A version of this interview is published at Archinet.
Our studio is in a converted mill just of the Falls road in Belfast and we really like the space. We worked out of this mill before, and knew the quality of spaces that were in here, and we wanted a space that was filled with light . It’s about ten minutes walk into town so its a great location. You know, there’s such limited quality space in the city, so much horrible spec office stuff, which would just be horrible to sit in day in and day out…and the location is in a part of the city that we want to engage in, the inner city and the issues that are associated with the inner city.
We are working in Belfast by choice. Most of our fiends are not, they’ve heading off, during the recession, and theres a reason for that but we are optimistic by nature, we feel that Belfast’s time would come soon, we thought it would come five or six years ago maybe ten years ago, it still hasn't really came the way we see it, but we still have faith that something positive will happen here, and we want to be involved with that and want to be part of it. This is where we live, its where we are raising families, this is our home.
2. When did the practice start?
We started in 2013. We worked together at two previous practices, but the recession hit bad in 2010 - 2011, when things were very very slow in the city, and everyone was freelancing, and as a result of that we found that we were doing bits and pieces for ourselves. It got to the point where I [Fearghal] was planning on leaving Northern Ireland, my wife and I — who is also an architect — wanted to head away, and we didn't in the end, we stayed, and she got job. I was chipping away at a few different projects here in Belfast, working in a little cottage down a laneway in rural Co. Armagh. It was an interesting period.
3. How many staff?
We’ve three full time staff and two freelance.
4. Company ethos?
We don't really see ourselves as modern or traditional and we try on a wider level to enhance the quality of everyday life for the users of whatever we are working on. It’s also about looking at the word value and interrogating that word a little bit, because in this place especially, that word is very limited in its understanding and its use. So its about working with people to understand what wider value we can bring to a project. And it’s about quality of life, relationships, and about general demeanour and peace of mind, and lifetime value.
We are constantly reevaluating ourselves and the studio here, of course there are plenty of jobs that we could take on and just get out of the door, but we don't want to do that. You know we have to be interested in the work ourselves, We have a broad spectrum of different projects, but we don't feel that we need to be pushed into a certain bracket all of the time, nor do we, I hope have a particular style or approach, thats visible. I think that there is a diversity in the outcomes, and I think thats because, rightly or wrongly from the very first meetings with clients, It’s as much about them and their input as it is about ours.
We don't have a solution that we bring to people, it’s more a thing that develops over time. I know thats a bit of a cliche, but its definitely something that happens over time, and what happens in the end often surprises us. We might have a preconception, of where a project should go at the start, and we start by tentatively putting a few things down on paper; first moves. Next we might have a round table discussion to interrogate those ideas and decide on a way forward. The way forward from there is often completely different to what our first moves where.
I also feel that none of us own anything in here, but we all own it; there’s a collective ownership and thats the way we very much like to approach each design so that, you want everybody in the office go feel part of it. If everybody is aware of all of the work that is here, then everybody can bring their own part to the job. We find this adds richness and adds diversity to the outcomes. We try to avoid labels — it’s so unhelpful. We just try and produce interesting stuff that’s healthy to live in as opposed to fitting in a certain box.
At the end of the day, at the stage we are at, we cant pick and choose our projects and so we are very responsive to the clients needs, what they want. But even when we get a client who is interested in a certain kind of architecture or style, we inevitably end up arriving at something different that is more responsive to the fundamentals — material, emotional responses, light and about engaging with context and surroundings, historical references. We try and take clients on a journey and we feel that with most of our projects our clients feel that they have designed it as much as we have. We almost bring the client on board as co-designers rather than customers,
5. Current projects?
Theres a huge diversity in the projects we work on, one week we’ll be working on house for a wealthy person with really good fees and the next week we’ll be doing some pro bono work for a little ad hoc community farm up the road and I really love that, I love that we’ve managed to maintain that, and I’d be reluctant to let go of that. I think we’ve got a nice variety to our work but I think we’d also like to move into social housing, community buildings and education, we’ve done that in the past, and we kind of miss that. But as a small practice we are not able to get into that groove just yet. So at the moment we are working on a few different projects ranging from one off houses to larger scale residential work.
6. Have you always been at this studio?
We started MMAS together in Gareth’s loft. You know, It was a tough time and Belfast can be a hard place to practice. Some people have a circle of friends and relations, but we were quite naive, we didn't have any of that so really, by the scruff of the neck, we had to engineer some work. It’s been a kind of steady boat since; year on year, a steady increase in turnover.
7. Favourite part of the studio?
Well, as you can see, its just one big open space, which we like — I guess the light in the space is our favourite part.
8. Favourite nearby coffee shop?
Our favourite place is a little social enterprise called Loaf; they’ve the best sausage role in Belfast! They support people from backgrounds, who for whatever reason find it difficult to get employment, and that’s something we like to support.
9. Do you eat lunch together?
Not really no, it’s good to get out and get some headspace; walk through the park.
10. Pets allowed?
Ha! not really; I’ve [Gareth] a goldfish but I’m not going to take him in everyday
11. Most played song/artist/musician?
Mostly just headphones, so we've all got different tastes. Although in fairness, we do have music in the office, there’s a massive gym in the unit above us, the guy who runs the gym is also a DJ and has a set of decks in the corner of the gym so he plays early 90’s euro house music, day in day out, same playlist of probably about 5 tunes.
12. Favourite architect?
Álvaro Siza, David Chipperfield, Caruso St John. You know, Siza has that quality of strange and yet familiar spaces and forms and juxtapositions. His detailing for me is just unreal, his junctions are perfect. So something like his Tea House would be a go to for us.
but also a lot of our influences come from the south of Ireland. Architects like O'Donnell and Tuomey, Grafton Architects, TAKA Architects and Steve Larkin Architects —there’s just something really tactile and emotional about these practices work that is missing from other architects.