What Qualifies you to Design in the Built Environment?

  • Building Design Expert
  • 9 years ago

I live, as do hundreds of thousands of others, in a semi-detached house, with a converted loft, in the heart of suburbia. The house was built in the 1930’s to a somewhat standard 3 bedroom formula that had been devised around that time. That is; the two larger bedrooms at the front and back, and to the side of the stairs, with the bathroom at the head of the stairs and the third smaller bedroom to the front and over the lower flight. – Standard layout found up and down the country. Oh sure, there are any number of tiny variations, they can’t all be the same, but the essence of most 3 bed semi layouts is largely consistent.

The name ‘Architect’ first became a protected title under the ‘Architects (Registration) Act 1931. Long before royal charter that led to the formation of the RIBA, there were ‘Registered Architects’. Conceivably therefore my 1934 semi could have been designed by a Registered Architect. But I suspect not.

The ‘Modern’ construction industry has developed and fine tuned the procurement process known as ‘Design and Build’. What evolved post 1st world war was the period of ‘Build and Design’. The clamour for housing to meet the need of the expanding population of the 1920s and 30s unfortunately meant that the care and attention to detail lavished through Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian architectural styles and eras was largely put to one side in favour of a more mass production approach by the likes of Wimpey, Costain and Taylor Woodrow. Just shows how long these guys have been around plying their trade.

National planning policy was in it’s infancy, as too was any form of Building Control. If you take a look under the hood (or suspended floor) of many a 70 to 80 year old properties, any newly qualified professional building technician might rightly wince at the standard of workmanship builders got away with. It was a minimalist approach to getting the job done. It still prevails today under the guise of codes of practice and a resulting evolution of working standards.

That’s not to say all housing from this era is tarred with the same brush. There were still good, often smaller builders that worked with a design professional to produce a superior product.

Before the Architects (Registration) Act of 1931, in all the major architectural periods – the ‘Architect’ or ‘Master Builder’, was one who knowledgeably laid out the building design and oversaw its construction down to last coach bolt. – As a result, as a nation we amassed a collection of incredibly well thought out, detailed and beautifully constructed buildings. These were the result of good design by people that cared, coupled with a plethora of cheap natural materials, produced and assembled by equally cheap labour spawned as part of the industrial revolution. – But this is not a history lesson.

My aim is to focus on the physical outcome of building design as a result of who was the designer.

Post war we had an increased need for housing. There was precious little room for any intense detailed design. Some materials were scarce, and skilled labour wasn’t as cheap, or plentiful as it once was. All a bit glum really wasn’t it? The result was a latter day economy drive and the advent of ‘Build and Design’ for the mass market. As the building contractors forebears had devised working methods and designed by experience; for example – if a 6″ timber beam started to complain under the load then they would up it to 8″ and use that thereafter. Similarly building plans would evolve such that the first house in the street suffered from the steep staircase because otherwise the bathroom would have been too small. As a consequence the last house in the street was usually the one to buy. But of course who knew? – Only the builders, and they weren’t telling.

I am looking out of a window at the rear of another three bed semi, constructed at a similar time to my own, but to a varied design. A friend said “There is something wrong with the way those houses look from the back”. What he meant was that the fenestration to the rear elevation just did not work to be easy on the eye. My friend recognised there was something wrong, but didn’t know what, or particularly why. I had occasion to go into one of these neighbouring properties a few weeks ago, and asking to use the bathroom it immediately became obvious. The design layout of the bathroom totally precluded a window opening to the rear wall. So the builder, accepting of this, had simply installed the window to the side elevation – problem solved.

Of course practical resolution meets visual apocalypse. OK it wasn’t quite that bad, but the result was a huge expanse of blank wall at first floor, where the eye would normally demand a break – provided by a window opening. It’s not the end of the world. Nobody died, and arguably this sort of design variation gives ‘charactor’ to the local area. But it’s still something that once you have noticed, it doesn’t go away.

“Long live the Master Builder”. But he’s dead! We now have architects (and other professional building designers who carry out a very equitable job), and building contractors. Whilst ‘Architect’ may be a protected title. Building design is not a protected function. So, having taken the lead from the post war mass market builders, contractors remain intent on pursuing a design role for which, unfortunately many are not suited.

In truth most builders who have some experience of this role can usually make a reasonable fist of laying out a simple 2 or 3 bedroomed dwelling. But the amateur designer in them bubbles to the top when we get to the stage of choice of materials, colours and Ohhh. that twiddly little finial detail to the turreted bay. Please no more!!! – It is in fact the detail design that kills. Much of it is cost driven, and hence we have tiny porch roofs clad in the same huge tiles that have been used on the main roof, because the contractor won’t get a volume discount on smaller tiles.

Detail design suffers purely because it has not been thought through, and that eaves fascia intersection with the main roof has ended up a total visual mess. Design proportion suffers because the easiest and cheapest solutions to assemble the construction have been used. Oh, and “…. Remember when they delivered the wrong bricks last week? Well they won’t take them back because they said it’s not their fault”. So they just got built into the gables. Bands of almost, but not quite the same brick facings. But who cares? The planners haven’t got the time or the will to police this sort of misdemeanour.

A lecturer at my college (who was an architect – or at least he told us he was) announced during one lesson that – “… when a client employs an architect, they are buying taste”. Interesting comment. which comes back to me when I see housing design, in particular, which appears to have had no obvious professional design input (architect, technologist, or otherwise) – mainly because there is so much visually awry. It generates an auto-response that would ask the builder / developer ‘What qualifies you to design in the built environment?’. Of course there is no answer to be had because ‘subjectivity’ has no rules. It just Is, and the rules of consensus remain irrelevant.

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