Cantifix: As the head of Cantifix’s south-west division, what sort of changes have you noticed in the types of jobs you’re taking on recently? Particularly in light of the pandemic – are you finding more people moving out of London and doing up their new country homes?
Chris: Initially, my projects mainly involved installation of our premium Sky-Frame sliding door system, but over the last 5 years or so, the demand for larger projects in the south west has grown massively and now means that some of our highest end installations have been outside London. What is also evident is that the distance from London that these larger projects are starting to be built is also growing. We now find ourselves installing a huge variety of our products on some amazing private holiday homes that are buried deep into the south west region, whereas before, the majority of our non-London work was in the relatively affluent commuter belts of the south east.
Ca: A big part of the reason for having yourself on board with Cantifix is so that we have an ear to the ground on sites further afield than our London-based project managers. Do you feel there are any extra benefits to you being based down in Somerset?
Ch: Over the last 10 years, I have built up many very good relationships with local builders and this is reflected by the amount of repeat business we experience in this part of the country. They and the architects are getting more used to having bespoke structural glazing on rural projects with the benefit of knowing that Cantifix can make their vision happen. In some instances, we have had a London client who we have installed products for purchase a 2nd home in the southwest and want the same level of detail in their getaway property. With these close personal relationships, these repeat clients know their project is in safe hands and they can rely on me to go the extra mile for them.
It has definitely benefited our company having someone in the area who can visit site easily and help guide the builder or homeowner through the installation and remove the stress often associated with the construction phase of a project.
Ca: Is there a project you’re particularly proud of or that’s been the most enjoyable to work on?
Ch: This is going to sound staged but I am genuinely proud of every project I have installed. None are the same and I would like to think as a company they all matter. Having said that, a few that do stand out in my memory - installing the first and largest set of motorised curved sliding doors ever produced by Sky-Frame on the island of Jersey was a difficult logistical exercise, but very satisfying when we got them finished and running well.
We have installed some beautiful glass projects in numerous Oxford colleges, using glass to form links between these buildings that are so steeped in heritage. It was great to be able to add something to buildings that were created so long ago. Then there is obviously the gym panel at the Newt Hotel. Standing at over 12m long and 3m high, the amount of planning, equipment and expertise from our fitting team on that project was brilliant and they did a phenomenal job for us getting a panel of that magnitude installed with the precision that they did. I can’t see this sort of installation being replicated during my career but let’s see what else comes along through Cantifix – as they say, never say never!
Ca: What is it about properties in the South West that makes Cantifix such an attractive proposal?
Ch: Cantifix are all about creating a connection between internal and external spaces,following the Bauhaus principle of spatial flow between interior and exterior environments (as well as other Bauhaus principles, such as minimalism and use of industrial materials, functional shapes and simple colour schemes). This lends itself perfectly to rural areas, where the tranquillity of nature can be invited inside. Minimal framework on all our glass means that even when the doors/windows are closed, the client can still enjoy the beautiful views on offer in the south west, from the wild, open moorlands of Dartmoor to the stunning Jurassic coast between Exeter and Swanage in Dorset.
Ca: How does the South West as an area/terrain require a slightly different approach to say a project in London? What are the specific technologies Cantifix uses for this approach?
Ch: We often work in more exposed locations, particularly in the rural projects that make up the majority of our work in the south west. There are several factors that must be considered when building in remote locations, including high wind loads, more exposure to sun and less protection from rain than more built-up areas. Our experience with these sorts of projects, as well as the expertise of our in-house engineering team, means that we have a host of solutions available. In areas with high wind loads, we use a thicker glass specification to prevent the glass flexing or, worse, failing in the face of even the strongest winds. Thicker glass has the added benefit of better acoustic insulation, cutting out the howl of gale force winds sweeping the open planes of Dartmoor or shrieking over the wind-whipped caps of North Devon.
Coastal areas face these problems and more. The sea spray and driving rain coastal properties are exposed to can cause real problems with metalwork. To that end, we always use marine-grade powder-coating to protect framework and other metal elements in our coastal projects. Regular powder-coating is susceptible to salt corrosion, but marine-grade paint is resistant to salt permeation, meaning salt can’t get into the metal and corrode it from the inside.
Ca: What are the most common challenges you come across working on projects in the South West?
Ch: Further to the problems outlined above, there are also logistical challenges working on projects down in the south west. Firstly, and most obviously, access can be a problem on rural projects. Remote locations and winding country roads mean my projects can be tricky to get to and deliveries spend hours snaking along one-lane country roads. The large panel at The Newt was particularly tricky, but with careful driving and additional time allocated for the delivery, it was delivered on-time and in one piece!
Next, there is a limited pool of subcontractors in this region compared to other, more heavily-populated parts of the country, even in the major towns and cities (with the exception of Bristol) of the southwest. My long-standing relationships with regional main contractors and architects mean I have access to their networks, which expands my own network of crane operators, plant hire companies and the various other services that make our projects go ahead smoothly. Knowing who is reliable and knowledgeable is vital in securing the best services at the best cost for our clients.
Finally, there’s the challenges and costs associated with services on site. In the city, you take things like plumbing and electricity for granted, but not so on sites in the middle of nowhere – especially new builds, which are becoming increasingly common in light of people moving out of urban areas in light of the pandemic. These sorts of clients often don’t fully appreciate the fact that they won’t have these services and part of my job is managing their expectations and educating them about the associated costs and challenges.
Ca: Do you think there is particular potential for the South West in terms of architectural innovation?
Ch: The south west, in particular, Devon and Cornwall, have a distinct style of architecture that actually compliments Cantifix’s style quite nicely. Many properties in the southernmost counties of the UK use local granite and slate, and these materials combine beautifully with minimally-framed glazing (see Two Cocks Farm). Buildings in the southern Cotswolds (Bath and surrounding areas) and the surrounding areas use a similarly local and distinctive material palette, often incorporating golden Bath stone (a kind of limestone common in the area). A striking and beautiful contrast can be created between the warm golden stone and the more industrial glass and aluminium of our glazing.
Using these more traditional and natural materials to contrast and offset modern, minimal glazing , the south west has huge architectural potential and I’m looking forward to seeing how this emerging trend progresses over the coming years.
Ca: Construction can be a bit of a closed shop in the region, with people giving jobs to those they know or are related to. What has your journey been like and what sort of advice would you give to young people starting off in construction in the south west?
Ch: I’ve always worked on construction sites, starting off with the fabrication and installation of structural steel buildings, which is where a lot of my knowledge of reading technical drawings and logistic knowledge, including use of large cranes came from. I progressed through the company, and eventually, I was employed as a construction site manager, taking on large scale commercial projects with major main contractors such as SRM, Kier and many more.
Once I started a family, I wanted to take on something a bit more local and heading up Cantifix’s south west division was ideal for me.
My advice for anyone starting out would be to be patient above all, things move slowly down here and my career shows that you won’t get to the real juicy stuff until you’ve done your time! Take the time to cultivate relationships with those you come across, whether you’re working with them every day or if you only meet them a handful of times on one project, you never know where and when your next opportunity will arise.
Other than that, be flexible and adapt and embrace new technologies. Design and construction techniques have come on leaps and bounds in my time in this business. From 3D CAD to 5D BIM and ever-changing planning rules and health and safety regulations, you need to be able to embrace and work with change, otherwise you’ll have a tough time. That being said, perseverance and agility will give you a wonderful career, one I wouldn’t swap for anything in the world.