I was a child completely obsessed with Lego and Meccano, building everything from fire stations to houses. With new pieces available every year, birthday presents were never a problem for my parents! Although she didn’t realise it at the time, my mother’s enthusiasm for old buildings and houses in general, also had a profound effect. When I was about seven we used to stop whenever we passed an old building and, if possible, go in and have a look around it. She would point out any interesting features and her enthusiasm, despite no formal education in the subject, rubbed off on me.As a teenager I renovated an old stone building on the farm as a place for me and my friends to meet and it was a good test just in case the reality of the architecture course proved different to the dream, but I loved doing it.
Why did you decide to become an architect?
From a very early age I was into buildings the way other kids are into cars or animals and by the time I reached secondary school, I knew architecture was the only career for me. Being totally certain about it I thought ‘why waste time doing A levels when a Btech National Diploma in construction would get me into the architecture course at Queen’s University Belfast and give me a head start so that’s what I did and where I went.
What was your first professional commission and where was it built
As I love looking at old buildings of any shape or type, and taking photographs as well, it was maybe appropriate that it was the renovation of a thatched cottage. Following completion of the work I was really thrilled when the cottage was chosen as an example of good practice for the Northern Ireland Rural Design Guide Building on Tradition.After graduating I joined Consarc Design Group and loved my time working with them, especially alongside highly respected conservation architects such as Bronagh Lynch and Dawson Stelfox. It was a very busy period as I continued to help out on the farm – I’m an only son – as well as doing my own private commissions. Travelling from County Derry to Belfast was, I reluctantly had to admit, not the best use of time so I left Consarc and joined a local practice, McGurk Architects. They are highly regarded throughout Northern Ireland and have a wide range of expertise, and within a few years I was one of the senior architects. By that time I had built up so many private clients that in 2011 I decided to launch my own practice.
Who and what have influenced you
The two who stand out are Frank Lloyd Wright for his Falling Water house and Philip Johnston’s Glass House, also in the USA. Frank Lloyd Wright in particular did things way ahead of his time and both of them pushed the boundaries with their design and materials with buildings that not only met the needs of their clients, but also respected their surroundings. How do you achieve that? The honest truth is you can’t tell until the design is built but if you listen to your clients and study those buildings that do work, then you should be on the right track.
What type of work do you do
Most of my commissions are in the private residential sector, bespoke houses and extensions, but I also do quite a lot of restoration work on old and listed buildings, a cause very close to my heart.Doing Grand Designs has given the practice a massive boost, far more than either Channel 4 or I ever imagined. As a result of the programme, I’ve been offered commissions in 49 different countries which has led to some really interesting work, including a project in Iceland. I also got some very positive feedback, especially from the planning department who were very excited – and encouraged – with the outcome!
What does the future hold for domestic architecture
I feel very positive about this and view a part of my job as educating people to see that there are other options to the white bungalow. Many architects feel there are too many buildings being designed without the input of qualified architects and it is that artistic element which produces buildings of merit. Having said that, Kevin McCloud told me there was more good architecture per head of population coming out of Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK, a great compliment to Northern Irish architects who want to push the boundaries of design.
What would you like to change
I wish just a brief look at architecture was included in the school timetable so that people learn to appreciate what you can get out of good design. Secondly, the scope of planning permission should cover more and look at design, sustainability and the site. A well designed house is a happy house and the people in it are happy too so you really would be changing society for the better as well. I would like to see a planning policy for good design, with qualified architects involved as a requirement of the process.
In contemporary architecture whose work do you admire most
Designs using cantilevers tend to get my attention, as does the work of the Australian architect Andrew Maynard, Richard Murphy in Scotland and in Ireland, Dominic Stevens and his Mimetic House. I find the internet a very useful tool as it gives a worldwide view of what works where.
What do you do in your spare time
I can’t stop looking at architecture! But I do love farming and being out on the land with the animals is a great tonic. My own house is on the edge of a Woodland Trust site and so being at work, doing what I love most, is not how I see it. I also enjoy hurling, Gaelic football and rugby.
Your favourite style of food, film, book and music
Food: pizza! In any shape or form. Film: Casablanca but really it’s all down to where you see it and who you’re with. Music: anything, it falls into the same category as the film in terms of time and place. Books: architecture ones but when I can tear myself away from that then it would be autobiographies, especially sporting ones such as Brian O’Driscoll’s.
What has architecture as a career given you
Working with architecture makes me happy, I gain enormous satisfaction and want to continue working in it for as long as I can. For me it’s not just a job, it’s my hobby too and I feel very lucky indeed to be in this situation, almost guilty in fact!