Kings Heath Architect is closed

Dear Friends,

I am writing to let you know that my architecture practice is now closed since the 31st of August 2020. I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some really great people and the satisfaction of helping to deliver some great projects. I have been very happy in my work. I particularly want to thank the wonderful builders I have been lucky enough to work with, who have surpassed my expectations for quality and workmanship and got me out of a few scrapes as well. A special thanks to my engineer. Thanks David, what would I do without you?

I am now solely work in Germany as an employee in a small practice but I look back on my adventure as a sole trader architect with a lot of happy memories. Sending you my best wishes and thank you for five wonderful years.

Paul Snell RIBA

Station Road – more progress

For the Station Road project the client was looking for a loft room but had low headroom in loft and a stair running between the front and back room. So the room I have designed is a half loft. We put new stairs above the old and leave the front part of the roof space as a loft storage space. The new room at the back of the house is full width as the stairs are out of the way and we find the headroom by dropping the ceiling in the back bedroom and hallway. The front bedroom still keeps its high ceiling and character. I have stolen a corner of the storage loft for a roof light, so a little light trickles down the stairs into the middle of the house. We are due to complete on site on the 13th of June when I will issue the practical completion certificate if I am satisfied that the works are complete. The contractor has done an excellent job so far and I expect an early completion.

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Squeeze me baby

Working, as I do, with Edwardian and Victorian terraces, I see a lot of subtle variations in the typology of these houses, but the overriding concern for their original designers is this: how to get as much house as possible into a plot that is between 10 and 15 feet wide – that’s about 3.0 to 4.5m. This beautiful but tiny house is one of a set of four, facing onto Kings Heath park. They have a front room, back room and stairs in the middle. The stairs are super steep, so they finish with a landing at the first floor about 18″ (about 450mm) short of the party wall (brown plan). In front and to the left is another super steep winder stair turning all the way up and back into the attic (blue plan). Because the stair run is greater than the width of the house, the designer has found some extra space: The attic stairs go over onto the neighbour’s side of the house. The designer has split the space between the double chimneys between the houses, with the garden half going to this house and the front half going to the neighbour. This is the most dense and critical part of the house plan and the walls, steps, doors and turns are all squeezed super tight. Not that they feel intruded upon, like a door too narrow for the body, but the elements are compact and without any wasted inches. The edges of the first floor landing are bounded by the Bedroom 1 door, the top riser, the Bedroom 2 door at an angle, the first tread to the attic and 18″ width of the wall carrying the neighbour’s stairs. In Bedroom 1, the wall runs level with the chimney breast – because behind it are the neighbour’s attic stairs. If you check back to the Ground Floor plan, you will see that we are above the alley, so this wall can run all the way down to the ground.

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A terraced house is a house that is directly joined to another house on each side. Or rather you could say that it shares two of its walls with its neighbours. These walls are the party walls and they form the sides of the house – as if each house owns half the wall on each side. Terraced houses are built in groups – long or short rows of house fronts, with entrance doors and windows, with party walls in between, under a long strip of roof. The terrace is a typology, a pattern. Each dwelling is a part of that pattern and the terraces make streets, which make blocks which make a city of streets.

Just as the house, and the terrace, has a front, facing the street, with or without a garden, each house has a back, with windows and a door and a garden. Sometimes (over in B12) the garden is just a tiny yard, but often you have a long narrow garden. Because the terrace front is a continuous wall, to get into the garden, there is usually a passage door every two houses Behind this door is a narrow alley cutting through the terrace block. The passage is a right of way for both parties and leads to a pair of private gates facing each other at a steep angle which lead into the private gardens. If the passage door is every fourth house, those without gates of their own have a right of way through their neighbour’s garden. The passage is nearly always 3′ wide and because of this width at the ground floor, the parties each get an extra 18″ in the floor above the passage as a result. Sometimes the chimneys are on the passage side, floating above the passage and stepping apart as they go down through the house and into the sitting room below.

These passage doors are, to me at least, pretty interesting. Because they are owned by both sides, they deserve a special status as a communal door, but they only lead into the garden, so they are not as important – as a feature for architectural expression – as the entrance doors to the dwellings. So sometimes they are fancy like a front door, expressing security and status. At other times they are a garden gate, like the door to a shed. As they are shared between the two dwellings, the materials of which the dwellings are made meet at the top of the door. The passage door is a shared door and it’s centre line is a boundary. Half the arch is red, half the arch is white.

10th February Ask an Architect

ask an architect come and talkThe next ask an architect will be on the 10th of February from 4:30 onwards – just come along and we can talk about your project over a really great cup of coffee. The beer is pretty good too actually. If you want to ask me something this month at another time, use the contact form on my get in touch page – we can still go for coffee.

The Joy of Gables

You have walls, you have a roof. In this town you get a lot of roof, with dark blue Welsh slates that shine black in the rain. At the top of the roof is the ridge, where you might see terracotta ridge tiles with patterned profiles – I like the ones with the little holes. Where it reaches down to the wall you have the eaves. Here you find the gutter, sometimes fixed to a board (fancy) or carried on little iron brackets stuck into the brick joints (not so fancy). The top courses of bricks usually reach out by a few inches at the eaves, if it’s at the front of the house they might be fancy specials with beautiful patterns. Nice details. But if you go to the end of the terrace, or the side of the house, it’s all different. The wall goes up and up into the sky all the way to the ridge – it’s not a squat little wall any more, it’s a super wall, pointing up into heaven. That’s the gable – the triangle of wall that shoots up the side of the building and supports the roof beams.

Sometimes you see gables that are very modest – mouldings or pediments only carry a little way around the corner from the street elevation (you see can see that in Malvern, where they have the brown stone) or one of my favourites, the faded painted trade sign. Paint, hardware, ironmongery. Sometimes they just stand there silently. But these are not the ones I’m here to talk about.

Some buildings have a gable front by nature. These are buildings that have narrow frontages and deep plans. The roof has to span across the narrowest width to reduce the height of the roof, the amount of roofing material and the length and outwards thrust of the rafters. These are the timbers that run from the ridge board down to the eaves and there are lots of them. Churches, Greek temples, Netherlands merchant’s houses all show serious gable. These gables are  a celebration of the building, a place to put your best decoration to the street, they show status, power, money and act out the importance of the building to the community, whether the facades are open or closed.

But it is the sky profile that makes it work. The gable is up there, above the neighbours, seen from further away and cutting up into the sky. In the city of streets houses that don’t need gables take the pattern and add it to the roof to break the sky profile of the terrace. A second ridge board strikes out away from the rafters to create a new little roof – or big roof – and a street front gable springs up to reach it. It marks out the house as an individual in the row, makes it taller on the street front and adds to the status of the house. A row of little triangles makes those houses a bit more special, and when the light is right you get a saw tooth shadow cast onto the street below. I want you to look out for this.

For the big fancy houses, gables are a major feature, with black timbers over white render making V’s or grids, and big boards. If you look carefully these gables start from the ground as the brick line takes a step forward to create a deep or shallow projecting bay. This gives you a return coming back from the sides of the gable so that it casts a shadow back onto the house and so that the valley between the main roof and gable roof is away from the frontage. Surrounded by streets of horizontal volumes, these gables make a feature of tall and vertical. In Moseley village, the gables are very tall and they make the public street space special. Go down the wake green road and you will see some added on gables that are asymmetrical and run nearly down to the ground. The tall side shelters the principal windows, the low side creates the entrance porch. That’s the magic of gables.

Why I love York Supplies

I have a small project of my own under construction. Very small. I have to box in our generation meter. So, off to Homebase for some wood, hinges, a magnetic catch and some screws. Well, they had half of what I needed, and nearly ten pounds lighter, I headed home. Then I went to York Supplies to see what they had. Flush hinges, 50p each, not £2 for two. Mag catch, 50p, not £2.99. Screws, from a truly comprehensive range, 3p each, not 1.50 for eight. Piece of plywood, cut to size 350 x 250 from a handy off cut for £1.50. Thank you to Johnathon and Stuart at the oldest ironmongers in Kings Heath.

What is ask an architect?

I have so far given out about 500 flyers for ask an architect and some people have asked “what is this”? A fair question. I believe that there are a lot of people here in Kings Heath who have simple questions that can be answered fairly easily about their project, or who would like to have some work done but are not experienced in the construction process. I am taking a few hours out of my weekend so that people can come and ask me without making an appointment, trekking into a big office in town, getting past a receptionist, or paying a fee. Hopefully some people might even consider me when the time comes to get started on the job. See you Sunday!

Ask an architect

Feeling shy? Have a question? Come and meet me to talk about anything. It’s free and you can get a coffee (although you will be expected to pay for that upfront) because it’s at my favourite local cafe, right here in Kings Heath.

11th November

3pm – 6pm

at Cherry Reds, York Road, B14 7RZ

If you can’t wait until then, ask your question below. If you want to ask something private, click on my get in touch page and send me an email.