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Leighton House Museum

I visited the recently refurbished and extended Leighton House Museum in Holland Park last week.  The building, designed by George Aitchison and built in stages between 1878 and 1896, was the London home and studio of the celebrated Victorian painter and sculptor Sir Frederick Leighton.

It is fine example of late Victorian architectural design with ‘set piece’ interior spaces that reflect the obsession at that time with orientalism and the aesthetic movement.  The Entrance Hall, the Staircase Hall, the Narcissus Hall, the Arab Hall, the Library, the Dining Room, the Drawing Room and the Silk Room are all special in their own way.  As well as these spaces there are two functional first floor workspaces – the Studio and the Winter Studio – where Leighton created most of the paintings of his mature career.

The most impressive of these is the Arab Hall with its domed ceiling and fountain which was built to house Leighton’s collection of tiles collected during visits to the Middle East.  It is hard to see how this space could have been used other than for entertaining.

The Arab Hall and the Narcissus Hall photo: Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

The Arab Hall and the Narcissus Hall photo: Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

I always say that it is preferable to have a small number of special ‘architectural’ spaces in a house rather than a large number of box-like cellular spaces.  Leighton House takes this approach to extremes with almost all of the space being intended to entertain guests and impress clients.  Leighton remained a bachelor and one slightly odd moment is to visit his rather nondescript bedroom with its little single bed.  Apart from two servant’s rooms in the roof space and a butler’s room in the basement it is the only bedroom accommodation in the house.  Goodness knows where his guests slept if they wanted to stay over.  Perhaps none of them did.

Victorian art fell out of fashion very quickly after World War I and it is only in the last 50 years that there has been renewed interest.  One of the most famous examples of this low point was in 1963 when ‘Flaming June’, one of the most significant among Leighton’s classicist pieces which was painted in Leighton House, went on the market in London in 1963 for just £50.  It is currently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where it will be on display until February 2024.

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Including a Fitted Kitchen in a House Extension or Refurbishment

What is the best way to have a fitted kitchen designed, supplied and installed as part of a house extension or refurbishment project? I am often asked this as there are various approaches.

Island kitchen, Dormans Park, nr East Grinstead

Island kitchen, Dormans Park, nr East Grinstead Underwood Kitchens

One approach is to have the fitted kitchen fully designed and specified by the architect and installed by the builder as part of the contract works. This involves the architect specifying all of the components including the base and wall units, countertops, splashbacks, sinks, taps and equipment. Both the architect and the builder are paid for their services with regard to the kitchen.

Another approach is for the client to purchase the kitchen components outside the contract (either designed and specified by the architect or by a specialist) and provide them ‘free issue’ to the contractor who installs the kitchen as part of the contract works.

L-shaped kitchen, Forest Row

L-shaped kitchen, Forest Row Homebase KitchensHomebase Kitchens

Yet another approach is to have the fitted kitchen designed, supplied and installed by a specialist outside the contract after the extension or refurbishment work is finished. This avoids paying either the architect or the builder for any services with regard to the kitchen but has the disadvantage of pushing back the date when the kitchen is operational.

I have evolved an intermediate approach whereby the standard form of building contract is amended with a clause added requiring the builder to permit access during the final weeks of the contract (it is his site so he can otherwise deny it) by a specialist directly engaged by the employer under a separate contract. Subject to negotiation this approach can allow the client to procure a specialist kitchen design, supply and install ‘package’. The builder provides a ‘serviced shell’ for the kitchen (to suit the specialist’s design) comprising the finished floor, walls and ceiling plus capped-off services in the shape of hot and cold water supplies, waste, extract ventilation, gas, power and lighting.  The specialist then installs the kitchen into this ‘serviced shell’.  Finally the builder makes the final connections for the services and all fitted kitchen appliances and includes the kitchen in the project GasSafe and electrical certification.

Kitchen design is a personal thing for all clients in terms of the style and layout of the kitchen, the type and amount of equipment and the expense which can vary by up to a factor of ten. I think it is best for the architect to simply set the design parameters in terms of the location and general layout (such as an L-shape, galley, island, peninsula etc) and then allow the client to develop and finalise the design, supply and installation with a specialist.

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House Extension Cost

How much does a house extension cost in London and the south east?

My analysis of actual costs for competitively tendered projects by reputable local building contractors in the south east within commuting distance of London suggests a current ‘ball park’ figure of £3,000/m2 for a single storey extension and a further £2,000/m2 where there is a second storey. These figures are based on a full fit-out to a reasonable standard of specification including bathrooms. They will go up if the project is located closer to central London and down if the project is further out. Tender prices have been rising steadily over the last few years. The tender price inflation forecast in this month’s Building Magazine is for a 5% increase over the coming year however builders that I have spoken to are suggesting that it will be more than this. House extensions attract VAT at 20% and a client contingency of say 10% is advisable.

Single storey extension at 'Charwin' under construction

Single storey extension at ‘Charwin’ under construction

Whilst m2 area costs are a good guide, design complexity and the level of specification can make a big difference.  There are also project specific costs such as the cost of demolitions where required and the cost of other work within the existing house. The cost of the foundations can increase beyond the cost of the standard depth of one metre if the ground conditions are poor. External drainage costs can increase if extensive reconfiguration is required. If the design requires a structural steel frame rather than individual steel members this would be an extra as would the cost of a ground source heat pump installation with its associated ground loops and / or bore holes. The biggest single cost that is not included above is the cost of a new kitchen which can vary enormously. Several years ago I had two concurrent projects where the cost of the similarly sized kitchens differed by a factor of ten.

Two storey extension at 'Fir Tree Cottage' under construction

Two storey extension at ‘Fir Tree Cottage’ under construction

Architects provide ‘ball park’ estimates based on m2 rates but if cost ‘is of the essence’ a quantity surveyor or construction cost consultant / estimator can produce a more detailed estimate on an ‘elemental’ basis where every element of the project is costed. Typically for a project of this size clients opt to rely upon the architect’s estimate until the tenders are returned. At the end of the day it is the tender price at which a building contractor is willing to carry out the work that matters.

I am usually the starting point for a house extension project. The full architectural service is typically in three roughly equal parts which are concept design and developed design to Planning Application / technical design up to Building Regulations and tender / contract administration and construction to handover and close out. Partial services are available (eg just the first part or just the first two parts). I normally provide the ‘principal designer’ role as part of the architectural service. During the technical design stage the core team typically comprises a structural engineer to provide calculations for Building Regulations purposes, an underground drainage engineer to carry out the design for the underground drainage and an energy assessor to demonstrate energy efficiency in compliance with the Building Regulations. Consultant fees for this core team will typically be around 13% of the building cost. There will also be local authority fees for Planning (where required) and Building Regulations.

A house extension can be a viable alternative to moving house as it avoids the disruption and the cost of moving, stamp duty, legal and estate agents fees etc. On top of the desire for extra living space and bedrooms, information technology is driving a move towards living and working from home with the demand for additional space for a home office. As well as this the process, if handled properly, can be very rewarding.

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Permitted Development

Permitted Development (PD) rights are a bit of a minefield as the rules are often hard to interpret. There are frequently misconceptions about PD and these are the ones that I commonly come across:

  1. PD is what is permitted without planning permission. It is not necessarily as much or as good a solution as what might be available if a planning application is made and approved. So PD may not be the optimal solution.
  2. PD rights are often hard to interpret for a specific project and if a property is subsequently sold the incoming purchaser could seek confirmation that what has been built is indeed PD. Therefore in most cases clients apply to the local council for a Lawful Development Certificate which is in some respects similar to a householder planning application. So an application to the council may be needed in any case.
  3. PD rights are restricted in ‘designated areas’ such as conservation areas, National Parks (such as the South Downs National Park), an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) (such as the High Weald AONB) and for listed buildings. So PD may not apply.
  4. Building Regulations approval is still required. So a set of design drawings will be required in any event.

Always worth talking to your local architect to avoid a missed opportunity and/or a costly mistake.

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Listed Building Alterations and Extensions

We are carrying out increasingly more work on Listed Buildings which is a fascinating area of work requiring an understanding of history, context, local materials and techniques, crafts and culture as well as the usual combination of design skills, competence and experience.

Alterations and extensions to Listed Buildings require Listed Building Consent or combined Householder Planning Application and Listed Building Consent for the carrying out of any works whether internally, externally or within the ‘curtilage’ that would affect the building’s special architectural or historic interest.

We recommend that a pre-application consultation is had with the council as the best way forward in the first instance and this route is generally recommended by planning authorities.  It is a cost effective means of obtaining an ‘in principle’ response before significant expense is incurred.  Diagrammatic sketches, together with photographs, overlays and a site plan can be enough to illustrate the proposed use, scale, form, and external materials of what is proposed.

Good design can play a large part in the process.  Listed Buildings need not be preserved untouched, like museum pieces but proposed changes need to be informed and justified.  Preservation of the existing fabric can be coupled with a sympathetic, imaginative and ‘legible’ intervention that secures the economic sustainability of the building perhaps for several hundred more years of useful life.  Alterations related to the existing historic fabric and architectural features are likely to be more controversial than an extension which can be designed to ‘read’ separately in order to minimise the impact.  Similarly, an extension to the principal elevation is unlikely to be acceptable.

Applications for Listed Building Consent require to be accompanied by a Heritage Statement covering the evidential, historical, aesthetic and communal aspects of the Listed Building and what is being proposed.  This has to demonstrate how there will be both ‘less than substantial harm’ and a public benefit.  A specification and methodology are required to demonstrate that there will not be harm to the existing historic fabric.

At the end of the day some change is inevitable to ensure the continued use and enjoyment of Listed Buildings but professional advice from an architect is essential to avoid a missed opportunity and/or a costly mistake.

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How do you introduce architectural order and make the necessary changes to the exterior of a reused building look meant? Is it even a good idea?

Siena 'Hole in wall' window overlaid on historic pointed arch facade

Siena ‘Hole in wall’ window overlaid on historic pointed arch facade

The medieval city of Siena in Tuscany has a distinctive Gothic style that includes the quintessential Sienese arch introduced from the east between the 12th and 15th centuries.

Banchi di Sotto, Siena 'Hole in wall' windows and cornices overlaid on historic pointed arch facade

Banchi di Sotto, Siena ‘Hole in wall’ windows and cornices overlaid on historic pointed arch facade

The city enjoyed a ‘golden age’ prior to the arrival of the ‘black death’ in 1348 which took 50% of the population. With no need to build for a vastly depleted population the urban fabric remained intact being adapted over the years to meet changing needs.

In a sense it is just the ‘stuff’ that the urban environment is made of – blocks, streets, squares and facades from various periods constructed in brick, stucco and stone and containing all manner of uses. The Sienese appear to have had no problems with the aesthetics of the adaptive re-use of their stock of existing buildings. In many cases, probably for reasons of cost, they just made the change and left the evidence – allowing the passer by to ‘read’ the history of the building.

Not a commonplace approach in the UK but maybe worthy of consideration in these straightened times providing you can explain that it was done deliberately and not as a bit of a bodge.

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Doer Upper Do’s and Don’ts

‘Demand for the countryside soars as Londoners seek to flee the capital’ says the headline. I can believe it more on account of the positive impact of information technology than the negative impact of Covid-19.

For those looking for not just a purchase but a ‘project’ here are some tips:

Before purchasing anything be sure the town planning position is checked out with the council to make sure that what is proposed is possible in policy terms. Is there scope to construct a new house or replace the existing house with something larger or to extend it? Has the existing property already been extended up to the permissible limits?

New build projects. Finding a decent virgin site is easier said than done and many of those that do emerge are blighted by being either undersized pieces of existing gardens or fragments of land never previously considered suitable for development. IMO it is better to upcycle a decent sized, well located site that has an existing undersized house such as a bungalow on it. Whilst it might cost more initially it secures a mature location and avoids the considerable cost to both the public utility companies and the contractor in making network connections and bringing the likes of electricity, gas, water and telephone / broadband onto the site and taking sewerage out of the site. Another considerable cost payable to both the highways authority and the contractor is the creation of a new access to a public highway.

Fir Tree Cottage - Before

Fir Tree Cottage – Before

Fir Tree Cottage - During

Fir Tree Cottage – During

Fir Tree Cottage - After

Fir Tree Cottage – After

Refurbish and / or extend projects. Whether to demolish what is there or not can be driven by the VAT position. Whilst it is not very sustainable, as it encourages demolition rather than re-use, VAT on new build houses is zero rated whereas VAT at 20% is payable on other building work. It is permissible to incorporate existing foundations and anything else below ground level into a new build house and still avoid the VAT which can save a considerable amount if the new design can be configured accordingly. Where refurbishing or extending a property don’t ‘pay’ twice for things that are going to be removed as part of the work – be happy so long as their poor state is reflected in the price since they are coming out anyway. Externally this could be the roof tiles and external windows and internally the kitchen and bathrooms. In the new design retain the kitchen and bathroom locations (but not the fittings etc) as moving the intakes and drainage is comparatively expensive whereas the creation of new bedrooms is comparatively cheap.

Lastly, employ an architect. The few % spent on an architect at the outset is probably the best investment you’ll make over the course of the ‘project’.

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New Skills

Tragic though it is Covid-19 will be as nothing compared to the coming perils of climate change and resource depletion.

What buildings will we be designing in this new normal and what new skills and knowledge will we need? I can’t see many airports, open plan offices or shopping centres being built any time soon. More likely warehouses and distribution centres, healthcare and social care facilities, homeless hostels and half way housing and houses with gardens. What are we going to build these buildings from and how should they perform? This article suggests that we mine existing buildings for their reusable resources and the time must surely have come to make zero energy design mandatory as it is essential we get to net zero carbon a lot sooner than 2050.

It's architecture Jim but not as we know it.

It’s architecture Jim but not as we know it.

As architects part of the fun is always learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge. One new skill will be looking ever harder at the potential for the adaptive re-use of existing buildings to serve our future needs such as the conversion of offices to homes. Existing buildings represent embodied carbon investments made in the past so their re-use allows us to avoid the carbon emissions resulting from the construction of new buildings. Another will be the techniques to thermally upgrade the existing building stock through a massive insulation scheme and a shift to electrical heating (where energy is required) powered by renewable energy. Maybe not ‘architectural design’ as we know it but important skills to learn.

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Your Home Office

Although it came into being in the 1990’s it has taken the current Covid-19 crisis to push the ‘you don’t have to be there to be there’ spirit of video conferencing into the business mainstream through the technology of Zoom / Microsoft Teams / Google Hangouts and so on and with it the idea of the home office. Working from home some, or even all, of the time has previously been a bit of a novelty but now it is firmly established and I doubt we’ll go back to where we were just a few months ago.

Home Office 1 photo Herman Miller

Home Office 1 photo Herman Miller

This change will be bound to have consequences for the design of our homes in terms of the ensuing ‘live / work’ arrangements. As it is less than ideal to get the laptop out to work on the sofa, the kitchen table or the spare bedroom there is a clear need for a new building type which combines home and family with office and work. Just as we should have a good mattress because we spend so much of our lives on it we should have a good home office space.

Home Office 2 photo Neville Johnson

Home Office 2 photo Neville Johnson

My approach to residential design is that it is better to have a few spectacular set-piece spaces (living room, garden room, kitchen / dining room etc) rather than lots of nondescript cellular spaces (unused bedrooms etc). The home office should be another such space. IMO it should be attached to, but separate from, the house with a separating door and a separate wc and a tea / coffee point. It should be architecturally distinctive and spacious with sufficient room for best quality, ergonomically designed furniture including a comfortable office chair, large desk and a meeting / layout table and chairs. It should have hardwearing surfaces but at the same time good acoustics. Network cabling for fast and smooth internet access and data retrieval and space for storage, printing, filing and a hard copy library all need to be integrated into the design to ensure that it is clutter free. Quality architectural and task lighting are needed as is good natural lighting, with adjustable blinds, arriving from more than one direction so that the light quality changes as the day progresses. Oh – and ideally a view.

Sounds almost too good to be true and we can but hope that in due course another of the gifts of modern technology will be a reduced four day week!

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Two photographs. One of my mother and my grandparents and another of my daughter and her new baby. Five generations and 100 years with me in the middle. 100 years doesn’t seem that long and neither for that matter does 1,000 years. What about 50,000 years? That seems imaginable in the grand scheme of things which is amazing since that is the length of time since our ancestors, the modern humans, migrated out of Africa.

Never mind the family tree through online ancestry records research, in the past few years the revolutionary new science of the analysis of ancient DNA has emerged to rewrite the history books for the whole of humankind. In his fascinating book ‘Who We Are and How We Got Here – Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past’ David Reich outlines how ancient DNA analysis and whole genome sequencing has allowed the DNA of those living to be compared with DNA from the bones of our ancestors who lived tens of thousands of years ago. This has allowed the story of how humans mixed, spread and remixed in time and place to be told. It turns out that we modern humans are a relatively recent phenomenon who, as we spread, mingled with ancient human populations such as Neanderthals and Denisovans and remingled with each other whenever a branch emerged. We are all blends of past populations which were themselves blends and we carry the genes of ‘ghost’ populations whose past existence can be detected from their genetic contribution. There is no ‘tree’ of human evolution, instead our evolution has been like a vine – continually interweaving.

As an architect, reading David Reich’s book reminded me that there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ vernacular architectural DNA reflecting local traditions or a ‘pure’ DNA for architectural style (such as classical, gothic, modern etc). Architectural DNA, like human DNA, is a blend created through centuries of mingling and creative cultural exchange.

Who We Are and How We Got Here 1 of 2

Who We Are and How We Got Here 1 of 2

Who We Are and How We Got Here 2 of 2

Who We Are and How We Got Here 2 of 2