We have recently published a Q&A feature in a local magazine offering help and advice on architectural and building issues. Listed below are examples of topics that we are
often asked about. Please click on a question to reveal the answer:

“We are looking to submit a planning application to reconfigure our ageing detached 4 bed property with the possibility of extending into the loft space and constructing a rear extension. What is the best way to start this process?”

As an Architects Practice, we often have to carefully manage clients' expectations with what can technically and legally be provided and also what the client's budget it.

In the initial stages of any project, we would strongly recommend completing a 'feasibility' or 'viability' study which looks at all the above issues in more detail and provides workable design options which builds on the client's initial ideas and brief whilst informing the subsequent planning application or pre-application.

If you wish to proceed on this basis we would be happy to meet with you and discuss the benefits of feasibility studies in further detail.

“We are interested in doing a small development but unclear regarding renewable energy requirements, can you shed some (low energy!) light?”

This is a very topical question and couldn't have been asked at a more appropriate time. There are a number of factors influencing what and how much renewable energy is applied to the project.

First there is the Government's drive to reduce Carbon Emissions and most council's Planning Policies have adopted the “code for sustainable homes” principle and each Local Authority has different requirements. Sevenoaks District Council is currently prescribing Code Level 3 on all new residential builds. Then you have the new building regulations (Part L) due out later this year which is likely to reduce emissions rates by another 25%, not to mention the recently issued Part G which puts some serious constraints on water usage. The regulations currently apply to new properties but may start to apply to extended properties where the existing part of the house is also upgraded; we wait to hear the final white paper drafts. Finally, there is customer / end user expectation. It appears that many of our clients enjoy the feel good factor of doing their bit and generally include in their brief that renewable energy options are to be explored.

Depending on the above factors there are various new technologies emerging all the time ranging from grey water harvesting, biomass boilers, Photovoltaic (electric) panels, solar (water) panels, and wind turbines through to geo-thermal ground source solutions and air source heat pumps.

These in turn have their own issues relating to aesthetic appearance, noise, geographic suitability and whether Local Planning Authorities deem it acceptable. Finally many of these technologies are not cheap especially when retro-fitting and have considerable pay back times. In conclusion each site/project has its own constraints and solutions and we at Offset Architects would be happy to advise on an individual basis.

“We have recently moved into a new semi detached house in Sevenoaks and are hoping to extend the property with a single storey rear extension to provide more family friendly space. Can you give us some advice on permitted development rights and if we actually need to provide architects drawings or submit a planning application?”

Thank you for you letter which highlights an interesting subject that is causing a lot of confusion amongst our clients at the moment.

Permitted Development Rights or to give it its full name 'The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) ( No.2) (England) Order 2008', came into force in October 2008 with the intention of simplifying the information for homeowners and to free up the planning authority dealing with these issues. However in our recent experience this hasn't been the case and despite the best intensions the new system is still quite confusing.

There are various guidelines for homeowners to adhere to when proposing extensions, alterations or improvements to your house, roof or garden and these can often overlap depending on what and how much you are proposing. In your circumstance your extension will need to conform to restrictions in area, heights (both of eaves and roof), widths, depths, distance from boundary and material finishes. Even after consideration of the details when you feel the extension is possible on permitted development rights you should still apply to your local planning authority for confirmation and provide a Lawful Development Certificate to keep everything legal and make sure there are not specific restrictions on your property or the area as a whole.

The best option we would recommend is to contact us for a quick appraisal and assist you with the Lawful Development Certificate application, prior to any work being carried out, so you have peace of mind throughout the process.

In the initial stages of any project, we would strongly recommend completing a 'feasibility' or 'viability' study which looks at all the above issues in more detail and provides workable design options which builds on the client's initial ideas and brief whilst informing the subsequent planning application or pre-application.

If you wish to proceed on this basis we would be happy to meet with you and discuss the benefits of feasibility studies in further detail.

“ We've recently got planning permission for a 2 storey side extension and our builder has suggested that we can progress on a building notice to avoid more drawing costs. Can you offer advice on this?”

Thank you for your letter, the process of having building work done can be quite daunting if you do not fully understand the options to progress your project. There is an urge, especially in the current economic climate, to cut costs wherever possible particularly if your builder has suggested an option.

Any building work undertaken will require the approval of the Local Authority (L.A.) Building Control which requires a formal application to be submitted and approved for any proposed building work. This can be done as your builder has suggested by submitting a 'building notice' or by submitting a 'full plans' application.

A building notice is basically a notification to the council with a brief description of the proposed work involved. Although you can progress a project on this basis we would strongly recommend to anybody to submit a full plans application instead. A full plans application will have all the necessary information required for building control to assess your proposals and make any comments/changes required in order, to comply with various parts of the building regulations before work commences. Yes this may delay starting works on site, but your builder should be able to give you a fixed price before commencing.

Another potential problem with a building notice is that it will not have the same level of information on the submission, and therefore the L.A. Building Inspector on their site inspections, can request changes to work already carried out that doesn't meet certain criteria of the building regulations. This can cause abortive work increasing costs and delays to the project.

In summary a building notice should only be used for very simple building work. If you are unsure please consult your current project architect, alternatively Offset Architects would be pleased to advice during an initial free consultation.

“We are interested in designing and building a new replacement house on an existing plot. Is traditional masonry still the way to go or should we consider alternative methods?””

Good question as this is one of the biggest (and earliest) decisions you should make. You are also quite right that the most common construction systems are brick and blockwork, but there are other options.

Timber frame is also quite popular nowadays due to its (off-site manufacturer) fast form of construction. It is also a popular method with builders and a cost effective solution. For a rural look it is also worth considering Green Oak frame for its warm characteristics and homely charm, it is also not as much as you think!

With energy efficiency in the forefront of people's minds and strict workmanship requirements 'Modern Methods of Construction' (MMC) should also be considered. ICF (Insulated concrete formwork) - Using a polystyrene mould which is then filled with concrete (and usually reinforced) on site, is an incredibly fast route to getting the superstructure up — and it provides an impressively efficient wall structure.

SIPs - Structural insulated panels (SIPs) are essentially a sandwich: the filling is a solid thickness insulation, and the bread is made of rigid building boards such as plywood or orientated strand board (OSB). Again the benefits are factory applied insulation and millimetre accurate construction providing well insulated air tight construction.

Straw Bales - Straw bale homes are first formed with a timber frame and the walls are then infilled with bales of straw. The walls are stabilized and covered with chicken wire then rendered for durability and aesthetics. One advantage of straw bale homes is that straw is an affordable and renewable resource, and construction is relatively simple. On the other hand more room is required to accommodate thicker walls and the system is not the fastest on the market.

There are many others on the market but as with all of these, each method of construction has to be weighed up on a project by project basis depending on location, cost, access, aesthetics etc. We at Offset Architects would be pleased to meet with you and explain a particular system in more detail and its suitability for your project.

“We recently had Building Regulation drawings prepared for a small ground floor extension to our house. We have also received quotes from builders and we are ready to begin construction. A friend suggested that we should have some sort of written agreement or contract in place, is this necessary?”

Although not mandatory it is highly recommended and in our opinion essential to maintain a clear and smooth relationship with your builder. We often hear about disputes between clients and builders due to the fact that a contract was not in place to set out the fundamental points. These generally include common sense points such as:

  • Client and Builder's (company) names.
  • Start and completion dates - what constitutes a finished job for instance?
  • Client and Builder’s (company) names.
  • Start and completion dates - what constitutes a finished job for instance?
  • The price, including VAT – based on what exactly? Drawings, schedule of works or written description?
    The payment terms. This should specify when/how the work is to be paid. Remember to include a ‘retention’.
  • Working hours – Permitted noisy times, weekends?
    Insurance and guarantees. Public Liability & Building cover.
    How to resolve disputes.
    What is the procedure if changes to the scope or extra work is required.
    What will happen if the project takes longer than expected.
  • Arrangements for access and on site facilities for the builders

There are already standard forms of contract on the market that one can use from simple domestic builds to multi million pound construction projects. On a very simple house extension the above points could simply be written into a letter of intent agreed between both parties. Should you wish to discuss the suitability of a particular form of contract for your building work then we at Offset Architects are happy to advise.

“I am wanting to progress with a planning application for an extensive extension and refurbishment of a detached house on a large and matured landscaped plot on the outskirts of Sevenoaks. However when I spoke to a Builder friend of mine for advice he mentioned there are now a lot of different consultants I may need to employ before I apply, is this correct?”

This is an interesting question as your Builder friend is quite right to pre-warn you of the possible additional costs and time associated with various specialists/consultants, which catches out a lot of clients as well as professionals.

The planning system has become much more robust in the last few years in respect to the amount of information required to even get a planning application validated. This information could include quite detailed information regarding such issues as drainage, trees, ecology, contamination, highways, sustainability and renewable energy, 3-D visuals etc.

Most council's planning departments now have various guidance notes on their websites and the planning application forms normally also prompt you to provide certain information.

With your site we recommend undertaking a site meeting with you to review the site as a whole and discuss what proposals you have for the property. Then we can advise on the according number and type of consultants/specialists you may need to appoint to make sure the application is validated and is as robust as possible.

We would always suggest gaining a full detailed survey of the site, which includes a tree schedule survey, the drainage location and accurate levels of the site and location of the building itself. This we can then base our planning drawings on. Given the fact your property is also on the outskirts of town on a large matured plot it may well be advisable to undertake an Arboricultural report if the building work is within a close distance of existing trees and if the property is of a suitable nature you may also need an ecology report to look at the possibility of any protected species within the site such as bats, badgers, newts etc.

As you can see these items can build up in costs and can take weeks to complete so the earlier you contact us to advise you on this subject the better.