A Cautionary Tale

So the architect. We had a tricky time with ours and I have to say the experience has left me wary of using one again. Perhaps because I had such very strong ideas of what I wanted. Probably because we didn’t have a very good one.

Here’s what happened.

I hadn’t realised that, having paid the architect, let’s call him K, I would need to pay the structural engineer as well. And the council for planning permission. And again for building regulations. And you may say: “well you’re a ditzy piece did you think they would all work for free?”

And the point is not that I thought that, but that I didn’t actually think about any of it because I ASSUMED the architect would tell me everything I needed to know. I assumed that was what I was paying him for. That a certain amount of his fee was calculated to include handholding/building-babysitting/path-smoothing. Call it what you will.

I also assumed that he would come up with some clever ideas that I hadn’t thought of. And that he would turn up when he said he would. And reply to my emails. And apply for planning permission when he said he had, and not disappear on holiday for three weeks to a place with no phone signal. And then return and think it was funny that his computer had (allegedly) broken down and lost all our drawings and that it would take him another two weeks to redo them and reapply for the planning permission. But that in the meantime his wife had flu so he couldn’t actually do anything for a few days as he had to take his daughter to nursery.

All of those things I ASSUMED would not be an issue. And, breathing deeply now, I was wrong.

To backtrack, some of this was, in fact my fault and comes back to that old adage that you get what you pay for.

My builder (a truly lovely man Gawd bless him) said he had come across an architect of whom he had heard good things and that he would be willing to come round for an initial look-see and chat without charging. Now, I had done some research and found the process of hiring an archited to be earbleedingly expensive. And given that we already had a pretty good idea of what we wanted, I just needed someone to come round to see if they would suggest something totally brilliant that I wouldn’t have thought of myself.

I must stress here that my builder and I are still on very good terms and he knows that I do not hold him responsible for this debacle. As I have said elsewhere in this saga, I tell you these things not so you can all have a chuckle at my stupidity but so that you may avoid these pitfalls in your own cases. See how fair-minded I am?

Anyway, I emailed K and explained the most pressing issues; the house had been converted into two flats and would need permission for change of use back to a single dwelling, and that we wanted a full width rear extension so that the back of the house would be flat and not with the original dog leg shape.In other words to fill in the side-return and go back a little bit further. Neither issue was a problem I was told

K cancelled our first meeting due to a death in the family of a close friend. We rescheduled for the following week.

At the meeting he said he would deal with everything. He didn’t have any new ideas for me but he seemed keen to take the job and said he would get us the best planning permission it would be possible to get. He said he would submit the plans the day we moved in so that we would be able to start work in the new year.

We moved in on 10 December. He sent this a week later:


  • Application form                             completed,
  • Ownership Certificate                     completed,
  • Site Location Plan                          completed,

Exisitng & Proposed dwgs                 almost completed.

He added that we needed to pay the council £150, which we did by return of post. And gave him £550 – half the agreed fee with £50 for photocopying (I know!)

The Christmas holidays arrived and with them a letter from the council acknowledging receipt of our cheque and politely asking why we had sent it.

Couldn’t get hold of K for the next two weeks, and when the council office finally reopened after the holidays we established that contrary to his assertions that everything had been submitted and was on track, they had, in fact, received nothing.

When K returned (my teeth were only a little gritted and bear in mind it can take six weeks from application to permission to start building) he infuriated me further by refusing to acknowledge there was a problem and insisting it would all sort itself out. Then informed me  by text three days later that his computer had a virus and had lost everything. I managed only a one word reply, which under the circumstances I thought restrained: “Bummer.”

Finally it was all in by 12 January, a month later than agreed and I had that conversation that you should never have. Otherwise known as counting your chickens . . . .

“The neighbours won’t object,” I confidently informed A. “There’s nothing for them to object to. K has planned it all carefully. It will all be fine, let’s go and buy a cooker. Can we have a Smeg?”

Later that day, in an idle moment I hit Google and discovered that it was our council’s policy to “not normally allow” full width rear extensions.

When I mentioned this to K, he professed total bafflement. At least he did when he replied to my email some three days later.  Two days after that he had tweaked the plans. There was some to-ing and fro-ing with the council which got us nowhere. Finally K suggested we might be able to pull it off under the rules of permitted development. After a painful three hours trying to calculate the cubic volume of the building I discovered that the rules he was talking about had changed two years previously. He was forced to admit (under some pressure) that he was working from a book that was three years out of date. At this point I went email mental.

He told me to “have a glass of something relaxing”. I fired him.

In March we received permission for an extension which didn’t go all the way across, which meant there would be no room for a sofa in the kitchen – a long held dream of mine.

For a while we panicked that the room would be too much of an odd shape but as you can see I think it worked. I will go into more detail room by room in future posts. It’s not as long and thin as it looks here. And yes that is a tin ceiling for sharp-eyed observers.




But from that point on, I managed the project with the help of my lovely builder. Well he would probably say that he managed it and I floated about waving mood boards at him, but he let me feel that I was in charge and that is just one of the reasons he is brilliant.

So there we were planning permission granted and all ready to go . . .



Kate Watson-Smyth

The author Kate Watson-Smyth

I’m a journalist who writes about interiors mainly for The Financial Times but I have also written regularly for The Independent and The Daily Mail. My house has been in Living Etc, HeartHome and featured in The Wall Street Journal & Corriere della Sera. I also run an interior styling consultancy Mad About Your House. Welcome to my Mad House.


  1. New to your blog (and very new to blogging myself!) and finding it interesting and helpful.
    We had a similar issue with our architect but with fees of over £3000!

  2. Sounds gruelling… From a professional point of view, I would say that it’s so important to do your research on what you, the client, should expect from an architect/interior designer. The really good ones usually provide information upfront: their process: what to expect along with their initial propossal & fees. Once the design work is agreed, a detailed scope of works follows. If you’re not receiving this information then you may wish to refer to the contract – if you signed one…

    I must say that £1100 is not really a lot of money to design & project manage a building project so that alone should have raised a red flag. Of course, not everyone has hundreds of thousands to spend in which case a very good builder can go a long way. Above all, it sounds like you & your home survived the experience so you’ve done well!

    Last point: paying for good design is a lot like paying for good food: you hesitate, at first, but the experience and effects are life enhancing. And valuable.

Comments are closed.