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. 

Can’t touch this (thermostat)

Nice review of the Nest smart thermostat here from the Guardian. The smart thermostat learns your heating requirements, your schedule, how long your very own Castle Black takes to warm up and if you go out for the weekend without so much as a note on the fridge door, it knows. According to the review you could save about twenty percent on your heating energy consumption. What it does not address is whether it will still be possible to secretly adjust it without your partner knowing…

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. 

Let’s have a Party! (wall agreement)

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.

Which Notice?

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!

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.

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

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