11 Ways to Assess Your Architect

group looking at plans
(Image credit: getty images)

Here I look at some of the classic errors that architects can sometimes make and advise how you, as the client, can avoid them.

The key to success of a homebuilding project, I believe, is the relationship between client and architect. However, the architect has a duty to use their experience to guide the client through the whole design and build process. To assess the skills and experience of your architect, ask yourself the questions which follow.

1. Can they project manage?

Architects train for seven years and here lies part of the problem. Their training focuses heavily on the design and not the management and costings of projects. Good design should always be at the top of the agenda; however, without the other skillsets it can all be wasted.

So when appointing an architect, check out their design skills, but also his or her ability to project manage and control a build. Look for evidence of actual completed projects by the current practice, not just nice sketches or work which has been done when working for another practice.

2. Do they over-promise?

Architects are generally enthusiastic souls; we have to be in this profession. However, it’s important when a client sets a challenge to be frank and honest in what can be achieved. If the client wants a small discreet extension to match their listed cottage, coming back with a copper and glass free-flowing shape may not be the answer.

3. Do they give sensible advice?

I always try to advise clients carefully at the outset, once I know their budgets and brief. It’s pointless drawing a huge extension if they can’t afford it, or promise a ridiculous timescale. However, if you have ideas, pictures and dreams, then share them with your architect, as it will help them understand you as a person. Getting the brief right is vital and the time taken at this stage sets the scene for getting what you want.

(MORE: Find an architect in your area)

4. Does your architect favour untested methods?

Architects love to try and create new ways of building and joining new materials together. My profession is always moving forward to build in new ways. Unfortunately, that can lead to failure, too. A house’s primary job is to keep the water out. If it fails in this task, it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is, it leaks — it’s failed. We can all admire an innovative and clever detail, if it works.

Many architects forget that keeping things simple and using tried techniques can still lead to great architecture. When I hear that a material never used for roofing has been installed, I generally think there is a reason why! So ask yourself if you want to be the painful (and expensive) experiment.

5. Do they skimp on crucial details?

A modern house project will generate a large number of plans, elevations, sections, details, specifications, schedules, mechanical and electrical designs, and structural calculations. All this needs to be fully considered and coordinated. So many times I see packages of information that are simply not thought through in detail, or worse still, ignore the harder details. The details on a project that are drawn should be the ‘difficult’ interfaces. So the more complex the design, the more interfaces, and thus more information is needed for the builder.

As the client, have you invested enough time and money to allow the architect to draw all of this? Unfortunately, many people don’t. As a rule, the more complex the design, the more expensive it will be. Lack of information often leads to ‘making it up on site’, and this can lead to mistakes and arguments later. It also leads to cost increases on site when the builder hasn’t priced all the works and the complexity because it wasn’t explained fully in the documents.

6. Do they let costs get out of hand?

Is it the client or architect who let costs accelerate? Building a house is exciting, but the responsibility for advising clients on budgets and costs lies with the architect. Of course, a client can ignore this and some do. Architects often get blamed for cost increases, but I find it’s clients who accelerate the costs, unless properly advised.

It’s easy to opt for the sleek-looking shower fitting or the glass cladding when shown it as a sample. However, unless you as the client get cost advice, how do you know if you can afford your design? So make sure your architect produces a cost plan from a quantity surveyor or a builder. If your architect doesn’t, then I would be very concerned.

7. Can your architect manage timescales?

Buildings take time to construct. Even the new methods of dry construction replace the time on site with pre-planning, ordering and factory sequences. So getting the timescales right is vital. The whole process of gaining planning permission, tenders, picking the contractor, design and construction should all be planned out. Most architects can do this exercise with some skill, but beware the one that can’t.

8. Are they organised?

If your architect is always late, not organised or forgets things, this might be a clue to the way they work. The old caricature of the bumbling gent with cravat and great vision has no place on a modern building site. Being organised is compatible with talent.

9. Do they listen to you?

Some architects just don’t listen. If you as the client want a layout, colour or material, that is your choice. I will always pass a comment and advise, but when I hear architects saying a certain wall shouldn’t have pictures or be used in a certain way, that is rubbish. So if your architect isn’t listening — tell them.

10. Is your architect experienced enough?

Most of the great architects emerge well into their 40s and the reason is that they have learnt their trade — it’s the value of experience over youth. So beware of young talent that has never built before. Their experience is little greater than the client themselves. I train and use younger architects in my practice and they learn from experienced hands, but not at the client’s expense.

11. Where are their strengths?

Not all architects are even. By this, I mean that the talent of different designers varies. Some architects are good at design, others at construction detailing and others on the project management side. Some, but not all, can manage the lot and some simply don’t have the magic sparkle. So check and be sure what type you want to employ.

Neil Turner

Architect Neil Turner is director at Howarth Litchfield Partnership and specialises in residential design.