5 tips for anyone thinking about improving their house

You gain new experiences and knowledge in everything that you do, and that’s no different for us and our clients. Every project is a learning process, be that for us or for the clients; here are some tips from previous clients for anyone looking to make some changes to their homes in the future. This is what our previous client said:

Find out what foundations you have before the ground is broken.
Some previous clients didn’t know to have this checked before their project started. They later discovered that a small tree in their neighbours garden meant that they had to have a custom designed foundation.
Fortunately for them their builder had seen the same circumstance, so they were about to get them designed beforehand and the groundworks were correct from the beginning.

Choose your builders carefully.
Finding a reputable, well-organised builder will help you immensely as your project progresses; they are likely to know the local building inspector’s particular likes/dislikes, additionally, they should be able to recommend some good subcontractors. If you get the chance, go and look at some of their work. Try not to worry too much if they have no website, they should be organised enough to tell you when they will start your project and how long it will take. During the process, get involved by taking a look at where they’re at as often as you can, and if something doesn’t look quite right, talk to them about it.

Give as much detail as possible to your builder.
Giving the builder as much information as you can from the beginning will help both the builder and yourself in achieving a smooth project. If you can, get it included in your contract so that all parties involved know what is expected. Try to include window sizes and finishes, the type and amount of sockets and lights that will be needed, what size and type of heating you would like, and subsequently how many radiators if applicable, whether you want the steels hidden or not, door types, sizes and finishes among many other specifications. This level of information helps the builder, and helps you to clarify your expectations. Also discuss things with your builder; they may have ideas for how to deal with certain things that arise. If you’re unsure of how to convey all of this information to builders, we can help with that in our building regulation stage.

Pay your builders bills on time.
This helps to keep the builder on your side, and also keeps the project moving forward smoothly.

Make sure all subcontractors liaise with your builders.
If you use subcontractors alongside your builders, eg: Kitchen designers, make sure that they work together with your builders as per the requirements.

From a Building Tectonics point of view, these are all sensible points but where foundations are concerned, there are cases where the existing foundations are less important. Also, the design of the new foundations sometimes need to be modified once the foundation trench has been excavated. It’s the one area that, in our view, the builder can justifiably say that his price is provisional and may have to be adjusted. Using subcontractors instead of using one main contractor to organise all the work can lead to problems about who is responsible for health and safety on the building site; remember that there are very heavy fines and even prison for serious breaches of site safety.

Unusual requests

More often than not at Building Tectonics, we’re commissioned to work on residential projects but every once in a while we do get the odd unusual request. Our clients can get very creative with their architectural visions, for example, a holiday resort abroad and Kazubaloo are probably at the top of our list.

On occasion it’s not so much the project that’s challenging, sometimes it’ the process of surveying. Barn surveys don’t sound like they would be particularly complex to do…unless there is an electric fence involved. Fortunately, any injury incurred by the team member involved was minimal, so the office can reminisce about it whenever we need a good laugh.

You learn something new every day

Despite the fact that we usually try to keep up to date with the latest technologies and inventions, we can be surprised sometimes; like when we were approached to produce a scheme to place a Kazubaloo in Milton Keynes. For those of you who aren’t aware, a Kazubaloo is a waterless public toilet which can be installed anywhere outside without the need for water, chemicals or electricity. It depends entirely on dehydrating the solids and evaporating the liquids in order to reduce waste by up to 90%. Its unique construction places a special chimney on it, creating airflow. It’s that simple.

One of the biggest projects we were commissioned to work on was a holiday resort abroad, including holiday homes, bars, restaurants and a wedding venue. Due to this rather large list of requirements, coming up with schemes was a lot of fun, but they needed a lot of thought and consideration to go into the architecture. Structures for this type of venue not only need to fit in with the surroundings and reflect the culture in its design, but also need to be structurally appropriate for both the climate and the ground upon which it’s to be built. Needless to say, we spent a lot of time on the design process for this project but it also allowed us to expand our knowledge and skills as a team.

Although it’s not very often that we receive these out of the ordinary requests, every time we do it becomes a learning experience for us in the office, making us more equipped to deal with any more unique requests.

Extension in Walnut Tree

If we were manufacturers, our main product would be creating versatile spaces for families to enjoy spending time together. For most of us, the kitchen is like the heart of the house, it’s where we spend a lot of time together with guests or family, therefore, kitchen design is essential.  Nearly everyone wants the type of ground floor area shown in the project below; unfortunately, even newly built houses, often do not fulfil this desire and this where BTL comes in. With projects like this for structural reasons, central columns are often needed to support the rooms above which can spoil the open-plan aesthetic but there are ways to work around it although avoiding it can come at a cost in terms of the size of a dropped beam, disruption to the first floor and in some cases, relocation of soil/vent pipes.

As for the kitchen design, the location of the hob, oven and sink should be fixed early on (see our blog about kitchen design) because otherwise the choices may be restricted; such as whether you require a recirculation type of cooker hood instead of the more effective ducted type. This process is called design and we take it very seriously.

Written by Tony Keller, Building Tectonics Ltd.

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After photo of the front elevation of an enlarged home which used to be a bunglow now has two storeys.

UK vs European Architecture

Have you ever had visitors from another country who got lost on the way to your home because “everything looks the same”? Someone who has been in the UK for a while is probably used to seeing estates all built to a certain style. Milton Keynes is known very well for estates contrasting from one another yet, the buildings within each of these look almost identical; this could be due to strict planning rules. Planners sometimes prefer homes to stand out depending on the location, however, often your highest chances for approval are with extensions and alterations which fit in with the surrounding buildings in your area.

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Architecture in Europe, for example in Germany, tends to be more relaxed when it comes to residential properties. Crossing the streets on the outskirts of Frankfurt and travelling through small towns of south-western Germany, it’s clear that planning isn’t an issue over there. Each home is different; brick or render, they come in all sorts of colours. White, yellow, cream, even pink or green for the more adventurous. The country known for its pre-fabricated passive houses doesn’t have a specific style and each home is different despite being on the same street.
Other European countries are similar and the only time the design is limited is when the property is located in either a conservation or central area.

Even though it may be difficult in some cases to obtain planning approval, and it is easy to get lost; we should embrace the architecture we have here because it tells the history of how the country has developed and progressed in architecture. Big cities like London or Liverpool consist of an eclectic combination of architectural styles, a complete contrast to towns, take The Shard and Buckingham Palace as an example; two different eras in one place, it’s abstract but surprisingly fitting.

Project Managers

There was a time when architects, builders and the clients were the only people involved in completing small projects, and that was known as the triumvirate of building. On the larger projects, quantity surveyors and mechanical engineering consultants were brought in to compliment the team. As far as I remember, sometime during the 1970’s, the term “project manager” was coined as a new rank of professional acting as an information filter between the client and the architect; on some varied, fast-tracked projects they also helped the client with issues which wouldn’t be within the architects brief like liasing with the buildings end user.

So what’s happened?! Now bricklayers and carpenters are calling themselves builders, but because they’re ill-equipped to deal with managing the other trades or controlling building costs etc so the “project managers” are stepping in. They’re taking on responsibility for the project being built on time, and to an agreed cost as well as organising the various trades. It seems to me that they have become what we used to call “The Builder”, I think we need this new breed, given that builders who properly manage a project are difficult to come by, and architects have lost their traditional role of contacts management; that’s often because the clients aren’t willing to pay the extra costs that this service brings. It’s interesting because sometimes the client is willing to pay for a project manager instead. Don’t get me wrong, there are many builders who are competent at carrying out the traditional role, we work with many; but with a traditionally competent builder there wouldn’t be any need for a project manager.

I understand the concern that comes with these projects which leads to taking on a project manager, there are now people from all kinds of backgrounds describing themselves as project managers; as long as they operate within their own fields such as IT or the petrochemical industry they’ll be fine but I do wonder how they’d manage the process of building.
My advice to all of you taking on a project manager is make sure they have a proven, and relevant track record
Written by Tony Keller. Building Tectonics.

Mixing the Bricks

You may have noticed tall brick walls can have bands of different shades of colour; this can be deliberate, a feature of the design specified by the architect, but it’s often a product of poor management. It’s becoming more common to see this “banding” in most new brick houses, it’s very rare to see this in old brickwork.One of the attractions of an old brick wall is the variation in the shades of brick as opposed to the somewhat clumsy but inadvertent banding in new buildings.

How can this be avoided? Care and attention of the bricklaying is the answer; not so long ago a bricklayer would have a labourer (or hod carrier) who would unpack and mix the different batches of bricks before carrying them up the scaffold on his hod. You seldom see a hod these days, because builders tend to use hoists to lift the bricks to the ‘upper lifts’ of the scaffolding. We’re all for the safety and efficiency when dispensing the hod carrier, but the loss of the old practice is very sad because it results in an unattractive banding, and patches of brickwork.

Brick banding happens because each batch of brickwork is different, this is because the clay coming out of the ground varies as they excavate down through the layers of clay. The firing process can also vary, causing the bricks to have a slightly different hue. If builders organise themselves and know how many bricks they need prior to brick delivery brick suppliers can mix them for you before delivering; if they don’t know the amount needed before ordering the bricks they could mix them themselves by taking some bricks from one batch and some from another.

Brick banding by design, this is an example of banding that was planned.

It would be a big improvement if more brickies would take further care over this aspect of building, and if clients are aware of this then they should insist on it as well. One word of warning; if you unpack and mix the bricks by hand, you’d need some protective eyewear because the brick dust is sharp and would therefore scratch the soft tissue of your eyeball very easily which would be incredibly painful.

Receiving the Best of Houzz Service award

We’re proud to announce that we have received the Best of Houzz award for Customer Service for three years running. For anyone who hasn’t used the platform before, Houzz is like Pinterest, but more focused on aspects of house design. Anyone within the building industry such as architects, interior designers, builders etc can really use this as a tool to their advantage. It’s recently opened up the platform further by offering a space for homeowners to find decor to buy for their space; including the ability for artists to showcase their work here.

The Houzz awards are presented on a yearly basis for three categories; these are Service, Design and Photography. Winning the Service award is usually attained through receiving quality reviews from others within the Houzz platform. By receiving this, we’d like to think that it shows our dedication to providing a good service to our clients; and we’d also like to say a big thank you to those of you who gave us reviews on there and made winning the award possible! We’ll continue to provide the best level of service that we can, and help you with your architectural projects to the best of our ability.

Apprenticeships

My experience with the Apprenticeship scheme as an employer

As mentioned in our previous blog, it’s National Apprenticeship Week and as an employer, I’m very happy to give my thoughts on the subject of apprenticeships. We were very fortunate when choosing our apprentice as she has been a real credit to the apprenticeship system and to Building Tectonics. Personally speaking, education and educational establishments exist in a parallel universe to the one that working people inhabit, but nonetheless, education is important and if anything could bridge the gap between the two worlds then the apprenticeship scheme can be heralded as an advance towards that goal.

Our Apprentice did an IT apprenticeship and even though as a company we do have IT skills, they don’t cover the range of knowledge that is studied in an IT course. So we now have a member of the team who went through the apprenticeship scheme with an overall knowledge of what we do and how we do it using IT, and also has a smattering of knowledge that has seen us through the worst calamities that IT has thrown at us to date. May long it be the case.

Having now seen how useful the apprenticeship system can be, what saddens me is that there is no apprenticeship that is really geared up for our industry yet. I find it extraordinary that this is the case, given the fact that so many people are engaged in the areas of building and architectural technology, and that skills are so woefully lacking. I’ve been talking to my professional body, CIAT, about pushing such an apprenticeship up our agenda; it seems that there is the Construction Design and Build Technician Apprenticeship but few apprenticeship providers offer this particular course because they don’t think there is enough demand to warrant it.

I believe that if the government is serious about building new houses (minus the faults recently reported in the press) on the scale that is nationally needed, we’d better start thinking about building technology and treating this subject with the importance it deserves.

Written by Tony Keller, Building Tectonics.

Apprenticeships

My experience with the Apprenticeship scheme as an ex apprentice

It’s National Apprenticeship Week, so as someone who has been through the apprenticeship process I thought I’d share some aspects of my experiences during that time.

It all started when I decided that I didn’t want to find an art related job anymore, it was too difficult to earn a living out of it and I didn’t want my love for it to diminish; so I kept it as a hobby. That decision left me in a bit of a sticky situation in that I needed to find a subject I liked enough to form a new career path from. I’ve always had an interest in IT; how computers work, how to fix problems with technology, how to protect yourself online and all that technical stuff. At the time I had an evening job, but it wasn’t nearly fulfilling enough for me. I applied for jobs for weeks and went to interviews but to no avail – although I had good grades at school, I had little to no experience in the field I was applying for; prospects didn’t look great.

Within two months of starting the apprenticeship, I got an interview with Building Tectonics and I have to admit, I was nervous. Turns out there was no need to be so nervous because I got the job and started work here the following week. When I started my work placement, for the duration of the apprenticeship I had to collect evidence of certain tasks being completed to meet criteria set out by the course; Building Tectonics were very facilitating when it came to letting me get this done. We’re an architectural technology company so when I was trying to collect evidence for an IT-based course it could be quite difficult at times, but with their help, I got everything I needed to complete the course.

My examiner would come out and see me every other week to see how I was progressing, both in the understanding of various aspects of IT and in terms of how far along I was in meeting all of the criteria I needed to complete the units given to me. Sadly, my examiner suddenly passed away partway through my course and so I was assigned another examiner, who I then needed to bring up to speed as to what I had completed and what was left for me to complete. I really felt for him because he’d lost a friend, and also had to pick up the remaining work for about 30 students – that couldn’t have been an easy transition!

Whilst I was progressing through the course, the company I work for decided to help other small companies understand what it’s like to have an apprentice within the team. A colleague at Building Tectonics and I spoke at an event hosted by the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses) along with Penny Power back in 2014. At the time I remember feeling quite nervous before giving my speech, but then once I got into it everything fell into place and it turned out quite well in my opinion. I’d like to think that we helped a few other small companies gain some clarity about the apprenticeship scheme.

Even with the obstacles mentioned above, I still finished my apprenticeship and earned the qualifications with the help of Building Tectonics. Although I’ve brought a lot of knowledge from the apprenticeship forward and put it to use within the workplace, there were certain aspects I believe could have been improved about the course; for example, the practical tasks given at college were sparse, and they would have helped in conjunction with the theoretical assignments. Other than that I can’t really complain; 5 years after taking the offer for a work placement here I’m sat in the office writing this blog, and I have the apprenticeship scheme to thank for that.

Written by Jade Turney, Building Tectonics.

“Redesign” your home

The nature of the work that architectural companies like Building Tectonics are asked to do has changed.
Once upon a time, we would be asked to design an extension, prepare drawings for a loft conversion, alter the facade of a house, or more occasionally, change the interior layout. Sometimes there would be a joint focus on changing the layout of the property at the same time as extending, but this was only a small portion of our work.

The type of work we’re being asked to do has fundamentally changed, and most of of it is now not only thinking about how to enlarge a clients house, but also re-organising the space in a major way. We don’t think that any of the phrases popularly used to describe what we do are adequate in getting across this process; and so we like to describe it as “redesigning”.

In my opinion, words such as modernising, renovating, refurbishing and even extending don’t quite cut it, an extension may be a part of the project but I don’t think it’s descriptive enough for even simplest of projects. It’s not a good idea to add another room, or enlarge an existing room without considering the effect this work will have on the space you already have. Quite often, we find that this will leave the existing room as a dark unused corridor into the new space; this is why some thought should always be given to the changed dynamics of the existing house as a whole. We think about these aspects every time potential clients come to us with an idea for their “new extension”, that’s why we prefer the all-encompassing term “redesign”.

Written by Tony Keller, Building Tectonics.