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Choosing the right architect to design your home
Last updated 27th Apr 2017
When choosing the right architectural specialist, there are some key issues you need to think about. In this article, we’ll take you through them step by step.
- Write down some key facts about your project
- Work out which type of architectural specialist is right for your project
- Get a clear understanding of payment structures
- Find out what an initial visit will include, and how much it will cost
- Ask these key questions
- View examples of similar work and speak to previous clients
- Look for success in dealing with planning and building regulations
- Ask who will actually be doing the work
Write down some key facts about your project
Before you ask any architectural specialist to visit your home, write down what you’d like the project to achieve - and include as much detail as possible.
David Hepburn - of Hepburn Architects - is a fully-qualified ARB and RIBA-registered architect with an excellent MyBuilder feedback rating. He highlights some of the key topics your ‘brief’ to tradesmen should cover:
First, you should describe what you’re hoping to achieve - your ideal situation, not just limited by what you can specifically afford at the time.
That’s because if a homeowner explains what their future aspirations are, a good architect or architectural technician may well be able to ‘future-proof’ that project, factoring in various future possibilities in advance. So for example, rather than saying ‘I want a little kitchen’, be sure to explain that ‘I want a little kitchen, but with the possibility of a bigger dining room attached to it in the future’.
Budget is another important thing to include in your brief - so the specialist can come up with realistic suggestions about how to achieve the goals you’ve outlined.
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Here are some other important questions you should try to answer in your brief:
- How do you and others plan to use the structure the specialist creates?
- What issues currently exist that you hope the project will resolve?
- What are your design priorities? For example, do you want a traditional structure to fit seamlessly with existing buildings? Are you after something cutting-edge and contemporary? Or is your main concern environmental sustainability?
- Are there any practical issues a specialist should be aware of? For example, will you be away from your property during the work? Who in your home will be the main decision-maker?
- Have you already spoken to anyone about planning permission or building regulations? If so, what was the outcome?
Give a copy of this document to every architectural specialist you’re considering using. That way, you’ll be able to directly compare their responses and see which one best engages with the project.
Work out which type of architectural specialist is right for your project
There are several professional groupings that fall into MyBuilder’s architectural specialist category. Not everyone is a chartered architect, and it’s important you understand the main differences between these groups so you can choose the specialist that best suits your project.
In David’s view, if it’s a complex project that requires a lot of design input, you’d be better off hiring a fully qualified architect:
Obviously I’m a bit biased, but going to university for seven years, and getting those qualifications - I do think that is a good indication that the person is competent to do a good job. Gill Bloggs down the street might able to do a great drawing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she can design a house!
That isn’t to say that a technician can’t do a standard extension, for example. I think the key thing is for the homeowner to clearly explain what they’re looking for at an early stage, so the tradesmen can see the scope and complexity of the work they’re quoting on.
Get a clear understanding of payment structures
Different architectural specialists will operate very different fee structures. Some will charge based on time spent, others will charge a single, flat fee (usually for smaller jobs) and others may quote a fixed total fee, with an initial deposit required upfront.
As David explains, he splits his fee payments to reflect what the different stages of the project are:
It would normally be three categories: The pre-planning/design stage - which can cover primitive development, because sometimes you don’t need planning permission. Another small fee on top of that would be if I were actually to submit it to planning, including more detailed drawings. And the third stage of the fee would be building control - which is a requirement before the build starts.
I normally prepare a sort of ‘fee timeline’ document, giving an overview of whole costings. And because my fee is a fixed price, that is not going to change.
In David’s fee document, he also suggests other professionals the homeowner might want to use:
These might include for example, structural engineers who I’ve used before and I trust. I’ll give a guide price of what these people are likely to cost, as well, just so the homeowner has a rough overall picture early on and doesn’t get any nasty surprises.
Whatever payment structure an architectural specialist suggests, never pay the full amount upfront. Full payment shouldn’t be made until the project is completely finished, and you’ve inspected it to make sure you’re happy with the work.
Find out what an initial visit will include, and how much it will cost
Many architectural specialists will do an initial site visit free of charge and without obligation. However, others will charge for this, so make sure you have clarity before you invite anyone to quote on your project.
Alexandre Durao - of Alex D Architects - is a chartered architect who has been a MyBuilder member since 2014. He explains why he offers a free initial visit:
My first consultation is always free. That potential client is entitled to ask me whatever they want. I know that some architects will keep it quite bland in the initial consultation, not giving that much information, but I do exactly the opposite. I give them as much information as possible, so then they feel quite comfortable and in a better position to make decisions.
If they end up choosing someone else, that’s alright too - it may be that we’re not quite right for each other anyway.
Thomas Agus of White Agus Partnership is a chartered architectural technologist with a fantastic MyBuilder feedback rating. He agrees that the first visit should be free of charge and without obligation - and highlights what you should be looking for in it:
You should be left with an understanding of the whole design process, including the planning and building regulations process. You should have a clear understanding of all the fees involved, and how the project is going to be run from start to finish!
Ask these key questions
An architectural specialist needs to listen to your ideas, hopes and preferences, interpret them correctly and turn them into a practical, functioning structural reality. This means the ability to communicate is key, perhaps more than in any other trade.
An architectural specialist may be highly qualified and technically skilled, but if they don’t really listen to what you’re telling them, they’re not the right person for you. Thomas emphasises:
Can the architectural specialist adapt to suit your brief? It is not prudent to hire a yes man. Hire someone who asks questions about your ideas, and who puts forward ideas of their own that may spark design alternatives. A skilled architectural specialist will understand your requirements and work with you to achieve a design you are 100% happy with.
According to Thomas, there are a few key questions you should be asking:
- Is the project feasible?
- Will my budget cover the work?
- Are there any alternative design options?
- What materials should I be using?
- What are the planning restrictions that might come into play?
- How and at what stage would you liaise with the builder on this project?
- Should I be engaging a builder now, or after plans are drawn up?
- What is your estimated timescale for the project?
- What other fees am I likely to have to pay? (for example, local authority/water authority/third party fees)
A specialist who communicates effectively should be able to answer all these questions at an early stage of the process.
View examples of similar work and speak to previous clients
Before you commit to hiring anyone, make sure you view examples of their recent work and - if at all possible - speak to one or two of their previous clients. This will give you the chance to both examine the quality of their workmanship and find out how efficiently they managed the overall project.
The latter is particularly important when hiring an architectural specialist, because projects they are involved with often require a big investment of time and energy, as well as money, on the part of the homeowner.
When chatting to previous clients, ask whether the architectural specialist was organised and on time on a day-to-day basis. Did they stick to their initial quote, or did costs escalate? Were they easy to get hold of when needed? Did they complete the work to the original timescale, or did the project stretch out for weeks or months longer than expected? Did anything go wrong, and how did the specialist deal with it?
If customers ask for previous clients to contact, I usually give them ten or 15 names, and just get them to choose two or three to talk to.
That way it’s fairer on the potential customer - they will get genuine feedback from whoever they speak to - rather than just someone I’ve prepared to take the call!
Look for success in dealing with planning and building regulations
Your architectural specialist may need to prepare applications to your local authority for both planning consent and building regulations approval. That means you need to choose a specialist who has an excellent understanding of both these areas. Alexandre explains:
Before I start doing any drawings, I like to consider everything that’s relevant - so for example I go through all the planning policies. There’s no point in making drawings if then you’re not getting them accepted. We have a 97-98% approval rating for the jobs we do - so we’re really proud of that.
One thing a lot of homeowners ask is - ‘have you worked with this council before?’ or ‘do you know anyone on this council?’ But knowing that isn’t usually going to help them. We already deal with around 40 different councils - and what’s relevant is knowing how to get the planning policies sorted.
It doesn’t usually matter whether you have a friend who works in that particular office! I think the question people should probably be asking instead is, how much experience does an architect have of dealing with councils generally? Do they have procedures in place for that?
Ask who will actually be doing the work
Finally, says Alexandre, it’s worth checking whether the architectural specialist who makes the initial site visit will actually be doing the work and involved in the project from beginning to end.
In our case I have a team of six people, and a number of jobs in progress at any one time, but I will do the first drawings and sketches, and then I’ll always be the one checking how the job is going and discussing things with the client.
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