Anyone at the beginning of a building project should consider hiring an architect, whether that project is a neat extension to an existing home which just needs to fit in, or a bold, brand new home full of original features, in the style of Grand Designs. With the rise of self-building, and renovation blogs and TV shows, many people make the mistake of thinking that they can do without an architect: however, an architect’s input is invaluable to ensure that you get the results you want, end up with a home with a pleasant flow which works in its space, and avoid costly and distressing misunderstandings with contractors. What follows are some tips on choosing an architect and making the most of their expertise.
Understand your expectations
The first, and arguably key step is to start by understanding exactly what you need and expect from an architect. Many people contact an architect up-front, before finalising or even drafting plans for their build, while others will approach their architect with a completed plan, a list of sources, and a very definite idea of what they want from the build. Whichever camp you’re in, to enjoy your relationship with your architect it needs to be established up-front exactly what you want and need from that relationship.
Many self-builders use architects to turn their creative ideas into a practical plan, or ask their architect to make suggestions for a more creative, more contemporary, or more eco-friendly design. Remember, your architect has years, perhaps decades of experience, and is accustomed to turning vague starting points into a finished product: he or she will have a good idea of what can and should be done, and may bring extra insight to the table. For some their input will be artistic or creative, while for others it will be much more practical, addressing structural issues, planning permissions and maximising the property’s value. Those who choose to build without an architect can find that rooms do not flow together naturally, that spaces are too small, too dark or lack storage.
How to choose your architect
It is mandatory for all British architects to register with the ARB (Architect’s Registration Board), and many will also be a member of the industry body RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects), although membership in this case is not compulsory. Would-be builders should look for architects with experience of their particular scale, scope and style of build: some will specialise in new-builds, new blocks or eco-homes, while others will focus on sympathetic renovation and residential extensions.
It’s crucial to make sure your architect is well-connected, so ask about contacts with the local planning department, contractors and sources, and chase up any references they offer. Don’t just look at completed projects: ask historic clients whether they were easy to work with, creative, whether they were pro-active about budgeting and flexible about changes. Your first consultation should always be free: use this time to ask tricky questions and find out if you have a personal connections, rather than getting down to the details.
The author is a “Grand Designs” junkie who regularly blogs about self-building, eco-homes and living off-grid. She consults the website for the Manser Practice to keep up with innovative new builds in and around London.