How to Choose an Architect

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Why using an Architect matters

The prospect of finding an architect can be pretty intimidating, especially if you’ve never worked with one before. Some people try to get by without using an architect in the hope it will save them money, but regret seeking professional support once costly problems and delays arise. The job of an architect is to help you visualise and achieve your goals at any scale, and for as much or as little of a project’s life as you need them to. In this article, we’ll explain how to find the right architect for your needs, and make sure you get the best out of your professional relationship.

What an Architect can do

Before you begin searching for the right architect for your project, it’s important to understand what they can do for you. After all, an architect does much more than just design buildings – they are experts in securing planning permission, can ensure work will be compliant with building regulations, and undertake project management. But in many cases, it’s obtaining planning permission which is the real key to unlocking a property’s potential.

Architects and Planning Permission

It doesn’t really matter if you mention the fact your property may have development potential when it goes on the market if there’s nothing to back it up. But actually securing that planning permission yourself, as well as the guarantees and technical drawings which only an architect can provide, will draw in a much wider range of buyers, as well as uplifting the value of your property. Residential homes can gain up to 10% in value when sold with planning permission for development in place, and the figure is many times that for commercial and agricultural or brownfield sites.

Starting your Search for an Architect

Many experts, such as Sandra Haurant in the Guardian, recommend drawing up a shortlist of architects you’re interested in before narrowing the list to a few worth contacting. This is because there are many initial factors to consider when choosing an architect, including:

  • The scale of your project: an architect who generally works on large commercial projects probably won’t be appropriate for a smaller residential brief. Have a look through online portfolios to get a sense of an architect’s past work
  • Your budget: you may be attracted to a well-known name, but architect’s fees can vary hugely depending on their experience and availability. Focus on what you hope to get out of engaging an architect – if you’re just going for planning permission in order to sell your property with development potential, it might not be worth splashing out on an architect with a reputation for high finishing standards
  • Local awareness: this is important for two major reasons. Firstly, a local architect will probably be known to, and have a working relationship with, your local planning officers. This is invaluable in obtaining permission as quickly and cheaply as possible. Secondly, an architect who has recently worked on other projects in your area will be aware of what is currently popular with prospective buyers, whilst remaining in keeping with local building styles. Whilst this might not be so important to you if you’re planning to sell, it will matter to planning officers, and to prospective buyers using an architect’s plans to visualise their future home
  • Property Type: Whether your envisaged project is going to involve a residential home, commercial property, or undeveloped land: most architects will specialise in one or more of these areas.

Where to look?

Once you’ve decided your priorities, it’s time to start looking for potential architects. But knowing where to look can be confusing if you’ve never engaged an architect before. There are several great places to start your search:

  • The Royal British Institute of Architects: RIBA maintains a publically accessible directory of architects who have signed up to their rules, and these tend to offer the highest levels of service. It’s therefore a great place to start your search, especially if you are in London or the South East, where many of their members are based. But whichever architect you end up instructing, do check they are listed with the Architects Registration Board, as this is a legal requirement and will guarantee the quality of their work
  • Ask your friends and family for recommendations: you might be surprised to find how many people have had to use an architect in the past, and there’s nothing like a personal recommendation. You’ll be able to get a sense of how communicative their architect was, and the likely costs.
  • Social media: this is now a really important part of how many professionals advertise their services – and of course, a great source of genuine reviews too. Search for architects on Facebook and twitter, and you’ll probably find plenty of portfolio pictures in their profiles to give you an idea of the work they will undertake.
  • Local work: If you’ve noticed any development or remodelling work going on locally which you liked the look of, why not try just asking the property owner if they used an architect, and how they get on with them. Being able to see recent work in person is a great way to get a sense an architect’s practices.

Narrowing Down your Choice of Architect

Once you’ve found a few architects you like the look of, reach out to each of them with an initial brief. It’s a good idea to approach at least three, so that you can compare their offers and communication styles before making a decision. Send each potential architect an email outlining what you need from them, including information such as:

  • The type of property you own: whether it’s a residential house, commercial shop or unit, or undeveloped land and its current use
  • What you’re hoping to achieve: if your focus is on maximising the potential value of your property by seeking planning permission, let the architect know this. Indicate the type of permission you think might be possible, but let them know you’d like their input too. Whether you’re envisaging an extension, turning a house into flats, dividing one house plot into two in order to create an extra home, or converting a commercial property into residential units, a great architect will get the best out of your ideas through their knowledge of design, and what is possible within the planning rules in your area
  • Your needs: It can be helpful to indicate how much involvement you’d like to have in the project. Some clients like to share their vision at every stage, whilst others are happy to hand the whole process over to their architect. Some architects prefer one way of working to another, so this is a good thing to discuss early on

Once you’ve heard back from your enquiry emails, any available architects will probably suggest setting up a meeting at their offices, or the proposed development site itself, to go through your needs in more detail. After the meeting, they will generally send you an offer and their terms of engagement, which will allow you to make the final decision about which architect to instruct.

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