Adapting a century-old forge in County Antrim was a journey of discovery for grand designers Michael Howe and Michele Long
Names Michael Howe
and Michele Long
Ages 37 and 36
Location County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Property Converted and extended Blacksmith’s forge
Bedrooms 4 Bathrooms 2
Project started December 2012
Project finished August 2015
Size of house 273sqm
Plot cost £80,000
Build cost £250,00
One of the traits that people admire most in others is honesty. So it’s no wonder that Michael Howe and partner Michele Long’s build in County Antrim was so well received when it appeared on Grand Designs in October last year. Even as a practising architect, Michael was the first to admit that he was perhaps somewhat naïve when he first started the project on a 100-year-old forge, hoping to do most of the work himself. He soon realised what a huge undertaking building a house is, especially with a growing family in tow. But it wasn’t a bad thing; it was a process of learning more than anything else – not just invaluable lessons that would help shape his future as an architect, but about life’s priorities, too.
‘We started planning before we had kids and began building not long after our first child, Rudi, was born,’ explains Michael. ‘I was still pretty stupid and naïve at that point – I didn’t quite realise how tough it was having kids and figured this project would be just like taking up golf or something. ‘The building process was really, really hard,’ he continues. ‘It’s incredibly physically demanding and trying to jump straight into it with no experience when you’re in your mid-thirties was difficult. That shouldn’t have come as a shock but it did.’
But there was method in the madness. Michael was determined to carry out the project with his own fair hands because he felt it would complete his architecture training. He runs his own practice, 2020 Architects, but he believes that, all too often, architects are office bound, purely focusing on the design aspects rather than understanding the practicalities of building what they’ve drawn on paper.
The plan was to transform the old blacksmith’s forge by restoring the crumbling building and linking it to an impressive double-height curved extension, which would have stunning sea views out over the Portrush peninsula and the Atlantic Ocean. The dramatic bulging shape was a clever solution to a planning condition; as they weren’t allowed to build the new addition any higher than the original stone structure, it was a novel way of getting a lot more room in the second storey.
‘I wanted to make something modern, but soft and textured – not just square edges,’ says Michael. ‘The aim was to give it the character and history that you often don’t find in modern houses, so that’s where the use of traditional materials came from. I really like how the old stone wall always ties you back to the original forge wherever you are in the building as it runs through the entire house and it prevents the new section from feeling cold and clinical.’
With an ambitious budget of around £137,000 and a 12-month schedule Michael began in a modest way with just a pickaxe and a wheelbarrow as he lowered the floor of the forge by half a metre. He had the help of a local builder to underpin the fragile stone walls, but progress was painfully slow and the work was exhausting. Michael was initially determined not to have any heavy machinery on site and to treat the build as more of an organic process, but in November 2013 after a year of toil – when the couple should, technically, have been moving in – it became clear that this method wasn’t efficient.
At that stage they hadn’t even started work on the extension and Michael simply didn’t have enough time to dedicate fully to the build. With heavy hearts, the couple decided now was the time to employ a contractor and a team of builders. ‘The realisation that I couldn’t build it myself was the lowest point in the project for me,’ admits Michael. ‘I had three very important things in my life – my family, my business and the house and one of them was going to have to be compromised, so it had to be the latter.’
While it was a tough decision, it was the right one as the project picked up pace again and it wasn’t too long afterwards that the couple discovered they were due to have another baby. ‘It seems that being on Grand Designs is a sure-fire way to end up having kids!’ jokes Michael. But when the baby’s due date came around in February 2015, while the restoration was almost complete, the couple were still waiting on their glulam timber frames that would form the curved timber structure of the extension.
Michael had hired a skilled local carpenter to construct the frame, but had also given him a large job for a client through his architecture practice that had to take priority, thereby inadvertently pushing back Michael’s own order. In addition, the joiner had the misfortune of having a fire in ￼his workshop so Michael had no choice but to go with another firm to get the job done.
In September 2015, almost three years after starting the project, Michael, Michele, Rudi and seven-month old baby Anna finally moved into their home. There was also the matter of an overspend, with the couple shelling out £250,000 on the property in the end, although this was probably a more realistic sum than the original proposed budget. But despite the time and expense, the pair feel it was totally worth it.
Words: Charlotte Luxford, Photography: Aidan Monaghan