I have to admit that my meeting with the lovely Charlie Luxton unsettled me. It made me question the house design and doubt the road that we were heading down. I am very hard on myself and take everything very personally – note to self that I need to work on that! So I have found myself a bit in the doldrums. It was in this somewhat grumpy mood that I had a meeting with the planning officer.
Well I say I had a meeting – there I was at 8.45am on a Wednesday morning in my best casuals, discrete make-up on looking friendly but business like – waiting for her. By 9.15 I was beginning to think she was not going to show. 9.30 had me reaching for my phone and calling her office. I was told that she was ‘on-site’, great I thought only it was not my site! At 10.30 she called saying she was sorry but she had forgotten. So we re-scheduled for 2 days time. I was not thinking too highly of someone who could not remember that she had an appointment especially as it was evidently in her diary and she had a post it note stuck to her computer screen reminding her. But that was the grump in me.
So 2 days later at 8.30 I was again ready, smart casual dress, discrete make-up. A bit defensive. And yes she duly arrived. That was a good start I thought. And actually we had a really good meeting. She spent a lot of time listening to what I was trying to achieve and how we were trying to work with the house that we have. She walked all around the exterior of the house and the plot and she genuinely seemed to like it. She was very complimentary about our Architect, Andy Stephenson who she was already familiar with. She liked the simple clear drawings that he had provided and appreciated that he seemed to understand the Planning Offices’ needs. There was only one part of the roof that she was not very happy with but I stressed that we wanted to work with the planning office and would happily re-visit that – and if the truth be known we had been thinking about altering that area anyway. She said that she did not see any real problems or objections and would speak to her superior and then get in touch with Andy. It was a really good, constructive meeting and it completely lifted my spirits. I think even if she had been more negative she would have been willing to work with us to achieve a compromise. She was the epitome of what I think a good planning officer should be – not judgemental, nor condescending, she was engaging and open to a discussion. I was very happy by the end of the meeting.
So re-fuelled with enthusiasm we headed off to the NEC for the Grand Designs Exhibition. One good thing about undertaking building works and writing a blog is that you can justify going to every exhibition there is! I had booked 2 appointments with experts – one a heating engineer to help us sort out our underfloor heating v radiators conundrum and another with another architect. We trundled up the M6 and found ourselves in the cavernous halls of the NEC. It was actually reasonably quiet in the main hall and we got there with plenty of time to spare. So meeting number one. We sat down and explained our problem with the UFH. Firstly cost – it is a very costly exercise putting in UFH. Our rooms upstairs are not huge and radiators take up space so we were leaning towards retro-fitted UFH. There are 2 types – overlay and between the joists. We have been advised by different companies to go along different roots – plus one of the plumbers wants us to put in radiators upstairs. Downstairs we have a decision as to how we marry up the UFH for the existing floors with those in the new extensions. Then added to that there is the question of what floor coverings do you use. Evidently you can only use carpets and underlay which don’t have a combined TOG value of over 2.5 – I thought TOG values only applied to duvets! Not true – evidently if the TOG value exceeds 2.5 then the heat transmission is not efficient. I am a bit fussy about carpet and do not want synthetic – at this point unbeknownst to my husband I started a secret one woman mission to not have UFH upstairs! Also downstairs we have to be careful of using solid wood as its a good insulator and so retains the heat. We also have to find out if our existing floor slab is insulated otherwise the heat will be absorbed downwards – I think. All this had me rushing for cake.
So we started a discussion with our expert. Actually I have to say he did not seem really that interested in UFH and other than telling us to go and chat to a UFH company we did not learn a lot more. He did however advise us to put in a heat recovery system to utilise the warm moist air to heat the house. That way we would not need any heating on the 1st floor – not even radiators – which would solve our UFH dilemna, just a couple of towel rails in the bathroom. Evidently in the summer the heat recovery system helps to keep the house cool as well. All very exciting. How much would that cost we enquired – £7000 he replied. Was there anyone at the show who supplied such things? Yes he replied – me! To be fair he did seem like an expert in his field and if we were to go along that route we might use him but I did feel a bit cheated. We had gone for unbiased advice – which is why we were not talking to UFH companies – and I felt we were being sold a service. In fact we did see a heat recovery company who told us that it would cost £10000 to buy and install the system and actually an architect at the show told us it is a difficult thing to fit in a renovation project.
Our second meeting was with an architect. Armed with our experience of the Charlie Luxton chat we upped our budget considerably so that we wouldn’t get bogged down on the old ‘disconnect between your budget and your aspirations’ chestnut. Actually the architect was very engaging and helpful but it was clear that he too did not really like the exterior of the house. He didn’t feel that windows had been placed with a purpose (seeing out was one purpose I thought). He also wanted to add some wall to wall wrap around glass and showed us a lot of pictures of vertical cladding. What no one seems to get and in fact no one has actually asked – was that we really like the internal layout that we have come up with. The top two floors are going to stay basically the same except for a bit of infilling of a balcony and the addition of some dormers. The bottom floor is being extended to give the house some width whilst still maintaining and utilising the existing structure – hopefully this will save some money. The only thing that is being demolished is the old, damp, mouldy, unloved, unloveable conservatory. So once that fact is taken into account then the rooms are staying basically where they are, so the windows, save for a bit or re-sizing are staying in the same place. Its ok telling me to put floor to ceiling windows in the projection between the house and the garage – but that is going to be the laundry room and we need to fit in a sink! It is actually important to be able to fit furniture into rooms. To give design ideas without asking how we live or how we see the house working is well a bit naive.
But I always think that you can take something positive away from any experience and we are being pushed to maybe think a little bit more radically about the house – a bit more contemporary. We spoke to a couple of other architects firms who were exhibiting at the show – one just thought we wanted to copy their ideas (not true for the reasons stated above – we don’t like glass boxes and are somewhat fixed by out current layout), another was really helpful and chatted about heat recovery systems and how to create a contemporary twist on a traditional house. The last one we saw was a bit of a disappointment as we feel that he could have offered some real insight. I always think that most talented people are quite keen to share their insight. True he was at the show to get some paying clients but we were obviously not going to use him as we were geographically too far from each other. It was late afternoon and there was no one else on his stand but even though it was pretty apparent that he had thoughts he would not share them. The only thing he did ask was -‘do the plans make you go wow? ‘When you come home do you think wow?’ I actually thought that I am not trying to create wow – I don’t have the budget for that really, that is not to say I don’t want to create a lovely looking house. But actually I want to come home and think – ahhhhhh, a soft ahhhhhh, a relaxed ahhhhh. I want to come home to what I am comfortable in, what I’m proud of – but I don’t need people or myself to go ‘wow’.
So we are back from the show more conflicted, a bit uncertain and we are reaching for the on-line design tools to try to get the plans drawn 3D to give them some depth, some life. Hopefully the planning office will agree the space that we want we then have to really come to grips with the look that we are going for.
TIPS FOR DEALING WITH THE PLANNING OFFICE
- Be patient
- Be patient
- Be patient
OK that’s a bit facetious but it really is at the cornerstone of your approach to dealing with them.
4. Do not argue. They have a job to do and they can find ways to refuse your application if they want to. Everyone says -‘ why won’t they grant your application, what difference does it make to anybody?’ What you have to keep in mind is that planning policies do not only depend on the direct effect of your plans on others. Yes you have to take into account blocking light, traffic flow, style, distance from boundaries but a lot of the policies work on the basis that the area has to be protected for its own sake. Especially the countryside and conservation areas. So the fact that you are not having a direct impact on anyone else is not the issue.
5. Chose an architect who has a good relationship with the planning office. Firstly they should not come up with a plan that they know will not stand a chance in hell of getting accepted. Secondly they have an established relationship, one that will involve the planning officer picking up the phone and having a discussion rather than refusing the application right out.
6. Don’t be bullied. Stand your ground, politely, and be sure to get over your point of view. Make sure there are no misunderstandings. But take into account they have a difficult job and it is not always within their power to grant what you want and it is never the decision of only one officer.
7. Keep a track of your application. You can follow it on-line and you can see if there are any objections to your plans. Often objections are made on personal and not planning grounds and you are within your rights to counter the objections. Our previous neighbours, who had a right of way over our front drive, objected to our planning application as they said that we would damage some buildings with our plant and machinery. They also asked that we be made to build a new access road to our new house so as not to use the existing one. We wrote to the planning office and pointed out that they buildings they were referring to were ours and it was not our intention to damage them and also that they could not stop us using our own driveway to access our own house!
8. Keep a track of dates. As soon as the date for objections has gone take down the planning sign. Although objections after the due date may not be taken into account you do not have to advertise the fact that you have put in an application once that date has been and gone. You will be given a date by which the application has to be decided. If it isnt then you can appeal as soon as that date has been reached. Obvioulsy not a good tactic if you are in the middle of useful constructive discussions but a uselful threat if the planning office are simply dragging their feet.
9. If you do think your application is going to be refused it is worth thinking about withdrawing it in order to prevent a refusal going on to your records. Its not the end of the world if it does but it is preferable. If you do get a refusal it is not the end of the world – you can appeal or sit down with the planning officer and work out a new design that is acceptable. We had an application refused on the grounds that the roof line was too dominant – we discussed it and managed to get it passed by simply putting barn hips on the gables – it didn’t impact on the rooms in the roof, kept the planning officer happy and actually looked really nice.