Good design may cost you a bit more up front but bad design will end costing a lot more. Here are some of the costs of bad design and some of the common misconceptions clients may have about engaging good designers.
Recently, I went to see a client that was coming to the end of a basement conversion with a one-stop building company and having opted for an all-in package she had spent a substantial sum of money on it. She had gone with this company as they had convinced her that they were able to offer an affordable route by combining the design and construction fees. However, things took a turn for the worse towards the end the works.
The building company had appointed a contractor that was disorganised and kept the site in a constant mess. Communication was almost non-existent, the quality of work was passable at best and the snagging list just kept on growing. What was even worse was when it came to the finishes, it turns out some items were not included in the contract which the client was unaware of. This lead to the contractor charging these as ‘extras’ causing the final cost to rack up significantly forcing the client to pay for these unplanned expenses from her contingency funds.
Unfortunately, as the building company set up the contract between the client and the contractor, they informed her that they no longer had any role to play after collecting their payments early during the project. The client had a set budget based on the original quote and was not consulted about these additional costs. This resulted in the client having to order materials and pay for services, taking on the stress of managing deliveries and delaying project completion. Naturally, she felt it was not right to pay these costs and engaged me to help mediate with the contractor.
I put on my safety boots and gathered my ‘engineering’ paraphernalia (very similar to Batman) and set off for the house. I was greeted with an explosion of health and safety violations, there were open excavations and tools sprawled out all over the floor. As I did my best to avoid the traps laid out for me, I noticed the damp smell as I passed some shabby looking joinery. Damp is a telltale sign of a substandard building project as the damp smell suggests that the building envelope is not fully sealed. As I made a full assessment of the works, the cost to correct these additional works started to increase significantly.
After a little investigation, it transpired that the drawings given to the contractor by the building company were of little to no use. The drawings with their bare demarcations and dimensions would only have been useful to an estate agent but they certainly weren’t detailed enough to guide the works. The structural drawings looked like a first-year student’s coursework and there was no method statement or health and safety file. When I further enquired on his brief, he was told to build the same standard space for a project two streets away that he had previously done for the company.
As the building company had been paid for the ‘design and management’ fees, they did not want to get involved with the settlement between the client and the contractor as they had washed their hands of the project. The whole process of dispute resolution can be a very costly and time-consuming, settlement or mediation is usually the most straightforward way of getting the client and contractor to come to an agreement. When that fails, arbitration is the next step usually avoided unless both parties are happy with the added cost of surveyors arguing amongst each other. And, if you thought the surveyors were expensive, the lawyers would be happy to ensure one of the parties ends up bankrupt.
Unfortunately, cases like this in the residential sphere are very common, due to the lack of experience in ensuring compliance by domestic clients. This lack of experience can be mitigated by having a professional designer manage the works. Most clients tend to choose a project team based on cost rather than value hence it reduces the scope for management costs. The client, in this case, thought she was making a saving by going with a company that looked for the cheapest designers and contractors so that they could keep their profit margin. She had not done due diligence on either the company or the contractor.
New CDM (Construction, Design and Management) 2015 Regulations ensure that the contractor takes over the responsibilities of the domestic client but it is also the responsibility of the client to ensure that there is compliance. The client can also appoint a principal designer to handle his responsibilities and ensure that not only is the design sufficient (since this would affect his professional indemnity) but that the health and safety risks to both the client and the general public are prevented.
It is always more expensive and time-consuming to come up with solutions retrospectively as most of these issues could have been avoided with the right level of experience. The number of walls that I have seen built only to be taken out is dreadful. Clients either have to live with a badly built space or would have to foot the bill in the long run for putting it right. Designing a well thought out space doesn’t need to cost the earth, but doing it on the cheap is a false economy.
Jonathan Fashanu is a structural engineer who designs sustainable solutions and loves collaborating with designers of other disciplines, usually insisting on design management as part of the scope. He is on a mission to get things done beautifully and right the first time.
The dreaded planning permission application. Many people have always found this stage of the process very daunting. There are many reasons for this. It may be the first time you are embarking on a building project, the prospect of a rejection by the council or you may have spoken to someone who had a difficult time with their application.
Obtaining planning permission is a very straightforward process. You have an idea for a home extension, you get an architect or building designer to represent your idea to the council in the form of plans and you cross your fingers for eight weeks while a decision is reached.
As a designer that has put through many applications, the ones that are most successful are always down to the homeowner. Most councils have lengthy requirements which discuss the effects of the developments on the character and amenity of the neighbourhood and have published policy guidelines that you can follow.
While a designer could help condense these guidelines and put an application through, most homeowners that are not aware of the process will only find themselves incurring additional fees as most designers charge on an hourly basis.
I have put together some tips that I usually have my clients do before I begin the design work and submit the planning application. The most successful applications are the ones that clients understand what the local requirements are and their ideas are tailored to the guidelines.
Take a look around
The best way to know if you will get planning permission for that side return? Look at your neighbour's property or other properties on the street. Chances are if the local council has allowed your neighbour's extension to come out five metres then they are likely to accept your application to do the same. This is particularly necessary for conservation areas where the planning process is tricky.
If your project is the first on a street, for example, a basement, have a look at similar projects in the borough as these would have been designed to meet the local guidelines. It may be helpful having a brief chat with your neighbours to see if they had any issues with planning and had to modify their designs to get them approved. Saves you not having to go through the same process and find out after eight weeks.
Visit the website of your local council and search for your street name or postcode, you will see a list of recent planning applications to see which applications have been approved and which applications have been rejected. You will also see an explanation of the rejection. Some applications get approved with conditions so make sure you are able to meet these conditions if you have a similar project in mind.
Bear in mind that not all rejections are due to projects not meeting the broad guidelines. Some projects have other issues that may not apply to your property. An example is overlooking issues which depending on your neighbour's garden may or may not apply to your project. Speak to your designer about some of your concerns so that they can justify the methods that will be included in your project. They may propose obscure glazing so that your neighbours can have their privacy.
Understand the local requirements
Most councils websites have advice on the planning process and published guidance on what is accepted and what is not. In some cases, planning permission may not be necessary. Permitted development rights allow certain alternations and extensions to be carried out without the need for planning permission. Did you know that you do not need planning permission to expand your cellar?
If you feel that you are within your permitted development rights, it would be worth it to get a lawful development certificate (LDC) which would help if you wanted to sell the property and the potential buyer was unsure if the works had fallen under permitted development. You can always ring up the council and get feedback on a potential idea.
Get someone who knows what they are doing
Most clients approach an Architect as the starting point of their project. I usually recommend this if you have the budget for it. Some Architects charge on an hourly basis, some as a percentage of the build and some for a set fee. Depending on the complexity of the project, the choice will be up to you but there is little value in spending a lot of money on the design fees for a loft.
There are also architectural designers, building designers, CAD technicians and planning consultants that put together planning applications on behalf of clients. Whoever you choose to go with, it would be worthwhile to check their qualifications, who they are registered with and have a look at similar projects that they have put in through planning and successfully obtained approval.
Hopefully, these tips will not only help you to have more successful planning applications but also give you better peace of mind which is what I find the most important. If the planning process was simple and straightforward, you will be in a better frame of mind with the actual works and may even enjoy the process of creating more space in your lovely home.
Jonathan is a structural engineer and building designer that has built homes in Singapore, Abuja and London. He is based in West London with JF Projects and he mainly specialises in putting basement planning applications together that require more engineering input such as construction method statements, flood risk assessments and contaminated land reports.
I have recently had a couple of clients asking if they could add a basement conversion without obtaining planning permission. The short answer is yes, you can add a basement conversion under "permitted development rights", however, it will depend on where you live and what you would like to achieve as part of the conversion. Permitted development rights allow owners of a building to make certain building changes and change of use without having to submit a planning application. These rights are set out in The Town and County Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015.
In some areas of the country known as "designated areas", permitted development rights are more restricted, these can include conservation areas, national parks, areas of outstanding beauty and world heritage sites. There are also different requirements if the property is listed. General advice is to contact your local planning authority and discuss any proposed works before commencement, as the local planning authority may have removed some of your permitted development rights by issuing an "Article 4". This would mean that you would require a planning application for work which does not require one. Flats, maisonettes and houses with multiple occupancies do not have permitted rights.
If you have an existing cellar or a basement that you would like to expand for storage, you will probably not need planning permission if that is the full extent of the works. As long as the conversion does not constitute a separate unit, require additional excavation and/or have its usage significantly not changed, it may fall under permitted development rights. Where planning permission is not required, you can apply for a "Lawful Development Certificate", although it is not compulsory to do so there are times that you might need one to confirm the use, operation or activity is lawful for planning purposes.
However, there are other regulations that might make the planning application necessary, the first being the construction of a light well to bring in natural light to the basement. The creation of a light well is usually done on a street level and therefore might alter the character of the street. The local planning authority must deem this to be in line with its policies. Having a habitable room in the basement would require at least a certain amount of natural light into the basement as a condition. Another condition would require having a certain amount of height in the basement, which would require additional excavation and underpinning.
The size and depth of the basement is also a matter of contention as permitted development rights usually allow a single storey basement that does not extend more than three meters beyond the back wall of your property. However, even with planning permission, it is increasingly becoming difficult to get approval for schemes with more than one storey and being allowed to excavate under more than half of your garden space. Chances are it may even be less than half of your garden as you must have at least seven meters between your basement and the boundary of your neighbour opposite.
While all this seems like a lot of regulations, we at JF Projects still get a great majority of our planning applications approved by offering guidance on the design process of the basements. By keeping the applications clear and providing the proper justifications for the schemes, we have worked with the council in creating spaces that are approved for additional living space. We provide design and access guidance, construction method statements, flood risk appraisals and soil reports that highlight our experience in dealing with such projects.
A soil survey or soil mapping is an investigation undertaken by a geotechnical engineer or specialist that identifies the soil types and its characteristics in a local area. It is usually done before any earthworks begin and may be part of the requirement of the planning stage. At the conclusion of the investigation, a report is produced that contains information that will be useful for the engineer to design his foundations and the contractor to plan his method of construction based on the type of soil present in a clear and concise manner.
A typical geotechnical survey includes a borehole down to 6-10m below ground level for a log of soil conditions, soil testing to determine strength and soil plasticity, trial pits to ascertain depths of foundations and a report based on the data collected. Where access is restricted and does not allow a rig to get in, a hand auger may be used to go down to depths of 3-4m. The locations of the boreholes, the soil profile and any water observed in the borehole are recorded and the information is represented in the report.
Why do I need this information?
Where the information starts to get vital to the process of the construction is in the information contained in this soil report and if any standing water is found in the borehole. Clay soils are harder to excavate and swell and shrink based on the saturation of the soil. However due to the stability of these soil types, most contractors prefer them. Where is starts getting tricky are sandy excavations which have a greater risk of collapse and require proper techniques of shoring. These soil types are porous and allow water to flow into the excavation.
During the design phase, the structural engineer would require the bearing capacity, which is the capacity of the soil to support the loading pressure applied to the ground, to design his or her foundations. Where this information is not available, the engineer can make assumptions but these assumptions are usually conservative and will lead to less economical designs and larger foundations. The type and depth of existing foundations are also useful for the engineer to design new foundations or to underpin and strengthen the existing ones.
The presence of water found in a soil survey is also a cause for concern for an inexperienced contractor. If this level is below the final levels of excavation, it may not be an issue but in some soil profiles, there may be seasonal variations in the ground water table. A specialist de-watering contractor can easily lower the water table in a construction project but depending on the size of the project, however an additional cost from £6,000 to £30,000 will increase the budget of the project.
In some cases, planning officers may grant conditional approvals based on requirements to conduct a desk study or preliminary risk assessment (phase 1) report of the site. These additional requirements are due to land contamination issues and are handled by land contamination specialists. This involves analyzing historical and environmental information on the site and 250m around it to produce a conceptual model. If this highlights no risks from contamination then the planning condition is discharged if not phase 2 intrusive investigations are carried out.
Phase 2 investigations can include ground water testing and monitoring, ground gas monitoring, remediation methods, validation statements and WAC (Waste Assessment Criteria) tests for soil waste classification. These costs are usually added to the project costs and as such must be determined early enough in the process. If the site is determined to be contaminated, every time the contractor wants to deposit the excavated soil, he must get the WAC certificate and can only dispose the soil in authorised locations. The contractor will usually pass these fees on the building owner through variations on the contract if not determined early enough.
Yes but you still have not answered the question, do I need one?
More often than not, the choice for producing a soil investigation is more of a requirment than a choice. It may come from the planning officers who would like to believe that every planned aspect of the construction process has been taken into consideration, party wall surveyors representing the adjoining owners that would request the information to understand the conditions of the existing foundations, structural engineers looking to produce accurate designs and drawings or even from contractors who would want to consider the type of soil which may affect their prices at the tender stage.
A soil investigation costs typically between £800 to £1500 for residential project so our recommendation would be to get a good firm or consulting engineer that has worked with multiple firms to factor in these works into your budget and timelines. A consulting engineer is also able to decode the information that is found in such reports to the planners, party wall surveyors, contractors and design engineers. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org for any queries about geotechnical matters.