Open office

Following the success of ask an architect, I will be available for anyone to come and see me and get a free consultation every second Sunday of the month at Cherry Reds Cafe, York Road, Kings Heath between 3 and 5 pm. As I work from home this will give people a chance to just pop in and talk about their project ideas – or anything else – and get a really amazing vegan cupcake. The next date is the 9th of December, I look forward to meeting you! If you can’t wait that long, go over to my contact page and say hello using the magic of the internet.

What is ask an architect?

I have so far given out about 500 flyers for ask an architect and some people have asked “what is this”? A fair question. I believe that there are a lot of people here in Kings Heath who have simple questions that can be answered fairly easily about their project, or who would like to have some work done but are not experienced in the construction process. I am taking a few hours out of my weekend so that people can come and ask me without making an appointment, trekking into a big office in town, getting past a receptionist, or paying a fee. Hopefully some people might even consider me when the time comes to get started on the job. See you Sunday!

Ask an architect

Feeling shy? Have a question? Come and meet me to talk about anything. It’s free and you can get a coffee (although you will be expected to pay for that upfront) because it’s at my favourite local cafe, right here in Kings Heath.

11th November

3pm – 6pm

at Cherry Reds, York Road, B14 7RZ

If you can’t wait until then, ask your question below. If you want to ask something private, click on my get in touch page and send me an email.

Tell her (or him) about it

There you are burning the midnight oil on a concept layout. Or maybe trying to draw up and issue that construction detail before the school run. Working working. You have your fees, you have your deadline. But what about your client? What do they know about your work? It’s their project but you act like it’s your project, caring for it, making it neater, sweeter and maybe even a little bit cheaper. Take a minute to sit down and write a letter. The client loves a letter. Say what you will do, what you have done so far. Tell her (or him) about it. They will feel included, they will see what hard work you are doing. They will trust you more and feel that they are getting value for their (very modest) financial investment in your services.

Sending an email instead might seem like a good idea, but it is not. The client will assume that you want an immediate reply and will use the opportunity to issue an ill advised instruction via their shiny smartphone. Unless you want to spend the rest of the day trying to put their idea to bed without upsetting them, do not reply – phone them and tell them what a good job you are doing.

So, what do you do?

People are sometimes pretty unclear about what my contribution, as the architect, is. It’s not my house or building site and that’s not me buttering up the wirecuts (that’s brick talk). I don’t award the permissions or inspect the foundation trenches. I don’t even calculate the beams or Target Emission Rate. Oh no. My job changes according to what we like to call the stages of work – A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, J, K and L. You can read about them here.

As most people imagine, I prepare the layout, design drawings and the specification (the document that says what’s what). But what most people (and some architects) don’t realise is that my most important role is to guide the client. I meet the client and discuss their requirements – what do they really want? More space, more light, better access to the garden, a special space. They usually have a pretty good idea about that. What they don’t know is how to make it work. Not just in terms of arrangement and construction, but the whole process from intention to completion. I like to steer the client through the stages – feasibility, making some options, developing the design – and get their decisions. Getting the permissions is mostly an administrative task. What follows then is the part that a lot of clients don’t know about – tendering the work and administering the contract.

Building work is expensive. That loft or extension is a big investment. By taking a full set of drawings to three or four builders to get prices – tendering the work – is the best way to find a builder with the best price. I help control that process and supply the documents. With a good set of drawings, everyone is pricing the same thing. In the old days the builders came back with two figures – the cost and the time. Once the client makes a decision, they need to get a contact signed. Not the A4 sheet with the small print on the back, but a proper building contract that complies with the building contract law, like JCT Minor Works 2011. You have the right to make stage payments and to go to arbitration in the event of a dispute, whatever that tiny green writing says. At the front of your contract it says the names of the parties, lists the tender documents (the drawings – which need to be signed by both parties) and gives the contract sum (what you want to pay) and the contract dates (when it better be done by). At the back is the terms – payment, changes, delay, workmanship and materials. The contract also names the architect – my job is to  make sure that the parties adhere to the terms and to determine who pays when they don’t. One small but important point to note: throughout the process, my job is to work in the best interests of the client  – except at the contract administration stage. When I have my contract administration hat on, I work for the contract – new instructions have to be valued, delays have to be compensated and only the work that has been completed must be paid for.

Part of the confusion about the architect’s role comes from the industry. On the one hand new forms of procurement (special contract arrangements, like design and build) confuse the loyalty of the architect. Also building with new materials, larger spans and, yes, incomprehensible thermal performance regulations, means that a lot of specialist knowledge comes from other people. But part of the blame has to lie with architects. During the “good times” pricing of architectural services was, how shall I say, competitive? As a result, the bulk of the fees lay on the drawing package, for planning, statutory approval and tender. Advising the client became part of the service that did not show up on the fee proposal. Sketch designs replaced briefings and contract administration ended up in the hands of the quantity surveyors. So, old fashioned it may be, but my services include those items – it’s my job to act in the clients interest at (nearly) all times.

City of streets

Birmingham is a big city in the middle of England, most of which was built using local red bricks during the manufacturing revolution about 100 years ago. We have straight streets with lots of red terraced houses. A room at the front, a room at the back and stairs in the middle. Same upstairs. There’s a narrow wing at the back for the kitchen. If you have a third bedroom above the kitchen, then you get a tiny bathroom behind the kitchen. Your street layout determines how much land you get for your garden. If your street is narrow and there is another parallel street right behind it, there’s a six inch stone step between you and the pavement and your back garden fence stands just behind your house with a gate to an alley. You can get a lot of houses per acre this way. If your street layout is in a square of four streets, the people on the corners get a tiny garden but the ones in the middle get a long narrow strip. Sometimes in the centre of the block there is a secret shared garden.

There are a lot of subtle variations in the pattern. Sometimes the corner houses are bigger, sometimes they have a walled garden behind the street. Sometimes you see a plot where the house at the front is cut through to give access to the whole plot and the garden becomes a paved yard with a house or workshops at the back. Some streets have shallow front gardens, some none. Depending on how classy your area was 100 years ago, and the density, determines the width of your plot and therefore your house. My house is big – it’s 3.6m wide that’s twelve feet in old money.  A narrow house on a narrow street might be as little as ten feet. Three foot for the front door and five feet for the bay window. Upstairs six foot six for the bed, 18 inches for the chimney breast gives you 24 inches to walk between. Not much space by modern standards, but look at what’s included. You get two chimneys with up to four fireplaces for heating, you get high ceilings – nine or ten feet and lots of milky white daylight from the huge windows. The joinery, if it’s still there, is amazing. Panelled timber doors, ceiling mouldings and ornate roses. If you have any original skirting or dado, the profiles are beautiful. Outside the bricks are the smoothest and tallest on the front, with tiny joints and bands of what we call “specials” – fancy bricks with decorative shapes. Dentils, scallops, roses, acanthus, egg and dart, oak leaves. Sometimes these were specials produced just for a few houses. The Victorians and Edwardians might have packed them in but they gave these little houses something extra – dignity.

How it all began

After working as a bicycle mechanic and carpenter, at the age of 30 I went to college to study to become an architect. A bit more than a decade later I have my own tiny practice, working from home in Kings Heath, Birmingham, UK. After working as an employee on large projects it is very different running my own shop. The work is harder and the money is less, but the work is all my own and the only person I need to please is the client. So today, marketing! I am off to put my card up in the newsagent’s window. Perhaps you will see it there soon.