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
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.