Archive for notes and sketches

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


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.

West coast trip 228

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.

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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.


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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Niemeyer living on

Research and Development is tough. Thankfully we’re fully committed to continual professional development here at Axis Design and even go so far as undertaking long distance travel to learn more about the profession we love. For example, here’s some thoughts from Axis director Mike Menzies following a recent trip to Brazil:

Oscar Niemeyer

“Back in the early fifties when Oscar Niemeyer and his friend and collaborator, Roberto Burle Marx set out the plan for the Ibirapuera Park, roller blading and skateboarding were yet to become part of the urban street culture. However the shade and cool breezes offered by the serpentine concrete covered walkways linking many of Niemeyer’s principle buildings in the Park has been appropriated by a new generation of young Paulistas, keen to demonstrate their skills weaving between the pilotis, café tables and groups of tourists and visitors. As a lifelong communist, Niemeyer would have no doubt raised a wry smile at this counter-cultural invasion of the world of art and culture celebrated within the nearby museum and exhibition spaces.

Oscar Niemeyer

Two of which, the Pavilion of Brazilian Culture and its nearby twin, Museum of Afro Brazilian Art have undergone recent extensive renovation works. The interior spaces framed by their cantilevered floors, raking pillar supports, brise soleil and concrete louvred facades are an uncanny precursor to much later open-plan, loose-fit, flexible exhibition spaces.

The interplay of the structural grid of floor bays and supports with the serpentine, ramped access routes is a powerful and unfolding experience as you walk between the floors. His lifelong affair with curvilinear forms, most recently seen in La Lingua, his newest auditorium building in the Park, came to its conclusion with his death last December. However his urban cool lives on, not least in the uncanny parallels of a sinuously, executed grind and his meandering plan for Ibirapuera Park.”

Oscar Niemeyer


Thirty Years In Practice

As we celebrate our 30th year in practice, we hope you’ll forgive us for rounding the year off with an element of nostalgia. We’ve raked over the warm embers of our work predominantly in the fields of masterplanning, regeneration and housing to see what we can find.

The project that started it all off, back in 1982, was a series of shopfitting contracts carried out on behalf of Walter Smith butchers. A total refit over a Bank Holiday weekend, 24 hour working and a team spirit which predated Egan procurement and partnering by close to a decade.

Our longest running project has got to be the regeneration of the Pype Hayes Estate which began back in the summer of ‘89 addressing a bunch of disgruntled local residents who were going to lose their defective Boswell Houses, but were worried about what they might be getting in their place… and this year Birmingham City Council have just completed the handover (pictured left) of the last phase of work under the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust umbrella.

The strangest project we’ve worked on has got to be looking for buried WW2 aircraft while pretending to be doing drainage survey work – the only job that did not carry a job number or any correspondence references. Not quite in line with the RIBA project management guidance!

The most expensive project per square metre has got to be Wigan Metropolitan Council Chamber: an interior refit of the former Mining College in the town. Bespoke light poles, silk heraldic banners suspended in specially designed Perspex frames (pictured right) and a three storey hexagonal glass tower made out of Reynolds 531 tube.

The cheapest per square metre must be the Balsall Heath Tree Centre: an A-framed community space sitting within a community tree nursery (left).

The one that got us in the media for the wrong reasons: Wadbury Mill and the threat to our refurbishment of an old mill was thanks to a colony of Long-eared Bats. We made the front page of the Guardian as we recall.

Our most challenging project was probably the reconstruction of the grade 2 listed roof trusses in Crosby Court (right). Between English Heritage, imminent roof collapse and pigeons we still managed to jack the roof up and pull the lantern back into position… mind you, the roof had survived a direct hit during the war but the bomb failed to go off. It was never found and could be under our conference room for all we know. A great way of keeping client meetings short.

The one that got us in the media for all the right reasons: Eco Terraces – a radical refurbishment of terraced houses which predated the government focus on improving existing stock and the current Green Deal.

Our most embarrassing project has to be the cedar clad courtyard of bungalows in Castle Vale. They were great when new but now look miserable, grey, streaked, and shed-like in appearance – not at all what we intended.

The project we miss most: Midlands Art Centre café and its play wall which included a built-in noughts & crosses game (pictured left) – an attempt to create an interactive art space for users of every age with the in-house artists making the cushions, banners and ceramic tiles.

Our most popular project with the wider public is probably Brandwood End (pictured right), which met its core objectives of being ‘tenure blind’ and a 21st century reinvention of Bournville Village Trust housing. Our homage to Harvey and Bedford Tyler is ageing quite gracefully (unlike some of us).

The most satisfying project has got to be the one project that delighted the client, had architectural integrity, enriched the lives of its users, had us showered in accolades and earned us a mandatory scale 10% fee plus expenses… We can’t quite recall which project that would be.

Finally, the strangest coincidence in this our 30th year, is that we find ourselves working on a development in Monument Road, Ladywood, having spent much of the ‘80s and ‘90s working on the regeneration framework for the area. What’s even stranger is that we are looking at the refurbishment of the Schoolhouse, a small school building which the two founding partners looked at in the year preceding the formation of Axis Design… what goes around comes around.

We’d like to add our thanks to all our clients, collaborators, colleagues and fellow consultants for all their input, support and trust over the last 30 years. Most of all we hope that the residents we’ve met along the way have all enjoyed living in the places we’ve helped to create; we’ve certainly enjoyed being a part of their communities during our work together. We’re looking forward to the next 30 years and more projects as challenging as the ones described above.

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Christmas Donations Through Kiva

Many poor families around the world are financially unable to purchase a house that meets their needs. Housing loans give families access to capital to improve their homes and an opportunity to pay loans back at a pace that they can handle. Last Christmas we made a donation to Kiva, and over the subsequent 12 months we helped a total of 4 families.

We’ve added to our Kiva loan fund again this Christmas and our donation will help another two families. We’re helping Primetiva (right) from a small village in the Philippines. She is 62 years old, is married and has seven children. Primetiva has a hog fattening business and she has requested a modest loan to renovate her house. In the future, she hopes to have more savings.

We’re also helping Megi (left) and her family from West Georgia. They are involved in an agricultural business and Megi works hard to do her best for her family. In particular, they run a small dairy farm with a milk cow whose milk is used in cheese products. The cheese is sold at the local open market. In addition, Megi has a pig and sells piglets seasonally. A loan will create better conditions for Megi and her son, and enable them to enjoy living in their house.

As Megi and Primetiva’s loans are repaid, along with the final repayments from the other borrowers we’ve helped, our lending portfolio will grow and we’re looking forward to reinvesting the money with other needy families.

UPDATE: We’ve now received notification that the loans we made last christmas have been repaid in full. This means we’re ready to reinvest and help more families around the world.


Axis Design’s travel policy goes fully electric

As experts in sustainable design, through all our activities and working practices we look for ways to protect and enhance the environment. This includes getting out and about in the course of our work, so in an attempt to further lessen our carbon emissions we’re pleased to announce that the latest addition to the Axis Design team is a fully electric Citroen C-Zero car.

Most of the team here at Axis are regular users of public transport for getting to and from work, and to site visits, but there are occasions when a car is the most suitable form of transport because it saves time, and because some sites are difficult to access using public transport. Free parking for electric vehicles is available in many towns too, allowing for cost savings to be made.

We’ve been able to take advantage of a grant made available for small businesses allowing us to take the leap into fully electric zero-carbon transport. We’ll also be encouraging our clients to lead the way by installing charge points for electric vehicles on new housing developments, again, taking advantage of grants available to keep costs to a minimum.

The car itself is powered by a 16kW/h battery that generates enough electricity to power the motor, air conditioning and heating system. On a full charge it is expected to reach a total distance of 79 miles and can be charged in 7 hours (or 30 minutes when connected to special terminal delivering a 125a monophase current). It has an automatic gearbox, and reaches top speeds of up to 80mph – not bad for a little electric car, eh?


Mel Starrs (1973 – 2012)

This week we learned that our friend Mel Starrs passed away suddenly at her home over the weekend. Mel was an Engineer who was passionate about good quality low-carbon construction. She was a keen blogger and tweeter, and was an advocate of technology and the web. Mel was staunchly dedicated to her work – if there was something to know about sustainability or environmental design, Mel would have the answer. She was highly respected: online and in person Mel was brave and outspoken, she challenged people and she sought answers.

Rather than attempting to write something here, we’re pointing you towards Phil Clarke’s tribute to Mel over on Building Design. His writing has neatly summed up how we’re all feeling.

Her untimely death has left us stunned and our deepest condolences go to her partner Mark along with her friends and family. Mark has shared his thoughts on Mel’s blog and provided a suggestion for commemorative donations to her favourite charity. We’ll be making a donation and hope that anyone who knew Mel or has benefited from her tireless work to improve the environment will do the same.

We’ll miss you Mel.