Don’t do this at home

The im­por­tance of pro­fes­sional help can­not be over­stated when you’re com­mis­sion­ing a new coun­try house, says Ptolemy Dean

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Iwas once told that, as an ar­chi­tect, all my fu­ture projects would re­quire three things: a good site, a will­ing pa­tron and money. Ex­pe­ri­ence has shown me, how­ever, that to re­gard this tri­umvi­rate as a com­plete list of ne­ces­si­ties for the task in hand is grossly to un­der­es­ti­mate it. Build­ing a new house is an ex­pen­sive and com­pli­cated busi­ness, and few out­side the devel­op­ment world would wish to at­tempt it more than once. It’s cer­tainly not for the faint-hearted and yet, so of­ten, the place where pa­trons cut costs is in the ini­tial se­lec­tion of the pro­fes­sion­als whom they will in­volve in the de­sign and spec­i­fi­ca­tion of the new house. This is gen­er­ally a false econ­omy.

Per­haps all those end­less tele­vi­sion pro­grammes on house ‘makeovers’ have given the im­pres­sion that de­sign is easy—we can all do it and all you need is some­one who can quickly and cheaply knock up some plans to se­cure plan­ning con­sent.

For peo­ple like this, the plan­ning stage is a hur­dle that will be re­sented. af­ter all, the Ge­or­gian houses we all ad­mire were built with­out plan­ning con­sent, how­ever, in re­al­ity, we should be grate­ful for the check that is of­fered by the con­sent process. af­ter all, look­ing around at some of the ex­am­ples of what has achieved plan­ning con­sent will read­ily make ap­par­ent the hor­rific pos­si­ble con­se­quences were this bar to be low­ered yet fur­ther, or in­deed re­moved al­to­gether, as many com­mer­cial house builders con­tinue to ad­vo­cate.

There are two main routes to achiev­ing con­sent. The first is to re­place an ex­ist­ing es­tab­lished dwelling with some­thing new and bet­ter, such as the tired, old, as­bestosrid­den bun­ga­lows that may oc­cupy won­der­ful sites and are ripe for re­de­vel­op­ment. Look­ing be­yond the 6ft for­est of net­tles and bram­ble-rid­den un­der­growth, these are the places where new and won­der­ful houses might rise.

as the ex­ist­ing res­i­den­tial use is es­tab­lished, ‘ex­cep­tions’ to plan­ning pol­icy are not re­quired, so it’s only the local author­ity, the parish coun­cil and the neigh­bours that will need to be sat­is­fied by the pro­posed de­sign.

If this were not a suf­fi­cient chal­lenge, the sec­ond route to con­sent is to at­tempt to build on a site with­out a pre­vi­ously es­tab­lished res­i­den­tial use. This al­most cer­tainly re­quires a spe­cial­ist plan­ning con­sul­tant to ar­gue why its ‘ex­cep­tion to plan­ning pol­icy’ is jus­ti­fied and usu­ally the case is made by claim­ing that the new build­ing will be of ex­cep­tional ‘ar­chi­tec­tural merit’. Here, the pro­fes­sional fees can’t be avoided and high costs will be in­curred be­fore there is any cer­tainty that con­sent can be achieved.

De­ter­min­ing ar­chi­tec­tural merit isn’t straight­for­ward. Com­mer­cial builders may claim that their ‘con­sul­tant-free’ de­signs are of merit in the spirit of ‘well, all those Ge­or­gian houses got built with­out plan­ning’. Per­haps, but the re­sponse of the plan­ning au­thor­i­ties can’t al­ways be pre­dicted and will vary from of­fi­cer to of­fi­cer. It’s not un­com­mon to re­ceive pos­i­tive pre-ap­pli­ca­tion ad­vice from one plan­ning of­fi­cer, only to be al­lo­cated a dif­fer­ent one later, one who holds an en­tirely op­po­site view. This can be very frus­trat­ing and many months can be wasted. Some plan­ners look for bold ‘con­tem­po­rary’ de­signs, yet oth­ers are more con­tent with the tra­di­tional.

Ei­ther way, who­ever is cho­sen to de­sign a new house needs to be suf­fi­ciently in­spired and com­pe­tent to win these ar­gu­ments. Ideally, they should also be feel­ing hon­oured to be given the com­mis­sion to ex­e­cute some­thing that could be with us for cen­turies. Such op­por­tu­ni­ties are rare and priv­i­leged.

Once the con­sent has fi­nally been granted, an owner may feel tempted to im­me­di­ately call his local builder. alas, not so soon! There are de­tailed draw­ings and spec­i­fi­ca­tions to be pre­pared. a good quan­tity surveyor will al­ways ad­vise that items be spec­i­fied in a bill of quan­tites and priced by a builder be­fore con­struc­tion. This should of­fer pro­tec­tion against a tor­rent of ‘ex­tras’. a cost-cut­ting owner who sacks their ad­vis­ers to man­age the builder them­selves may be amazed by how quickly such sav­ings can evap­o­rate.

Good prepa­ra­tion is re­warded by a smooth con­struc­tion process in which the builder knows what to do and what to or­der (and when). They can then only blame them­selves for any de­lays and ad­di­tional costs that may oc­cur due to their own in­abil­ity to prop­erly or­gan­ise their works. a site that’s been suc­cess­fully de­vel­oped will hold an ar­chi­tec­tural vi­sion that can sur­vive in per­pe­tu­ity.

It could per­haps be an added in­cen­tive that the pa­tron with en­light­ened vi­sion will also have cre­ated some­thing that might grace the pages of Coun­try Life rather than be­ing a missed op­por­tu­nity.

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