Start on site on Prospect road Moseley. The gods have been kind and given us soft red sand to dig out and extend and existing basement. At the moment it is too small to park a car – that is all going to change.
For this project we had two phases – a loft room and a deep and narrow extension into the garden. The full width (at under four metres maybe that’s not the right expression) extension normally breaches planning rules but in this case we have a terraced house with the back of the neighbour’s wing in both sides. A special circumstance. In order to comply with fire regulations we had to fit a ground floor domestic sprinkler. These are heat activated so they don’t go off when you make toast and they work off mains feed, so no extra water tank is needed.
We were able to fit a new stair to the loft room above the existing stairs and gain a small loft storage area under the eaves opposite the room. We could also fit in a tiny ensuite above hanging over the stairs.
At the ground floor we used three steels in an H shape to let us build open plan below the existing wing and roof lights to bring some daylight into the deep room. The dining space is on the sunny side, the kitchen in the middle and the lounge is near the centre of the house. Thanks to Phil, our builder, for making me climb the top ladder!
On another matter, I was able to help the builder (we help each other really) to resolve issues for the drainage, structure and the spatial arrangement. I attend site partly because I am a nosey person, but also because my role as the architect is monitor the progress of the works and assist with the technical design. So I am there assure the quality of the work. I like that too.
Between Easter and Christmas there is a time known as the building season. It’s not that builders don’t work outside this time, but they generally tick over. Once the Easter bank holiday hits, things go a bit crazy and they stay that way until Christmas Eve, when we finish at lunchtime and go to the pub. So far, so romantic. Architects have a similar cycle. From the cycling world championships to Milan San Remo we get a steady stream of enquiries, some of which may lead to work. But after Easter, it all changes. There are more enquiries and they are for real projects. When can we start on site? Will it be finished by August?
Getting a scheme from an idea to completion takes a long time. The drawings, the revisions and obtaining the permissions. Waiting for the prices, waiting for the builder to become available. The slow progress on site. There is also another inevitable delay – waiting for the architect. During the building season, I use a simple queuing system. When an enquiry becomes an instruction, I write the client’s name in the next free weeks in the calendar. I usually allow four weeks, but sometimes less. It’s not a very accurate or even realistic model of the way progress on the office works, but it is much much better than nothing. So, for my summer clients, they will have to wait a little while before I can start work.
So here is what to can do while you are waiting for the architect.
1. Put together a list of three or four good builders whose names you would like to see on the tender list. Get recommendations from your friends and neighbours, or ring them up and ask for a reference. Everyone likes to be noticed and if you have been in touch with them they might keep you in mind when your project comes round.
2. Think about the kind of rooms you would like to see – what are they like, what happens in them. If you picture a family gathering around a table, a quiet place to work, or somewhere to chop wood, you should let your architect know. You will need to have these things in your mind so that when you get your first sketch designs you can evaluate them against your own criteria.
3. Draw the funny pictures. You don’t need to spend seven years in college to draw your ideas for where your new rooms might be, but you must be careful not to get tied down in the details. Sometimes I will go to an enquiry and out comes the graph paper. It is not wrong to draw this way, but before we resolve the design, we should have the funny ideas. Make pictures of the activities, the sunshine, the washing machine. You can cut out pictures from magazines or from the internet. When you draw, draw circles for the activity places and arrows for movement. At this stage there is no right and wrong – the only mistake is to leave out something that is important. It does not have to fit at this stage. First we make the donkey, then we change it.
A basement project is a little bit different than a normal up in the air scheme and it starts with the foundations. For a regular house extension we dig a trench where we want the new walls to go and fill it with concrete. For a basement the foundations have to go under the existing house. The first time you see a 100 year old brick wall floating in the air above a hole it can be a bit alarming, but for the builder it means moving a lot of muck from way down there to up here. The ground is always different and for this builder we can be very happy that it is clean dry sand.
P.S. The photo of the little sunny bench – this is where the doors will go!
You have your scheme, you get your planning permission. You specify your structure, stairs, means of escape, spread of flame, conservation of heat and power. You get your building regulations plans approval. Are you ready to go? Not quite… If you have neighbours adjoining your proposal there’s a pretty good chance that you are going to need a party wall agreement. That’s what the law says. The Party Wall (etc) Act may not be that exciting but it serves a very noble purpose – it sets out a (sort of) clear procedure that can prevent and remedy neighbour disputes when one of you has construction work done to form a new wall on a boundary, or to work on an existing wall that separates two structures. Here’s how it works. You want an extension that goes up to or even a bit over the boundary, or you need to put a steel into the party wall to make your loft room roof, whatever makes the music. You give a notice letter to your neighbour, ideally along with some home made cake and a cup of tea, which tells them about the work. They give you a letter which consents to the work described. There you have it, you have a party wall agreement.
Now I don’t want to tell you everything about the Act, or the relevant case law, but there are a couple of headline points that you need to know. You can read the Act here. There’s also this handy guide – which for some reason is longer than the Act and harder to understand. Both documents are very useful – they define the party wall, say what your rights to use are, describe the notices and set out procedures for resolving disputes. You can also read the official guidance here. Many have tried and failed to explain the Act in simple terms – I will just give you a couple of pointers based on my experience. Buyer beware! If you are in any doubt, go to a professional. Architecture students, buy Speaight and Stone.
Why, oh why, do I have to serve a Notice?
It’s not about the Notice, it’s about the Agreement. It’s your neighbour’s wall too (or their boundary) and if you don’t have an Agreement they can take you to court and
get the judge to tell you to take down that new extension you just paid for. Not the outcome we wanted.
Talk to your neighbour
Find out early doors if they are going to be okay with your scheme. If they hate it, or you can’t find them, get a party wall surveyor in to do everything. Look for RICS or a member of the Pyramus & Thisbe Club (I know!). The Act gives you wide powers and procedures to get your work done and muscle through a dispute but any technicality can set you back. For example, if the Notice is not served correctly, it can be rendered invalid. So don’t go in unprepared if your neighbour is hostile. If your neighbour lovingly embraces your proposal, you can do it yourself and save some money.
There are three kinds of notice under the Act. If you are building a new wall on or up to the boundary you need a notice under section 1 (Line of Junction Notice). If you are asking to do work to an existing Party Wall or floor you need a notice under section 2 (Party Wall or Party Structure Notice). If you are digging a hole for foundations you will very likely need a notice under section 6 (Foundation Notice). This is also known as a 3 metre or 6 metre notice.
So for some common examples, a new loft room in a terraced property may need a Party Wall notice to let a new steel into the existing Party Wall, or take out a chimney breast. If you have a new extension up to or on to the boundary, you may need a Line of Junction Notice and Foundation Notice especially if your neighbour’s building is old, in which case your new foundations will likely be lower than the old foundations.
I think that’s my taxi outside
Sorry if today’s post was not as exciting as the invitation suggested, but actually all I want you to take away in your party bag is that you can’t just start on site without an agreement from your neighbours if you have a party wall / new wall on the boundary. See you next time and thank you for a wonderful evening!