Taking a hands-on approach

Converting and extending a century-old forge took one family almost three years

By Charlotte Luxford | 9 December 2016

Adapting a century-old forge in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, was a journey of discovery for Michael Howe and Michele Long. One of the traits that people admire most in others is honesty. Even as a practising architect, Michael was the first to admit that he was perhaps somewhat naïve when he first started the Grand Designs blacksmith’s forge conversion. Particularly as he was hoping to do most of the work himself.

A demanding process

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. 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.’

View towards the sea beyond blacksmith's forge

The blacksmith’s forge is behind the new build. Photo: Aidan Monaghan

Gaining practical experience

Michael’s plan was 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 often architects focus 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 extension. It takes advantage of the stunning sea views out over the Portrush peninsula and the Atlantic Ocean. The dramatic bulging shape was a clever solution to a planning condition. 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.

A side view of the curving extension, which is linked by a walkway to the original forge.

A first-floor timber deck overlooks the sea. Photo: Aidan Monaghan

Linking to the past

‘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. It runs through the entire house and it prevents the new section from feeling cold and clinical.’

Exterior view showing a central section of floor-to-ceiling glazing

The seaward side of the house has a central section of glazing. Photo: Aidan Monaghan