Meet The Designer | Sharon Johnston Designs for Living

Sharon Johnston has been working within the architectural industry since 1985, and established her practice, Sharon Johnston Designs for Living in 2007 in Co Armagh, Northern Ireland.

Michael Toman of Story of Eve (the photographer and videographer behind the content below) recently sat down with Sharon to learn and discover everything from her greatest architectural influences to Designs for Living’s ethos and her favourite read… 

#1 What made you want to become a designer? What path did you take to get where you are now? 

“I spent my summer holidays with my grandad, who was a clerk of works for a residential construction company. We would travel to the sites in his little van and I’d follow him around writing the snags down in his notebook. Walking into a freshly plastered house still takes me right back there. I always said I would like to design houses but my careers teacher said that ‘ladies don’t become architects.’ I didn’t particularly like school and told my Mum I was leaving at 16…she told me I wasn’t unless I had a job. By sheer luck, there was a position available in the architects department in the local housing authority, so off I went armed with my Grandad’s old wooden scale ruler. It was a long road, I studied and worked at the same time, along with having my family, but it meant by the time I qualified as a chartered architectural technologist in 1998 I also had over 10 years of valuable experience under my belt. I worked for 20 years in practice before leaving in 2007 to establish Sharon Johnston Designs for Living.”

#2 What are your greatest influences? 

“I love the west coast of America, especially California, where homes are designed around their setting, sometimes even constructed around a mature tree rather than cutting it down. Joseph Eichler had a vision in the late 1940’s to bring affordable quality homes to California. He wanted to not only create a home but a lifestyle, a way of living. Front to back planning put living areas to the rear around a courtyard space providing an intimate connection to the landscape. Walls of glass were used to create indoor outdoor living and make a small space feel twice the size. Smaller windows faced the street to provide privacy.” 

#3 How do these manifest in your work?

“Eichler’s ethos is still very appealing to homeowners today, and it can work whether they desire a traditional or contemporary aesthetic. Unfortunately we don’t have the same climate here in Ireland but now highly energy efficient construction methods mean we too can design homes with a sense of openness and almost invisible indoor-outdoor connection. My designs employ simple, clean lines and traditional materials combined with functionality to help my clients create a home that will work for them over a long period of time.”

#4 What would be your proudest achievement? 

“On a personal level, to have created a home where we have laughed and cried, loved and fought, celebrated and commiserated and still all come back to and feel safe in. On a work level, every home I have played a part in makes me proud. I only provide the framework, my clients provide the heart.”

#5 Is sustainability an issue for you? 

“Sustainability is important but unfortunately it is also dictated by budget. The cost of sustainability still needs to come down, particularly for the self builder. I make my clients aware that a sustainable build will mean reduced running and maintenance costs, and a lower carbon footprint, but their budget must be respected. However, care at the design stage can deliver a sustainable solution at no extra cost by simply considering the size, orientation and alternative construction methods available.”

#6 Do you prefer city or country work?

“Country, I love the natural landscape.”

#7 Your strapline is ‘Designs for living’. Please talk us through a couple of projects that you’ve worked on that communicate this ethos. 

“I don’t just see a project as a house for my clients, it’s their way of life. I provide them with spaces to socialise and spaces to be alone, be themselves. Recently I worked with two families who became one, a blended family. The children were all teenagers, some at university and some at home. The demands on their new home were massive, but would change as the children grew up. We designed a flexible scheme where everyone could have their own space but could also come together for meal times and socialising. Another increasingly common environment is the multigenerational home, where the extended family live together.” 

#8 Tell us about the last project you worked on/are working on now?

“I am currently working on a scheme for a retired couple who wish to downsize from a substantial three-storey dwelling. Their new highly energy efficient home is designed around several large pieces of antique furniture, with a ground floor master bedroom and first floor guest suite.” 

#9 What is your working method? How do you get started?

“I see it as a privilege to design a home for a client. I like my clients to feel that they are in control, that they will not be forced into something they don’t want. There must be a good working relationship based on trust. My job is to get inside my clients head to see their vision for their new home, and this, I find, is best done over a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit. I want to know how they live their lives, how they live together. I would really like to move in with them for a week but that is just not feasible.”

#10 What would your dream design commission be? 

“A holiday home for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.”


#1 Favourite restaurant? “Rogano, Glasgow.”

#2 Tea or coffee? “Earl Grey Tea.”

#3 Favourite book? “Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.” 

#4 Favourite city? “Amsterdam.”

#5 Favourite architects? “Frank Lloyd Wright.” 

#6 Favourite film? “Top Gun.” 

#7 Favourite wine? “Jacobs Creek Cool Harvest Sauvignon Blanc.”

#8 Most relaxing place? “Our deck on a summer evening with glass of the above.”

Photography and videography by Story of Eve 

Discover more from Sharon Johnston Designs for Living here.

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