Do I Need an Architect? A Detailed Guide

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Written by Dan Marks

June 2021

Written by Dan Marks

June 2021

The short answer to that question is – No. You don’t.

Whilst the title ‘architect’ is protected in law (It can only be used by someone qualified and on the Architects Register) there is no legal requirement in the UK to employ an Architect for architectural work. That’s right, anyone – architect, or not, can legally provide architectural services in the UK. In fact, the vast majority of new housing is procured without any active input from an architect.

Unfortunately, the majority of new housing in the UK is also sub standard. Much of it lacks character and very little of it will age well, or last more than 60 years. This, at a time when we should be building homes to last at least a century and when the most valued homes date back to the Victorian era and before. Commentators, housing experts and the wider public are increasingly concerned that new suburban housing is monotonously uniform, and that little seems to have changed since the 1980s.

The capital cost of a well-designed and well-built home is not much greater than the cost of a poor one. Similarly, the cost of employing an architect is negligible over the lifetime of a building, but the added value is evident at the start and continues to accrue. We know too, that housing is inextricably related to health and wellbeing: a major determinant of our life chances and our life expectancy. It affects all aspects of personal and social development from our early educational performance, through to the amount of health and social care we need as we age.

So, strictly speaking, you don’t need an architect, ever. However, in almost every project scenario an architect will bring their own unique experience and skillset to bear and, in so doing we’d argue, add value. It’s up to you to decide whether the investment in a professional is justified.

Alternatives to using an architect

Professional designer / Architectural Designer

Anyone who is not formally qualified falls into this generic category. In effect, anybody can call themselves a designer so it is important to carry out your own research and due diligence. Look for examples of their previous work and make sure to ask for client references. Ideally, you should be able to speak to at least one past client.

You should ensure they hold Professional Indemnity Insurance and ask to see a certificate/ proof.

Architectural Technologist

Architectural technologists are not architects but work alongside them, generally in larger architecture practices. Their expertise is focused on the technology of building, design & technology construction.

Package company / Design & Build Contractor

The advantage of going down this route is often a reasonably high degree of cost certainty and a single point of contact. It’s a ‘turnkey’ solution where a contractor that specializes in basements, rear extensions or lofts agrees to deliver one of those for you for an agreed price. They employ their own architect and design team (either in house or some affiliation) to design, obtain planning & building regs etc.

The disadvantage is that whilst you know the cost from early on in the agreement, you very often don’t know the fine detail of what you’re getting for your money. You may know, for instance, that there is an allowance for an engineered timber floor but what grade? Or that there’s an allowance for glazed bifold doors to the proposed extension but what spec exactly? Later on in the process you may discover that your options are limited to suppliers your package company has obtained the best value deals with (not necessarily the ones you actually want. “Ah, you want that floor. That’s extra…” they’ll tell you. And costs begin to mount…

With this route it’s worth noting that, in specializing in rear extensions or basements (whatever it may be) contractors tend to develop a formula that works. This has advantages (economies and efficiencies) but, depending on your point of view, perhaps also disadvantages in that the product inevitably becomes formulaic, repetitive. If you know that you want exactly the same thing they did for your friend or neighbour then that’s an advantage; you can be reasonably sure you’ll get the same thing. However, if you want something more bespoke and unique to you, this could be an issue.

If you can see completed work in a D&B contractor’s portfolio that is very close to the end product you envisage for yourself and you trust the contractor, then this could be the appropriate route for you. However, if you don’t and you want to be in control of all aspects of the design in order to develop something more tailored to your specific needs, then consider employing an architect or designer directly.

It’s also worth noting that, whilst the price is often fixed under the D&B route, it offers less value for money than the more traditional route of employing an architect to design and a contractor to build. This is because under the D&B route, the contractor assumes the risk that you would otherwise have assumed and takes on liability for design. And you pay for them to assume that risk.

So, what do architects do?

The range of skills in an architect’s arsenal spans design and the navigation of statutory frameworks and processes (planning and building control) through project management, budgeting, vetting and selection of suitable contractors and finally, administration of the building contract.

In designing, architects move seamlessly back and forth between the big picture and the small detail, between inside and out, between practicality and poetry. All the while, taking into consideration particular site constraints and opportunities (logistical; like access for construction / climate; sun path, prevailing winds etc / desirable views vs exposure to overlooking), planning and local design guidelines and building regulations (amongst others). Whilst keeping an eye on budget in specifying appropriate materials, finishes, fixtures and fittings.

This holistic approach to designing buildings is part of a proven method whereby the design is largely resolved, to a high degree of detail, before works start on site. Planning ahead like this means there are no surprises on site, no making things up as you go, because changes on site are a recipe for delays to program and spiralling costs. Working to a fully coordinated design, your contractor is simply following a clear set of instructions. And your architect will be monitoring progress, checking the quality of the workmanship and valuing the work carried out so that you only pay for work that has been certified.

Before

Early Construction

First Fix

Completed

Before, during and after at the Collector’s Flat, Marylebone

Advantages of using an architect

The decision then, to use an architect or not, is a personal one. When deciding to use an architect, consider some of the following advantages:

Interpret your brief

A good architect will interpret your brief creatively, proposing bespoke solutions you hadn’t considered and tailored to the specifics of your brief, site, budget etc.

Professional Advice

As lead consultant they’ll advise you on any additional consultant appointments required to carry out the project (such as structural engineer, party wall surveyor, approved inspector for building control etc) and coordinate their work.

Planning Experience

Using an architect you are greatly enhancing your chances of a successful planning approval. The right architect may seem expensive but, after one or two failed attempts at planning with a cheap and unqualified draftsman or ‘designer’ you’ll soon discover that’s a false economy. The right architect will sail through planning at first attempt, saving you time and money in the long run. More here about the time and cost of getting to planning.

Compliance with regulations

An architect will also make sure that the scheme approved by the planners is in fact buildable and compliant with building regulations. Again, getting planning for something, only to go back and have to resubmit a scheme with changes in order to comply with the regs or budgetary constraints is a false economy. Investing time and money up front to get it right will, one again, save you money in the long run.

An architect will be looking out for your money

Here are some key areas where an architect’s skill, knowledge and expertise will save you money:

  • Selecting and specifying material finishes, fixtures & fittings, details and construction methods to suit both your brief and budget.
  • Helping you to formulate a realistic project budget and regularly reviewing the evolving design in relation to the budget, adjusting one or the other where necessary. (find out more here about sticking to budget).
  • Following planning approval, producing detailed drawings and specifications that enable a competitive tender of the works from a number of suitable and vetted contractors. Producing detailed information means that all contractors are pricing exactly the same thing and you can compare detailed quotes on a like for like basis. This information then forms the basis of the building contract, which your architect will administer. Without detailed information (drawings and specification) you cannot compare 2 quotes on a like for like basis because you don’t know exactly what each contractor is allowing for and what they’re going to deliver for the quoted price. Invariably, it’s some way into the build (without an architect) that people discover omissions to the quote they just assumed were included. Detailed architectural information is the key remedy to this pitfall.
  • In administering the building contract, in addition to monitoring the quality of workmanship (and that works are being carried out in accordance with the drawings and specifications) your architect will issue periodic certificates (generally once a month on residential projects) for work carried out. This is the mechanism by which you only pay for the value of work carried out, ensuring you never overpay. Without an architect involved, contractors will invariably agree to a schedule of payments over the course of a project. These tend to be equal instalments and, as the project program is delayed without you noticing, you end up paying for work not yet carried out. What happens when, 6 months later, you’ve paid most or all of the contract sum only to then discover they’re only half way through or worse, gone bust?

Lastly, peace of mind

With an architect on your team you have a professional experienced in navigating the, often complex, waters of the construction process. They will manage risk, the design team, additional expert consultants as required and the contractor. They will be your expert advisor throughout the process and deal with the day to day running of the job. You can be free to focus on what you do best and on the things you want to; whether that’s your work, family etc.

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