It’s surprising how often self-builders fall out with their house designers. Because there is a huge amount of negative press attention paid to the problems people have with their builders, everybody is primed to expect trouble on that front. But I’ve yet to watch a TV programme on cowboy house designers, and maybe because of this, people hiring professionals are much less wary of the potential pitfalls that lie ahead of them. And when things go wrong, they are usually caught off guard.

Common complaints include:

  • client didn’t like the design
  • client liked the design but it cost too much to build
  • designer was slow to produce anything
  • client felt uneasy about architect’s fees
  • designer became difficult when client wanted to hire an alternative

Let’s look at this last point first, because it’s a fairly frequent occurrence when the relationship has broken down. How do you sack a house designer?

You can start all over again with a new designer. That’s fine, but it means the initial costs you have paid have to be written off. But what if you want to take the initial work done by designer A and pass it onto designer B to complete? It’s not unknown for designer A to claim copyright protection and to insist that he or she must be employed for the follow-on stages as well because of this. This is tosh. Unless you have entered into a written contract which specifically stipulates that you have to employ an architect for the full design and supervision package – which is unusual – then, just by paying the house designer, you have bought a licence to build what they have drawn — and to amend their plans as you see fit. They are, in effect, your plans once you have paid for them. So stand your ground and tell the architect where to go. You’re still entitled to the plans.

A more frequent complaint is that house designers are very good at drawing pretty, but poor at drawing buildable. Initial budgets get blown away by the use of extravagant materials and/or overly complex details. Invariably, this sort of thing doesn’t become apparent until the job has been put out to tender, at which point there is an almighty row. Naturally, there’s no way of knowing whether the cost overrun is due to the greed of the local building trade or the flagrant disregard of the original budget by the house designer. Yet, more often than not, it’s the house designer who will now offer to ‘value engineer’ the scheme — for a further fee.

To be fair to both sides, the house designer is regularly placed in a very difficult position. Their clients often have unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved for their budgets and their instructions are often far from clear cut, leaving the house designer to second guess their requirements. And herein lies the key to successfully managing the design process. As with all things to do with selfbuild, you have to bear in mind that the key figure in the whole process is you, the client. It’s very easy to get drawn into relationships with professionals where you assume that everything will just be taken care of, only to find out later that you and they were working on some very different assumptions all along. And the key decision is who you choose to work with in the first place.

In fact, you should be employing exactly the same criteria as you should be using to hire bricklayers and carpenters. Look at their previous work, talk to former clients. Obviously they will steer you towards successful projects but that doesn’t matter because you can still make a judgment on those projects. Did you like the buildings? Did you like the previous clients? Could you see yourself in their shoes or would you be doing things very differently?

It also pays to be as straight as possible about money. It’s difficult (though not impossible). If you subscribe to the view that architects need to be less artist and more craftsman, you’re not alone — it’s a theory expounded further in Architecture of the Absurd by John Silber (published by WW Norton) for a designer to work on a fixed price because essentially you are hiring their time and, at the outset, they have no idea whether you want a week of it, a month or a year. But they should be able to give you an estimate of how long they would normally take on a job like yours and present you with an hourly or daily charging rate. And they should be able to give an indication of the building costs of previous work.

And do be aware of the distinction between architects, architectural technologists and just plain designers. Architects sit at the top of the tree and are usually the most expensive to hire, and they usually design the most expensive buildings. To even call yourself an architect, you have to have done seven years training and passed a series of rigorous exams. The architectural technologists are also highly qualified but tend to have rather humbler pretensions about their skill set, and consequently are often better at designing to a limited budget. And designers? Well, there are no barriers stopping anyone working as a house designer, so lots of people do it — some very successfully. Some have related skills, such as being surveyors; many have just learned how to do it.

Whoever you hire, make sure you carry out your due diligence beforehand. It’s always your best protection against things going wrong.

“These People Aren’t Accountable”

Self-builders Anne and Michael Gowan are not enjoying a happy time with trying to get work out of their designer

“Our experience has been frustrating to say the least. The so-called professionals have been either unwilling or unable to communicate with us on a regular basis. When deadlines have arrived, we have called for confirmation that things are ready and have had a raft of excuses — if we have been able to get them on the phone at all!

“We chose a technical draughtsman to draw up plans for submission, who it turned out was not as qualified as he claimed to be, and we were unable to get hold of him — we dismissed him by letter. We then employed a bigger company. We thought things would improve but it has turned out much the same as before. Our man rarely gets back to us. I have worked in an environment that was deadline driven and I had to produce the goods on time or have a very sound reason why it couldn’t be done. From our experience, these people aren’t accountable and it seems to be done ‘as and when’. Weeks have rolled into months, and all the time this has been costing us money and it doesn’t seem to make a blind bit of difference what we say or do.”

A (Helpful) Designer’s View

David Barnes runs ABC Design & Build, an architectural services company based near Bristol. He is emblematic of the practical, down-to-earth designer with a background in construction (he was originally a carpenter who built his own house in the early 1990s) that usually meshes so well with self-builders and renovators — and he’s got some strong views on where things go wrong. “The number one reason problems happen is clients and designers not being able to communicate with each other,” he says. “In my experience, the problematic clients are not the ones who are new to building, rather the ones who think they know everything and simply won’t listen to what you are telling them. However, I get many clients who come to me after frustrating experiences with what I call ‘highly qualified architects’ who have simply designed something they see as a work of art and have totally ignored their client’s wishes — and budget. Budget is absolutely my first question.”

The Regulator’s View

The Architect Registration Board (ARB) is the independent regulator of all UK-registered architects. Here’s their advice:

  • If a client wants to move to another architect then they are at liberty to do so; however, if they break the terms of the contract already in place they are likely to face legal action. Of course, they could themselves argue that the architect had failed to honour the contract through the quality of the work. Such disputes are messy to take through court; both sides would be better advised to go through the less formal routes of arbitration or mediation. The Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, The Academy of Experts and RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) offer such services, to name just three.
  • Clearly any client must expect a little wriggle room when estimating the costs of a project, but if an architect produces a design that bears no relationship to the requirements of the budget, then he is not doing the job properly. In such circumstances (and within reason) a client has the prerogative to refuse any work that is not fit for purpose, as they have in any walk of life.

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