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.