Gimme Tudor baby / uh-hu uh-hu

And all the girls say I’m pretty fly for a white and black sixteenth century construction technique. 

Blakesley Hall is a classic late Tudor crib in Yardley, showing mad skillz in oak framing construction. According to my guide, the building was made up in frames on the ground which were then tilted up and pegged into each other. Which must have been tricky, considering how irregular the elements are. Once the big oak frames are up, wattle (woven split timber laths) are woven into the gaps and covered with horsehair plaster which is then painted white and the timbers stained black, making the striking and beautiful patterns on the outside. 

Look carefully at the patterns. They are not random, but the happy congregation of artist and engineer. On the ground floor the beams are packed close together. This is partly a demonstration of wealth, but also responds to the additional load. The floors are fixed into the uprights and project by about eighteen inches or so. Because the timbers are joined by cutting a slot (the mortice) in the receiving piece and a precise projecting tongue (the tenon)on the end of the joining piece, we can’t have the joints in line – we have to break the pattern so that the mortices don’t weaken the pieces and the tenons don’t interfere with each other. The ground floor wall tenons fix into the floor beams of the first floor. The floor plate (the horizontal beam at the base of the timber wall) is joined onto the ends of the floor beams and the next wall is built off it. The uprights can’t line up – when they do, at the corners, we need extra reinforcement. Above the ground floor, where the posts are so close together, we have bracing – herringbone (mirrored diagonals) at the first floor and split semi circles at the attic storey. Nice. 

Uno dos tres cuatro cinco cinco seis

Antiques roadshow

As a Victorian architect I like to use vintage equipment. Like pens.


Drawing by hand clears the mind and details often just resolve themselves with a series of quick sketches. They don’t have to be beautiful, but they often end up that way just by focusing on what joins to what, where and how. Thus one was sent to a door manufacturer. By email. I can do that too, when I want to.

Two for you

The client of this scheme has a small house with small rooms and now, a small family. He and she want a large family room where “everything happens”. We can go back 4 metres under permitted development because it is a detached house, so we get space for an open plan kitchen with a little island facing onto a sunny dining area with folding sliding doors to the garden. We can keep living room 2 as a snug sitting area – but I think they might end up with the table round the corner and toys spread out on a rug by the window.

B08 Church Hill Proposed Ground Floor plan

The space is quite big and a bit raggedy for my liking on the ground floor, so I wasn’t really happy to have a flat ceiling throughout. We are using a bit steel anyway to support the external wall at the first floor above the new opening, so I have opted for a double pitched roof over the new extension. This will articulate the space (that’s show or say the idea – in this case the idea of the room as a space with distinct parts. I am not super keen on architect-speak) and give a nice feeing of entry and arrival when we come in through the door from the hall. Why? Because inside we will get two vaults (sloping ceilings going up) with roof lights facing south and north. A bit more air, a bit more light – nice.

B12 Church Hill Proposed Section AA

Notice that the height of the roof is not too tall – we don’t want to bump into the bedroom windows. For the elevation, we get two gables – so much nicer than a horizontal line. You can also get an idea of how it feels to look up, or to sit down or roll around, with all that air above you. Nice project, I am happy!

B10 Church Hill Elevation and Section

One other small thing – the pitched roof is a good place for the south facing photovoltaic (electricity generating) solar panels, if the client wishes to have them.




Squeeze me baby

Working, as I do, with Edwardian and Victorian terraces, I see a lot of subtle variations in the typology of these houses, but the overriding concern for their original designers is this: how to get as much house as possible into a plot that is between 10 and 15 feet wide – that’s about 3.0 to 4.5m. This beautiful but tiny house is one of a set of four, facing onto Kings Heath park. They have a front room, back room and stairs in the middle. The stairs are super steep, so they finish with a landing at the first floor about 18″ (about 450mm) short of the party wall (brown plan). In front and to the left is another super steep winder stair turning all the way up and back into the attic (blue plan). Because the stair run is greater than the width of the house, the designer has found some extra space: The attic stairs go over onto the neighbour’s side of the house. The designer has split the space between the double chimneys between the houses, with the garden half going to this house and the front half going to the neighbour. This is the most dense and critical part of the house plan and the walls, steps, doors and turns are all squeezed super tight. Not that they feel intruded upon, like a door too narrow for the body, but the elements are compact and without any wasted inches. The edges of the first floor landing are bounded by the Bedroom 1 door, the top riser, the Bedroom 2 door at an angle, the first tread to the attic and 18″ width of the wall carrying the neighbour’s stairs. In Bedroom 1, the wall runs level with the chimney breast – because behind it are the neighbour’s attic stairs. If you check back to the Ground Floor plan, you will see that we are above the alley, so this wall can run all the way down to the ground.

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Sketches for a scheme of two houses. This is a good sketch, as far as I am concerned. The first floor stairs come out on the attic level into the tall rear wing, which also houses a little bathroom. There is no dormer to the loft room, the eaves are used as storage rooms. The main bedroom at the first floor is the biggest room, but because of the way the windows are placed, the house could be made into a compact (!) four bed, or you could include a little office room facing the street.

Sk03 elevations

Pencil pencil. Sharpen sharpen.

For pretty much all of my professional career I have worked at a desk with a computer. It’s just how architects work these days. Especially on larger projects, where surveys and engineer information comes in by email in a CAD format (“computer aided design” – the “computer” bit is true). Employers (I mean the people who paid me, not the people who paid them) like to see nice hard lines, data on the server. It’s easy to retrieve and transmit, plus if different people work on it, it sort of looks the same. Same title blocks, same fonts, same library elements (cars, tables, toilets, people). You can also build up a body of details that sort of work with different projects.

But if I think back to my student days I did almost everything by hand on paper: there’s no printing to worry about, you can erase mistakes fairly easily, you can collage, annotate, watercolour, glue on photographs, mix trace and paper. Mix hard line with freehand. Draw people doing stuff in your pictures. Add stuff. You can work without a computer, you just need a table and some simple tools. You can also work very fast if you need to – which you always do. When you have to make a presentation, you just roll the drawings up into a tube, go to school and pin them to the wall. No queueing in the print room with a copier card hoping to meet the deadline. It’s painful to watch people late for a presentation pinning up fresh prints that look unfinished. I have seen some amazing computer drawings, but they take a real skill and lots of time (fancy paper and lots of memory help too). Most computer drawings have a very dry, or a very messy look about them. To beat this, you need to work with more than one programme – you draw the hard line in CAD, then export to Photoshop to add graduated colour, sky tones, people, cars etc. It takes time but looks great, especially if your original is a 3D with shadows. But you get a not so easy to edit file format and for the customer it’s a lot of money for two or three pretty images.

The real value of hand drawing for me is something more than just the  convenience and flexibility. When I draw by hand I get absorbed into the project and I begin to think of all the things that might be important to the client but that a CAD programme can’t readily include – light and shadow, access, text, questions, furniture, swirly shapes – that sort of thing. As the drawing appears I can see the whole thing at once and the elements within their context. The relationship between the small and large elements, the proportion, present themselves to me. The spaces tighten up or push out as their needs require. The hand drawings impose a kind of subtle accuracy on the project which is often lacking in computer drawn schemes. Before I know it, an hour or two has passed and the scheme has come to a higher state of resolution.

My colleagues used to wonder why I had my own T square and masking  tape and my desk, but I found it so helpful to resolve a detail or work out an elevation. Now I can draw whenever I like. I still use a CAD package for the final design work, but one day I am going to draw a whole project only by hand. Bite me!

Sk02 A A3 anon

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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-100, +100

-100, +100 is a design unit at Moseley School of Architecture. The unit philosophy rejects the superficiality of contemporary style (which, right now, is either nowhere or in your face) and the distraction of present consumerist technology. Students are asked to make investigations of the existing built environment but only to study buildings which are at least 100 years old. The requirements of our built environment – shelter, communication, dignity, social engagement and resource responsibility – have not changed in this time, but we have been beset by a period of extreme ideologies and irresponsible and unattractive architecture. To avoid the transient fashions of today’s architecture the design proposals will be set 100 years in the future. Students are not asked to propose social or political changes but to design durable and appropriate structures which meet human social needs with responsibility.

Site investigations will look for construction typology, use and spaces in the Bourneville area in South Birmingham, proposed as an ideal community and providing a rich environment of socially beneficial spaces.

The Moseley School of Architecture

The Moseley School of Architecture is a private architecture school based in Moseley, Birmingham. It is a postgraduate school but unlike other schools of architecture in the UK, students do not train to be diploma graduates ready to serve time as assistants in practice, but complete the course as fully qualified architects competent to work as sole practitioners or as project architects in practice having both the ARB part 2 and part 3 qualifications and becoming registered architects.

Teaching and course structure

The Moseley School diploma combines both the ARB part 2 and part 3 courses which are studied in combination over four years of part time attendance. The coursework is divided into two parts – design and technical knowledge, theory and practice. For the design and technical knowledge all years are taught together in small groups on a design unit system, led by individual tutors, with each unit having it’s own agenda and students being free to set their own project briefs in response to the unit investigation and ambition. Assessment of the design element will be by portfolio and presentation of the final scheme.

The theory and practice branch of the course is taught through a mixture of compulsory and optional lectures, seminars and workshops which will develop the students individual investigations in architectural writing and analysis as well as the understanding of the legal and contractual framework of architectural practice.

Throughout the course students will be expected to work in architectural practice either as sole practitioners or in groups and design and deliver real built projects as part of their practical experience required for their professional qualification. These real projects will be used to form the practical experience and analytic elements of the ARB part 3 requirements for professional practice. As well as the technical and contractual knowledge gained the students are required to develop understanding in the business element of practice including finance and accounts.

Admission policy

Applicants will be expected to have a degree in architecture with exemption from the ARB part 1 qualification. Students with alternative relevant qualifications and suitable experience will be considered and supported to achieve ARB part 1. Attendance is four years part time but may be reduced in cases where the student shows advanced progress.

School philosophy

At the beginning of the twenty first century we find ourselves in a situation of both looking forwards into an imagined consumerist utopia and backwards into a state of economic and political regression. The concrete ambitions for international development in terms of global health, culture and emancipation of the second half of the twentieth century have given way to inequality, violence and ideological backwardness. As architects and educators the founders of the Moseley School believe that the profession of architecture cannot tolerate or condone this economic and political culture and that by creating and disseminating an architectural culture which is socially relevant, environmentally responsible and founded on the development of the architect’s real craft and knowledge, we are able to positively influence our social, political and economic environment in a way which reflects the twenty first century we would like to see.

Please note that the Moseley School of Architecture is entirely fictitious

1925 House

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The more I look at older houses the stronger my belief becomes that architects in former times were carpenters by training. The walls present certain technical problems in terms of structural requirements, but they mainly serve as a stage for the finer items – windows, doors, stairs, skirtings and mouldings. Look also at the use of the floors not just as structure elements but also the detailing of the openings – at the landings for example. In carpentry, once the need for robust sections and strong joints is understood, the opportunities for variation and decoration present themselves very readily. The timber can be easily worked to create profiles, returns (where a timber element turns a corner) and fancy work such as relief carving, applied and cut in patterns. The hierarchy of structural elements – stronger and thinner – suggests a related hierarchy in terms of the decorative elements – delicate, fine or robust – which seems to have a proportionate and natural sense of rightness about it.

Follow the fireplaces through the house and we can see that the dark and heavy relief carving of the reception rooms progresses to a lightness and delicacy in the bedrooms. Nice.

Another reason why I see carpentry in the design of these buildings is in the roofs. I have talked a little about this before but a pitched roof, made of timber, follows certain key principles in it’s design. In it’s simplest form horizontal timbers are laid on to the top of the walls and a long horizontal board is propped up in position at the ridge by sloping timbers – so that’s the wall plates, the ridge board and the rafters. We fix long strips of wood  – the tile battens – to the rafters and nail the roof tiles to them so that they overlap and let the rain run off into the gutter below. These houses transcend that in terms of their design, with hip ends (the roof ends are pitched with rafters, not with a gable wall), projecting gables and dropped eaves. The carpentry is complex but cleanly resolved. What I find most impressive is the subtlety with which the walls respond to and create the roof patterns that rise above them.

Certain geometrical aspects are fixed as laws which if broken create consequences for the subsequent parts of the roof. The ridge and wall plate must be level and true. If the ridge rises, or the wall plates drift apart, the tile battens will not be parallel and the tiles, which are of uniform size, won’t overlap properly. Other elements can be varied to create effects. A projecting wing will get a ridge of it’s own and the height of that ridge depends on the width of the wing – a wide projecting wing gets a high ridge and a big gable, a narrow one gets a low ridge and a small gable. We can step these one in front, one behind. We can also drop the wall plate to bring the roof down (or raise it to go up). You often see this on smaller houses with simple roofs, where the street front looks a little taller and more impressive without using up so many expensive bricks at the back. But this is a rule with a consequence – either the ridge board moves towards the high wall plate or the rafters from the low side have to get steeper. You see the latter on smaller houses sometimes, but if these walls return (turn a corner) you get a gable whose apex is off centre. Complex pitched roofs have equal pitches and they create their complexity by the subtle arrangement of the wall plates and walls below. To create a structure of this nature the designer must have a deep understanding of roof carpentry.