Practice Profile – 2020 Architects

Norman Hayden meets a Northern Ireland team with a clear vision of the future

To produce a much-lauded conversion, have it featured prominently on television, and then win an award for it has to be a dream for most architects. This was the reality for Northern Ireland-based 2020 Architects whose conversion of a century-old cottage into a spectacular modern home landed the project a slot on Channel 4’s Grand Designs.

The practice transformed a blacksmith’s forge set in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty at Ballymagarry on the County Antrim coast. The architects used a mix of traditional stone and modern materials and achieved a modern, sustainable and super-insulated straw bale and timber frame extension, nestled into the contours of the rural site. Presenter Kevin McCloud called 2020 “the most innovative, forward-thinking, progressive architects in Northern Ireland.”

Moreover, the practice received a 2016 RICS Award for Outstanding Residential Property. Richard McKinney, 2020 director and senior architect, explained why this has been the project which has given the firm the most satisfaction so far: “The typical role of an architect is to design, detail and periodically inspect the building through the construction process.

However, on this project, we were able to get our hands dirty and realise the progress of the building on a daily basis. It was a rare opportunity to be involved both mentally and physically in a project.” McKinney feels the Ballymagarry house best reflects the company’s ethos.

“The 2020 approach to design is rooted in providing architecture that our clients feel at home in. It is design that responds specifically to its site context, while providing the necessary technical background to allow for a sustainable lifecycle for the building and provide a comfortable and healthy living environment for its occupants.”

He adds, “We take pride in designing buildings where our clients have been involved in the design process, giving them a sense of ownership in the final product.” As senior architect, Richard co-ordinates all aspects of new build projects – from concept, design and right through to construction. His attention to detail has ensured projects run seamlessly, while his management and aesthetic treatment of each project has been key to the rising popularity of 2020 Architects throughout Ireland and the UK.

Recently, he set up the practice’s sister construction company, enabling 2020 to offer clients a one-stop shop. The 11-strong team places a focus on sustainability, and an environmental ethos that sees beautiful architecture as buildings that look as if they have always belonged in their surroundings.

There are two other directors in the 2020 boardroom – Michael Howe, the directing senior architect, and office director Gareth Boyd, who liaises with and co-ordinates all staff members to ensure work is delegated, priced and time-scaled correctly. Boyd also specialises in drawing up and preparing tender applications and presentations, a process enhanced by the installation of a dedicated Virtual Reality Suite.

The practice views valuable architecture as developing from an understanding of the local context, its culture, history and, most importantly, the clients themselves. It aims to pursue an open and collaborative process to ensure that each project is tailored to the needs and requirements of individual clients.

The practice’s growth meant they had to move to bigger premises, and its new office in Ballymoney, County Antrim, was itself a renovation project which enabled the architects to put their own stamp on the workspace. By stripping the entire interior back to basics, the design team exposed the original features of the building, including hand-made red brick from the River Bann and original steel beams.

The blockwork, alongside the steel, gives the office a rustic, warm appeal to balance the minimalistic, industrial look. Another major residential project for the firm saw it design a home with two key components: a two-storey, barn-like element amalgamated with a traditional, single-storey unit – a protruding stone wall marrying the two. The large curved zinc roof enables this property to discretely nestle into its location. This house features double height glazed living accommodation with access to the garden.

The 2020 portfolio also boasts a minimalistic and elegant house at Ballymacrae, Portrush, also in County Antrim, offering panoramic views across the North Atlantic coast. The two-storey family home is designed with a striking white glazed box that references mid-20th century Irish house design, and gives the appearance of floating above the ground using a plinth of dark brick. Another modern home the county, this time in Carrickfergus, was designed on an elevated, split-level site which utilises stone and modern design concepts including a corten steel box window and terrace roof. Currently, the 2020 team are working on two major restorations in County Antrim.

The conversion of an old school house in Rasharkin has seen the exploration of concepts and design initiatives to preserve and maintain the uniqueness and character of a listed building, while modernising the property and bringing it up to modern-day standards. The restoration of a 19th century Corn Mill in Templepatrick has required a sensitive design, being a Historical Monument of Irish heritage.

All proposed design work had to meet regulations set out by the Historical Monuments Unit. What does Richard McKinney see as 2020’s biggest challenges? “The ‘new’ 2020 was born in the depths of the last construction recession and we are very aware of how fragile the industry is despite its recovery and recent growth,” he explains.

“It is human nature to strive for the best deal and the lowest cost. However, what people fail to see is that it can be a false economy and can end up compromising on the level of design or detailed finish.” What then of the future? “We have worked tirelessly over the past four years to build the practice and client base to what it is today, “he adds.

“Even so, the work will continue to expand the current workload and adapt to the changes in the industry. The installation of our fully-immersive and dedicated Virtual Reality Suite will allow our clients to fully engage in their design before a single brick is even laid.”