Waiting for a building to complete is like waiting for spontaneous labour to start.
I can say this because I’ve seen a few building projects complete and because I’ve waited for labour to start, four times.
My latest project is a small new block for a local school consisting of a kitchen, hall and a classroom. In fact, it has been under construction for about 38 weeks. The school will start moving in some furniture over the next few days as they need to decant out of half of their existing Victorian school into the new building for the rest of term so we can remain on programme and continue the major refurbishment of the Victorian building. It’s a great project but difficult for the school as they’ve had to deal with changes to the routine.
I thought you’d be interested in seeing some of my earliest sketches for this project from my personal sketchbook. I’m really pleased with the outcome for the new building visually and functionally. It’s a compact layout, minimising circulation space, optimising orientation (it’s long elevations face east & west so it’s not prone to overheating) and traditional materials complement the adjacent Victorian architecture. This sounds a bit like an architectural journal but that’s part of the architectural language which one develops to sell proposals, to clients, to planners.
I’ve surely stated this before but I do love being an architect 🙂 it is a very rewarding though humbling profession. Humbling because we are constantly learning from specialists around us – architects are the generalists of the construction industry. Rewarding because it is the images of our imaginations that can become reality and we have to share that, through drawings and words, with the specialists.
The phrase at the beginning I used today in an email to the headteacher to try and show empathy for how they are feeling, desperate to move in before end of half term this week, but it is my responsibility to confirm that if it’s safe and ready to handover to the school, that it’s complete. Right now, it’s not so I’ve told the contractor, as we agreed for the last 38 weeks that the school will begin to move in furniture. I had to tell the school that the furniture will have to stay in the middle of rooms until the contractor had finished some small aspects, like fitting skirting to a store room. Nothing too big but enough for the project manager to step in to the email conversation and suggest that plans were changing. I explained nothing was changing, the school can still set up their rooms by theend of the week. I’m sure all well be fine and I’ll visit tomorrow but as architect, I’m administering the building contract and I also have the role of principal designer (under UK health and safety legislation) so I’m going to deliver this baby when all are safe and ready!
Did you know that the history of current building regulations begins as a result of the Great Fire of London in 1665, Pudding Lane, etc.?
This week has seen the awful fire at Grenfell Tower in West London.
I awoke to read the BBC news with a picture of the 24 storey residential tower looking like a burning candle and of residents not escaping. It was horrific and clearly there was going to be significant loss of life. I noticed in the article that theblock was recently re-clad. I thought of the buildings where I’ve used rain screen cladding (all educational).
My thoughts very quickly turned to why the fire had spread this way as I thought of recent fire incidents in our area.
Fires were contained within the flats. (Look carefully in the photo and you’ll see the boarded up window on the left side and very little external scarring, that fire was a couple months ago, no-one seriously injured). And I know the policy is for other residents to stay within their own flats, they should be safe. However, I am also aware that re-cladding works have recently begun on several tower blocks in town, procured some time ago, with little involvement from our team of property consultants.
I haven’t read too many more articles since the day. The words of the witnesses fills me with tears each time. Last night my dear husband said l was upset, angry and flailing my arms in the night during my sleep. I’m fairly certain it’s as a result of this weeks events.
There was no official comment from the new head of assets at work. Finally yesterday, the head of our architectural team spoke vehemently on the incident with myself and a colleague expressing his concern that no-one in the authority is stating anything and acting as if it’s business as usual. We discussed the technical issues and the principles of rain screen cladding and what fires need to thrive – fuel, oxygen, heat. He had already downloaded photos and identified the type of cladding. He noted that consultants involved had already taking down their websites.
We spoke of Ronan Point. A tower block which collapsed in the 1960s following a relatively small gas explosion. We all know that changed the building regulations, introducing regulations to guard against disproportionate collapse. And this incident may lead to a similar change in regulations.
The most vulnerable members of our community were living in those high rise dwellings, eideriy, migrants, young families, single persons. As a designer of the built environment this incident is troubling. And it has made me think on how often we are asked to compromise as designers, for time or money.
Health and safety legislation in the UK (CDM 2015) now recognises the role of principal designer, and it seems that this is a responsibility which may soon come to me, as a named individual within the council. This incident is troubling but I feel that we ought to stand up to pressures from non – designers in our project teams to do what is right, thinking of those people for whom we aredesigning.
For me personally, I am grateful for the Holy Ghost who will direct and guide all aspects of our lives, including design, if we trust Him.
Did you know, and you probably do because you are into words :), that the origin of the word architect is Greek from
arkhi – chief + tekton – builder
Literally meaning chief or master builder.
In the last month I’ve had several experiences which have reinforced my confidence as a masterbuilder. I’ll share one of the experiences. Warning: if you are not into construction you may want to look up some of the technical terminology… but I promise to limit archi-speak.
The builders were questioning my detail for the main external, upper wall, which is timber clad. In particular, the position of the breather membrane, which as the name suggests, allows the building to breath. This is typically positioned on the external side of insulation. So we’re standing on the roof and the site manager states that the builders are saying they usually put it behind the insulation, otherwise you have to make good around all the brackets (which penetrate the insulation to help pick up the battens for the cladding). Are you still with me? How? Why? He was questioning. Knowing I had researched the detail and discussed with my own manager (who has 25+ years experience) I was reasonably confident and said words to the effect of, use double sided and single sided tape which are the accessories for the membrane. I finally told them to contact the manufacturer, which a couple days later on the Friday afternoon, when no further progress had been made and the quantity surveyor was now getting concerned that they were going to have to re-do the insulation because they weren’t sure of the detail, was exactly what I did. (I think builders, or is it men, lack humility)! I explained the wall build up from inside to outside, the product on site and the query to the technical department of the breather membrane manufacturer. Yeah, builders often want to put it behind the insulation but it should be in front, helps protect the insulation; they probably have concerns about workmanship; you could use a different product and staple to the battens but not with the one you have on site. Your detail is correct and they fix it with the double sided tape and make good around the brackets with the single sided tape. What pleasure I had writing the email to confirm all that!!! Me – master builder! 🙂
In this last week I visited site and the carpenters called me to see them. Up two ladders and onto the flat roof and I stood as they explained a real size mock up of the detail with smaller brackets (another issue). It’s still too far out I commented as they tried to rationalise but my detail asked for 10mm and this was 25mm. I’d been doing more research on the brackets detail following an early morning text message from my colleague who is the contract administrator for the project asking me to visit site to see the brackets. So I was prepared. As I contemplated losing the counter battens and how to tell them I wanted the brackets closer (a bit exposed), the carpenters explained that wouldn’t work around the window jambs, and then it hit me. Smaller battens and closer brackets. The carpenters found two battens same size, mocked it up, yes, 10mm space. And they could deal with the jambs. A little discussion about the membrane well, we’re not paying more to change the membrane so you can staple; I was told the membrane is on site; you’ll have to discuss with the main contractor. And that was that – I reported to the main contractor, who seemed relieved to not have to get another batch of brackets, and the carpenters could get on with it.
I absolutely love being an architect, master builder 🙂
Sometimes the smallest of things can make the biggest difference in our lives. This last week has been full of that for me and our family.
Before that, after one of the big winter storms in the last few years, we noticed a leak on our bedroom ceiling, right in the corner above the bay window. It really didn’t disrupt our daily lives and it was several months before we got a roofer out. However the following winter, another big storm, same leaking, another small damp patch appears closer in, remote from the first leak. After several attempts with the insurance company, they finally agreed to mend and repair, but not replace the valley flashing gutter (above bay window).
Then several weeks back a roofer came out – did something from a ladder and despite rain we’ve had no further leaks. Yeah! – you may think. So then the company turn to our bedroom interior. The artex ceiling is tested for asbestos. It’s a positive result so they arrange for a specialist contractor to remove the ceiling. This was scheduled for Monday morning.
Before that, a couple of weeks back, a friend spotted a piano being offered for free. Dear husband and Daur2 looked it over – needs tuning and a couple of hammers fixing but would be good for practice – and we paid a man with a van to help bring it to our house. It’s been left in the dining room, having come in through the garden, until we clear the front room (another one of those ongoing tasks!)
So, last Monday morning I wake early to start my usual routine of preparing packed lunches for the family – six of us. As I start with mini baguettes in the oven I see a mouse come out and head back behind the fridge/freezer. I shriek fairly quietly and gingerly continue, my feet shuffling on the kitchen floor – my theory was to make enough noise so it didn’t come out again. That didn’t work and so when I saw it again I let out a mighty shriek. Son1 was the first to reach me and as I stammer there’s a mouse behind the fridge, he says I thought you were being attacked by someone! And promptly turns and heads back to bed. Daur1 reaches me and stays with me while we finish the lunches but then time has gone and she’s in danger of missing her train. She begs me to drop her at the station.
However, before that, over the weekend, my car had been very rumbly. I knew my dear husband had put oil in (I had moaned to him the Sunday evening since the oil was in his car, rather than in the porch so I couldn’t add some earlier), so despite the strange burning rubber smell, I thought maybe I could make it to the station and back.
As we sat in the car – me in my pyjamas and fleece – I mentioned maybe I should give you bus fare to get the fast bus to the station and not risk it. But Daur1 gave her pleading eyes, I gave in and we headed out. We reached station safely and Daur1 skipped to platforms! I headed out the station and immediately the clutch pedal stuck – I was crossing the carriageway so was waiting. I managed to kick it up, back in gear when I saw the traffic clear then as it stuck again at my gear change, I pulled the car over onto the pavement, so as not to block traffic, and stopped. With the hazard lights on, I call the RAC (car recovery) – we’ll try and get someone out to you in the hour. An hour! It’s 0730h, I’m in my pyjamas and fleece. I call my dear husband but no answer… he’s clearly having to pick things up where I left things off…
Two hours later, somewhat chilled on my part, my dear husband and I arrive back home, children all at school & college and I think, great, I’ll quickly shower, dress and get bus to work. Don’t forget the asbestos guys are here, they arrived at 8h, when you were out; they’ve started taping things up. Eeeeekk…. I head to our room to find our wardrobes fully taped up and plastic sheeting across the bedroom door. All that was missing were the guys in white suits – I knew that was coming, they were in their van on break. So, all I could do was work from home; take calls, write emails, give a truncated version of the morning’s events explaining my absence – clutch, pyjamas and asbestos. I did feel quite ridiculous and humbled – if I had listened to the small voice and not taken our daughter to the station, the day would have been largely uneventful, except the mouse and the asbestos removal team.
Ohhhh, and the mouse. In the 12 years we’ve lived here, we’ve never seen any mice – ants, mosquitoes and slugs but no mice (apart from a small family discovered in the lawn mower box in the garage one spring a long time ago). So we were a little concerned – are there more? Son1 admitted to seeing a ball of fluff scurry behind the piano late one night after it’s arrival but failed to mention it to anyone. Dear husband bought fast action mouse killer traps – one went by the fridge and one in the kitchen. We put a more traditional trap behind the piano, with peanut butter on cheese for bait! We had no idea where mouse was. We were on lockdown – all doors to be closed behind us on entering or exiting a room. A few days later there was still no sign of mouse. By now the family began teasing that maybe I imagined the whole thing! But today, I entered the kitchen and there it was, lying, dead, between the washing machine and a cupboard. All observed it – except Son1 who was out – before dear husband and Daur1 disposed of it. Daur2 (& Daur1) seemed rather sad about the whole affair commenting it’s so small… It’s in heaven now… And similar as if I was being completely irrational about wanting to get rid of it!
Ohhhh and the leak. Once the ceiling came down, we spied up into the loft and the underside of the rafters and the water damage was apparent. And above the valley rafter, in the flashing we could spy a pinpoint of daylight in the lead valley flashing gutter. The insurance company weren’t interested – it looked to me as if a slate had punctured the lead. So we’ll have to get some flexible roof sealant and apply from within the loft to make sure we don’t get a random drip onto the new ceiling, which is now in place.
And the moral of this tale… deal immediately with a problem and listen to the small voice… or squeak…. or leak!
The scaffolding has been coming down on one of my projects, we’ve been on site about 18 months, with another 3 months or so left, and finally we can appreciate what legacy we will leave for the city. It’s quite exciting – I’ll post photos in a different post.
Leaving site last week I felt a renewed excitement, for my current job. And for projects I’m currently working on, at design stage. I also began thinking on why I initially wanted to work on public sector projects, like schools. Because with public projects, I feel a responsibility to design and deliver the best for the whole community. The challenge is its funded by the community, by government funding, from our taxes.
Meanwhile, I submitted the planning application for a new school building on the east side of town. This is a little controversial with locals since it’s proposed on a disused playing field used, by some locals, as a dog toilet and bus shortcut through the broken fence. I feel we’ve given some valid reasons why it should be developed for the school, which is expanding. We’ll see if the planning authority agrees in a few months.
We’re having an architectural team management meeting in Starbucks or Costa, or similar! Three of us 🙂 it’ll be a welcome respite with my two senior colleagues that I’ve been with for over 8 years… (Later…) we had our meeting (Costa) and I felt decidedly guilty as our team leader said he saw the team moving forward with us three… that was not the time to reveal I’d updated my CV and am looking for a new job…
We’re on project manager number 5 on a new school project in about 3 months and we’re only at feasibility stage!! Don’t ask! I feel the project is already doomed – it doesn’t help that the client has not confirmed adequate funding. This PM is new to the business and is American – his Mum is British. I asked what brought him to the UK – I think it’s not impolite enough to ask when someone says they’re from Manhattan!! His accent is slight, in a Davy Jones of The Monkees sort of way, so I didn’t ask straight away. And he’s had some architectural training and seemed familiar with a traditional building procurement process 🙂 that’s refreshing because he may have some appreciation for our discipline rather than tip toeing around us like we’re going to get upset and all passionate about our designs!! Like that ever happens…
I was getting exasperated with the structural engineers. When I arrived into work yesterday (after outnumbered day 10), I found 4 or 5 drawings for a reinforced concrete foundation and a steel frame for me with a note from the technician – for coordination and comment. Today, they (their team leader) were already (email) chasing me because the contract administrator was chasing them – the drawings were due to be issued 2 days ago. So, I red penned their drawings, signed and dated, and emailed their leader back stating – the columns clash with manholes. Fortunately the technician still speaks with me and came over to discuss the red pen notes, finally saying, oh [leader] said it was much worse!! Red pen, gets them every time!!! 😉
Give me building services engineers any time 🙂 – that’s the mechanical, drainage and electrical engineers – always so accommodating – of course, Mrs Architect, you can have a large, circular hole in the middle of that floor if you want it, simply give me a decent sized plant room!! I know structures are keeping the building standing up but they’re always so inflexible – Mrs Architect, allow for 205mm columns on a 4m perpendicular grid with a structural roof zone of 500mm and you should be OK. You mean, you should be OK! And then, they have notes on drawings – like waterproofing to architect’s details – without telling you! So, I guess on the positive side, it’s good that I’ve been given the chance to review their drawings before they’re issued to the contractor.
As for our new PM, I simply hope he lasts longer than the other PMs and he’s met the client now, so if he departs questions will be asked.