Embarking on a major building project is a big investment so it's important you hire the right architect for the job. These are the 12 questions you should ask to make sure your dream home becomes a reality
Designing, building and making changes to your home is both exciting and intimidating, particularly for the majority of homeowners who have little-to-no experience in undertaking such projects.
The stakes are high – it can be eye-wateringly expensive and the end result will likely have a huge impact on the happiness and wellbeing of you and your family.
Hiring an architect is not a legal requirement and it is possible to successfully complete even major projects without one. According to Checkatrade, their fees can add up to 12 per cent to the total construction cost, but if you hire the right person, they can also save you money in the long run by limiting the likelihood of costly mistakes.
In short, if you’re feeling daunted, the chances are you need a safe pair of hands to turn your architectural dreams into reality. From interpreting your brief into a design you love and securing planning permission to finding a reliable builder, monitoring progress on site and maintaining quality right through to the final handover, this is where architects come in.
Image: Jodie Johnson / Shutterstock
The best will have plenty of questions to ask you as they try to understand your needs as fully as possible, but the questions you ask them in return can make or break your project.
Here are 12 to get you started…
1. Is there a charge for an initial meeting?
Different architects offer different things in initial meetings with potential clients. Most will agree to a short, one-off introduction free of charge to discuss the project, your budget and their ability to deliver, but you should expect to pay for more detailed advice. If in doubt, ask if there’s a cost before arranging anything.
2. What can you bring to the project – or, do I really need you?
The basic rule is that if you might need planning permission or for any alterations that affect the structure of your home, you probably need an architect. However, Dan Gibbons, director of South London practice APE Architecture and Design Ltd, is the first to admit that his services are not always necessary, particularly for smaller projects.
“It’s a good idea to ask your architect how much they can add to your project,” he says. “Their creative input will outweigh that of a building surveyor but if you’re after a standard loft or kitchen extension that does not require any design finesse then they will not necessarily be good value for money.”
A more affordable route could be hiring an architectural technologist or technician. They will prepare technical drawings for contractors to work from if you know exactly what you want and help with proposals and contracts. If you're only removing a wall, work with a structural engineer to ensure its safe removal.
A basement kitchen designed by APE Architecture and Design Ltd / Image by Peter Landers
3. Can you confirm that you are a registered architect?
The title ‘architect’ is protected by law, meaning that only the fully qualified can use it. Companies can, however, put ‘architecture’ in their names or call staff ‘architectural designers’, without necessarily being registered architects, so be sure to ask for clarification. Check that your prospective architect is registered with the Architects Registration Board (ARB), whose database is publicly accessible.
The benefit of choosing a registered architect is that their ability to deliver the service you require is guaranteed. They must comply with certain responsibilities – including health and safety and the need to maintain Professional Indemnity Insurance – and are subject to random checks.
Many registered architects are also accredited by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and are therefore expected to conduct themselves in accordance with the RIBA Code of Practice.
4. Do you have a signature style?
Make sure your prospective architect’s vision and principles align with yours.
“With the best will in the world, as architects, we tend to do what we want to do and expect that that’s what the client is expecting from us because they have seen our work before,” says Gibbons.
In short, don’t expect a modern architecture practice to produce a design packed with elaborate period detailing. The best way to get a feeling for how an architect handles a certain style is to ask to see past projects in their portfolio that are similar to what you want. Be sure to establish how much of the design was the architect’s creation, as opposed to the client’s.
5. Will I require planning permission?
If you need help with the kind of design you want, then an architect should be willing to help you with ideas and limitations, including what comes under permitted development or requires planning permission.
They will help you navigate the local planning authority by submitting and managing your application on your behalf. Your architect will either charge you as part of their fee or you can choose to pay your local authority directly.
In addition, before building work begins, your architect must advise your local authority by submitting a Building Notice or Full Plans. Expect to pay a plan charge and an additional inspection charge to cover this.
Image: FOTOGRIN / Shutterstock
6. What is your track record of successful planning applications?
If you foresee issues securing planning permission, especially if you live in a listed property, make sure you ask your architect for their track record in getting plans approved. A local architect may be your best bet here as they may be more familiar with your local authority’s planning policy and attitudes, as well as having useful contacts in the planning department.
7. Will you oversee the building work?
You will need to understand the extent to which the architect can manage your project following an approved application.
“Some clients simply ask us to take their project through to a broad design stage where we can get planning permission before they manage the rest,” says Gibbons. “Others want us to take it further, producing detailed drawings with technical specifications for the contractor to build from. Some want the full service, which involves managing the contracts between the contractor and the client onsite and acting as their liaison.”
Quality control becomes your responsibility unless you appoint someone else, so employing an architect that offers this full service may be crucial. They generally begin to offer it for projects with a budget of £30,000 and above, but this varies between practices.
If appointed as the contract administrator, the architect will take on responsibility for drawing up the building contract and, according to RIBA’s guidelines, “carrying out regular inspections, dealing with queries, monitoring progress on site, keeping track of costs, instructing any additional work required and certifying payments due to the builder”.
A terrace with bifolding doors designed by APE / Image by Peter Landers
8. How do you charge?
How architects charge depends on the project’s complexity and the services requested from them. Some will charge you a fixed price sum, some lump sums at regular intervals, others an hourly or daily rate and some as a percentage of the total project cost.
The latter in particular can throw up problems, especially if projects go over budget with unexpected costs arising halfway through. It is therefore vital to be explicitly clear about how the fees will be charged and what you will need to pay when before the project begins.
When it comes to hourly rates, expect to pay between £50 to £100 per hour, depending on the region. However, as with hiring any tradesperson, it's best to get quotes from several architects before committing.
“Get an indication from your architect as to at what point you should have a confirmed cost for the work, whether that’s once planning permission is in place or once the tender is back from the contractor,” says Gibbons.
9. Do you already have a builder in mind?
Many architects have developed strong relationships with builders that they prefer to use. Employing a team that has successfully worked together in the past can be greatly reassuring. If your architect does already have a builder in mind, ask if that builder could give you a complimentary quote, to give you a better idea of what the total cost may be early on.
Alternatively, if you have a builder already lined up, check if they work closely with a particular architectural firm or structural engineer they could recommend. There are no rules on who to hire first.
10. When will we be able to meet?
If you work full-time during weekdays, make sure that you will be able to meet and communicate with your architect outside of office hours. Ensure that you have full contact details for your main port of call in case you need to reach them urgently.
A home office nook in a converted loft space designed by APE / Image by Peter Landers
11. How do I know I can trust you to complete my project on time and on budget?
It is important to choose an architect who is willing to prioritise financial considerations over aesthetics, especially if you are on a tight budget. Ask for their track record and push them to explain any past issues. Hopefully, the architect will be able to talk you through recent successes without promising so much that disappointment is inevitable. If possible, visit the properties and speak to past clients listed as references to find out how communicative the architect was.
12. Will we get on?
OK, this might not be one to ask out loud, however, good communication and a healthy working relationship are absolutely fundamental to a smooth, stress-free process. Not only do you need to trust your architect's judgement and share a vision, but you have to like each other as well. You're going to be working closely together for the duration of your project, so a clash of personalities is a recipe for disaster from the off.
Featured image: Et Lorem bespoke kitchen
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