Practice in Profile

Architect Derek Burton shares his views from a busy practice with a special focus on housing design for developers and house builders.

Currently, there would appear to be a major drive by the industry, which is aligned with the Government’s 2020 ambitious targets and its thinking on the need for more offsite solutions to provide the housing stock required for the country.

We have to improve the housing numbers across the country, everybody knows that, it’s in the news almost every week, and we have skills shortages and time scale issues. If offsite can assist that then it is the way the industry will want to go. As far as we are concerned, we want to be at the forefront of this in advising and delivering alternative architectural solutions for our clients.

I think in the industry press we have certainly seen more commentary on offsite and frequently more positive attitudes towards alternative methods and the benefits these can bring.

Undoubtedly we now have more clients keen to consider modern methods such as modular construction, pods and alternative construction approaches including timber and steel frames. House builders will talk to us more and more about these alternative options before they make a decision on which way they want to go.

“We need offsite producers to invest in efficient support.”

What’s driving the interest on offsite?

I think it is a combination of factors. Undoubtedly it’s the desire to reduce personnel onsite, not having the skills onsite, wanting to build more quickly. Builders also want to improve health and safety and they know that offsite has a reputation for reducing risk. If there wasn’t a cost benefit at the end of it then clients maybe wouldn’t consider it – so I would probably say that it’s costs and health and safety because I know these are major concerns for a number of clients.

Have you found it easy to engage with offsite?

For most factory built elements we are relying on the supplier to provide detailed drawings and specifications because each project is different and manufactured to order. So assuming that the offsite supplier is efficient then it should be a simple and straightforward process for our team to incorporate their details into our drawing packages.

On this basis it shouldn’t be a problem for architects to accelerate their adoption of offsite but we will certainly need the offsite producers to invest in efficient support if the process is to run smoothly. We find that the producer’s technical advisors clearly know their systems inside out. However, sometimes they forget that customers will not be so familiar and may need more basic assistance.

Give us your real world opinion of BIM?

I believe that it is widely recognised that BIM will become the normal way of working just as the drawing board gave way to CAD. To me it is inevitable that it will become the norm, the standard. Clearly the advantages are already being shown on large complex building projects and it is a government requirement on public sector projects.

It has been more difficult to translate those benefits to housebuilding but gradually more major housebuilders are either implementing BIM or considering the options and timescales for its introduction.

Although, in the first instance, this is used in development of standard house types perhaps from a central design office and it has yet to move out to the majority of regional offices.

A large part of this reluctance is the high capital investment involved in putting the software into all of their regions and there is also a training issue, as many people don’t yet have the expertise within the internal design departments to fully implement it.

Of course a large part of BIM is collaboration and house builders are good at this with highly developed supply chains and standardisation. Taylor Wimpey, for example, have provided a service for the last 10 years where collaboration has been a core function with their supply chain.


MD of Amstrong Burton Architects based in Sutton Coldfield, Derek works with a number of the UK’s leading house builders and is uniquely placed to provide an insight into how trends are working through at the sharp end of the industry.

How has your practice developed recently?

We did a lot of work in 2016 involving the national space standards. Obviously developing existing house builders’ house type ranges and expanding those to have options for the national space standards.

The opportunity arose to start working on our first large-scale timber frame project. We always had clients expressing interest in using timber frame or metal frame structures in the past but they always went away from it at the last minute, whereas this project was with a contractor who has a specialist timber frame division. It is an interesting project – an Extra Care development of 70 apartments and supporting facilities.

More and more planning applications now need to be supported by the use of 3D modelling and sketch up modelling so we decided to expand our capabilities in this regard including housing layouts, design and graphics.

What’s next for Armstrong Burton Architects?

We are rebranding for the first time in twenty years and along with that will come a new website, a change of colour and a new logo so it’s all very exciting but there’s a lot of work involved. In terms of projects ahead we are looking at a new apartment range for a national house builder – I think it gives an indication that more apartments are being planned in addition to housing.

Our first full BIM project is also expected this year. We haven’t actually been instructed on one but a number have clients have indicated that their next project will be full BIM so this will be a new departure for us. We do have six full BIM workstations ready to go once we get that instruction.

In addition to mainstream house building we also specialise in the retirement and Extra Care sectors for older people. The product for this market is evolving with people living longer, both in terms of lifestyle and care. I am hoping to be involved with the development of these new products over the next twelve months or so – it is very much my speciality.

Outside of that we are concentrating on business development, expanding our work with national house builders and housing associations. We aim to be more focused on this than perhaps we have been in the past. We have been heavily reliant on repeat business from clients, so we are trying to concentrate this year on developing additional new relationships for example with other regional offices of existing clients.

We’d also like to develop relationships with new house builders and housing associations. We’ve not done so much work on the commercial and industrial front since the recession so we would like to initiate that as well. So its certainly looking like a busy year!

Source: Keystone – Innovating Times

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