O Brother where art thou?

Things have been pretty busy here at the shop, with new and ongoing projects with some really lovely clients but there have also been some changes. Every business and person in the U.K. needs to make a plan for Brexit if they think they might be affected when EU laws and treaties cease to apply to the U.K. at midnight on the 29th of March 2019. Here at Kings Heath Towers we have decided that the best way to protect ourselves from whatever is coming is to leave the U.K. and move to Germany. We didn’t want to do this in the middle of the school year, or wait too long, so we moved in late summer to our new home in Solingen, which is between Düsseldorf and Cologne. So, not too far away.

I still have a block of projects and new work to progress and I apologise to my clients for some delays – the move and refurbishment work has taken me out of the office for about six weeks. Thanks for your patience, we will get there. I will be back in Kings Heath for site visits and surveys, but I will do these in blocks (rather than just cycling over to your house of an evening) and I will continue to work with some of the brilliant builders and professionals on both sides of the Alcester road.

I would like to see how the work goes over the next few months and it’s possible that I will reduce the volume of Kings Heath work I take on, or alter the office programme to work in sequence rather than batches. The service and quality come first, so thank you for your patience once again.

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Is my builder dodgy AF?

I recently had the educational experience of working with a builder best avoided. Let’s call him El Malo.

There are some builders who are disorganised, have trouble, make mistakes, or get the quote wrong. Like El Feo. It’s bad luck to get a builder like that but with enough flattery, threats or bribery you can usually get 95% of the outcome you were hoping for. 

Builders like El Malo are not like that. When they take on the job, they have no intention of delivering what they think will be a good scheme. They only want to take your money. They make for the horror stories of the building trade. 

The play

El Malo is looking out for clients who need work and can be fooled into paying out money without the work being done. He then offers them a low price, an early start but also an emotional connection. He then convinces the client to hand over increasingly large amounts of money, sometimes for no visible site progress. As long as the money keeps coming, so do the promises. Whenever the client behaves the way El Malo wants, he tells them what they want to hear. Whenever the client asks questions or delays payment, El Malo responds with threats – risks to the project, danger of delay, aggression or intimidation. The client wants to believe the promises and is afraid of the bad side. This is how after months of disaster, the client can still be handing over money. 

The signs

Is your builder like El Malo or are you just stuck with an El Feo? One is a bit incompetent, the other malevolent. If your builder has no address, or a fake address, no landline, no Google history, no paper invoice, no company number these are danger signs. Also look out for a really low price and early availability. But what are the killer tells that you are being double crossed? The key is that you are being emotionally manipulated into believing the lies. Try this. Ask your builder to do something extra that you know should cost money – El Feo will try to charge you or avoid adding it to the contract, El Malo will use it to control you – it’s no problem, no cost, but it will make it more important that you make the next payment. 

What you can do

Say goodbye to your money and your project. Don’t make it worse. If you try to negotiate or confront El Malo, he will look for your emotional vulnerability. Go to trading standards or citizens advice. You can try to go to court, but make sure trading standards are on board. With no contract, no address or even the name of the builder you have a problem. Warn your neighbours. 

El Bueno

El Bueno can give you a reference. He (or she) is not the cheapest. You will get a letter contract or a written agreement with a real address. You will pay VAT (unless it is a specialist micro project business like stained glass or Minton floor restoration). If you want to hire them, you will wait. If you want something extra, it costs money. El Bueno gives you a payment schedule, which can include a deposit, but the payment stages and amounts are defined. El Bueno wants to get the job done and make a profit but they also want to walk away knowing that you will give them a recommendation. 

Surely the time has come for a mock Tudor revival?

A long time ago, in a construction technology far, far away, houses were made from thick oak beams tenon jointed and pegged, bricks or sticks and plaster to fill in the gaps to make walls. Often the filling was painted white and the timber stained black. This produces a very picturesque house that is also capable of achieving good height and wide spans. Nice. 

The look is so iconic and pretty that it has been replicated as a form of decoration, especially for upper storeys, in later periods when the structural needs have been answered more economically – usually with bonded brickwork. In terms of its symbolism the pattern occupies a very happy place, neither ecclesiastical like gothic stonework nor the pagan classicism of columns and cut profiles often associated with government or commerce. The feel is grand without being oppressive and having a rural or homely feel, perhaps even a bit leisurely. It also has an interesting relationship with modernism, being adopted by the rural Utopianism of the Arts and Crafts movement. So culturally, mock Tudor is (should be!) so hot right now. It’s the anticorporate building envelope. 

  

VAT can’t be right!

Ahh, the smell of tax in the morning!

The VAT rules are pretty simple (well, not really). If you run a business and you have an income over £82,000 in a twelve month period, you need to register for VAT. You get a VAT number and you have to show your price net of VAT and the VAT on your invoices. It’s a lot of money – if you pay £50,000 on your project, you will need to pay £10,000 of VAT and for most of my customers, that’s a lot of money. 

What if your builder says he is not VAT registered? There are some genuine businesses that don’t need to charge VAT because they just don’t do that much work. A decorator, gardener or a even a jobbing electrician might be under the threshold. But if you are looking at a project over 20k and it’s going to take less than 3 months on site, you need to ask yourself why your builder is not VAT registered. He could work for someone else part of the year, or he might be starting up under a new business name. Or there might be an “arrangement”. This could be two some traders splitting the jobs, or asking you to pay the materials. If you don’t see a VAT number, ask. And make sure you speak to a previous customer and see if they are happy. The construction trade goes up and down, at the moment everyone is busy so you should see less unregistered traders. 

It’s also worth remembering that builders who don’t charge VAT can’t claim it back on their materials. So unregistered traders should be charging a bit more for the bricks and timber – if this isn’t reflected in the prices you get back they might not be charging enough to do the job properly. 

What should I do when I am waiting for the architect?

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. 

How to save money on your architect’s fees

I know what you are thinking. I wonder how much this is all going to cost? Well, preparing a fee for a new client is a tricky business and reading through a fee proposal can be a nervous moment. Here’s some help for you.

The easiest way to save money on your architect’s fees is to hire someone with no insurance, who doesn’t pay tax and is not on the Register of Architects. Thanks for stopping by, have a nice day.

If you have decided to look for someone who is honest, there is a lot you can do to save money on your fees. Here we go:

1. Decide what you want.

If you ask for a fee from an architect to come up with some ideas for your home, how will she or he price this? You can learn a great deal from your architect, who is an expert in design, problem solving, knows about construction and can develop the project requirements into a brief to deliver real benefits to you. If that is what you need, great. But if you know that you are looking for a garden office with a composting toilet and solar panels, say so. Show the architect what you have done already to identify your requirements and solve the problems. If you have a builder on board, tell them. Help your architect to price only the work you need done.

2. Decide how much service you need.

Many of my clients ask for a full service, which means I am with them from the initial sketches through to settling the final account with the builder. That’s a lot of service. If you only need planning and building regulations approval, say so. If you are not sure ask for prices for both. Ask your architect to explain what she or he will do and decide for yourself if that is money well spent.

3. If you want a lump sum fee, say so.

There are three main ways for the architect to price your work. You can pay a percentage of the final build cost. This should be somewhere between 8% and 15% for a small project with a full service. I tend to avoid this with small projects as it is pretty hard to work out what the fee will be, especially if we don’t get to site. You can pay an hourly rate, which has low risk for the architect, but can give the client the shivers, even though this is usually the cheapest fee. Ask your architect to show you the time allowances and the rates and make sure that you don’t ask for too many changes. If you ask for a lump sum fee, you are asking for a fixed price service. The fee might not be the lowest but you know what you will pay for each stage of the works.

4. Start with a feasibility.

For many of my clients, cost is the test of the scheme. If the scheme is too much, it won’t get built and the architect fees will have gone for nothing. Ask your architect to do a feasibility with a guide price. Your architect will probably ask for an hourly rate so that she can be protected in case the service requirements grow out of hand. Ask for an hour limit, say twenty or thirty hours for the feasibility. Once you have it, ask for a lump sum for the rest of the service. Much of the work will have been done already – the plan, the brief, the site visit, so the lump sum should be a lot less. You may get back more than you have already spent.

5. Ask for a reference.

It may seem counter intuitive, but if you want value from your architect, find out how good their service is by getting some references. Have you ever taken your car to the garage and then decided to go elsewhere next time? You usually only get one shot at an architect, who is responsible for designing and delivering your project with the best result, the least stress and no nasty surprises on site. You may wonder why a set of drawings might cost more than a good German washing machine, but if your scheme gets finished on time, to the agreed contract sum you have gained something worth thousands of pounds, all thanks to one person.

Is my home suitable for a loft conversion?

This week I went out to see two local enquiries, both looking for loft rooms. Whenever I go out to look at an enquiry I have to look into the future to see how the design ideas will progress – what can we achieve, which will be the problems that I can solve and what can’t I fix? Making a loft room is a complex design problem and there is a lot to be resolved – the stairs, the joist plan, the roof structure, the steel. What I need to discover on my first visit is the problems that cannot be overcome – the foundation problems in the hierarchy.

On site, once I have talked to the client to see if they have a clear idea of what they want, they have a realistic budget and I think I can help them, I have two things that I know will make or break the project. Here they are so you can check them yourself if you would like to know.

1. The headroom

Go into the loft and measure the height from the top of the ceiling joist that you are carefully balancing on to the underside of the ridge board. This is the surprisingly thin board that form the apex of your roof and that the rafters are fixed to. You are looking for 2.7m. If you have this, you have the best chance for a good loft room. I have done loft rooms with much much less than this – right down to 2.1m and there is a way to do it, but it involves a lot of compromise and it is not always possible. Maybe you are looking at buying a house with the idea to have a loft room – check in the loft now. If you can stand up straight in the middle that is not enough. You want to be able to stand up and not be able to touch the ridge board. I went out to see an enquiry last year and the client was convinced that they had good potential for a loft room. They were already using the loft, which was very large, as a storage space and a den, which could be reached with a loft ladder. They had 2.2m to the ridge, which is very low and a loft room was not possible. Here is why. We need 2.0m headroom above the landing at the top of the stairs for building control. Some building control items can show some flex, not this. The insulation layer to the underside of the existing roof will be about 200mm thick, which will take us down to 2.0m, but the existing ceiling joists are only 75 or 100mm deep. They are not strong enough to take the normal loads of a habitable room – a bed, wardrobe, book case. The new floor joists will be about 200 thick with the floorboards on, leaving us only 1.9m if we can fit them in between the existing joists.  In a house with high ceilings in the first floor bedrooms we can put the new floor in at a lower level and steal some height from the bedrooms below. For this client the first floor ceilings were already very low, only 2.1m, so we had nowhere to go.

2. Means of escape

If your home is on fire, you need a safe route to escape. What a makes a safe route is set out in the building regulations and you can look it up for yourself right here. Firstly you will need smoke alarms to the current approved standard – not a design obstacle at all. The hard part is finding the escape route. This needs to be a protected route from the bedroom door to the outside that passes through no other room except a hallway. If you live in a 100 year old terraced house, you might not even have a hallway, going through one or even two rooms before you can can get from the stair to the street. That’s fine for a first floor bedroom – because the building regulations say you can jump out of the window – but for a loft room, it’s a big no. There is an alternative, which is very commonly used in the local typology, which is alternative direction of escape. If you have a house where the stairs come down between the kitchen and the dining room, you can get out through the kitchen or through the living rooms. The idea is that you turn your back on the fire and go the other way. If your home has the stairs running side to side across the house, so you enter the second living room to get to the stairs, you have a problem. You are coming down the stairs, in a fire and you don’t go into the hallway and out, you don’t have an alternative, but you have to go through living room 2, which might be on fire.

There are four solutions to this problem. The most beautiful is to have an escape window into the alleyway from the bottom of the stairs. My local authority building control won’t accept this – you can jump out of a bedroom window but not from 1 metre above ground level – but my independent building control service will, so I use them in this situation. It’s a good solution and in my opinion safer than going through the room. If you don’t have an alleyway on that side, you are stuck.

The next three solutions are not so sweet. You can use a mains fed domestic sprinkler system. This is also independent inspector only. You can take out your ground floor stairs and replace them with another pattern that give two directions of escape. I have done this and it worked – but it needed a client with a lot of determination! The third option is the double landing. It is hard to explain and hideous to conceive. It also comes from the local authority. What disturbs me most about this solution is that as soon as the building control officer has signed it off, the builder will be back to rip it out. Here’s the scheme: you form a flat landing on about stair five, break out door height openings in the wall on both sides and put an enclosed landing and four steps into each room, giving you two directions of escape. Don’t do this – move house.

So, back to my two enquiries. Mrs M has 3.0m of headroom and existing stairs with two directions of escape – we are go! Mr H has 2.2m of headroom and the project has been abandoned. There are a lot of other considerations for the design of a loft room such as where to put the stairs, whether to have a dormer, the planning permission, building regulations and of course, your party wall notices, but these two considerations should be at the top of your mind before you start on the project.