Additional Services

We’re considering offering some additional services to our clients, such as organising estimates for certain products and services. We have always shied away from getting too involved with other companies because, and I appreciate this may sound a little old-fashioned, we want to maintain our independence. We want to make sure that clients can trust our advice and that we can be trusted to be completely impartial when it comes to builders and product suppliers etc. As soon as companies know you are in a position to get their company name in front of clients, you get inundated with offers and ‘special deals’.

However, we’ve decided that there are some services that would be very useful to our clients, such as Quantity Surveying services so that build costs of a scheme can be ascertained at a very early stage in a project. Okay, that’s clearly harmless but where we might have to be more careful is obtaining kitchen or floor tiling quotations for instance. We have decided to give this a try and see if many clients take these options up. I would be pleased to receive some feedback on this and find out what clients would find most useful.

We will be happy to put companies in touch with suppliers as long as suppliers treat our clients with respect, provide a good service and at least occasionally win some orders. We currently do this with building companies and unlike some architectural practices, we ask and expect nothing for putting builders on our list of satisfactory builders (as we call them). I am aware that some practices like us actually expect to be paid to add them to their list. We don’t. Companies are there on merit, if we get bad feedback and we think it’s justified we quietly drop them. Of course, this means we are often looking for new builders to add, so if you are a good building company with a good track record and can provide references with examples of satisfactory work, please get in touch.

Written by Tony Keller – Building Tectonics Ltd.

For clients who know what they want.

Sometimes a potential new client says they know exactly what they want when they first talk to us. This troubles me, and I’m tempted to say to them that they would be better contacting an alternative architectural company, but I don’t, and here’s why.

There are always many possible alternatives that should be considered, even on simple designs, sometimes they’re only minor changes but they all need to be considered and agreed upon.

The drawing is the tool we use to explain to the client what it is that we understand they want. Until this drawing is prepared, we’re relying on words and no matter how simple the project is, language is just not adequate for this task.

Let’s take the case of buying a new car. You’ve decided on the make, model and even the colour. You get to the showroom and just look at all the questions you get regarding wheels, in car entertainment, glass etc. The product we’re dealing with doesn’t even start off with a make, model or colour and so there are always choices to be considered.

So for the client who knows exactly what they want, we prepare a few choices, probably variations on a theme it’s true, but it’s a shame if a client doesn’t get the best out of the process.

The other little problem to a client knowing exactly what they want is that what they want might not be possible. They may want too much glass to comply with building regulations, the planning department may not accept it and they may not be able to afford their dream design.

We want the client to get exactly what they want, whether they know what it is or not, but it’s seldom as simple as that.

A recent client very kindly acknowledged this in a testimonial received this week:


I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Building Tectonics. Although only adding a small extension and having thought I knew what I wanted, Building Tectonics presented me with a variety of ideas and solutions to my challenges. Tony and his team guided us through the entire process, I can highly recommend them.


Maybe life’s just not that simple, but we do our best to simplify it for our clients. Sometimes initially they might think we’re trying to complicate matters, but we’re not really – we’re just doing our job.

Intensively serviced house refurbishments.

We’re giving project management support on one of our projects at the moment, and we’ve agreed to do this because of the nature of the project, namely the redesign and updating of a 1970’s house. In addition to the usual requirements for a project of this type, such as additional ensuites, and lots of electrical wiring, the client wants underfloor heating throughout, mechanical whole house ventilation with heat recovery. Electrical wiring for the LED perimeter lighting and the controls, alarms, sensors and a modern standard in electrical sockets is of course, the east bit despite the quantity, but getting the larger pipework hidden in the floors without cutting too much of the floor joists away is really difficult. Unlike the waste pipes carrying toilet and other waste water, the ventilation pipes can bend and flex their way around the building to some extent, although it has to be borne in mind that every bend will decrease the system’s efficacy.

Open lattice joists are really helpful.
Open lattice joists are really helpful.

With this type of project, it is absolutely essential to have a strategy for the incorporation of all these services and it may have implications on the design of the building envelope. With new buildings or extensions to old buildings you can opt for lattice type floor joists. These are a real boon as they allow all of the trades to install their services without cutting holes in the floor joists. When it comes to the existing floors, some way of distributing these services tangentially to the direction of the joists can be really difficult. To facilitate the distribution of these services at right angles to the joists, a lean-to roofspace over a ground floor extension is a great help and, so for a workable solution to the services installation, even the design process of the building externally may have to be brought into play. Without this strategy and an overall design, a project can grind to a halt until some desperate measure is conjured up which will probably impact upon the interior design such as ducting and drop ceilings. Worse still, a thoughtless client or project manager will bully the tradesman to find an expedient solution (expedient for the tradesman that is) and large chunks of structurally significant floor joists will be cut out.

A lean to roof space is really useful.
A lean to roof space is really useful.

Having worked out the general route these services will take you then have to ensure that the services go in in the right order because clearly some services are less flexible than others. The pipes taking waste water should run in straight lines and of course to an acceptable fall, otherwise, your pipes will block and sanitary ware will gurgle and release bad smells. Then the pipes carrying supply and return air should be installed. These can bend to some extent and go up and down but because of their size they are not always easy to incorporate. Lastly, much to the annoyance of the electrician, the electrics are last as the wiring can go up down and can, if necessary, judiciously be fed through small holes in the floor joists. Even so there are rules of thumb about where you can drill holes in floor joists and a good electrician will follow these. Having said this, some clients such as housing associations will not allow any holes to be cut in structural joists and for good reason. Done carefully, it generally is accepted by most Building Inspectors, though.

Waste pipes have to take priority.
Waste pipes have to take priority.

Part of the job of the Project Manager in such cases is to ensure that the strategy is adhered to, that the sequence of the trades is in the right order and to adjudicate in the squabbles between the trades and decide what trade has priority. This is one of the reasons we can’t take many projects on as Project Managers, they’re very time-consuming and we have to charge accordingly. More than one client has said to me that they wish they had asked us to project manage their project as the overspend caused by the resolution of these difficulties on-site can be very very significant in terms of time and money.

Domestic clients and the new health and safety regulations.

If you’re having work done on your own home or the home of a family member, and it’s not in connection with a business, you’ll be a domestic client. The only responsibility a domestic client has under CDM 2015 is to appoint a principal designer, and a principal contractor when there is more than one contractor.

However, if you don’t do this, (as is common practice) your duties as a domestic client are automatically transferred to the contractor or principal contractor. If you already have a relationship with your designer before the work starts, the designer can take on your duties, provided there is a written agreement between you and the designer to do so.

For builders, here is a useful link to an app for your smartphone to help you to comply with your requirements:

Written by Tony Keller  – Building Tectonics


When it comes to detail, we don’t like to impose any design feature on a client. It’s almost a policy to try to leave a blank canvas so to speak, so that the client can “dress” their house to their tastes. However, with an existing house we assume that the client likes their house so we’ll look for features to either replicate or, what I describe as “pay homage” to. This approach is particularly important when designing a facade. Sometimes you can create a frontage that is just too busy for instance and the effect can be overwhelming. On the other hand, to extract a detail and use that in some subtle way often works well. Where a completely different approach is required, such as where the existing house is devoid of any attractive features, and/or the client has made it clear that they don’t like the appearance of the house, then we do have to look for other design clues. I had better just add that the old adage “less is more” should be remembered, especially in a modern design context where you are relying on the whole form and shape of the building to create the chemistry.

On the inside of the house, the approach is different because most interiors have few features as such, and so the design interest comes from the shape of the rooms, the way light plays on the surfaces and the views to the outside, plus of course the interior furnishings which as I have said above, I prefer to leave to the client. Most clients are happy with this approach, but if they ask if we can help with the interior design we know people who can offer this service.

In our view, if you get the design of the building right the rest is mere detail. Get the design of the building wrong and you may be stuck with it a little longer.

Post Note: As well as knowing interior designers, we also know artists who will produce a bespoke piece of art or sculpture to your specification such as size, topic colour scheme for a very reasonable price. Please get in touch for more information.

Written by Tony Keller – Building Tectonics Ltd

Extending vs Loft Conversion vs Converting your Garage – Which is the best value?

I met a lovely couple this week who were considering converting their single garage to create a self-contained annex for their daughter who is expecting. It was clearly too small to convert in this way, especially once you allow for the insulation etc you need to the external single skin of brickwork that most garages are built of. The problem is that they had few alternative options since the garden was small, and so they were loath to give up some precious external space. The third option was to convert the loft, but they could not see how to do this to give the degree of separation which was required. In actual fact this may be the answer to their problems, but until we are commissioned to do a feasibility scheme and carefully analyse how we can configure the space, given the usual structural and access constraints with a loft conversion, we will not know. Sadly, we may never know because the budget probably won’t stretch to a loft conversion (with all the trimmings, en-suites and all).

Rear extension in Milton Keynes

It is true that the garage conversion would be the cheapest option if it were an acceptable solution, whereas a loft conversion and small extension would cost more. Of course you’re not comparing like with like. So how do you decide on what is the best solution? It is not always straight forward but clearly some permutations are not workable. For instance you cannot put a garden room in the loft and you cannot put a nursery on the ground floor of a two storey house. So once you have thought about what space you are trying to achieve the range of choices may be narrowed. Then I suppose the budget is the next thing to consider and you have to be realistic about your objectives. For a basic garage conversion you are probably talking about a minimum of £10k, a loft conversion £18k upwards and a small single storey extension about £20k.  But I would also argue that for value for money the extension is still the best. You may lose some garden space but with the others you will lose either garage (storage space) or at least part of a an existing bedroom (space for the stairs, to access to the attic rooms). These are non monetary costs but none the less should be considered as something you will sacrifice.
Loft Conversion in Milton Keynes
We know that for some, the garden is so important that extending over the garden is also too much to bear. The option that is often overlooked is to extend your house at the front. This of course takes some design skill so that it can be designed in to look comfortable with the original house. Another more obvious option to satisfy some requirements is to extend over an existing ground floor extension or garage, and we at Building Tectonics do plenty of these too.
But we won’t know what’s best until we have carefully looked at the options and often, sadly, the only way to do this is by a thorough investigation of the possibilities.
A photo of a converted garage space with wooden flooring and cream painted walls, a green fabric sofa with brown, cream and green cushions, a window and a skylight window in the roof giving the room a light airy feeling.
The inside of a garage conversion in Milton Keynes.

Written by Tony Keller – Building Tectonics Ltd

Foundation Design

There are some new and interesting developments in foundation design which offer an alternative to the way we have been constructing foundations for the last few hundred years. At least so it seems. It would be interesting to look at these new developments in the context of the traditional ways of supporting a building.

Let’s consider what we expect from a foundation. It has to be able to spread the load so that the ground can support the load. It has to be stable so that it will not move around. Sometimes the foundations are used to anchor the building so that it will not overturn – this is particularly true of taller, lightweight structures such as timber frames houses.

A photo of pale stone foundations with a small set of stairs.
Image courtesy of Wiki Commons stock images.

So how do we achieve this? Spreading the load is not difficult except where the soil is very soft, and that is not usually the case in our area. Ensuring that there is no movement is more difficult as our clay in the South East of the UK is prone to shrinkage and heave caused by changes in the moisture content in the clay. For this reason, the minimum founding depth is usually a metre and much deeper if trees are nearby. Holding a building down sometimes has to be considered but by the time you have dealt with the other criteria, this holding down or overturning aspect can be shown to be resolved.

The way we spread the load of the building can be dealt with in a number of ways. The usual way is to dig a trench, fill it full of concrete and then build the load-bearing walls off of this. This is called a trench fill foundation (or footing as builders like to call it) where the concrete almost comes to the surface, or a strip foundation if the trench is only partly filled with concrete and then masonry is built up to the ground level. Sometimes we dig a series of holes which are filled with concrete and then beams span between. These ‘pad foundations’ as we call them require less excavation and soil to be taken from the site, and less concrete, but require additional structural elements above.

The above techniques account for 90% of low rise buildings in the UK whereas for the remaining 10% the solution is usually a piled foundation. Crudely, piles are either driven in or a hole is drilled in the ground and then filled with concrete. The piles will give intermittent support just like the pad foundations mentioned above, and so beams have to be used to span across the top to support the buildings walls. Where the hole in the ground is first created and then filled with concrete it is classed as a replacement pile, and where a steel element is driven into the ground it is called a driven pile. Further sub categorisation is made and they are described as short bored or deep bored piles.

Now this neatly brings us onto the first new innovation in the UK for many years. We now have a worm-screw type of foundation which could be described as a large steel screw and this is screwed into the ground where it becomes the support. It reduces the amount of spoil that has to be removed from site and can be installed in any weather.

Another new type of foundation is that promoted by Advanced Foundation Technology Ltd as advocated by Kevin McLoud of Grand Designs. Basically, this seems to rely on removing some soil and replacing it with a material that will not be affected by freezing conditions. I confess to not understanding how this deals with the shrinkage caused by changes in the moisture content of clay and so I will remain skeptical for now, but clearly in areas where the ground is affected by changes in temperature only, this could be effective.

Clearly the type of foundation your building designer or engineer chooses will be based on individual factors pertaining to your project, and the industry is notoriously conservative for not taking up new ideas but it will be interesting to see how these new ideas are taken up.

Written by Tony Keller – Building Tectonics Ltd

Building as a science.

I have just heard Professor Brian Cox on the TV talking about the role of science and engineering, how there has been a renewed interest in these subjects and how the UK punches above its weight. Undoubtedly true in my view, but I would also like to add another dimension to this. If I said building is a science, how many of you would scoff at the comment. To raise the question in another way, how many times do you hear the words building, and science in the same sentence?

It’s a forgotten science perhaps, because we over-engineer in some respects and we have such low expectations of the building industry. Another possibility is the fact that some parts of the British mentality is stuck in the past, and there are no doubt, other reasons we have a grown up cottage industry instead of a science. We have some world-renowned centres of excellence nearby, the Building Research Establishment at Garston Watford and even here in Milton Keynes in the form of the Energy Foundation. We have, or possibly had, been regarded at the forefront of good building practice by the rest of the world for many years, and of course during the industrial revolution the UK brought many new construction techniques into use.

Did you know that there is a mathematical formula for the design of a chimney to an open fire. Probably not, this is why so many open fires built-in the last few decades leak smoke into the house. Did you know that the shape of an arch approximately describes the shape of the mathematical shape of the forces pushing down, and that a pointed arch is nearer still to the perfect shape, through centuries of trial and error, the shape got nearer and nearer to the perfect elegant shape but it took science to realise that the perfect shape is actually a parabola. Of course, none of this matters if you over-engineer, or use a steel lintel from B&Q. The elegance and science of building is forgotten in such a world.

I really would like to see a better understanding of the benefit a more scientific approach can bring to building. Frankly, the first thing we have to do is to raise expectations of the general public and explain that there are better ways of doing things. We should not accept poor building construction, and the haphazard way in which we deal with the common garden leaks in roofs, damp, sound transmission through party walls or the over heating in summer etc. I could go on but my soap box has given way. If it were made of plywood using stressed skin technology (as used in fighter planes in the second World War) instead of softwood  nailed together it would have held much better.

Written by Tony Keller – Building Tectonics Ltd

Choose your designer carefully.

I’d like to make it clear that we are not the only good architectural practice in Milton Keynes. However, we’re hearing some horrendous stories about some other so called professionals taking clients money, and then disappearing.

Clearly, this is awful and it reflects badly upon my profession. I would always suggest using someone who is a member of a professional body, because a professional body would insist that standards are maintained. The two main bodies within our field are The Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists, of which we belong, and the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Building Tectonics is also included on Milton Keynes Council’s Buy with Confidence Trading Standards approved scheme. Of course, there are unaffiliated individuals that are trustworthy, but you should be wary. Check that they have a digital footprint such as web site, a Facebook or Linked-in profile page, and how long they have been trading. Even though not many will have been trading for nearly 30 years like us, you would want them to have some history and have actually made some planning applications. You should also ask for details of their professional indemnity (this is not just third part insurance). If you wish to give a new company a go, and we all have to start somewhere, get their name, address and telephone number at least. Note that you will receive extra protection if you pay by credit card as this will allow you to claim should the company fail to deliver or suddenly go out of business.

I certainly don’t want to put anybody off, and I can see that the whole process could be daunting. Dealing with the architectural profession is bad enough, but then you have to deal with the builder! The builders we work with are honest and professional, and the worst you can say is they can be a bit disorganised and messy. Even so, if you bite the bullet and extend or alter your house to fulfill your dreams, in a few months you can join all of our other clients and look back and say that it was very worthwhile, I am sure.

Written by Tony Keller – Building Tectonics Ltd

Elevations vs. perspective drawings

Historically we, like most architectural practices and designers, have used plans drawn in parallel projection, that’s to say that they are not in perspective.  We do this because plans in parallel projection can be to scale and from a technical standpoint it’s less easy to cheat and/or mislead.  However, perspective drawings can add something to the communication process as some clients find it easier to read these types of plans, whereas a projection drawing requires the reader to use their imagination, and some people cannot do this as well as others.
Before computer graphics, a perspective drawing would be drawn on paper or film by a draftsperson or a specialist perspective artist, it could be either quite sketchy or almost photo realistic. Even now, we in the Building Tectonics office still sketch something out in perspective, usually to communicate something to another member of the team so being adept with a pencil is still very handy. 
Of course the computer and the software we generally use can generate very complicated 3 dimensional models and from that a perspective drawing, but it does require a lot more information and time to do this. You may also be surprised to know that these types of graphical representations of a job can take all night for a computer to process (even quite a powerful computer). For this reason we have to charge extra for such work and if the client can do without it then all is well and good.
There is another side to this subject. Perspectives can be very misleading as they can give an impression of a building and perhaps its surrounding, or indeed the inside of a room but it will not be to scale, and by playing with the perspective vanishing point the impression of space and proportion can be altered. There is a trend now to produce photo realistic drawings too and these can be very seductive, but we worry that the client is wooed by the image and does not concentrate on the actual architecture. Most people will come into contact with perspective or a 3D type of representation when they order a new kitchen, and I have heard people say that the end result, when the kitchen is installed does not always have the same feeling or sense of space that was engendered by the graphical representation.
Planning departments and builders still require parallel projection because they can trust them (if properly prepared) to give them the accurate information they need.  However perspectives, walk throughs and fly round visualisations are required by some clients and so we do, if asked, produce them for an extra fee. 
We would be very pleased to learn of your experience of viewing types of graphic display, whether they helped you to make a decision about a particular design, and ultimately, did the building or kitchen live up to the promise of the presentation?
Written by Tony Keller – Building Tectonics Ltd.