… but these days building seems more about feeding the surreal imaginations of planning officers and keeping a whole army of specialist consultants employed.
It may be just me getting older, but building seems to be so much more difficult than it used to be. Or that part of it that I do does. Take a very simple thing like planning. (Simple thing like planning? Ha! It’s been a long time since one could put those four words in the same sentence.) It doesn’t seem that long ago that you would have an idea of how best your client might develop a site as well as an idea of what the local planning officer might support. I mean that’s what architects are supposed to be able to do, isn’t it? Then you would submit a scheme and start negotiating with a planning officer or two. Eventually you’d get consent. Witness some very rudimentary 1980-something planning drawings I’ve found in the bottom of a drawer.
These days, though, architects have to submit a scheme in the most extraordinary detail, with a design and access statement, a sustainability audit, an environmental impact assessment, a traffic survey, together with the office’s equal opportunities policy and whatever is the latest “life’s too easy as it is” initiative and wait. Six weeks later you have a response from the validator to explain that your scheme cannot even be considered because somewhere you have forgotten to say that your client’s site in Soho does not constitute an agricultural holding, or that you do not intend to do any open-cast mining in that part of WC1.
This sort of process might be appropriate for a big university building, or an airport terminal, but for remodelling a Victorian terrace house? And God help you if it’s listed. Someone can tear down a gorgeous Edwardian pub on the high street with impunity, but change that piece of warped timber skirting in the scullery? How dare you even think about it without our say-so?
The validator says your scheme cannot even be considered because you have forgotten to say that you do not intend to do any open-cast mining in that part of WC1
When you eventually get the thing validated, well, that’s when your problems really begin. This is not the place to describe the war of attrition that constitutes planning negotiations but about two years ago I practically lost it with a design officer. She’d spent half an hour taking all the charm and style out of my project and I eventually said: “How can you make me do all this when you look at that monstrosity they’ve built next door?” “Oh,” came the reply, “that was all done without permission.”
Now let’s say you‘ve actually got planning consent. You can’t just ask an engineer to design a few beams for you and then find a competent builder to install them for a sensible price. You have a whole army of consultants to satisfy, all lining up with their eyes on your client’s chequebook. Party wall agreements used to sorted out by two civilised people in Barbour jackets and Hush Puppies, who tried to make sure they didn’t make each other’s houses fall down.
But there’s a new breed of adjoining owner’s surveyor that fancies itself as something out off LA Law. “I cannot allow this underpinning to be done because drawing 726. 23 rev c shows a different flashing detail to the one in the notice …” And of course the adjoining owner’s surveyor has no interest in getting the thing built. In fact, it’s the opposite. Everyone understands that all you really need is a schedule of condition. Everything else is more or less sorted out by one or other arm of the council. But this doesn’t stop the adjoining owner’s surveyor on one side taking four times as long as the one on the other.
Pparty wall surveyors used to be civilised people in Hush puppies. Now there’s a new breed that fancies itself as something out of LA Law
But your party wall surveyor is only part of it. You might have thought that if the house on the left of the one you bought your flat in had an extra floor on it, and so does the house on the right, that there would be a fair chance, sooner or later, that someone would put an extra floor on your flat. But you didn’t, and they’ve got permission, so you’d better just check that the proposal doesn’t affect your light. Now, your daylight surveyor isn’t interested in building at all. And of course you cant speak “lumens” or “daylight factor”, so you have to hire someone who does. And then you find you need to hire someone who speaks decibels. Or lichen. Or bats. And it all involves the architect in hours of work and his client in thousands of pounds of fees and never seems to make any difference.
The role of the adjoining owner’s specialist consultant is no longer to enable but to foment dissent. And there’s seemingly no limit to the number of them. But it wasn’t always like this. Joseph Paxton submitted a design for Crystal Palace in 10 days, a detailed estimate in two weeks, got it accepted in three, and had the thing built in four months. In the middle of Hyde Park. Completely untested system. And it was breathtakingly cheap …
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London