Planning & Contracts

Hello again all. Today we are progressing further beyond the basic technical skills that often seem to be avoided while we are studying and into the realms of more legislative aspects of being an architect. These will not be particularly relevant while at university per se and will be covered in more depth once you start working in practice and study for your Part 3. However, they are things that lots of us do not begin to learn about until we join a practice but are still important aspects to consider when designing a building. The idea behind my bringing them up here is to introduce their basic tenets so that you can begin to understand some of the constraints we architects eventually are bound by. For starters, planning, and how to do it:.

Planning

In general, planning constraints are not something we tend to worry about while doing our Part 1 and 2 studies. Arguably there is no reason for us to do so. However, this tends to trivialise the planning process, which can lead to some surprise once joining a practice. Given that planning is a very large, complex beast that we study in detail during our Part 3s and which is best learned in practice, I will try and lay out some broad principles so things don’t come as a total surprise to anyone.

  • Planning permission in England and Wales is largely governed by the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (Scotland and Northern Ireland have different legislation).
  • Most construction requires consent in some form. To apply for consent, you submit an application using the planning portal, which is a centralised website that processes the first stages of any application for any area in England and Wales. This involves filling out an application form and uploading relevant documents, which at a minimum will involve a site plan and some existing and proposed drawings. In general, there are four scales of application:
    • Smaller works (such as small extensions to a house) do not need formal approval, but can be carried out under “permitted development”
    • “Minor applications”, which are anything under 10 dwellings, with a site area under 1/2 a hectare, or a total floorspace of under 1,000sqm. These usually have to be decided on within 8 weeks of submission
    • “Major applications”, which are anything bigger than a minor application or that involve mineral extraction or waste development. These have a target decision time of 13 weeks.
    • Particularly large applications (Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects, such as energy and transport) are dealt with under Development Consent Orders. These are a whole separate beast and can take years to resolve.
  • Applications are rarely as simple as you expect. While the minimum for any application will just be drawings of the proposal, it is becoming increasingly common, even in smaller more “quiet” areas, for extra information to be provided. For example, converting a house into a few flats could require environmental assessments, flood risk analysis, studies of any impact to daylight or sunlight in neighbouring houses, or any other reports prepared by other consultants. The various site analyses, sun path diagrams, constraints and opportunities diagrams etc that we compile during university projects give some idea of what these extra bits of information can be like. Things get even more complicated when dealing with listed buildings or conservation areas. As a result, any project could involve teams in the double digits if the local authority’s requirements are particularly onerous, even if the project only involves a single architect. At a minimum, this means that many of the projects we design at university could take months or even years to reach the stage where they are ready to submit for planning. 
  • Very few applications gain approval in the basic time frame. While each application type has a statutory decision timeframe, in reality, most applications are extended through mutual agreement between the planning officers and the design team. Particularly complex applications can take years to decide, as you can easily discover by picking up any piece of architectural press. Again, this shows how our wonderful university schemes will likely be much more complex to pull off than we tend to envision.

As already mentioned, I have provided the very basic information about planning to give a taste of how big a role it plays in getting any building built. My reasoning is that I was surprised during my year out by how many applications my practice submitted that I never saw progress during my time there, as I’m sure many people have. This can at first seem disheartening, as every project seems to take forever.

I am not saying this to encourage people to try and create university projects that would gain planning consent (indeed, often in practice gaining consent can result in simply designing a building that is identical to everything else in the area as this is all the local authority is willing to accept, which would lead to very boring university projects) but rather to demonstrate the dichotomy between practice and study and provide the beginnings of an understanding of the situation. While are university we are unconstrained by legislation, and everyone should make the most of the opportunity to explore their own way of designing, before the real world gets in the way of being able to create an antarctic seed bank or a mining colony on the asteroid Ceres (both real projects developed by my peers). Speaking of being very basic and providing information about something that is rarely relevant in university:

Contracts

person writing on paper

Contracts are one of those wonderful things that we never have to think about for ages and then suddenly become incredibly important. A significant proportion of my Part 3 exams was focused on contracts in one form or another, yet until I started the course I had had very little interaction with them, even at my practice. As I am not a lawyer nor in any way an expert, I am going to cover the very basic aspects of contracts, why they are important to us architects, and where to go if for some reason you want to learn more about them before you reach your Part 3.

  • Simply put, a contract is an agreement between two or more parties, wherein one party agrees to provide something to the other one. For our purposes, the “thing” is usually a service of some kind, such as architectural design services, the service provided by a contractor to build a house, etc.
  • The purpose of a contract is to distribute any risk between the parties involved. In an ideal world (the one recommended by multiple government reports over the last 30+ years) the risk would be placed with the party most able to handle it. In reality, usually everyone simply tries to shove risk away from themselves. This is what has lead to the proliferation of bespoke contracts on many projects, as clients try to make architects (or contractors/consultants/anybody else) take as much risk as possible.
  • For a contract to exist, it requires three things (a quick google search throws up results ranging from 3 to 7 components, but these 3 are the basics and the ones covered in a Part 3 course):
    • An offer: one party must express an interest in entering into a contract with the other. This can be written or verbal.
    • Acceptance: upon receiving an offer, the other party must agree to it. Again, this can be written or verbal, but it must be an agreement. If one party disagrees, they must negotiate until they both agree.
    • Consideration: both parties must provide something to the contract. This is usually where money comes into the picture, i.e. Bob agrees to pay £100 for Sally to paint him a picture. Bob’s consideration is £100, Sally’s is a picture. In your contract with your employer, your salary or wages is their consideration, while your agreement to perform work for them is your consideration.
    • (There is a sneaky fourth key point to a contract, which is the intent to create a legal arrangement. Given that contracts between professionals tend (should) involve written contracts, this bit is usually assumed)
  • The most common contracts that we architects will have to deal with are our appointment with a client, and the construction contract used once we get around to building something. Both of these have lots of standard forms, written by very smart cookies to make things as fair as possible. An excellent book covering the many construction contract options is Which Contract? the most recent version by Sarah Lupton and Manos Stellakis. To be honest, any book written by Sarah Lupton will be invaluable if you want to learn anything about a construction contract.

That’s basically it for contracts, as far as I am willing to write anyway. At their heart, they are very simple, but since we never learn anything about them at university they can be scary and confusing. Another excellent resource to learn more about them is the Architect’s Legal Pocket Book by Matthew Cousins – again a book that is useful in all manner of ways. I know contracts are a bit dull, and the more scary construction ones can be hundreds of pages long, but I thought it worth mentioning a little about them here to try and make them a tad less intimidating. Much like planning, when you get stuck in things can get very complicated and full of edge cases, but hopefully, these little introductions give you an idea of what sort of legal stuff we need to deal with as architects. 

One final piece of advice about contracts – try and talk to architects about them early. If you are at university, talk to your tutors about any interesting experiences they have had dealing with a contract (there will always be at least one story about how a client ignored something or the contract was never signed, or never even chosen in the first place). If you are in practice, ask to see the contract being used on your project(s), and discuss how it has affected things with the project architect.

The trick, as with everything in architecture, is to be curious. You’ll soon find out how things start to fit together.

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