three air tube system (in, out and ventilation) needed for pellet delivery from the front of the façade will be hidden behind a ceiling cache that runs to the rear pellet storage.

And Yes, This Story has a Happy Ending

At a first glance, this project seemed that it would be full of nothing but constraints. However, we have had a rather pleasant surprise! Because we will be heating with wood pellets, a renewable energy source produced from wood waste, we will be eligible for an exemption on the solar-heated water installation requirement. Why, you ask, would anyone in this day and age who is remotely environmentally conscious not want to voluntarily harness the sun’s free energy?

Well other than the obvious reason of budget savings (in the region of Chf 15,000 for equipment and installation), this home does not have the space needed for the double boiler and converter necessary to receive energy from the thermal panels. If it had been imposed on the project by building regulations, it is likely that we would have lost the ground floor guest toilet and a portion of the vital technical room.

So we are not only saving part of the project budget which will be dedicated to triple glazing, an energy plus, but also economising on technical space leaving more room for living space. A win for the client.

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