DOCTOR ON THE HOUSE

There are architects, says Jeff Howell, and then, of course, there are architects
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The Independent Online
If you want to get building work done properly, you are supposed to first engage an architect to produce a set of drawings. You may hear these referred to as plans but really the plan is only the drawing showing the horizontal lay-out - the bird's eye view; you will also need elevations - the front, back and side pictures of the building - and sections, which show the cut-away details. A competent architect will also be able to provide you with a bill of quantities, listing all the activities to be carried out and the materials to be used. If you then ask three builders to tender for the work, based upon the same drawings and bill of quantities, you will be sure that the three prices you get are all for the same end product. The architect should also be able to negotiate with the builders on your behalf, produce a schedule of works - which spells out in idiot- proof terms the exact sequence of operations - and supervise the construction work.

This is the traditional way. Generations of architects have carried out this valuable service, designing and supervising buildings from the humblest of back additions to the grandest of stately homes. Architects used to cut their teeth on this kind of work, and most went on to pursue it for a living.

But now, be warned, there is increasing fragmentation in the architecture game, and many of the new generation think their role is to be the next Richard Rogers, designing unusual buildings different from anything built before, rather than making a good job of your new kitchen extension.

Remember the Monty Python sketch where architect John Cleese wants to equip the new Town Hall with rotating knives, because he usually designs slaughter houses? This is hilarious because it is so nearly true. Architects develop specialisms, and someone who is a whizz at out-of-town shopping malls may not have the touch required for alterations to a Regency terrace. You can see examples of this insensitivity wherever you look - old period houses corrupted with new details straight off the pages of the latest Italian design mags - by architects who want to build monuments to themselves rather than work sympathetically with existing buildings.

Others are just plain ignorant. On a recent job, the architect had decided the new back addition was to be built in reclaimed bricks to match those in the main house, and had specified second-hand yellow London stocks. Unfortunately, the original house had not been built with yellow stocks at all, but with gaults, creamy-white bricks fired from gault clay. An easy mistake for a lay person to make, you might think; but shouldn't an architect be able to do better? I heard this week of another architect, who did not understand that yard gulleys - the ground- level inlets which direct surface water away to the drains - should always contain water. A yard gulley has a "trap", or U-bend full of water - just like a toilet bowl - to stop smells coming up from the sewers. This architect spotted the water lying in the trap of a new gulley and called the builder back, complaining that the new drainage system was blocked. People like this are supposed to be experts, charging clients hefty fees for the benefits of their construction skill and experience, but all they seem to do is bring the rest of their august profession into disrepute. Still, if we continue to train architects by getting them to make models out of Plasticine and empty bog rolls, what else should we expect?

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