Ship’s log Monday 30th September 13

No article today, although I am hoping to do some more on the arts and crafts houses all around us. The fact is, this is a rush week. The 1925 house is on site and the contractor needs information and there are building control conditions to discharge. An enquiry I thought I had lost has come back to me and I have an instruction to make a cautious start on a small extension. Just to explain: a job or a project is work for a client that has an agreed fee and a known brief.

An enquiry is an approach from a client that does not have an agreed fee and usually no agreed brief. What makes an enquiry into a project is the acceptance of a fee proposal, showing the project brief and the fee.

The brief, at it’s simplest, is a description of the client’s needs. For example, they may need a bigger kitchen, a family room or another bedroom. Without a brief it is pretty hard for me to deliver something useful that I can send an invoice for.

There is usually some work involved with an enquiry but the mission from my perspective is to determine what the brief might be and to propose a fee, even if it is just for a feasibility study to see what the possibilities might be. Some enquiries come to me where the client knows exactly what they want – others are looking for ideas. What I definitely want to avoid is getting into a situation where I find myself working on a scheme where there are no good ideas. A good example would be where the spatial solution will never get planning permission, or where the size or location of the property would make investment in it unprofitable. Another example is where the client does not know what they want – there is no brief. So it is very worthwhile for me to take a little time at the beginning to have a good look at the site and to try to talk to the client about the ideas. Sometimes the answers are readily apparent – a straightforward project that shows clear benefits. Sometimes the client might be better moving on. It also happens that the client has ideas that are good, but there are identifiable risks – planning restrictions and costs being the main ones. In these cases the risk is both mine and the client’s. Although it is her money, I definitely don’t want to be in the situation that we have chased a project down the road and come back with no viable solutions.

So that is a little bit about the brief, now that hard part – the money. What a wonderful world it must be for architects that don’t need money. Working endless hours on competitions, preparing great visuals, picking projects for their ethical or artistic value, whether build-able or not. Not so great for the client however, as they wait around for the drawings, or worse, go ahead with ambitious projects that might not work out for them the way they intended. Maybe you have seen some of these buildings. They are usually large and sometimes brightly coloured.

When I talk to a client about money, of course I am trying to win the work when the project looks good. But for some reason it is quite hard to explain to the client what the costs are and to get the fee right. In particular I need to be able to determine how much work I think the project will need – drawings, meetings, reports, letters, e-mails, permissions – and how long it will take me. But when preparing the fee there are two risks facing me – that I might take on the job and run a loss or that I might price to high and lose the work. So it is in construction. The contractors who tender for my clients face the same risks and it is good for the client to know that the prices are keen, but also to understand that the fee bids are made on an equal basis. I recently lost a job to a very low bidder but I do wonder what work the client was being offered in terms of service. In my fees I show the fees for the stages – outline design, planning, construction information including regulatory approval and tender and contract administration. Perhaps in future I will show two total sums – one for the full service, one for “planning and regs”. Professionally speaking I think that the client needs to understand the value of looking at the options at feasibility, having a proper tender process and a recognised construction contract supervised by an architect. I have the impression that it is very hard for my clients to understand this – they look at the bottom line and if it is above a certain figure, they just won’t. If the project is simple and the client has a builder on board from the start, maybe there is a way for me to protect the client’s interest and offer a shorter route to delivering the project. If the client then comes to the view that I can help them further then that might be the right solution, if they find a happy partnership with a trusted builder, then that’s good too.

Happy Birthday / How’s it going?

Today is one year since the first Kings Heath Architect blog post – happy birthday me! I have been in sole practice for a little bit longer than that, but I feel like this is a good anniversary for the shop. Looking back over the year I can see a (fairly) steady progress as the enquiries have turned into projects and the projects have gone onto site. In central headquarters though the general feeling has been either one of two things – “will I ever work again?” and “when am I going to going to get everything done?”. Sometimes on the same day. Today I won a project, with a commercial client, that should keep me non-stop busy for about a month, which is very good. A project which seemed to be going nowhere a few days ago is now on site – and the engineer is waiting on my drawings. Two sets of tenders are due back this week. And I have a client who said he would be back in touch “when he gets back from holiday” to meet on site on Saturday. So that’s looking pretty busy with all paid work. At the beginning of the month I was looking at the blackboard and there was one small project. How things change.

So what have I learned in a year? Well, some things are going really well and the first is this: my customers like me. I like them too – they have great ideas for projects and so far have all shown good judgement and serenity with what can be a stressful process. The next thing item is this: if you want to make money as an architect – and I don’t mean big money I mean any money – you have to work super fast, super hard, non-stop metal bashing. Not all the time, but a lot. Hammer like crazy, send invoice, hammer like crazy. However… part of my job, a very important part, is daydreaming. Lots of daydreaming, doodling, numbers, drawings that go somewhere and drawings that go nowhere. Without daydreaming, the hammering just leads to more hammering and not to a good solution, or a beautiful resolution. So, to another year of serenity, hammering and daydreaming.

Moving the wholesale markets outside the city centre is ‘a momentous, colossal mistake’

from Our Birmingham

Our Birmingham

A visitor from London who had not been in Birmingham for several years looked keenly around. Thumbs down for Selfridges and thumbs up for the Madin Library – we never got to Centenary Square.

Carol Byrne outdoor market

As we passed by the outdoor market she spoke about the investment in Spitalfields Market (covered on this site) but thought all our markets had been moved out. A stumbling impromptu account was given but today I shall send John Clancy’s account, summarised here.


CouncillorJohn Clancywrote in March:

The decision which the City Council is now prepared to make to dismiss from the city centre some of its oldest business inhabitants, by moving the Wholesale Markets out of their current site to somewhere outside the city centre, is a momentous, colossal mistake . . .

The knock-on effects on the retail markets will be catastrophic, which is why the two have…

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1925 House update

The tenders for the loft rooms came back on the 1925 house back in June. Of the five contractors we had one no bid, one high and three close together. The client was looking for cost savings, so we met with the lowest bidder to see where we could make some economies. What the contractor came back with was to strike out the premium feature items and the overall savings were slight. In addition, the contractor had just won a long job on the other side of town – so there would be a delay to the start. When the first phase of the work was undertaken, the client’s dad worked with with a builder friend to do the site work, with the engineer and Kings Heath Architect assisting with the details – insulation, structure and so on. The plan now is to do the same with the loft. There will be much more control for the client and hopefully some cost savings too.

One of the features of the 1925 house is the beautiful and complex roofs which sit low over the house. In order to bring the eaves down onto the first floor, the wall plates (which support the rafters) are dropped down into the room and the ceiling is tied between the rafters about 18 inches above the top of the external walls. This means that we can’t put any additional weight onto the ceiling, because it is not supported by the external walls. Instead we will drop two long steels across the whole width of the house (don’t worry we can assemble them in sections) and fix new joists between them to form our new floor. That’s that figured out. How we will work around the existing supports for the roof we have yet to discover. The engineer thinks that the original builders just put extra posts and purlins in where it looked right – a system that has worked for the last 88 years even if it doesn’t meet existing building regulations. Now we will have to work carefully around the existing structure. Any parts that need to come out will need to be replaced with something else – perhaps the new internal walls will stiffen the existing roof.

Green Road

Birmingham is a city with a lot of city street feel. Every city, and many city districts, have their own city street feel. In much Kings Heath we have narrow streets of bay fronted brick terraces hard to back of footpath or with tiny front gardens. Or we have big gabled semis with arts and crafts features fronted with big old street trees. It is not just the houses that form the street feeling but the road, the footpath and the way the houses relate to it – the footpath materials, trees, grass verges, gardens and garden boundaries or no gardens. Most streets have a rule or pattern. Every so often we get a street that is a bit different or even very different. I went to see an enquiry on Green Road B13 a few months ago and I took some photographs as the street changes from one thing to another. In fact, Green road is nothing like a city street. It starts at the top like a passage between the back gardens of the big houses on Wake Green Road, works it’s way down past an eclectic collection of houses, some set back from the street, some at strange angles, down to a ford across the river Cole with a footbridge that is neither country nor town. Municipal street furniture sits beside rural views across fields. Especially interesting is the relation between houses and highways. Sometimes there is a footpath, sometimes none. There is a stretch with large lawns beside the highway which residents use for parking in between. Some houses have created interesting terraces that demarcate private from public, others have walls to screen out the street. A witches cottage with a street lamp behind a white picket fence, a 20’s house hidden behind trees. There is overgrown foliage, a line of cobbles, or a brick wall built around a tree from another time. Magic.


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A larger home extension

Since May the 30th this year, the rules governing what you can build onto your house without planning permission have changed. For a three year period, householders can make single storey rear extensions under permitted development rules twice the normal size. So for a terrace, you can extend back 6 metres, not 3, and for detached house you can go back 8 metres, not 4. That’s a lot of extension. In fact I expect very few people to go that far – more building means more money and as the house extends the inner parts of the house get further from the daylight and fresh air.

A01 Existing and Proposed site plan - Grange road

I wrote about changes to permitted development back in June and since then I have been looking for a job to try it out on. I worked on this scheme last year without being able to satisfy the planning officer or the client and now the rules have changed we will try again. I spoke to the planning officer and sent off this site plan, let’s see what comes back.

If you want to apply for Permitted Development – Larger Extensions here’s what to do: Fill in a form like this one and send it off together with a site location plan at 1:1250 (showing the direction of north, the names of two streets and the site outlined in red) and a site plan at 1:200 showing the proposed extension. Make sure you send it to your local authority directly, not to the planning portal – that is for planning permission only, but it has tons of useful information. Seems like a lot of information? You can get in touch with me right here and get some help with it all.

Although the six or eight metre allowance seems like a free-for-all, bear in mind that there are some significant restrictions to permitted development – it does not apply in Conservation Areas, like Moseley Conservation Area, or if your home is special enough to be listed. There are also restrictions on height, width, proximity to boundary, materials and overall size in relation to curtilage (the vacant land around your house). There are also special rules about the geometry of your extension if your house has a projecting wing at the rear – likely to be the narrow kitchen if your house is a Kings Heath terrace.

Birmingham City Council have a pretty tough line on rear extensions that try to fill in between the kitchen wing and the back living room, but permitted development lets people “get around” this prohibition because planning permission is not required. So for client’s looking for a kitchen that is the full width of their house, PD can give a legal route to build. In the case of this project on Grange Road, the client was looking for just this arrangement, and to have the  side return extension finish flush with the end of their house. The client gets a big kitchen, the previous living room becomes a dining area and the end of the house gets folding sliding doors. Very nice. But under the old rules the side return extension could only be 3m deep and the existing kitchen was 3.7m. The extra two feet four inches was not just a spatial problem, but a structural one. To open up the space we need steel beams of modest size, but beams must be straight and must be supported at either end. If the end of the house is not in a straight line, we get not one opening but two, with a support in the middle, so the open end of the house is lost and we get two medium sized openings instead of one big one. Not the same effect at all.

With the changes to PD we can now have the extra 70cms and the scheme is back in contention. Let’s see what they say, my client should be pretty happy if we get an approval.

One of the additional rules for larger extensions is the neighbour consultation scheme. This obliges the council (not the applicant) to notify all adjoining owners of the proposal, in case they wish to comment. What they do with these comments I don’t know – and if you are objecting to your neighbour’s proposal for an eight metre monster your rights are is not made clear. What is shown in the guidance however is the determination period, which is six weeks, and the minimum time for objections to be registered, which is three weeks. Reading the guidance it seems that the amenity to the adjoining owners is the main consideration and that the council will determine whether this is acceptable.