Property: Architects who've spent a little too long in the sun

DOCTOR ON THE HOUSE: Jeff Howell reports on the sad case of the 'expert' who came undone and the windows that wouldn't
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The Independent Online
I DON'T set out to have a go at architects; I really don't. But sometimes I hear tales about such staggering incompetence that I just have to pass them on, as a warning to others.

So I recently heard about this couple who bought an old stable block in the country to convert into their dream retirement home, and hired an architect highly recommended by friends - where have we heard that one before? - whose plans included a number of large, expensive, Swedish roof windows.

Now, roof windows are a bit contentious at the best of times; they let a lot of light in and are often used to turn dingy roof spaces into sun- drenched loft conversions. But conservationists don't like them because you have to lose a chunk of your original roof tiles to insert this very obvious Swedish-look double-glazed panel. And roof windows can also be responsible for solar glare, bouncing the sun's rays into the eyes of passing motorists - in fact some local councils have banned them for this reason. But in general roof windows, unlike dormer windows, can be put into old buildings without planning permission, and architects and interior designers love them because of the way they let in the light.

Whatever, the old stable block was set to be given the all-over Swedish look with a rash of huge roof windows. The builder duly ordered them and they were delivered to the site. Then the trouble started. The builder, a conscientious sort, could not fail to notice that several of the roof windows were so big that they would span across the purlins - the big horizontal timbers that support the rafters - so the windows could not be opened.

Being conscientious, he pointed this out to the architect, whose response was what led to this story. Because the architect, this supposedly learned man, this expert in the ways of all building things, asked if the purlins could not be removed. "Not without the roof falling in, they can't," replied the builder. And so it came to pass that the purlins remained in place and the expensive Swedish windows were installed on top of them, and cannot now be opened. So they cannot be cleaned from the inside, and in the summer the solar gain through their huge glazed surfaces will heat the place up to sauna temperature while they remain firmly shut.

And the punters have paid for this debacle. They have paid good money to a man who professes to be a building expert but who, it transpires, does not know the first thing about how roofs are put together. And that, dear reader, is why this column has had to return again to the question of architects. Last week I discussed the problem of trying to find a decent builder ... but what about competent architects? Does their professional association monitor their behaviour? Do they have to submit a selection of their work for judgement by their peers? Of course not: once qualified, architects are free to practise unobserved for the rest of their working lives, and the punters, by and large, have to make do with their cock- ups.

So, all you architects who write in and tell me I don't know what I'm talking about, and ask what qualifies me to pass judgement - just think for a minute - are you sure you could pass the purlin test?

q You can contact Jeff Howell at the Independent on Sunday or by e-mail: Jeff@doctoronthehouse.demon.co.uk

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