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.

For the first time, in forever

As a small project architect I often get to tender with contractors who have never used an architect led contract before. This doesn’t mean that they are bad people, they just work on direct to client agreements using their own payment and quality terms. If you come from big practice you might be surprised, but there is a lot of really beautiful work being done by great builders with no legal training.

I had a tender meeting recently with a local contractor with glowing references and, as I was explaining the contract terms, I could feel that he was not comfortable finding out about the contract from the client’s representative at the contract signing. This is not the time to learn about contract. So what I have done is write my own short guide to the contract which I like to use, the JCT Minor Works 2011. It’s a beautiful thing. There are plenty of books about it out there, but my contractors are the kind that have to pick up the boys in the van on the way to site, not the ones with in house QS’s.

If you are a contractor reading this, when was the last time that you did something extra that the client had asked for, as a favour, and then get into trouble because the project ran over? Or your client was unhappy because they remembered your payment terms in a way that was… different? Using a JCT contract imposes responsibilities on both parties (the main ones being that you promise to do the work and the Employer promises to pay you), but these are set out fairly in clear terms. Sadly, when things go really wrong, do you think that your “green print” is binding in the small claims or construction court?

You might not know that even if the project is not architect designed, you can ask an architect to act as contract administrator for the project to ensure that the payments and progress are properly controlled. You can buy a copy of the contract from the RICS website, it’s less than £30.

Here’s my guide to the JCT Minor Works contract for contractors using it for the first time, in forever. 

guidance for contractors using a JCT contract for the first time


Let’s go to tender

This set of prints will be sorted into packs and sent out today for a project in Solihull. Plans, elevations, sections and a specification showing all the work to be priced. When the prices come back I will set up an interview with the client’s preferred contractor and if we have a match, we sign the contract showing the start date, completion date and the price. It is not always the cheapest contractor who wins, they have to win the heart of the client as well!


P.S. I am working out of the kitchen… Because we have a new puppy! Say hi to Lacey. One day she will make a fine architect’s dog

Kings Heath Architect is hiring

Things are pretty busy here at Kings Heath Towers and I would like to give a special person the opportunity to work their magic on my clients. If you are a part qualified architect who would like to go all the way this could be the opportunity for you.

About the shop

The practice is a micro practice based in Kings Heath, Birmingham. Nearly all the clients are end users and the projects are small or very small. We provide a full service from initial evaluation to post practical completion. There are no airports or motorway service stations in the portfolio and almost everything is in Kings Heath.

Your responsibilities

Your first and most important task is to charm the pants off everybody you meet. You can get the builder to cut his price and feel like you are doing him a favour. You can tell the client he is over budget and fire his enthusiasm for the project at the same time. You can find the building control officer’s sense of humour and you make the engineer think it was his idea. Every person you relate to with regard to the practice leaves with an overwhelmingly positive impression of you and the practice. The business reputation is my most important asset and the key to its future prosperity – and everybody knows everybody.

Your second responsibility will be to deliver a full architectural service to my clients – you will meet the client and talk about their ideas, take the surveys, draw up the sketch design options and advise the client. You will design the project up to planning, make the technical design and obtain building regulations consent, you will prepare the tender package and tender the project. When the project is on site you will administer the contract and deal with any issues to make sure that everybody is happy – whatever happens. If you think you will be bored, you might not be the person for this job. Don’t worry, I will help you – but you will have to learn to work fast and to a standard that will impress.

Your third responsibility is to set your own agenda for personal achievement. As a minimum I expect you to aim to qualify as an architect by September 2015, but I also want to hear your ideas for development of yourself and the business. You will be expected to keep the part 3 logbook and attend a suitable course. You will be given time to do this.

Is this you?

I am thinking of a part 2, but if you have a bit more or less experience, tell me why you might be the one.

If you think that you might be the right person for the job, or you want to have a crack at it, or just find out more about it, please fill in the contact form below. You can add a message in the box. I will send you my email address so you can forward your CV. The preferred applicants will be asked to attend an interview with their portfolios, not just the fancy renders either, I need to see your sketchbooks too. Do not attempt to show me a Powerpoint!

If you need to flex for childcare or other reasons, just ask me – it’s not like other practices. Candidates living in or near Kings Heath will have an advantage.


The March of Progress

At the beginning of every month, I like to sit down with my diary and see how the next few weeks are looking for workload. I had a look through this weekend and I can tell you that spring is here for small projects. All my builders are busy and so am I. New enquiries are up and my fee proposals are turning into instructions in days, not weeks. Projects that I thought had gone to sleep forever are emerging out of the ground and starting to look for a bit of sunshine.

What I am going to have to do, if you don’t mind, is to not to visit any new enquiries for the whole of March. What this means is that if you get in touch with me now I will ask you if I can come out to you not right away but in a few short weeks. This will give me time to deliver some great little projects to my existing customers. That’s the plan, anyway. If you can’t wait, just ask. Otherwise, I will see you in April! xx

Contract Value #1

When I give a price for my services on a project, I price the work in stages. The outline design, final design to planning and construction information for building regulations stages are fairly easy to explain and my clients can understand why they need it – the result is a set of drawings showing the proposal, in conformity with the statutory requirements, which show the builder what he is expected to do. Some architects offer this as their main service, or as a “plans only” service. The architect draws up the scheme and gets planning and building regulations approval, then hands the job over to the client. The client then has to find a builder and get the work done on site.

I like to offer two additional services – I organise the tenders and administer the contract. For the tender I put together the list of builders and send out the drawings and specification and chase up the responses. It is fairly straightforward and I know several local builders, but most importantly I use a proper procedure so that the prices can be compared. Sometimes I like to think that the contractor is pricing more a little bit more carefully because they know an architect is involved. Perhaps, like pretending to know a bit about cars at the garage, it makes a difference, at least in the imagination. A good builder should give you a good price regardless. The key thing is to ensure that the builder has a good clear set of documents to price.

Once the client has reached found a bidder they prefer, I like to call a meeting between the client and contractor. We go through the quote to check what is included in the price, such as whether the client will order the bathroom suite themselves, and if everyone is happy, I will witness the signing of the contract. The contract, and the administration of the contract, is what I want to talk about now because everyone asks about it and it is not so easy to explain.

If you were to ask a builder to do some work for you to today, you would be forming a contract – that is an agreement for them to work for you and for you to pay them – but there is a good chance that the terms of that agreement would not be clear. If they give you a quote you might think you know the price and they might think that you are bound by the tiny green writing on the back of their letter. If there are extra items or delays or problems with the work, you will probably find yourself negotiating with their goodwill and your money as the bargaining chips. If your builder is good they will value their reputation and try to help because you can’t build a business on unhappy customers – but what if there is no understanding?

For my projects I usually recommend that the client sign a proper building contract, usually the JCT Minor Works Contract. This is a little A4 book of about 40 pages that sets out the agreement between the client and the contractor in terms which are fair, recognised and tested in law and are easy to understand. It’s a contract for small building jobs which have been designed and will be administered by an architect. The first bit – the Articles of Agreement – you fill in. The second bit – the Conditions – set out the terms of the contract. My job, as the contract administrator is to ensure that the parties fill in and sign the agreement properly and that the parties stick to the terms. Because I have read them and I know what they are! I can’t do anything other than recommend you read the actual contract, but perhaps as well you could have a look at my handy guide below.

The Articles of Agreement are as follows: the date, the names and addresses of the parties, a simple description of the project, the list of contract documents that describe the work which the Contractor will do, the contract sum which the Employer will pay, the date when the works will start and when they will finish. Now you have read through this you are probably wondering why anyone would undertake a project on site without agreeing these things. Well, it happens a lot. Next there are the details, the first of which is called the liquidated damages. This is a legal term which means specifically the penalty for late completion owed by the Contractor to the Employer under the terms of the Contract. For example, if the Contractor is finishes one week after the due date for completion without cause under the contract, one week’s liquidated damages must be deducted from the contract sum due. I like to set a day rate of the cost one or two labourers on site, usually between £100 and £150. On a small project that is enough to ensure that the contractor makes diligent progress. Next is the rectification period, usually three months. In this period of time any defects appearing in the work after practical completion must be made good by the builder. So any cracks, leaks or electrical faults in the works are to be fixed at no cost to the client during this period. Next is the retention. This is the sum of money held back from each payment which is only to released when the project is (i) completed on site and (ii) at the end of the rectification period. This small sum of money protects the client in the event of a defect or non completion as the Contractor must complete the work to receive payment of this fraction. It’s usually 5% to 2 1/2%. Then there are clauses for insurance and dispute resolution. If the parties come into dispute under the contract – usually about money – they can go to court. But if they agree to it in the contract they can also use arbitration, which is cheaper and quicker or adjudication, which is a court like process but quicker. You want arbitration, it’s cheap and quick. You can still go to court if for some reason you want to. Then the parties then have to sign it and the agreement is made.

Okay, that’s enough for today – let’s talk about the Conditions and the contract administration next time. See you then!


Tervakoski is the best. It is white enough to copy or scan as white paper and transparent enough to trace through up to four layers. It takes pencil, ink and coloured pencil well, with a fine consistent tooth (roughness to the pencil). I usually buy it here. I am using about 2 metres a week over the last 12 months, but it seems to be increasing. Which is good, because I love it!