Article by Julian Owen

There are two crucial choices that you will have to make when you embark on a building project. The selection of the builder is probably the most important, but running a close second is finding the person who will create the design and prepare the detailed drawings for the builder to work from. Given that a good designer will know where to find the best builders, and will be one of the first people you employ at the start your project, it is worth putting careful thought into who plays this key role.

When is an “Architect” not an Architect?

Anyone using the title ‘architect’ must be registered with the Architects Registration oard (ARB), a government organisation that deals with complaints and keeps a register of qualified architects. This body provides valuable protection for consumers, but has no power to discipline or fine non-architects. Most architects are also members of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), although this is not required to practice.

When you employ a designer, you are paying for their knowledge, skill and experience, not just the set of drawings that they produce. Usually the final drawings are produced relatively quickly at the end of a design process that involves discussion between client and professional. Sketch plans are drafted along the way and the ideas generated are either kept or rejected as the design progresses. Architects think in three dimensions; so when they draw a plan they are also thinking about the size, scale and proportion of the space that will be being created. Elevations are flat, two dimensional scaled drawings that barely describe the design enough for the planners to measure its impact on its surroundings.  Few buildings look exactly like their elevations drawings in reality, once constructed.

Whilst imagining a design, architects are also thinking about how it will be built, the structural implications, the building regulations that apply and the likely cost. This is because if these things are not considered during the initial design they may present problems later on. The later they are discovered, the bigger the impact on the project. The worst case is when they are not noticed until after building work has started. For example, the late discovery of inadequate headroom in a roofspace might result in a fresh planning application, amendments to the building regulations drawings, the demolition and reconstruction of the roof, extra money for the builder and a delay in completion.

Although they are best known for design flair, architects offer a wide range of services (see boxed item). Most are happy to provide as much or little help as their clients need. A family building a large one off house will benefit from the full service, because it is not possible to get reliable fixed quotes from builders with building regulations drawings alone. Once on site, a project of this scale benefits from someone able to check the quality of the work as it progresses and approve payments to the builder. Also a new house usually needs certification before the building society or bank will release money to finance it, which can be provided by an architect.

Typical Service by an Architect

  1. Identify the budget
  2. Discuss and agree the client’s brief
  3. Measure and draw the existing building (if there is one)
  4. Sketch out ideas & discuss with clients
  5. Rework design in the light of client’ comments
  6. Prepare planning drawings
  7. Prepare constructions drawing and specifications
  8. Find contractors and obtain tenders
  9. Prepare building contract
  10. Monitor the construction on site.
  11. Certify payments and completion.

However, if you already have a reliable builder lined up, or you intend to do much of the building work yourself, or you are going to manage a series of trades on site yourself in place of a main contractor, it may be sufficient to simply have the planning and building regulations completed by the architect. You can work the rest out for yourself as the building work progresses. This way you make good use of the design skills of the architect, but avoid paying for detailed design that you or your builder will wish to improvise on site.

Very small projects, such as the re-arrangement of rooms may be boosted by paying the architect just to spend a few hours with you suggesting ideas and sketching outline plans. Architects frequently provide this sort of assistance, usually on an hourly rate.

Most people appreciate that an architect’s ‘unique selling point’ is good design. But what does this mean? The role involves a lot more than simply ensuring that the end result looks great. A truly good design by an architect does a lot more than this. It means that the new rooms and spaces fit the lifestyle of the family like a glove, the detail of the construction has been well thought out, and the project is broadly within the budget that was agreed when the building contract was signed. To achieve all these wonderful things requires expertise and skill, but also adequate time has to be spent by the designer on all stages of the project. This attention to detail is just as important for a house or extension as it is for a posh office development – arguably more important, since there is a an intimate relationship between a dwelling and its occupants that doesn’t apply to other types of building.

One aspect of building that is increasingly difficult to negotiate in the UK is the planning system. If you want a design that is a bit different from the norm, particularly if is to be in a contemporary style, architects can make it easier to gain approval by using their presentation skills and by creating three dimensional drawings. For an especially controversial design 3d fly-throughs prepared on computer can help planners and planning committee members get an accurate impression of a design before they make their decision.

When not to use an architect

Some projects are very simple and straightforward enough for a resourceful person with basic drawing skills and a good CAD package to tackle the design work themselves. Alternatively, using another-qualified professional with less design training, such as a technologist, surveyor or engineer may save unnecessary expense.

There are some people and some projects that are better off without an architect. Part of an architect’s job is to question assumptions made by their clients and come up with solutions that their clients have not considered. This does not mean that they are dismissing your opinions – many superb designs are the result of the designer generating new ideas that had not been considered before or identifying unforeseen problems. If you don’t want or need to go through this process, make it clear at the start when you talk to potential architects and designers. It will be cheaper to pay an unqualified draughtsman to knock your drawings own into shape, sufficient to obtain local authority approvals. You will then have to either negotiate with a builder or prepare your own list of specifications.

Architects come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and flavors. If you are not sure whether an architect will be right for your project, it is well worth hunting out a few and talking to them about your project. You might just find someone who will not only help you get you up and running, but also fire your enthusiasm.

Copyrigtht Julian Owen, not to be reproduced, copied or distributed except for personal or education use