St Johns Road, Watford

Residential | Private Housing

In the first couple of years of the practice - like most start ups - our focus was on getting work and trying to establish ourselves. As such, I don't think we turned  down anything. And whilst we can be more selective now and are fortunate enough to get some really interesting projects, we recognise this for the privilege  that it is; one that has only come from doing a lot of schemes and forging strong relationships with clients.

Few of those early projects were glamourous, however, we're trying to include as many of them as possible on the site - as without exception - we learned something new from each one.

Even if that lesson is that sometimes it's better to say "no"...

We became involved with this project after a scheme had already been submitted for planning approval by another firm. The client - who we were working with on other sites -  had concerns regarding their design. In fact, even the local planning  authority had flagged various build-ability and building control issues with the scheme which had been submitted for planning approval. Those of you who are familiar with this process will know it is not the remit of planning departments to comment on such things and so this should give some idea of the alarming lack of technical thought and quality evident in the proposals. 

We were engaged to try and sort out the mess, by redesigning the internal layouts of the scheme whilst leaving the external appearance - as far as was possible - as per the previous design, as this had been largely agreed with the local authority. And crucially, achieving at least the same amount of accommodation as all the project finance was reliant on this.

Unfortunately, despite what (we feel) were some quite inspired moves, the resulting scheme was hideously complicated. And in the worst possible way. Externally it was utterly unimaginative, a pastiche copy of the other Victorian houses on the street. Internally, however, these "houses" were blocks of flats, which needed - in some cases - to spread across the floor plate of what  appeared to be several separate terraced houses. At roof level, this presented some significant challenges, and required a sophisticated structural strategy.

Unfortunately, another inherent problem with this job (and many of our earlier projects) was that all the consultants/ sub contractors were on too low fees. So when you need a well thought out, economic and elegant structural solution you're quite simply not going to get it. Perhaps through no fault of the Structural Engineers; these things take time and attention, if they're being paid virtually nothing, that will will be directly reflected in their output. So what you tend to get is some glorified mark ups with a lot of notes explaining that there's going to be a hell of a lot of steel, but not exactly where it's going or how long it is. Certainly no consideration regarding clashes or whether future tenants would have to crawl under  beams to get to their kitchen or open a window.

So it was very much left to us (also on a very low fee) to firstly propose how the structure could work and then to properly draw it all. Based on a series of not-to-scale hand drawn sketches of individual steel components (hundreds of them)  from a fabricator who was "old school" and therefore didn't use CAD. 

This is certainly not a service we agreed to provide or for which we were paid, but the alternative was that the project would be a catastrophe as all the steelwork (and there was a lot if it) would have been wrong. An annoyingly familiar position as an architect - you end up doing things well outside your scope simply because  no one else is going to.

Anyway - we learnt a lot, and even if it's in no way apparent from the finished scheme, there was a great deal of tight, technical coordination, detailing and effort to make it all work.