Qualifying just after a recession felt like an unlucky break for chartered surveyor Helen Whitehead – but one she turned to her advantage.
“It wasn’t a great time to be looking for a job, and after a few years of picking up odd bits of work for a variety of people, I decided that I would be better off setting up on my own,” said Helen, now director of Tenterden-based chartered surveyors Price Whitehead.
“I felt I had a bit of an entrepreneurial streak in me so I decided to find my own clients, set up my own business and get on with it.”
That was 20 years ago, and a glance at the busy whiteboard in the converted stables that houses the growing firm highlights the dramatic success Helen and her team have achieved since then.
The award-winning business offers rural building design and planning consultancy and provides architectural services as well as a broad range of professional advice and support.
The rural focus reflects Helen’s hands-on experience of agricultural issues and the fact that she still helps look after a suckler herd at the firm’s Forstal Farm base.
Her husband Bruce, who originally trained as a quantity surveyor, kept a dairy herd at the farm until 2004, when a combination of falling milk prices and a TB reactor cow that later proved negative put paid to a successful operation that had included an award-winning cheese business.
“Bruce closed down the dairy and joined the firm, which by now was taking off, and with him on board we moved the farming side over to a suckler herd,” Helen explained. “We had Guernseys in the past, but are now switching to pedigree Sussex cattle. “Having such close links to farming helps me understand what clients are trying to achieve and allows me to look at all the options when they are thinking about converting an old building, raising more revenue from their site or asking for help with an agricultural planning issue.”
But it’s not all farm building conversions and agricultural occupancy applications. In Ashford Borough Council’s Building Design Awards 2016, Price Whitehead was highly commended in the Quality Craftsmanship category for its work at Old Clockhouse Green, Challock.
The six-dwelling development for David Cox of Cox Developments (Charing) Ltd has now gone forward to the South East Local Authority Building Control (LABC) awards, where it has been shortlisted for more recognition.
The firm tackles everything from commercial buildings to barn conversions, equestrian complexes and new agricultural buildings, as well as standard house-buying surveys and valuations.
Price Whitehead also offers topographical surveys for other designers and developers who don’t have the ability to do the work in-house, as well as dealing with certificates of lawful development, variations of conditions, planning appeals and listed buildings.
“In short, we offer the full range of surveying, design and planning services, with a particular focus on rural property,” said Helen. “Our aim is to help clients realise their development ambitions and enable individuals and rural businesses to evolve by giving them well-considered advice based on a broad range of experience and a solid skills base.
“This year marks our 20th anniversary and we want to thank all our clients to date and look forward to continuing to work with them over the next 20 years and beyond.”
As well as Helen and Bruce, the Price Whitehead team consists of architect Jane Newman and trainee surveyor and CAD technician Holly Cavill, plus a support team comprising Anne Alexander and Charlotte Nicholls. Stockman Peter Brown, meanwhile, looks after the Sussex herd.
Recent schemes have included extensions to listed buildings and to a popular rural pub as well as new homes and a variety of change of use applications.
While many of the firm’s agricultural designs are large-scale affairs, the team does get asked to tackle some quirky jobs and is always keen to accept a new challenge.
“We have designed plenty of large agricultural and equestrian buildings, but at the other end of the scale we designed a single toilet for the Tenterden Station Estate,” Helen revealed. “We were flushed with success over that scheme.”
Only slightly larger than the toilet was a Peasmarsh tree house that was the subject of another of Helen’s applications. “It was a large tree house constructed in a way that meant the owner should have applied for planning permission,” she explained. “I was asked to sort out the plans and apply for retrospective permission.”
But whether it’s sorting out a tree house or being asked to come up with concept drawings for the redevelopment of the Kent Showground at Detling – another project Price Whitehead was brought in to tackle – the team takes the same customer-focused approach to every job.
“We enjoy quirky challenges as well as the more mainstream projects but we give everything 100 per cent,” said Helen. “We aim to go the extra mile for our clients and in return we benefit from a very high number of referrals. Most of our work comes from word of mouth and we take that as a great compliment.”
Helen enjoys a good relationship with local planners, and her rural background helps her to put forward a convincing case when dealing with agricultural occupancy applications or lawful development certificates.
She added: “The introduction of Part Q to the Permitted Development Order has created a new field of work for converting suitable farm buildings to dwellings, although there are occasions when we have to let enthusiastic clients down gently because their property lies in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), where the rules do not apply.
“Another area that is keeping us particularly busy is the equestrian sector. We are also working on a number of conversions, extensions and commercial projects, as well as being kept busy with planning consultancy work around alternative uses for redundant dairies and other buildings.
“We have the experience and the knowledge to provide advice on what will work for our clients. We can provide options and costs and carry out a feasibility study, long before we come up with the drawing and the plans that will take the project forward. “It’s about delivering the whole package and ensuring it’s the right option to ensure the client’s future business success.”
Pictured: Helen, Bruce and Jane