Our tips on finding the right architect for you and getting the most out of them / by Taylan Tahir

Tip #1 It pays to Plan - Write a Brief

No one sets out to make a film without a script, a budget and a program. This might sound obvious but building is no different, though we so often see people making it up as they go. It’s a recipe for disaster, or, at the very least for things not turning out they way you imagined.

To ensure the end result aligns with your expectations and that you make the most out of your project, give yourself enough time to plan. Start by being realistic and honest with yourself about the constraints. What is your budget? What are your priorities? What would qualify as a successful project outcome? Then work backwards; what needs to happen to make that successful outcome a reality? Write this down. Everybody has ideas and some form of brief in their head. By putting these into words on paper you will be improving your chances of a successful project immeasurably.

We don’t often get a written brief from residential clients. However, on that rare occasion that we do, it helps us hit the ground running. In this instance the client has already framed the conversation, highlighted their aspirations, high level goals, constraints and budget and anything else that is important to them; inspirations, aesthetic preferences etc. All of these, if set out from the go, give us a great head start.

Apart from providing guidance to your architect (helping to get the most out of them), the act of sitting down to write a brief will help you define what is important and what you want to achieve with your project. Try to imagine how your extended home will change the way you live at home? How is the current layout impeding this? It’s worth thinking about this in detail, particularly in relation to family life; where does the family spend most of it’s time? Are there certain activities you would like to be able to do at home? Work? Host dinner parties for 15 people? Managing messy arts and crafts for children whilst preparing family meals? An improved connection with the garden? These are just a few examples.

It’s worth starting a Pinterest page too. Include images of precedent projects and inspirations. As you continue to add to this it will form an invaluable catalogue for yourself and your designer.

Define your maximum budget and be realistic about this. More on cost control in tip #4.

Finally, be careful not to get too prescriptive with your brief. You want to define priorities, goals, inspirations but leave it to your architect/ designer to respond creatively with their own design solutions.

Interior visualisation of a large single storey rear extension at O-House, South London. The client came to us with a brief to open up the ground floor layout as far as possible to create a large, free-flowing kitchen and living space for entertaining whilst maximising opportunities for daylight and sunlight where the rear of house is North-West facing.

Interior visualisation of a large single storey rear extension at O-House, South London. The client came to us with a brief to open up the ground floor layout as far as possible to create a large, free-flowing kitchen and living space for entertaining whilst maximising opportunities for daylight and sunlight where the rear of house is North-West facing.

Tip #2 Selecting an Architect

Approaching potential architects with a well thought out and written brief is a great start.  It does a number of things including:

  • The act of writing a brief will help sharpen your awareness to what you are looking to achieve with your project and, in turn, what sort of architect you are looking for. For instance, is it purely utilitarian or are there certain design criteria you want met, in which case you would go looking for architects who have demonstrably fulfilled those criteria in the past.

  • A brief saves time. You don’t need to have lengthy conversations with your long-list of potential architects to explain the project. A short conversation on the phone followed by an email with the brief will do.

  • A good brief will get the attention of the right architect (and conversely, not get the attention of the wrong one). It will serve to attract like minded people.

Spend some time researching architects. The RIBA’s online database of chartered practices is a useful resource; https://www.architecture.com/find-an-architect/. Look for precedent projects on Instagram, Pinterest and generally online that resonate with you. Precedent projects don’t necessarily need to be the exact same property type as yours, rather, look for a design sensibility that you can relate to. It helps if you can relate to the human being too, so make sure you meet and speak to two or three architects before making a decision. You are about to embark on a journey with this person and their team so, in addition to their capabilities as an architect/ designer, you are looking for someone compatible for a professional relationship.

Recommendations/ referrals from people you trust are also valuable of course. Make sure though that you are picking someone for the right reasons. The fact that a friend raves about his/ her architect is a very good start but you still need to check that you are compatible. Are you on the same wavelength? Does this architect share your design sensibilities?

When interviewing architects, apart from looking at their completed projects, ask to see ‘work in progress’ reports. You want to understand how the evolving design is communicated to client’s at each stage of the project? For example, are ideas communicated via 3D visuals or only 2D drawings? How accessible are they making the design process to the client? Are they empowering their client’s to make decisions (through clear visuals and presentations) and be an integral part of the design process?

Ensure that they can deliver a detailed set of drawings and specifications that leave little room for a builder to interpret on site. Ask to see case studies of similar projects and how information was managed in the pre-construction phases and on site.

The interior of the Black Box extension, Islington; a pared back and minimal space designed as a bright and airy blank canvas to be dressed.

The interior of the Black Box extension, Islington; a pared back and minimal space designed as a bright and airy blank canvas to be dressed.

Tip #3 Make as Many Decisions as Possible Before Construction Commences (Even Choose the Blinds and Taps)

Once you’ve appointed an architect, allow them sufficient time to develop designs that put skin and bones to your brief, bringing your vision to life. The length of pre-construction design work will obviously vary depending on the scale of your project. Ultimately though, the goal is to start on site with detailed drawings and specifications for everything. Decisions on finishes, sanitary ware, all fixtures and fittings should have been made long before work starts on site. There will always be surprises during construction that require further decision making on site, particularly when extending and refurbishing an existing building. The aim, however, should be to reduce these instances in so far as reasonably practicable.

In addition to the design program make sure you allow sufficient time for planning approval (circa 8 weeks for residential extensions and alterations) and freeholder/ landlords consent/ license to alter, in the event that you do not own the freehold.

Post planning approval there will be a further period of detail/ technical design (time required will vary) followed by tender (circa 4 weeks) and perhaps some negotiation plus time required for the appointed contractor to mobilise.

It would be a mistake to hurry things at the expense of decisions being deferred to the construction phase. As every little thing (including the blinds and taps), if not properly coordinated with everything else, have the potential to clash with other elements (thereby adversely impacting on design). Moreover, certain items will have longer lead times than others and if you only discover this when on site you may find your options limited or that you negatively affect the build program and cost.  Detailed design and planning is key to success on site.

The master en-suite at York House, Marylebone, currently under construction, has been fully detailed before work commenced including coordination of mechanical and electrical services, plumbing, joinery, lighting, tile setting out, sanitary ware, electric blinds.

The master en-suite at York House, Marylebone, currently under construction, has been fully detailed before work commenced including coordination of mechanical and electrical services, plumbing, joinery, lighting, tile setting out, sanitary ware, electric blinds.

Tip #4 Keep a Handle on Budget/Cost Control

We highlighted the importance of setting a budget early on in the project. You’ll want to stick to this throughout the process and the following are some tips to controlling cost (which can easily spiral if not checked regularly).

In the first instance, as a very rough guide, we tend to allow for £2,500 per sq.m of area refurbished or extended. Some new build elements will cost more, whereas some refurbished areas will cost less. The above figure is a broad average to work with at the very beginning and, in the Greater London area, should allow for a reasonably good standard of build, finish, fixtures and fittings. To this must be added VAT (unless the project is entirely new build) and consultant fees.

In order to keep a handle on cost, even on small projects, we recommend that at the conclusion of Concept Design (RIBA Work Stage 2) an independent cost consultant/ Quantity Surveyor is appointed to prepare an Elemental Cost Model.  Where the budget justifies it we work with a QS, regularly updating the cost plan as the design evolves. With smaller overall budgets we may only use a QS once to prepare the Cost Model which will include a detailed break down of every element of the design. This detailed breakdown enables an informed and intelligent conversation about cost. It shows you exactly where the money is being spent and helps to identify opportunities (for cost savings) and risk.

The cost model should include a contingency of 5% – 10% (higher when dealing with existing buildings which will have more unknowns that will be revealed as strip out and demolition progresses).

A QS prepared an elemental cost model at the early stages of the extensive refurbishment of this dilapidated mews house in Belsize Park Conservation Area. This cost model was used as ongoing tool to inform the choice of structure, and overall level of specification.

Finally…

Communication is key.

Work with someone you feel you can develop a professional relationship with. Base the decision of on a thorough research of their work, ask for references, have at least one or two meetings with them to discuss the project and their approach to it. Be satisfied that they understand what you want and you understand how they are going to approach your project and engage with and involve you. Then keep an open line of communication throughout.