Don't be fooled by this fortress-like exterior: the walls conceal a light and spacious family home, designed by architect Alan Jones, which exudes character and hospitality.
The Joneses' house is built on a tricky plot next to a Grade A-listed church on a tired Northern Irish high street. 'I wanted to create something very respectful and restrained, to give the church its place as the jewel in a row of public buildings,' says architect Alan Jones. 'I also thought, "How better to teach my students than to build a home for myself?"'
Alan, who's a tutor at Queen's University in Belfast, has been studding the local landscape with modern buildings since returning to Ireland from London with his family in the late Nineties. He bought this plot for £55,000 and spent the next two years, and £250,000, creating what can only be described as an architectural anomaly. As fellow architect and friend Patrick Lynch says, 'It's completely bonkers.' The house hovers, dark and menacing, over the landscape. Its arrow-slit windows and jagged profile conjure up thoughts of armour, battles and even Darth Vader. Despite this apparent nonconformity, it also sits comfortably within its landscape; at night, it almost disappears. 'In scale it matches the front elevation of the neighbouring Masonic hall,' says Alan, 'while the form, with its pitched roof and gable presented to the road, follows local traditions.'
The graphite-blue fibre-cement tiles that clad the exterior are indigenous to the area, appearing on a number of pub extensions and a police station in Belfast. 'I was impressed with the way the material dappled with age,' says Alan. 'Our tiles have only a 10-year guarantee. We could repaint, but I like the idea of them fading, as if the building will shed its darkness as it becomes more accepted within the community.' The house has the air of an impenetrable fortress yet, in common with many of Alan's projects, there is a complete contrast between the exterior and interior. Stepping from the porch through the large glass front door, you are struck by the light, airy and playful interior. The ground floor consists of a large open space, roughly dissected into a formal living room, dining room, kitchen and TV area. The room partitions vary in height and angle, allowing views through the entire length of the interior and also providing blind spots for privacy. If the communal aspect gets too much, the TV area can be completely shut off from the kitchen, thanks to discreet built-in doors. 'Spatially, my work has become a lot less formal since my days in London,' says Alan. 'The spaces were very precise, whereas here it's as if you've taken the architectural tray and given it a good shake.'
Inside, walls of concrete are left exposed, retaining the texture of the wooden shutters into which the material was poured. The finish is cheap, original and has a high thermal mass. It also provides structural stability (allowing everything else in the house to be lightweight) and it was this sense of permanence that most appealed to Alan. 'The house was originally going to be timber framed,' he says. 'But then I thought about all the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century houses in Ulster that have rotted away. I wanted to build something that will be here when I'm long gone.'
Alan and his wife, Laura, have two boys, and their bedrooms reflect the idea of a house that can adapt to changing family circumstances. Built as exact replicas of each other – 'to avoid arguments now or later' – they are connected by a hole in the wall. 'When we moved in, the boys could still climb through it,' says Laura, 'but now they can share music or pass books through.' They also have in-built desks that stretch the full length of the room. Alan and Laura have a large bedroom with an en-suite bathroom, and guests are treated to a similar setup at the opposite end of the corridor. 'It's a very sociable house,' says Laura. Despite its fortress-like undertones – a subconscious reaction, perhaps, to the site – the house exudes hospitality. Family, friends, a cat, two dogs and a tortoise: there's never a quiet moment.