A successful project starts and ends with a good design. Despite theadvances of PC software design packages that enable keen self-builders to have a go at designing their own home, the vast majority of new individual homes require a house designer to, at the very least, realise layout and exterior ideas and, in many cases, come up with an idea and design from scratch.

A bad choice of designer can set the entire project off on the wrong course so how do you assess which designer is the best one for you? How do you make sure that this relationship which after all is probably going to lead to the biggest single expenditure and investment in your life is one that is going to work out and result in a home you want to build at a price you can afford?

How do I find the name of a designer?

National architectural bodies
All of the national architects organisations and associations (listed on the right hand side of this page), have their membership data available online, in hard copy or over the telephone.

It is important not to be overawed by any person or practice that you make contact with. They may be extremely highly qualified. They may have a social standing that is far beyond that which you are used to associating with but in the end they are potential employees of yours and it is you that should be calling the shots. They are only ever going to be of use if they can make your project succeed and it is they who have to demonstrate their abilities.

National designers associations
Architectural Technologists are not principally designers, although many of them are extremely good at it. They are unable to call themselves Architects because in most cases they have not taken the final examinations that allow them to become chartered yet many possess the same skills and talents. Self-builders often like to use them because they tend to be less expensive. Their main skills revolve around the technical aspects of house designing and making a design work, so many architectural practices also have them within their employ.

Asking other self-builders
Self-builders love sharing their experiences with other self-builders. If you drop in and talk to them youll get loads of useful information amongst which will be their views on the architect or designer they employed. Apart from the obvious questions about design and how the planning went, make sure that you find out whether their architects budget predictions were correct.

What do I look for in a designer?

Design Flair
No amount of training can make up for a lack of flair you either have it or you dont. Architects train for seven years before they qualify and technologists for a total of six years but this will never provide them with the imagination and inspiration they need to make your dream a reality.

Willingness to listen
Nobody wants to employ an automaton. If youre engaging an architect or designer for their flair and imagination then it doesnt make sense to ignore all their suggestions. On the other hand, if theyre unwilling to listen to or incorporate your own ideas within their concept then theyre not the right person for you. If your proposals are not practicable then they should explain why and if possible vary the design to achieve the same effect.

A friendly and approachable manner
Whoever you deal with, this is not going to be a question of having one or even a few meetings and then leaving them to get on with the business. You are going to be entering a long term relationship that may last for six months or longer and need frequent contact. If you dont feel comfortable in the presence of somebody, or you feel intimidated in any way, then move on to someone who makes you feel at ease.

Proven track record
If you were going to employ an artist then they would arrive with a portfolio of their previous work. In just the same way, although it is not quite as easily portable, an architect or designer should be able to show you examples of their previous commissions. Design evolves. Fashions in architecture, just like fashions in clothing, change as the years roll by. If you do get the chance to look back at previous jobs, look out for just how those changes were incorporated into the designs and ascertain, if you can, whether they were at the instigation of the designer or the client or both. Any failings in this area could indicate an absence of design flair.

Professional indemnity insurance
Architects will usually be members of one or more of the national bodies such as the RIBA, RIAS, RSAW, RSUA or RIAI. In the UK they must also be members of the Architectural Registration Board (ARB) if they are to practice under the name Architect which is protected by law. If things do go wrong these bodies have dispute procedures, which are strengthened if the standard terms and conditions of appointment are imported into the contract between architect and client.
Designers may be members of BIAT. It is important to verify any claimed membership and also to make sure that the correct Professional Indemnity is held, something that in any case is mandatory for those practising under the auspices of the professional bodies.

Experience with one-off houses
Unfortunately many architects tend to tick Yes in the box on the questionnaire that asks whether they do one-off housing whether or not they actually do so. They do so for all the right reasons, of course, and they may well believe that they are capable or that it would even be exciting to deal with an individual project. However, it is important that the architect or designer has real experience of one-off housing. The criteria in dealing with you, the client, and with the whole planning process may be completely different to that used on a large development or industrial complex, for example.Architects whose principal function is one-off housing have come together in two organisations: Associated Self Build Architects and Scottish Architects Network.

Track record
Package deal companies often trade on their track record with photographs within their brochures of previous clients, full details of their costings and testimonials. Architects and designers may not have such literature but it is still important to be able to track back to previous clients. If at all possible talk to them. Ask how they got on and, most importantly, ask if the cost predictions at the start of the project were adhered to. Be sure that the designer knows your budget and can be realistic about being able to keep to it.

What questions should I ask my designer?

Can my concept be translated into reality?
Its all very well having imaginative drawings with fantastic elevations and clear spans. Any good artist can produce a picture to stir the senses. But the essential difference between an artist and a good house designer is that, when they make a drawing, they have to bear in mind the practicalities. They have to not just produce a pretty picture but a representation of something that can be built, can stand up and will conform to all of the regulations and requirements that the various authorities impose.

If a drawing is unusual ask the question, right at the beginning, Can this be translated into a buildable plan within reasonable cost parameters?

Are their construction drawings clear and precise?
Builders and subcontractors have to deal with a bewildering assortment of different plans and styles from each architect they build with. It is very important that drawings are clear and that any special requirements or construction instructions are easily recognised. Too much detail on the drawings can be very confusing, leading to points being missed. Sometimes its better for the drawings to be clear and simple with a separate written specification.

Are they really aware of current local building costs?
You’d think that all architects would be aware of building costs but youd be very wrong. Whilst there is no doubt that the reputable ones amongst them and especially those specialising in one-off self-builds are au fait with current costs of labour and materials, there are a significant minority who simply dont have a clue.

It is relatively easy to find out about rough build costs by referring to the build cost tables in the back of this magazine. Make sure that the architect or designer you are talking to also understands those costs and, above all, make sure that they believe them.

Deal with the person or practice who is willing to talk prices from the very start of the project and who demonstrates a shared

Do you understand my budget?
Beware of any designer or architect who goes ahead with a drawing without fully discussing your proposed budget. The budget should be the prime consideration and no drawing should take place other than within its parameters. A significant number of prospective self-builders allow the drawing and planning process to proceed unchecked only to find, when they start to get quotations in, that it cannot and could never have been built within their budget. Dont let it happen to you. If you meet with an architect or designer who seems unwilling to discuss this aspect then move on to the next choice.

Will you talk fees?
Many designers and architects will quote a fixed price for the job. You need to make sure that you are getting what you are expecting and you may need to establish a fee for each segment of their work; one for initial drawings, one for planning drawings, one for building regulations drawings, one for working drawings, one for specification and tender documents and one, if it is required, for on-site supervision or inspection.
Many other architects will quote percentage fees for each of these parts of their work. That’s fine as long as you all agree just what these fees are supposed to be a percentage of. Sometimes its as well to agree the build costs at the outset. Avoid having to pay extra fees as a result of increased specification. It costs no more to fit and there is often no more work involved on the part of builder or architect expensive kitchen units rather than cheap ones. Why, then, should the fees be greater? Above all, do not be afraid to discuss fees and make them clear from the outset. If you come across an architect who is unwilling to discuss them, move on to someone who is not scared to set out and justify their charges.

What should I, as the client, bring to this contract?

A clear and concise list of your requirements
Travel around your area making a note of and taking photographs of your likes and dislikes in architectural terms. Study books of plans and make a list of those features that you want to have incorporated. If you are competent, draw out a rough sketch of what you want. Do not be shy about showing this to your prospective architect or designer. If they scoff because they feel that you have no business interfering in their job then theyre not the right person for you. If they point out features that will be difficult or expensive to attain but then go on to suggest ways in which your ideas can be incorporated within a buildable plan, then perhaps a successful working relationship can be established. Most reasonable designers and architects will welcome an insight into your thoughts as a useful way of beginning to meet your needs.

A clear idea of your budget
Any successful designer is going to be concerned that what they draw can be built within your budget. It is therefore imperative that you make this clear at the outset and to be honest. Many architects assume that their clients have more money than they are being told is available. If theyre right and they ignore the extra money available then theres the possibility that they might not achieve the full potential of the project. If theyre wrong and they assume the existence of money that you dont have, then the project will certainly go over budget.

Tell your architect exactly what your true budget is. If there is a limit then make it quite clear that it must not be breached and make that the essence of the contract between you. At each stage of the drawing process you must be able to ask the question, Are we still on budget? and at each stage a respon-sible architect or designer should be prepared to answer honestly.

The ability to compromise
You are never going to get 100% of what you want. There are always going to have to be compromises. Be prepared for this and accept with good grace that sometimes you might have to give up on a cherished idea in order to achieve the whole. On the other hand, do not let yourself be talked out of something simply because that makes it easier for the other person. If you are being told that something is unattainable then insist on a proper explanation of why and if you need time to assimilate the information or make other enquiries, then insist on taking it.

Stay in control

Many things during the whole design process may seem to be outside your control. Architects may be telling you that a certain design feature is impossible. Dont be rushed into these decisions. Take time to digest them. Maybe theyre right. Its just as likely, however, that there may be a way around things and it should be you who makes the final decision.

The Keys to Success

  • If the designer wont talk properly about fees, walk away
  • Be clear about your design requirements
  • Ask the local planners to recommend architects successful in planning
  • Check your designer has experience in one-off houses
  • Consider local house designers rather than RIBA Architects

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