Architects are spending more of their time doing designs purely to gain planning permission. But unless they’re going to help build them too, don’t expect them to be any good
I have recently acquired three or four jobs where all I’m being asked to do is to submit a planning application in the hope that an advantageous consent will improve the saleability of my client’s property.
Once it is clear that I’m not going to be retained, there comes a point where I stop designing and just write or draw what will pacify the relevant authority
The reason is probably that, like me, my clients are getting older. Unlike me, they find themselves in possession of houses that they no longer need, or spare houses that they’d like to sell. And although they can’t face the business of building any more, they don’t want some spiv to buy a house they’ve lived in for 30 years, and make money out of it simply by obtaining consent to alter it in some way.
The gains from a successful application are not necessarily enormous. It’s not like being the lucky beneficiary of a change in central planning policy that allows houses to be built on agricultural land, in which case the person who currently owns the chicken hutches and pasture finds themselves £10,000,000 richer overnight.
Nevertheless, you do not have to have a very big house in a very expensive part of London for a consent for an additional floor to be worth a quarter of a million on its own. Obviously, if someone bought the whole house, and then actually built the extra floor, then they might hope to make more, but that presents an entirely different level of risk.
I think that my clients hope there will be work-starved builders out there who don’t want to risk buying tired properties in the hope of being allowed to extend them. These people are therefore happy to pay a premium for the fact that some long suffering person has already gone through the business of pacifying the bat appreciation society, or dealing with next door’s concerns about their right to light.
I usually prepare planning applications on the understanding that I’m also likely to deal with the building work, so I address building control issues as part of the process. This involves taking on board the fact that water flows downhill and so on.
Now this doesn’t matter at all if it’s just the value you want. You can draw joists 125mm deep when you suspect they should really be at least 250mm deep. And you can ignore the fact that you are going to need a floating floor with a four-inch soil pipe drilled through it, and the neighbours on that side are definitely not going to let you use their downpipe.
Often, after taking a look at the work of the previous architect (if it is an architect), I tell my clients that as long we don’t build anything much bigger, we might as well start again
In other words, once it is clear that I’m not going to be retained, there comes a point where I stop designing and just write or draw what will pacify the relevant authority. This is an example of the philosophy of “let some other poor bastard try and make that work”, which I have to say forms little of the ethos of “firmness, commodity and delight” that was instilled in me at architecture school.
This often works the other way round. I have inherited some dreadful schemes. After taking a look at the work of the previous architect (if it is an architect, which it often isn’t, I just tell my clients that as long we don’t build anything much bigger, which might get noticed, we might as well start again and build what they like (or rather I like). The good news is that someone has already done the six-month slog to get the consent, so if we start again from first principles we can usually start on site in a matter of weeks.
That said, there are problems with the planning application game. For one thing, a householder doesn’t have to employ someone like me. They could simply download an entire planning application from the web. And once upon a time a client would reach for their cheque book the first time they saw a competent set of CAD drawings, but in a world where the work experience person in your local kitchen showroom can give you a fly-through of your high-level cupboards, these have lost their appeal.
So what I have taken to doing is providing the agent with freehand sketches that are much livelier than a set of planning application documents. I try to give a flavour of the kind of practice I run, so that if they don’t already have an architect in tow they may wish to consider my services …
There is a third problem. Next week I have to go and see someone who is thinking of buying one of the houses I have been working on, which means I’m faced with the choice of either turning down a commission or dealing with the fact that the poor sod who is going to have to make the thing work is me.
Gus Alexander runs his own practice in Clerkenwell