The north coast of County Antrim, heading towards the Giant's Causeway, is a beautifully scenic route, especially on a crisp autumnal morning driving up from Belfast.
Along the way, Glenarm, between Larne and Coleraine, is a suitably 'quaint' fishing village to stop in for a swift half. The town itself claims to be the oldest in the province of Ulster, having been granted a charter in the 12th century, and many of the streets have been unchanged for centuries.
An old pottery, situated in the middle of a hilly street, has been bought by a professional couple working in Belfast and refurbished from a state of near dereliction. The frontage of the low-level building has been made good with whitewash on render and new windows to match the originals. Because of the proximity of the sea, and 250 years' exposure to salt air, the slates degraded to dust as soon as they were removed. The architect, thus having only a basic framework to work with, has managed to create a secluded family house with a range of totally unexpected charms.
The basic ground floor plan of the original building has been maintained as much as possible. Internal 400mm-thick walls have been replastered with lime plaster (with not a crack in the place) and left the colour of the lime wash. The floors have been screeded and laid with 12mm random porcelain tiles.
The porcelain (of a type used for dental bridges) gives the appearance and durability of rustic stone flooring. The rooms off this corridor are refurbishments of the originals - small in size, they now play host to the children's playroom, storage room, utility room and home office.
From the front door, the view down the narrow corridor opens up into a stream of light - shimmering glass and glowing timberwork. The demarcation of the extension is a pecan wood floor 'suitable for underfloor heating', which has been bonded solidly to the concrete floor. From here we are in the extension, comprising children's and parents' bedrooms, bathroom facilities, light well and corridor.
The design takes advantage of what would otherwise have been seen as problematic site levels, which angle steeply from first-floor height down to the back door. By hollowing out the land at the rear and setting the extension below garden level, architect James Rooney of Newtownabbey has hidden the new build beneath a roof garden, which allows the structure to blend in effortlessly with the 'real garden' beyond.
To bring daylight into the new spaces, Rooney has grouped the sunken extension rooms around a light well, which doubles as a secluded seating area. Made of yellow balau ridged decking, this private courtyard is separated from the building by a glazed screen and 12mm secret-fixed cedar boards.
The original rubble party wall has been whitewashed to maximise the light bouncing back into the building. Vertically mounted air-grilles ventilate the interior, obviating the need for opening windows and this air is circulated through the underground rooms at three air changes/hour.
Glass block walls surround the idigbo timber doors ('used in the 1940s as a substitute for oak') and lead into generous rooms. The doors themselves are well crafted - up to 70mm thick - with simple ash frames and delicate, consistent shadowgaps. The en suite bathroom - whose walls taper to a natural shower enclosure - has porcelain tiles and mosaic features along the floor and the walls.
Back in the original structure, a secluded staircase of solid maple and cherry with idigbo strings and inset lights winds its way up a full height space to the porcelain floor of the first floor kitchen/diner.
Rooney says: 'I don't normally get involved in kitchen design, but on this scheme I went as far as designing the kitchen extract grille.' The kitchen is a pristine mixture of cherry and maple, its chunky units stepping up like stacked boxes to mirror the rise of the staircase. These units have been fitted with frosted-glass panels to match the balustrading, reinforcing a sense of a thoughtful design throughout the project as a whole.
Access from this level is out over the thresh into the turfed roof-garden above the extension. A concrete upstand and railings protect the family's children from venturing too near the edge, and provide the flashing upstand for the glazing into the courtyard.
The garden extends for approximately 75m to a dilapidated barn of the same period, which the clients are considering turning into a 'splash pool'.
Whereas the first-floor kitchen is essentially open to the rafters, Rooney has cleverly incorporated an additional floor island above, which provides high-level views down into the dining and kitchen area. The underside of this mezzanine forms a floating soffit at about 2.3m height. The steel framework is supported on matt-black painted (intumescent-coated) steel columns, and although Rooney has included a range of steel tension wires along the length of the exposed mezzanine edge, these are mainly for dramatic effect rather than function.
The mezzanine floor-to-ceiling height is tight, admittedly, but satisfactory. The access stair treads and flooring are the same yellow balau as has been used on the external deck, but two areas of triple-laminate glass panels have been cut out in the floor to provide views down into the kitchen and to give a certain frisson as you walk across. Given that the family is reasonably clutter-free ('being into minimalism and old buildings'), and uses this space for relaxation and watching TV, it is more than adequate - providing a cosy retreat.
All in all, this was a deceptively simple building. I was struck by the relatively restrained palette of fine materials, the proud workmanship, and the attention to detail.
The design challenge this project presented was to find a way of successfully grafting on and integrating contemporary architectural elements without compromising the essential charm of this Grade III-listed Georgian house.
Having convinced the Historic Buildings Officer of the merits of putting new sleeping and sanitary accommodation under the garden, our attention turned to transforming the cellular nature of the existing upper rooms, with the hope of achieving one large multi-functional living space.
By assuring the statutory bodies that we would be painstakingly restoring every other part of the existing building they eventually agreed to allow us to fully remodel the upper part of the house.
A generous kitchen/dining area has now been created which achieves easy access to the naturally elevated back garden via the new grassed roof. The uninterrupted full-width gallery, with glazed floor panels and ballustrading, was a later addition and sails through the expansive volume to recapture valuable living space.
CLIENT Jim Hurson and Dr Mary Murnaghan ARCHITECT James Rooney, tel 028 9028 9467 ENGINEER Ennis Gruhn & Co MAIN CONTRACTOR Michael Glass VALUE £175,700 (excluding kitchen, sanitaryware and floor finishes) BUILDING AREA 118m 2within house,59m 2under-garden extension CONTRACT PERIOD June 2000-January 2001