Working on houses with history

Something happened earlier this month that inspired the writing of this blog post.

Tholos Architects have been appointed to work on a XIX century house, with quite a unique layout and the status of locally listed, given the very early use of a specific facade technique.

Once our team went to survey the house, the owner told us the story of how it was designed by a famous Architect in the early stage of his career, back in 1870’s.

The house over time has been altered and manipulated, but with respect for its character and exquisite attention to details.

So we found ourselves dealing with a very characterful property designed by a respectable colleague and we immediately understood that the right approach for the project was a respectful conservation of the existing, recalling the design principles in the new parts we are to propose (work in progress!).

We immediately decided to investigate the history and the works of the original designer to find inspiration and ideas to pay him the right tribute.

The findings have not been very encouraging since his most famous work seems to have been destroyed and other information was scattered and mostly biographical. But it prepared the ground for a wider question.

What is the history of my house?

Many homeowners may ask themselves this question, given the high number of heritage properties around the UK.

 
There are several ways to find information on a property, when it was built, who has occupied it before.
 
You can find archive material, old pictures, antique maps or consult the census, to understand the years the house was built, who lived in it and what they were doing for a living.
 
But the hardest thing to understand is how the building changed over time.

Is my house original?

A house carries the signs of the change of times.

Today it is weird to imagine that before the 19th century the bedroom was anything but private, and often multiple strangers shared beds in inns, or lodging. (read more on the social history of beds here)

Nowadays it would be considered inappropriate what before was normal.

The culture changed and so did the houses.

While the bed is only one of the possible drastic examples of how differently we live from our ancestors, houses have been gradually transformed from owner to owner to meet the new occupier’s needs. This is reflected in extensions, alterations and changes of layouts, conversion of spaces, additions and subdivisions.

This is where our job gets a twist.

In planning terms, a lot of what you can do to alter your house often refers to the conditions of the “original house”, which is defined in the Town and Country Planning General Permitted Development Order (aka GPDO) as the house as it was originally built OR as it stood on 1 July 1948.

According to this perspective, this date marks a deep furrow and all the alterations to the houses built before 1948 become part of the “original” house.

We know that all the readers who own a house with some history may not like this.
To cheer you up, remember there are different ways of protecting the heritage value of a property.

House detectives

Practicing the profession, we happen to work with houses way older than 1940’s but it is not always clear when the alterations have been made, and often it is important to understand the timeline of such alterations to a property.

As a practical example, we had a client who wanted to renovate a flat, being part of a detached house with some very dysfunctional layout:

– the main bedroom was taking the light from an internal glass panel, not a window, opening into a corridor,

– the corridor was running along the side wall of the house and having all the actual windows opening on it, limiting the natural light delivered to the rest of the house.

– The kitchen room was raised from the entrance level and had a very tall cill, deeper than 1 m, before the short and wide window placed in a very high position.

– The original basement cellar was altered to be used as main bathroom of the flat.

– The main bedroom had a small en-suite, consisting of a resulting space built under the stairs which, sited out of the flat, are leading to the first floor; it hosted barely a loo and a micro sink and the internal height was very limited.

– To make things more exciting the house was extended to the rear 2 times and once to the front, causing several discontinuities.

What the client knew was only that the previous owner was a builder and made the alterations by himself.

So we had to dig into the history of the house to understand why it was such a maze, with 4 levels of flooring, 11 changes of ceiling and an undefined number of hidden beams, in order to propose a reasonable scheme to meet all the project requirements.

Long story short, while the plot was occupied already in 1896, the original house was likely to have been re-built or intensively renovated in the 1940’s, following some extension attempts (front, rear, porch, terraces, roof) in the early 80’s which eventually happened, culminating in the conversion in flats in the late 1980’s, after almost a century, which gifted us with the glorious intricated condition we have found it in.

After this research and an accurate site survey, we finally had the clear picture to understand what-happened-where and what to expect during the construction stages.

Can my house be more functional?

A house is an organism, with systems and functions.
Some are obvious and some are concealed.

Many houses (and buildings in general) can be dysfunctional if they have not been designed accurately with the “user experience” in mind (yes, architects used these words before the internet).

This makes pretty much the difference between good, average and bad design.

To say it with Steve Jobs, design is not how it looks, is how it works.

But the needs of the users and the experience they deserve, they evolve with the times and so do the technologies that are integrated in a building as an organism.

Hence here we are, a bit detectives, a bit physicians, considering all the aspects of a building to make sure it is healed from ageing and revamped to give the best for the years to come.

Your house can be more functional, but there is one caveat: working on an old house can be delicate and have limitations. Sometimes we must let go and acknowledge if what we want is beyond reach.

This is why often homebuyers contact us for an opinion on what they would like to get from the house they are about to buy.

 

Do you have a dysfunctional house? Is your family changing habits? Are you buying a house with potential but you are not sure what it could be?

You can contact us and book a free consultation to talk about it.

It’s as simple as clicking on this link and book your call back at your convenience.

Elementary, my dear Watson.

Do architects respect construction budget?

A renovation, or home improvements project, is an investment that you should plan carefully and budget for realistically, with due consideration about what you really want to achieve and in which way this investment will pay you back.

Hint: it is not always money.

Why are residential projects always overbudget?

The renovation, improvement or new construction of a private residence is renowned to be the most difficult project category for an Architect.
 
What gives this category such a reputation is the emotional involvement of the client, who is contemporarily owner, stakeholder, project manager, final user.
And often unexperienced about construction.
 
When the lack of experience meets the keeping of spreadsheets, most homeowners find themselves trapped in a dilemma:
“we spent this much of the budget so far, there is this little left, how can I use the remaining budget in a smart way?
Should we get nice finishes and go over budget OR stick to the budget and settle for lesser quality materials?”
 
Truth is, finishing materials are there to stay.
It is more convenient to stretch the budget a bit and get good finishes, rather than save now and regret it later, adding other costs in the future.
 
In most of the cases, extra project expenditures are generated by last minute project variations during the construction and choices of more expensive finishes or furnishings.
These are the result of emotional decisions of the client.
 
In some unfortunate but not-so-rare cases, old houses just reveal some surprise: rotten joists, sudden leaks, unexpected sewers.
These can cause costly extra work and delays, hardly foreseeable.
 
For these reasons it is very easy for an un-supervised project to go over budget.

What do Architects have to do with construction budget?

On appointing an Architect, the client must specify the reasons for doing the project and the constraints in a briefing, which will be the Architect’s duty to satisfy.

The availability of funds is also a constraint, so it is important to specify what is the target budget for the project, while keeping a contingency available in case of surprises.

The Architect has the role to collect this information and develop a design in line with the briefing and considering the budget available.

Can a design be more expensive than my budget?

Some Architects are used to work on multi-million projects and are masters in adding the wow factor. When working on simpler projects, they may be carried away a bit.

If their design is way beyond the budget, it will require to be downsized or simplified, until reaching the point where you can stretch you budget to.

But good architecture doesn’t have to cost the earth.

When we develop a design, we keep your budget in mind.
During the process we can advice where the money should go to have the best result and get the best value for your money.

How do the Architect know if the project is actually going to be within the budget?

Common residential projects have similar costs per square metre.

Besides few variables which could bring extra costs in, we can generally assess if a budget is reasonable and healthy for a scope since the early stages.

After developing a special concept design, we engage with contractors for initial estimates that would confirm the ballpark costing.

If it doesn’t work, we get back to the drawing board and review the options with the client.

But only once a project is fully specified and contractors are invited to bid, we can know the starting point for the construction cost.

Once construction starts, it is important to avoid variations and hope there will be no surprises hidden in the house.

During the entire process we work with our clients to help them make informed decisions on how to use their budget wisely for the finishing materials and decorations.

 Overall we do our best to stay on top of the expenses, so that you could  use your money where it really matters to you.
 
If you are planning your project, it’s important to have an experienced professional at your side to advice on all the aspects of the process.
 
You can contact us for an initial free consultation to talk about your plans.

It’s as simple as clicking on this link and book your call back at your convenience.

What is a self build?

When an individual or an association of individuals build their own house (or houses), this can be considered a self build.

Self build is a way to own your home as in opposite to buying it from a commercial developer, which is the majority of the cases in the UK.

Embarking on a journey to self build your home can give great satisfaction and you can claim unexpected benefits at the end of the process.

What experience do I need to do a self build?

If you want to be a self builder, you don’t need to do the works yourself or be an expert of construction.

While many self builders want to be somehow involved in the physical process, often in the finishing stages of painting and floor-fitting (helps to save on the cost of workmanship), you can hire people to do the works for you.

Self-build is a project strategy where a private individual, not a company or a public entity, is developing their own house and taking project decisions, usually with the support of an architect or consultant, or directly working with one or more contractors.

Self build projects still require to comply with planning and building regulations, so better have an expert at your side for advice. Time is money.

Why are there so little self build projects?

As they say: no pain, no gain.

You will need to find a plot of land, present a project for approval to the planning authority, have sufficient financial resources – savings, a mortgage, or equity in your existing home – to support the entire operation, arrange the temporary accommodation where you and your family will stay while the works go ahead, ensure access to services is provided to the site – unless you want to be living off-grid, but the construction works may require water and power, somehow.

Self build is stressful, definitely more that browsing real estate websites.

What are the benefits of self building?

Some of the best reasons to undertake a self build projects are extremely practical, and include:

  • have a very bespoke house, tailored for your family and lifestyle
  • save up to 30% on the market value
  • future-proof your home, include all the technology and features, or allow for them to be installed in the future.
  • have easily 25% profit on the investment (or more)
  • claim back VAT on almost all building materials
  • pay reduced VAT rate to contractors

Additional VAT benefits could apply if you are converting an existing building to live in it.

Tempting, isn’t it?

I want to a kit home. Is it self build even if it is a prefab?

Off site construction is an excellent approach if the budget is not too stretched or if the site is located in a difficult context – limited access, adverse weather.

Yet it provides very high-quality results being the components factory made and inspected carefully during the process.

Alternatively, we are specialised in low tech and use of natural materials.

Either way, it could still be considered self build with all the associated benefits.

Here you can find further information on self building:
Homebuilding & Renovating
Gov.UK
Self Build Portal

If you are thinking of self building, you should already contact us to talk about your project.

We currently offer a free consultation service and we are pretty sure you will like it.

It’s as simple as clicking on get in touch and we will help you take the right steps.

What should I do if a project goes wrong

If you have decided to start a building project without an architect at your side, you must be prepared if things don’t go in the right direction.

If you are not happy with the project or with something that the contractor is doing, or simply is not as agreed, it is best to speak with them.

Chain of command

Remember that general tradespersons may not have the full vision of the project and there is a strict chain of command to respect for a project to go smooth.

Start speaking about your concerns with the site manager or project manager, they can help with your queries and take action. It is good practice to recap what you asked and what they answered in an email.

If this was not enough, you can escalate your complaint to the contractor’s administration or company director.

Ask them to put things right and ask them to explain how they will do it.
Ask them also to put a plan of action in writing to you.

If the works are ongoing, keep a written note of any lesser products being used, unsatisfactory workmanship, unexplained delays or not following plans.
Remember to document with photos, receipts and emails/screenshots, make a note of dates.
Keeping records will help you prove if they are in breach of contract.

The Consumer Rights Act 2015 says the trader undertaking home improvements, building or decorating should take reasonable care and skill.

The trader should put right any unsatisfactory element of work or – if this is not possible – give you a refund.

Things going wrong

If your concern is about any part of the work being unsafe, highlight this immediately to the contractor, if the problem is not resolved promptly you should report them to Trading Standards.

If the contractor (or tradesperson) does not correct the problem or give you a refund, you can take your complaint to the trade association of which they are member.

Outline your rights and contact act in a letter, explaining the problem, what you have asked to remedy and what has happened in response.
Also, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau has letters you can copy that will show service providers you know your rights.

If no action has been taken to this point, you can consult a law firm or charity specialised in alternative dispute resolutions, where an independent person will look at your problem and decide what should be done about it.

Agreements made during this process are legally binding and it is cheaper than going to court. Should you end up in court in the worse case, some judges prefer if you have tried this route first.

Some trade associations have their own alternative dispute resolution, so try asking them before appointing your own.

More information about what to do if you have problems with building work can be found on the Citizen’s Advice Bureau website.

Hassle-free solution

A project can be as simple as renovating and re-decorating or as complex as an entirely new construction.

Among our services we offer the possibility to assist you during the works until completion as your representative and inspecting the site regularly.

We will assign a CSCS qualified Competent Person working with the contractor to take site decision and using our expertise to foresee problems to prevent things from going wrong.

If they still do, we will be at your side to make sure they will make things right.
Having a professional at your side is the best hassle-free solution.

Whether you are planning a project from scratch or you already have a layout to bring to construction, we can help you achieve great results.

You can visit us to talk about your project or contact us and request a call back.
Being in expert hands is few clicks away.

How to choose a new kitchen

When our clients are looking for full home renovations and they appoint us to design and deliver their project, they often have also the clear intention to buy a new kitchen.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, there are many things to consider before choosing your new kitchen, first thing being your existing one.

Is it too small and cluttered?
Is it too big and some cabinets have only random dusting cloths?
Do you find yourself comfortable when having guests, do they participate in cooking or do you prefer to keep it private?

When you look at your kitchen and ask yourself these questions, you will start to understand if it is the case to change size or layout for the new kitchen.

Even if you will prepare the food in another area of the house, the new kitchen could have a similar layout to the previous one, if that really works for you and makes you efficient!

On the other hand, many like a new kitchen to be an entirely new experience. Often kitchens are extended or relocated to enjoy a better position in the house and garden views.

What is important in a new kitchen?

The style and the general aestethics of your new kitchen are secondary, compared to the king of kitchen requirements: Practicality.

The kitchen is a home laboratory of food preparation, where practicality must be second to nothing. Practicality means ease of access, ease of movement, ease of storage. But also ease of cleaning.

What makes a kitchen practical?

When designing a kitchen there is a principle called “the kitchen working triangle“, according to which the three hot spots in a kitchen -sink, hob, fridge- form the vertexes of a triangle where the cook moves within, possibly in a circular flow.

Think about it:
Take any food, un-pack it or wash it, cut it or mash it, cook it, serve it.

The process is fridge -> sink -> hob.
But there are actually many triangles, depending on your cooking style. Fresh food can be from the fridge, you can use dry or preserved food from the larder. Some stuff is marinated and kept aside while other goods are peeled and washed…

Being a lab, it’s ultimately up to your chemistry style but Practicality will keep you going without loosing your mind if the day has been a bit more difficult than the usual.

Also, after your meal there will always be stains to clean and some could be aggressive, like vinegar or lemon juice, or greasy and peristent like oil or melted fat.

So it is very important that your new kitchen has the right storage, the right layout, and it is made with good materials and finishes for easy cleaning on doors and tops, but also in the most unreachable corners (of course that’s where dirth sticks the most).

Is there a best design for a kitchen?

Once the kitchen layout is outlined, there is not a style better than another.
 
In a small space a Galley or L-shaped kitchen fit well. Go for a modern look, no handles and smooth surfaces, to have less visual impediments, but If you have plenty of natural light a classic kitchen will see all its details emphasized.
 
In a big space, you can have a kitchen island or a breakfast bar, be it in concrete, country style or luxurious onyx, as long as the layout is proportionate to the room and the views, keeping it practical.
 
If you are planning an open space, the kitchen will be together with other functions around it, usually dining or sitting/receiving guests. You may want to have some screen or feature to separate the functions.
 
Or when the wall length allows it, there could be a gradual transition to different functions as we did for a project in Bromley, shown in the header image, where the kitchen becomes larder, then coffee bar, bottles’ pantry, bookcase and, finally, fireplace and sitting area, using all the walls of an almost 80 sq m open space.

How can I decide which kitchen to buy?

Buying a kitchen is a milestone in every residential project. While a good one can last for decades, finding the right one can be daunting. We recommend to think well about the layout and consider a practical solution. Find who makes a kitchen in a style that you like, see their product in person -very important- and test the quality of the paint and hard surfaces. Ensure you get the right appliances for you, in terms of capacity and power, ensuring these are energy efficient (class A or more). We usually go through all the requirements with our clients and work together with them on their ideal solution, liaising with shortlisted makers until the perfect kitchen is ordered, delivered and installed. If you are planning to renovate your home and get a new kitchen, our expertise will help you land the right solution, from the most simple to the most complex and customised. Our advice is few clicks away, just tell us about your project and we will help you survive in the kitchen jungle.

Why is our name Tholos Architects

In Rome the weather was sunny but nippy that day, and so was in London.
The soon-to-be founders of our firm were on a phone call, 900 miles apart, arguing about the first important decision of their new enterprise: the name of the company.

With rare exemptions, most Architecture firms carry the surnames of the founders, which often get simplified in weird acronyms and sometimes see the addition of special characters, such as + / | & .

This graphic combination usually becomes a logo and a brand itself, spreading across the web, magazines and letterhead.

Our firm wanted to be open minded and client focused since the beginning, trascending the association of the founders’ names to the company.

In creating our brand they wanted to recall the principles of Vitruvius, values of utility, stability and beauty; the timeless underlying principles of Architecture and the archetypes that over the eras have been declined in countless styles and uses.

 

Vitruvius
Vitruvius

While considering the roots, it was also important for such name to be easy to pronounce and spell out, without being too long, avoiding diphthongs, yet meaningful both metaphorically and concretely.

Then the lightning stroke and all the pieces fell together.

Θόλος
Tholos
The Dome

 

The greek word Tholos means Dome, evolution of the Roof which, together with the Fence and the Gate, is one of the primordial architectural archetypes.

The Dome is a shelter, private, receptive; an organic, dynamic shape.
Its function is to protect and ward.

Ancient burial sites were often dome-like structures covered in soil. These turned eventually into artificial hills, disappearing in the landscape.
Archaeologists call them tholos tombs or simply tholos.
A dome to protect the remains of the valiants and beloved, for ever.

And so be it.
The name was decided and in line with our mission to respect the values of Architecture, provide timeless design and technical expertise, establishing a relationship with the surroundings and having the minimum impact on the environment.

We are Tholos Architects.