Archive for practice

Art for art’s sake or money for God’s sake

A recent editorial in Housing Association magazine questioning the need for architects in the field of housing design prompted us to reply. Here’s our response, printed in October’s issue of the magazine. (PDF copy)

In challenging your view of architects happily colouring drawings devoid of practical nous, I do not wish to fall into the mire of more professional stereotyping by proposing that architects led the charge in technology driven, construction innovations. But I do wish to correct the impression that we sat around waiting for others to give a lead.
Architects have demonstrated a capacity to put down their coloured pencils (not for good I hope), to embrace technology and new materials in progressive housing. Individual architect designed houses are little more than a paragraph in the post-war history of ‘housing’ (as opposed to ‘houses’) however the architects and the technologies which they experimented with are a different story.

As an engineer you will be familiar with the constructional items selected below, but I detect less familiar with the role of architects (in brackets) who, in a fusion of creativity and practicality, made significant contributions to their development in our industry. Slip-form shuttering (Schindler/Wright), tilt slab walls (Gill/Schindler), short bore pile/beam (Krisel/ Neutra), lightweight post & beam (Wexler, Segal, Koenig, Soriano, Segal), metal windows (Tait, Rohe), Gunite (FLW/Schindler & Neutra), curtain walling (Ellis, Prouve, Wright), plywood (Wells Coates, Straub, Soriano), bent plywood (Wells Coates, Breuer, Ain), concrete (Calatrava /Candela, Lautner)…and so on.

Setting aside the two modern architects you quote, neither renowned for their housing output, you share a widely held public preference for older styles over later modernism. However, inferring that the production of Arts & Crafts houses, Garden Cities and model neighbourhoods like Bournville, Harborne Estates and Port Sunlight somehow happened without architects is an injustice to many, including Lutyens, Baillie-Scott, Bidlake, Voysey, Parker & Unwin, Harvey, Bedford-Tylor, Martin and the thirty or so different architects working for the Lever Brothers (one at least responsible for the design of the Blackpool Tower). British housing of this period was admired the world over but the impact of World War 1, political instability and the reduction in European economic capacity moved the centre of gravity for the development of technically innovative, low cost housing to the USA, for a time.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s earlier prairie and later Usonian houses attracted many architects to leave Europe, work in his studio and latterly on the West Coast, developing new house planning ideas, constructional techniques, M+E developments, new materials, fixtures and fittings. Decades later open plan living, the family kitchen, sliding walls, composite worktops, integrated kitchens, built in closets, indirect lighting, polished concrete, multi-fold glass screens, the en-suite bathroom, dado trunking, the carport, underfloor heating and the patio entered the lexicon of the UK homeowner. Add to this list the automatic washing machine (1908), domestic refrigeration (1915) and we pretty much define contemporary living excluding home entertainment technology.

It is the creative tension between historicism and modernism, not the choice between one or the other which matters – familiarity, reassurance and security on one side; novelty, risk and experimentation on the other. You may want a cosy cottage but not a thatched hatchback and half-timbered wide screen TV.

Finally, the role of today’s architect working in housing is another discussion, but is, in summary, to create housing solutions on increasingly difficult sites, in numbers dictated by market forces, to a client’s specification, in a style approved by the client and wider public, laid out to mandatory quality standards, detailed to meet Building Regulations, constructed to minimise energy and carbon costs in materials doing little or no harm to the planet while all the time hoping the result will improve the quality of life of its users.
It is a wonder that we have time to colour up any drawings.

Mike Menzies


Lyng wins Housing Excellence Awards

Lyng Montage

We congratulate Wendy and all the Lyng Community Association Board on winning the Housing Excellence Award 2014  in the Regeneration Category.

Who would have imagined that all those meetings back in late 2000, those cold and wet evenings, busy weekends workshops and lengthy discussions about the finer points of housing design would be so successful.

Our continued best wishes to all of you and the Lyng residents for sticking with it.

The seeds of Lyng’s rebirth have flowered.


The single-storey story

From its origins in the Indian sub-continent through the British Raj to post war coastal development and urban fringe sprawl, the bungalow has a contradictory, almost schizophrenic, existence in Britain. On the one hand, reviled in the UK press as early as the twenties as ‘bungaloid’ sprawl but on the other hand, consistently voted as the public’s’ most aspirational housetype, in one survey after another. Bungalows built in the late Victorian / Edwardian period were not restricted to coastal resorts and ribbon development, many were an integral part of the utopian neighbourhoods of social reformers aiming to improve the living conditions of the urban working class.

More recently single storey homes have been relegated to holiday lodges sited within countryside parks or to the fading memories of the good old post-war prefab, an imported MMC product which survived its design life by a factor of four, and also outlived its debt redemption by decades. Wouldn’t that be a novelty in social housing.
Ageing home occupiers, reluctant to move, fearful about service costs, anxious about having enough room for a lifetime of stuff, unsure about pets and cranking up the volume on their vinyl collections, beware. As things stand, you cannot have what you want and must get used to it and learn to love the alternatives, supposedly higher density schemes with equally high service costs marketed in numerous cosy metaphors for village life in your later years.

Today single storey housing appears to have little to offer in the current housing crisis, being seen as low density, land grabbing, unstylish and comparatively expensive.
However, bungalows can readily be developed at around 40 – 50 plots/hectare, a figure common in suburban housing with front gardens providing parking and an external front to back access with a rear garden governed by the 70ft privacy spacing rule (although it started life as a sunlight/ health rule of thumb) so beloved of planning officers. With the right range of rectangular and patio floorplates, single storey housing developed in courtyard, mews style and stepped formats can be more efficient on many sites, where you can increase numbers over a layout of standard two storey housetypes.

Turning to the construction cost issue the common response is that the ratio of foundation length combined with roof/external wall to enclosed area is far from the cuboid ideal, (but no flat roof please). However single storey construction releases the designer from the Lifetime Homes strictures of upper floor accessibility, supporting an upper floor, two layer services distribution and conventional footings. It can also speed up the delivery of homes with, pre-fabrication, reduced height working, lower scaffolding/ lifting equipment costs, single panel lift and reduced preliminaries.

It has for many of these reasons been a favourite with the self-build / custom home markets, common in early housing pre-fabrication case studies and the dominant type in the post war expansion of the Commonwealth and the American West Coast.

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The Californian bungalow, as it became known, reached its most innovative in the mid-century modernist, prefabricated, steel/timber post & beam, pile founded, low pitch/butterfly roofed, polished concrete 100sm floorplates, built in the thousands by developers like Eichler, the Alexander family & Meiselman brothers working in San Francisco, LA and Palm Springs. These low cost, middle income tract homes featured ,many of the domestic features taken for granted today: open plan living space, central heating/cooling, island kitchens, built in kitchen units, floor to ceiling glass, decorative blockwork, sliding external and internal doors, glazed atria and carports.

As we confront the ageing population crisis, can we not shed our net curtain/ paper doilies and cream tea preconceptions about bungalows and rediscover single storey houses which are chic, cool and suited to the downsizing ‘Woodstock/Isle of Wight’ generation.

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ExistenzminimumMike considers the reality of space standard minimums and examples of UK housing:

Recent debate about the value of delivering smaller houses, with or without government subsidy, reignites the professions enduring interest in existenzminimum, the minimum habitable area in support of subsistence life. Internationally much debated within CIAM & Demos throughout the early to mid-twentieth century and often described as the house for the proletariat. The resultant decades of dialogue, research and the construction of numerous prototypical pods, insights from physiology, psychology, sociology, biology, ergonomics and engineering were garnered in support of the search for the answer.

So what is the minimum area necessary to support contemporary living: a bedspace, a bedspace + clothes rail, a bed/clothes + sitting space, bed/sitting space + cooking corner + toilet, all of the above + space saver shower? Not convinced or still undecided then…

Let’s sprinkle each with a modest social life, a (very) compact hobby or two (no pets please) and occasionally languish in a bath and you have got yourself beyond the touring caravan, converted garage, yuppy yurt, glamping trailer tent, bijou box, chic shed or my(i)pad.

The problem with existenzminimum is that most of us don’t really relish subsistence living, let alone being described as a proletarian. We surely don’t aspire to it, certainly not on a market rent or 25 year repayment mortgage. It is by its very nature a transient state which you wish to move beyond, as quickly as the property market and income will allow.

While pondering the question we quite naturally expect to put our feet up, reach into the fridge for a chilled beer/wine and prepare (maybe even cook) and consume a basic meal for one/two. From the confines of our living pod a network of space consuming relationships develop, with the outside world, not surprisingly since we have so little of the inside world to deal with. We use personal transport to work/leisure, we eat drink outdoors, we deal with laundry, we visit long suffering friends (if only for a bath and to use their dryer), we grow stuff, we keep pets, we order takeaways, order stuff (small stuff) from Amazon sometimes to display trophies suggesting we ‘have arrived’ and yet yearn for that combination of personal solitude and psychological centredness summed up in ‘my space- keep out’.

So where does this get us? Certainly beyond that rash of urban hutches which regularly appear on the UK market in a blaze of incentives for first time buyers craving the new urban lifestyle. On reflection anything heading much below 50 sq m is a strait jacket where living goes out the window (if you have one) and existenzminimum arrives. If you are still undecided have a look at the diagram which overlays to scale a number of living enclosures, there may be space for us all here.


Highlights and Resolutions

We’re greeting the New Year with some personal highlights from 2013 and resolutions for 2014…

Mike meeting Dion Neutra:

Judging modernist architecture by living in it for a short stay is an experience not to be missed, a bit like washing a car to really enjoy its fine lines and detailing. Last time it was a Usonian House in Pennsylvania, this year it was Palm Springs and LA territory, the home of some of the most innovative early/mid century houses in the World.

fitz pool

Don Wexler’s contribution to the development of the post-war California bungalow and steel houses is not well known but his understated houses are architecturally stunning. Living in one of his many houses on the El Rancho Vista is the ultimate desert climate chill zone complete with the chance to visit the nearby Kaufmann Desert House by Neutra. By way of something completely different, the Fitzpatrick-Leland House in Laurel Canyon is available to rent.


Luarel (5)

Just off Mulholland Drive and perched on the edge of a cliff, it’s a 1935 low cost house, mainly timber frame and gunnite, with the volumetric and spatial interplay you would expect from Rudolph Schindler. Breakfasting overlooking the canyon through the sheet glazed wall and Eucalyptus trees is a wonderful fusion of modernism and organic architecture. The influence of FLW on Schindler, his college friend Richard Neutra, his apprentices Wexler, Gregory Ain and Harwell Harris is clear.

photo (2)

Wexler PS 217

So what is my 2013 highlight? it has got to be meeting Dion Neutra and standing on the lawn of the Lovell Health House talking about his Dad and his childhood years spent at Kings Road.

Rob begins making a home4self:

Two new challenges in 2013 were my stand out highlights for the year – finally starting the self-build house project for my own family after many years of planning and returning to Birmingham School of Architecture as a visiting tutor.


Facing the challenges of project managing and building a house for yourself is an experience I’d recommend every architect attempts. Using it as an opportunity to experiment with new materials and construction techniques has provided the opportunity to develop ideas I hope to offer to future clients. The winter weather is slowing us down slightly, but I’ll be spending this month laying more clay blocks and weatherproofing the timber frame. Updates from site can be found at

My 2014 resolution is a little predictable: finish the house!

Katie qualifies:


  • After a 10 year slog of studying and training on the job I finally became a fully qualified Architect- which means no more dreaded PEDR sheets!
  • I completed another two half marathons and obtained a new PB despite being full of cold.
  • Running Medal

  • Finally started writing my own blog about the architecture and historical buildings of Birmingham, here’s a cheeky plug –
  • Blog Screen Clip

  • Turning a age milestone and having a great party with family and friends, life begins at 30!


  • To get sketching, my aim is to do a drawing a week… my sketch book is at the ready.
  • To make more time for more reading- no excuses.
  • Keep up the running and take on some more physical challenges such as bike riding and hiking. There is some talk amongst friends of doing the three peaks challenge but a dumbed down version over 3 weekends but don’t hold me to that!

Dan’s Neopolitan street life:


My highlight for 2013 would have to be my study trip to Naples and the Amalfi coast; ten days of pizza, sunshine and, of course, interesting architecture. The purpose of the trip was to observe a City’s “Street life”; something all too easy to find in Naples, one of the busiest ports in Europe. Some of the particularly noteworthy buildings I saw in the city are photographed below.


Of course, any trip to Naples and the surrounding area would be incomplete without mention of Vesuvius and the ruins of the Roman towns that lie in it’s shadow. Pompeii and Ercolano (AKA. Herculaneum) were both incredibly interesting; it is amazing that both are so-well preserved, especially in the case of Ercolano’s remaining mosaics, some of which are photographed below.


For 2014, my resolution is to get back into the habit of keeping a journal, as I have been somewhat lax over the last few months of 2013. Also, I should try to sketch more in said journal, as my last journal was somewhat lacking in sketches.


Custom Build Roundup 2013

2013 has been a busy year at Axis Design for self-build and custom build ideas and projects. Here’s a roundup of all the progress we’re making supporting people looking for alternative choices to the standard housing market.

Stoke-on-Trent Custom Build

Our involvement with one of the UK’s earliest custom build projects has continued this year and we’re delighted to report that the plots have now been sold at auction and 6 families will be embarking on their project in the New Year. The project also won ‘Best Custom Build Scheme’ at the 2013 Build It awards in November.

Collective Custom Build

We shared our experience on the Stoke project with the team at Sheffield Uni behind the Collective Custom Build research project earlier in the year and were proud to take part in the launch event of the final outcome. An extensive resource of information across numerous topics is presented in a very accessible web site accompanied by an explanatory video at The site has been a useful tool to help explain the idea behind custom home build to both our clients and resident groups.

Self-Build on a Shoestring

As one of the shortlisted entries to the NaSBA competition to design a house costing less than £50k we also traveled to London to take part in a debate between designers about the different submissions. It was fascinating to compare the construction techniques proposed and the group has begun to discuss the possibility of a ‘shoestring design group’. A video of the event is available online thanks to hosts Ash Sakula.

Custom Build West Midlands Group

If you want to support more opportunities for custom build groups then where better place to start than in your own neighbourhood? We’ve launched a call for group members in the West Midlands and the first meeting will take place in Wolverhampton in January. Sign up at the following web page if you’d like to be added to the contact list:

Make:Shift 2013

An inspiring collection of community action ideas were presented at this year’s Make:Shift event in Wolverhampton and we were delighted to be able to take part and use it as a platform to launch our West Midlands group. A copy of the presentation used at the event to start a debate on housing is available on the Make:Shift web site.


Alongside the meetings, debates and drawings there has also been plenty of self-build construction activity with the start on site of a personal project for one of the Directors. The experiment in modern methods of construction using both pre-fabricated and on-site techniques is well under way and progress can be followed on the dedicated web site: The full account of the project history can also be found on Rob’s own blog:

Using products and processes taken from numerous areas of research into natural materials, Passivhaus methodology and breathable construction we’ve been able to test ideas that we think are ideal for other self-builders.

We’re looking forward to sharing this experience with clients in 2014. Let us know if you’d like a site visit!


We have the technology!

Over the past few months we have been joined once a week by Phil an Architectural Technologist student from BCU. He has put together a short post about his time at Axis and his practice experience so far.

‘Hello everyone, my name’s Phil and I am currently engaged in completing work experience here at Axis Design.  I met the team back in late August and since then have been joining the team every Tuesday in the office.  I am currently in my third year at Birmingham City University studying a BSc (Hons) degree in Architectural Technology on a part time basis.  I elected to enrol on the course part time in order to maximise the amount of practical experience I could gain in a working environment, specifically within the environment of an Architect’s office. 

My journey so far here at Axis has taught me a great breadth of different topics, such as learning about some of the great minds of Architecture such as Frank Lloyd Wright and his exploits creating Usonian dwellings.  From this knowledge, I studied and carefully recreated The Herbert Jacobs First Residence.  This is the part you would expect to see a few images of the fully completed model.  Unfortunately, to my shame; I committed the cardinal sin of only storing the file (along with some of my university work) solely on one memory stick…of course when technology works its great but when it decides to cease working it can be an utter nightmare!!


Moving forward I have been incredibly privileged to have access to both the office’s vast physical and digital libraries as well as being able to tap into the combined knowledge and experience of the dedicated professionals that work here.

I would like to thank Directors Mike & Rob for allowing me into their practice and providing me with an insight into the office environment and day to day workings of an Architects practice and to thank Katie and Dan for welcoming me.  Wishing Team Axis and you the Reader a very happy Christmas during this festive time of year.’


BCU Sphere of Influence

‘Sphere of Influence’ Event courtesy of the Friends of The Birmingham School of Architecture

The Birmingham School of Architecture was founded in 1905 and over the past 105 years has helped inspire and influence generations of young architects and designers. Last night our practice was fortunate enough to be invited to the ‘Sphere of Influence’ event at the Birmingham School of Architecture at their new home at the recently completed Eastside campus.

The event celebrates the impact the schools staff and student alumni have had on the world of architecture and teaching. Nominations were submitted which saw a wide range of alumni who have made an impact on an international, national and local level featuring architects, industry professionals, academics and current BCU staff. Last night consisted of an exhibition of the final selection of nominees detailing the past and present activities of the various names and their lasting influence on the industry and school.

BCU Sphere of Influence

Axis Design has always had strong links with the school and two past partners were included in the nominations (Allan Haines & Joe Holyoak) as well as current Director Mike Menzies. Mike was a senior lecturer as the school from 1974-1987 with a specific responsibly for the teaching of Environmental Psychology and Urban Design and was nominated for his inspirational teaching. Our connection with the school remains today with Director Rob Annable now teaching on the MArch course and the practice has provided employment for many past students over the years.

An enjoyable evening was had by all and it was great to see so many familiar faces that have helped shape and contribute to the success of the school. It was also a chance to have a look around the new BCU campus and school facilities which provide a fantastic space for future students of architecture.


Self Build on a Shoestring

As part of our work to develop new cost effective self-build strategies we recently prepared a submission to the NaSBA Self Build on a Shoestring competition. Although we weren’t successful it was great to see that a number of submissions had proposed a similar concept to ours, exploring the possibilities of single storey housing. The construction proposal is based on what we’ve learnt on one of our current live projects; Rob’s own self-build project called home4self.

We’ll be sharing more about that in the coming weeks, in the meantime here’s our idea for a house costing less than £50k…

*update*: Delighted to find that our proposal was displayed at the Grand Designs Live show as part of the top 16 entries.

£50k house

the 50k house isn’t a design problem, it’s a procurement problem – building a house on a tight budget demands easy to organise packages of work, simple construction and a combination of the best of both on-site and off-site techniques to ensure fixed prices and predictable program – we believe the single storey house has an important role to play in the future of UK housing and is ideally suited to self-build skills…

Single storey, modern methods of construction and easy to manage packages of work.

Our proposal is designed to consider carefully the benefits of combining simple on-site construction processes that could be undertaken by an enthusiastic self-builder alongside the price and performance certainty delivered by off-site prefabrication. We have chosen to explore a single storey house typology. Although this decision brings greater challenges with both the energy performance and ground works, we believe that the benefits to living quality, adaptability and ease of construction make the bungalow a worthwhile investment.

One of the greatest challenges for a self-builder is the day to day management of material delivery, storage and plant and equipment required to control health and safety issues of working at height. Using modern methods of construction we aim to provide a large water tight space quickly that allows the self-builder to proceed in a more easily managed process internally. By overlapping ground floor construction and off-site manufacture the initial program of works can be completed quickly with certainty over fixed prices for the bulk of the superstructure. Items of joinery such as stairs and service walls are intended to be designed and manufactured following a pattern that can be repeated cost effectively using CNC routing technology. The prices stated for the pre-fabricated timber frame also assume a standardised panel size that can be called off by self-builders following a common house type plan. The layout of the design has been developed such that it can be mirrored or handed in various ways to suit orientation without changing the fundamental construction dimensions.

Once the superstructure is complete the interior can be fitted out easily thanks to the efficient arrangement of plumbing and heating layouts that will require minimum labour and material to commission and avoid potential for delays and unforeseen costs thanks to colliding orders of trade.

The central service zone contributes not only to the ease of construction but also the ability to extend easily in future at either end of the building or into the entrance porch, without major alterations to mechanical and electrical layouts. The installation of an MVHR unit in the centre of the plan also reduces complex duct runs and maximises efficiency of performance.

Open plan living places the kitchen at the heart of the house. Our courtyard entrance strategy provides daylight to the centre of the plan and creates a useful external storage area. By completing the roof in pre-insulated panels the higher levels of the pitched roof can be left open above living spaces and enclosed over bedroom areas to provide ample storage.

We believe this is a house that future self-build families could be encouraged to undertake and project manage their own construction when offered a design that is easy to imagine and plan the work required, both in scale and order of trades.

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Katie Hughes – Architect

We’re delighted to announce that we now have another fully qualified architect on the team. After joining us 7 years ago as a year-out student between undergraduate and post-graduate education, Katie Hughes has now completed her final Part 3 exam. Here’s a few words from her about what it took to get here…

When I first started on the route to becoming an Architect I never fully realised just how difficult the journey would be. I was a naive undergraduate who thought that 7 years of training would be a breeze but I couldn’t have been more wrong. For a start when I finally qualified last week it had taken me just over 10 years to reach part 3 accreditation… slightly longer than anticipated and certainly not a walk in the park!

Katie's mugshot

The training has been full of ups and downs and a massive learning curve but more importantly I have found it interesting to look back and see how much I have matured and changed during the whole process.

I found the part 3 course to be the final piece of the puzzle bringing together all of the practice and project management issues I had encountered whilst working in the industry. The course I undertook at BCU covered a range of topics from construction management, health & safety, dispute resolution and setting up your own practice. There was a range of experienced speakers and a variety of different modules covering all aspects of professional practice which were related back to current topics in the industry. The course was really helpful because you could directly relate it back to your work in practice. It was difficult to keep on top of the course workload and work full time simultaneously but the coursework aided my work in practice and vice versa. I also found writing my self-appraisal and recording my quarterly PEDR sheets helped remind me of all the valuable experiences I had acquired over the last 10 years and the achievements I had gained as well as charting my entire career and seeing my professional progression. The critical case study was also a chance to reflect on a past/current project and apply all of the knowledge learnt in the lectures to critique and analyse a real project.

My advice to anyone thinking of starting the part 3 course is to just do it. Enrolling on the course was the push I needed to start taking on more responsibility within the practice and build my confidence. Even if you don’t feel ready at the beginning of the course you can use it as a way to work on your areas of weakness and fill in gaps in your knowledge.

I would recommend not rushing the part 3 course and make sure you have a suitable case study which you can see from initial concept through to the construction stages. I think it is really important to have the experience of seeing a project through the main work stages and seeing the change of attitude and priorities between pre and post contract work. Site experience is also extremely valuable. It’s not just about ticking off boxes and making sure you have enough hours for each work stages it is also about whether you feel ready for part 3 accreditation. I deferred my case study by 6 months because I wanted to make sure I had the confidence, communication and professional skills needed to take that next step.

Finally, qualifying has been a massive relief and even though it has been extremely stressful at times I feel the hard work and pressure has made me a stronger, more competent person. I can now look forward to concentrating on my career as an Architect… bring on the hard work!