Katie Thornburrow

One of a series of guides for those working with architects.

Embarking on any building project is an exciting step. If you have not done it before, you may not know what to expect, so we have prepared this short guide to the main steps and your involvement.

Making Plans

We will begin by discussing your requirements and surveying the site or building. We will carry out a feasibility study and at this stage can analyse your building’s use of energy and water to suggest any improvements in efficiency. We establish a brief at this stage.

We will draw up plans to discuss with you, and explain any bureaucratic procedures involved such as applying for planning permission, dealing with conservation requirements (if the building is listed) and complying with building regulations. We also fix a budget for the project now.

We will produce detailed plans which form the basis of the development and will be used by contractors, and conservation and planning officers. This is the point at which your building is designed.

Preparing the Site

Work may start with ground clearance or demolition. If we are demolishing an existing building, we will reclaim materials to use in the new building. Any reclaimed materials that cannot be used in the planned building will be recycled wherever possible.

Any new building work will start with laying foundations. The foundations provide the underlying support for the building; strong foundations are essential to prevent the building moving as a result of the ground shifting (subsidence). The foundations spread the weight of the building over the ground. For a house, the foundations are relatively shallow — typically around 1 metre deep.

Building Work

The main structure of the building comprises solid walls, beams, girders and any necessary reinforcements. Services are routed around the building at the same time as the structural walls are built.

This work will be carried out by trusted contractors; we monitor and manage progress carefully and will make as many site visits and have as many meetings with you as you require. If the work is an extension to an existing property, you may be occupying the building site. In this case, as much of the work as possible will be carried out before access is created to the areas where you are living. This minimises disruption, dust and noise.

Once the structure of the building is in place, internal partitions (non-structural walls), staircases, windows and doors are fitted. The roof is completed and the roof-space insulated. Routing of wiring and piping through the interior is completed at this point, and insulation and heating systems are fitted.


Work on the interior begins with laying flooring, plastering internal walls, installing bathroom and kitchen fixtures, completing the plumbing, wiring and heating systems. After this, painting and decorating and adding small fixtures such as door handles, light switches and curtain rails turn the new building into a home. Finally, snagging picks up and corrects any minor problems with the building before it is handed over.

We can work with trusted partners Angel + Blume on interior design work.

Anatomy of a Building

When planning a new or renovated building, you will need to think about all the components of the completed project.


Doors can be a feature as well as a way of getting in and out of a building. They are also a potential site for loss of energy, making the heating in a building less efficient. External doors must be draught-proof and well insulated to retain energy. Draught-proof interior doors allow for rooms to be kept at different temperatures. Interior doors may also be sound-proofed — in a music room, for instance.

Original doors will be retained when possible, or materials from a door may be reclaimed and re-used. New doors will be designed to be in keeping with the rest of the building. Access for disabled people may have to be considered in some cases.

We will not fit uPVC doors, but will use timber doors made from wood from sustainable sources.


Windows can be an important source of natural energy, letting in both light and heat from the sun. At the same time, they can let energy out of the building if they are not draught-proof and insulated.

Often, old buildings have beautiful feature windows. These will be retained and adapted to modern standards of insulation. They may be used for ventilation, with trickle vents or controlled openings. Ventilation is important for health and for the fabric of the building.

Buildings may also overheat if too much solar energy enters through windows. This is best prevented using movable shading, blinds or coatings on the glass. Shutters are a traditional way of preventing overheating and also insulating windows at night or in winter.

We will not fit uPVC windows, but will use timber windows made from wood from sustainable sources. Windows will be insulated and draught-proof. They will be double- or triple-glazed if possible Double-glazed windows will have an insulating inner pane (such as Pilkington K-glass). Argon-filled cavities between panes increase the thermal insulating properties of the window — argon-filled double-glazing is as effective as air-filled triple-glazing.


The roof is one of the largest and most noticeable features of a building. The choice of roofing material makes a great difference to the aesthetic impact of the whole structure.

Roofing will be made using local, sustainably sourced materials when possible. In East Anglia Cambridgeshire tiles, made in Burwell, are a good choice. Where local materials are not available or suitable, Welsh slate can be used.

Work on an old building often involves repairing or replacing the roof. We always endeavour to keep as much of the original structure as possible. We will try to re-use reclaimed roofing materials from the site, or from elsewhere, to match the existing roof.

Modifications to a roof offer opportunities for improving the insulation of a building. Heat loss through an uninsulated roof may account for around 25% of the energy lost by a building.

Alternative roofing materials include metal — typically steel, zinc, lead or copper — and concrete. A cement asbestos roof has asbestos fibres fixed in cement and is not a health risk if it is in good condition as the fibres do not escape. Disposal or repair of asbestos roofing requires expert handling.

Natural roofing materials include tile, wood shingles, thatch and slate. In some cases, a living, green roof can be created, planting sedum or other plants on the roof.


External walls may be of brick or block, stone, render, wood or pre-fabricated panels. Often, they are made of more than one material — such as masonry lined with wood, rendered or pebble-dashed.

New walls and walls built since the introduction of cavities (two layers of brick with an airspace between) should have insulation between the layers of brick (cavity wall insulation). Alternatives to cavity construction include modern timber-framing with infill panels.

The external walls need to carry the weight of the roof and any upper storeys. In a conversion, it may not be possible to salvage the original walls if they are in very poor condition.

On a conservation project, we will work with existing materials, and will reclaim and re-use original masonry when possible.

If an old wall is structurally sound, it can be repaired and replastered. Wiring and piping is laid before the wall is plastered. Dry-lining a wall with insulated plasterboard gives extra insulation, and can be applied to many types of existing wall and all new walls.

Interior walls often have a wooden framework that supports plasterboard. Structural internal walls (those which play a role in supporting the building) are masonry, like external walls.


Floors may be made of tile, stone, concrete or wood. It is often necessary to lift old flooring and level the ground before laying a new floor.

If the ground surface is uneven, the builders will use screed to provide a flat base for the new floor. A layer of concrete is poured over the area and smoothed, drying to give a perfectly level surface over which other flooring can be laid.

Before laying a new floor, it is worth considering installing underfloor heating. This can be delivered through electric cables laid under the flooring and heated from the mains electricity supply or a traditional ‘wet’ piped system. Underfloor heating can be installed under any type of flooring.


Most buildings need a supply of gas, electricity and water. Routing for services must be taken into account at the stage of first planning the building since piping and wiring are built into the infrastructure. It is important to have the right services in all rooms, so this must be considered at the planning stage.

The need for services affects how a building may be arranged. If a building has more than one storey, drainage for the upper floors must be considered. It is best to avoid having the main bathroom over a living room, for instance. If it’s unavoidable, the floor and drains must be properly insulated. It best to keep drains inside the building to avoid unsightly elevations.

When working with an existing building, we always assess the services in place already. It is important to make the most of the existing provision. This means making sure services are properly maintained and used efficiently. We will look at the age and condition of piping, cabling and heating systems and advise on updating and repairs.

Often, it is not economic in either financial or environmental terms to rip out existing fittings and replace them immediately — it may be better to use them more efficiently until replacement is necessary. To make best use an existing system, additional insulation will help to reduce energy waste and maintenance to fix any leaks or blockages will improve efficiency.

When planning a new building we advise zoning heating so that the heating for different parts of the building can be separately controlled. This means, for example, that working rooms can be heated during the daytime while bedrooms are heated only in the evening and early morning. Zoning cuts costs and avoids wasting energy heating unused spaces.

Technology is moving fast and it is difficult to predict future trends in services. It is already hard to accommodate some new services, such as computer networking, telephone lines and cable TV, in some existing buildings. It is important when laying service routes to consider possible future needs, or the need to access or replace servicing installed now.

Some homeowners are keen to install phone, computer and TV points in all rooms, and this is unnecessary. Wireless networking is reducing the need for cabled services and allows flexibility without the need for excessive routing of cables. We can advise on the best strategy to give adaptability with efficient and economic routing.

Energy efficiency and efficient use of water are important aspects of sustainability. All our building plans take account of the need to preserve water and keep use of fossil fuels and mains electricity to a minimum. There is more about this in the Sustainability section. Few people have time to invest in complicated management of their heating system, so we will always work towards a simple solution that is properly set to be easy to live with and manage.

Our Approach

Granta Architects works with private individuals, corporate clients and public sector bodies to produce sustainable developments fully compliant with the requirements of conservation. We are always sensitive to the architectural and natural environment as well as to the needs of the client.

Published by Granta Architects Ltd, 12D Kings Parade, Cambridge, CB2 1SJ

For further information please contact us. Email office@grantaarchitects.com or phone +44 1223 565656

Granta Architects is an RIBA Chartered architectural practice based in Cambridge, UK. http://www.grantaarchitects.com/

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