Cityzen sheds light on the complexities of architectural design
Founded by experienced architectural technologist John Smith MCIAT, together with BREEAM assessor and sustainability advisor Charlotte Smith, Cityzen Ltd is a forward-thinking, ethical design company committed to low carbon initiatives.
Multi-skilled in architectural design, energy and building services engineering for both residential and commercial sectors, Cityzen's powerful combination of science and creativity enables the company to provide the latest, effective energy-saving solutions.
We are delighted to take the opportunity to catch up with John, director at Cityzen, and discover what motivates him and Charlotte as they strive to help clients achieve energy efficiency in the built environment and local community.
Cityzen is now over five years old, what made you take the leap to set up the company?
Previously, when I was a director at another practice that was purely M&E focused, I noticed that the industry was shifting towards building performance and this was having an impact on the design process. So in 2003 I went to the University of Brighton to study architectural technology. After gaining this degree, I returned to the practice and continued working there until the time was right in 2010 to set up Cityzen (at the height of the recession!).
There's a strong ethic running through the company, as well as you and Charlotte as individuals - do you find this attracts a certain clientele?
Sustainability is where we want our focus to be. We want clients to be engaged with how much energy a building uses in both its construction and use; thankfully our clients seem to understand the reasons why we specify certain products and not others. Of course we're aware that sometimes clients can't afford to use the best products, so at that point we have to be pragmatic and creative.
What's been your biggest challenge or your most challenging project to date?
I think it would probably be one of our current projects, a listed cottage in the South Downs. It took us two years to gain planning consent, it's been on site 20 months to date and I think we have produced 139 drawings so far (not counting revisions and sketches!). It has been a long process to turn a tired 1780's cottage into a special family home. Part way through the project some walls were found to be structurally unsound, which required knocking down and completely rebuilding a whole section, and there were archaeologists on site every day checking for historic elements. Buying a listed property is a big undertaking and buyers should be made more aware that it's not just their home, it's a heritage asset protected by law!
In your experience working with listed properties, how difficult is it to adhere to modern building regulations?
Working on a listed property can be difficult where certain building regulations are concerned. Most of the regulations are easily achievable, but it can get tricky where they relate to the historic fabric or look of the building. For example, it's very important to make sure that any additional insulation is appropriate for the original construction, and to ensure – where it is solid wall construction - that the building can breathe.
When it comes to electrical design, at what stage/s of an interior project is it essential you are involved?
Having worked as a services engineer I think it's critical to get the electrical design in place as early as possible, coordinating the locations of the faceplates so they are logically positioned and aligned within the space; so they don't just look good but are in the right positions.
Is this the same for every project?
It's never the same on any two projects! Some clients want as much as possible hidden away, so then the interior design comes into play - knowing where tables, equipment and curtains can hide the sockets and switches. Others want the contrast and ease of use.
Are there common issues or client misconceptions regarding process or timescales involved?
Clients always want everything long before it's possible, and often don't understand why things take so long. On a large project we can be developing the design for months before it goes to Planning, then the eight week (plus) process starts. If consent is granted, you then need to get approval from Building Control (five weeks) and only at that point do you have something a builder can sensibly price via a tender process (minimum three weeks). Finally you can begin the construction phase on site. There are a few short cuts but everything is based around the 'time, money, quality' triangle and as the saying goes, you can only have two out of three.
What are you working on right now?
My focus is on finishing our listed project. It's in the final throes of coordinating finishes, bathrooms, stone work etc. I always get nervous at this stage, and start to wonder whether I've missed anything and I have to go round double checking that all the lighting, power, AV and controls are wired in (as it's too late once the floors are laid and the plastering is finished!).
How long has the project taken?
We first met the client in December 2013. Luckily we get on! You have to have a good relationship with your clients and the design team as sometimes it takes years to get to that final point of handover.
What was important to you when selecting electrical wiring accessories for this particular project?
For this project everything has been about simplicity and quality. One of the clients is a designer and knows what they want, so the faceplates, radiators, valves and stone paint complement one another. It's quite a clean pallet of raw metals and greys, which will look amazing with a few special elements in each room.
How important is it to have a wide range of finishes to choose from when selecting electrical wiring accessories?
Having a good selection of materials, finishes and styles is important as every property is an extension of its owner and they contribute to the overall feel of the property. The range of finishes that Focus SB can provide is alway a great help to our projects, a subtle change in colour can make a big difference to the overall feel of a room.
Where have the trends been in terms of finishes over the past five years and where do you see them going over the next few years?
I think trends tend to be quite fickle. For example, over the past five years we've seen the plate thickness reduce and the corners get sharper. I'd love to see more technological advances over the next few years, such as more wireless charging points that we could embed into the fabric of buildings, and electrical outlets we can add to a digital network to enable more intelligent usage. Also, white plastic should be banned on dark coloured walls!
Who installed the lighting and switching, and why did you choose this particular electrical contractor?
The electrical contractor was part of the Nutshell Construction team. They are a great family contractor with 300 years of local family history and several historic renovation projects under their belt.
When you volunteered for Grand Designs Live 2017 "Ask an Expert", representing Cityzen and the Chartered Institute of Architectural Technology, what did you find were the most common questions?
I have been on the 'Ask an Expert' panel for the past four years and there are a few common themes that run through the questions each year. Some people are looking for reassurance that their designer has produced the "right design", or they don't like what their designer has given them so they want a second opinion. I would say you pay for what you get in some instances, but other times people haven't always got what they paid for. Hiring any design professional is about a relationship - they are going to be creating something for you to live in, so it has to be right; you have to get along and ask the painful questions early on, not after it's onsite!
Others are asking for solutions for planning or products. It's a really good challenge every year and keeps me on my toes! Every 20 minutes there's a new scenario for me to help someone with.
It's clear you enjoy helping people to enjoy and understand the design process. How do you apply this to guiding your clients from enquiry to project completion?
We always ask clients to visualise how they want to live - we have a questionnaire which helps them think about what their goals are and the little things they like/dislike that can make or break a project.
What future changes would you like to see with regards sustainability in the built environment?
More regulation is inevitable to combat climate change, but we would also like to see more product data available around the lifecycle, carbon used, chemicals used and end-of-life recyclability, to ensure we are specifying products that are appropriate for the future and are truly sustainable.
What's next for Cityzen in 2017-18?
This year we have a few toys we want to use to help our clients and the team. We've invested in BIM (Building Information Modelling) software and training for all our staff over the last few years, so this year we are developing the ability to export our 3D models into virtual reality for every project, thus helping the client see the space before it's built.