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Crispin Kelly: 'How do you deliver a great design for £1million?'

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As the shortlist for the Stephen Lawrence Prize is revealed, Crispin Kelly discusses how to get good architecture for less than £1million

This question reminds me of a story Peter Salter tells about being asked to halve the cost of a pavilion he designed in Japan – he cut the plan in half, and sent it back…..

Without cutting the plan in half, I thought I would tell the tale of the six houses I recently built in Pewsey which were designed by Tony Fretton Architects, which came out at about £1 million.

We didn’t start out to build a great design. For me that is the result, but the starting point was much more matter of fact, to build six houses which would show what good design could offer the ordinary housebuyer. This seems to be the most obvious thing the volume housebuilders are not doing.

It is good to start with a modest ambition

So it is good to start with a modest ambition, with the willingness then to defend it through the thick and thin which is inevitably going to be met down the line. For me the words ‘great design’ signal an ambition which is problematic from the beginning.

What was the good design we were able to hold on to? It came in two parts. First, each house had to offer qualities which seem obvious, but are usually lacking. Big windows. Taller doors. Roof space incorporated into rooms. A double height space. Double doors onto a garden. Second, the houses grouped together had to make something. So the road is unadopted, and owned by the freeholders together through a management company. There is an unforced neighbourliness about the place.

Trying to achieve these fairly ordinary goals was predictably tricky. For a start, the planners hated the scheme. We went to appeal, and Tony Fretton made a wonderful poetic case for the arrangement of houses and the way they were designed. The planning officer said they were completely inappropriate anywhere in Wiltshire. The Inspector fortunately agreed with Tony, remarking that the 70’s and 80’s suburban typologies all around the site didn’t really warrant the planning officer’s level of apoplectic opposition.

With the planning permission, we moved into detailed design, and then tendered the job. It ran very late and slightly over budget. We project managed it ourselves, with the architects having no continuing role after detailed design, Sometimes we made more complications for ourselves by trying to take on board contractor suggestions for economies. Some details were hard to make work.

Construction is a bloody business. We had subcontractor mistakes, bad weather, changes of personnel, and our site manager falling seriously ill. Nothing unusual there, but it should probably be said that it helps if you can just keep going if you want to finish up with something good, and to do that you need to be convinced.

We were fortunate to have a contractor who was very conscientious, even though he sometimes had his mind and men on other jobs. There has to be a degree of luck in this. We are not a big enough developer to provide a steady flow of work to the same set of sub contractors, so need some blessings along the way. This was particularly important doing the snagging once the houses were sold, and we were managing the defects as they became apparent.

We had more blessings as house prices rose whilst we laboured through the appeal process, and then through the extended build.

There is no doubt the six houses were far more complicated to build than standard volume housebuilders’ fare, and the construction price reflected that. We think now we could probably do it again a bit cheaper. There are some simple lessons we are learning on this project and others. Radiators shouldn’t go on walls which will be needed for wardrobes. Hand basins need to be a certain size. Storage is always an issue. Best to think through all the changes you want to make before you start.

Good design can command a higher value

At the same time, we know that good design, defended through the life of the project, can command a higher value than bad design. We would put that premium somewhere between five per cent and 15 per cent, which means that to preserve the development margin, construction costs can be maybe up to 25 per cent higher (as land is a big part of the total development cost).

Most rewarding was the sight of Tony Fretton being embraced by one of the housebuyers when they met after practical completion. So, relentlessly optimistic,  my recipe for a good project would be:

  • Modest ambition which can be robustly defended
  • Very wonderful architects
  • A committed client
  • Perseverance
  • Luck

It would be immodest of me to say our scheme in Pewsey is great. But the enthusiasm of the buyers shows that it is worth making the effort, and as time fuzzes the memory of stressful difficulties, that becomes the result of good design.

Crispin Kelly is a director at Baylight Properties

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Readers' comments (2)

  • I'd be intrigued to know what the fee was. I think the real issue is delivering great design for ridiculously low fees.

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  • I hate to bang on about this, as I did also mention in it in a comment when the scheme was published in November 2014, but... The developer's website states that the expected cost was £90 per square foot, with the project conceived to demonstrate that much more could be achieved with a typical volume house builder's budget. The cost was then put at £1992 per square metre when the scheme was published in the AJ on completion. This is a doubling of the cost - hardly 'slightly over budget'.

    £1992 per M2 is also significantly in excess of 25% more than a conventional commercial developer build on this site. So, the scheme would have been more profitable (and much much quicker and less stressful) if it had followed the more trodden path?

    Unless...

    A factor not mentioned is that ambitious and skilful design and planning might also yield more space or units to sell. This is only likely to be possible on sites with certain opportunities/challenges but is, for a developer, where spending more on design can actually produce tangible financial benefits, even on sites with relatively modest resale values. 6 houses instead of 4 is a game changer.

    This is also where architects must focus on providing value to the small developer. Its nice to think that better quality space is worth more money - Mr Kelly is right - its worth 5-15% more. But the reality is that only in rarified locations will the extra value outweigh the costs, time, complications, stress, etc involved.

    What one needs, as an architecturally enlightened developer working on such projects, is for the architect to achieve greater density than might be otherwise be achieved; and to understand that this is what will financially enable what could be otherwise be seen (in isolation) as unjustifiable design and construction costs.

    There is trust involved in this so one must commit to one's architect and realise the thing as fully as possible.

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