During research for this article, we came across several all-too-familiar stories of homeowners who rushed into a relationship with a designer only for it all to fall apart, sometimes even after building had started, with bitterness on all sides.

The good news is that most people get it right – often by luck, rather than judgement – but the key is that the client/designer relationship is the linchpin for the success of the rest of the project.

A healthy, successful client/designer relationship can help you realise ideas you didn’t know existed; leaving you with a well-designed gem that feels bespoke in a way that you, as a layperson, couldn’t have hoped to have achieved; and, of course, all brought in with the minimum of fuss. So, what are the essentials?

The Right Choice

With a designer, you’ll be looking for the following attributes:

Examples of good previous work
The ideal way to find someone who can execute a design that at least looks attractive and appealing to you, is to find them through their previous work (rather than the other way round).

  • Scour websites like this one, read the magazines and get exposed to as many projects similar to those you want to achieve as possible.
  • A local flavour definitely helps (certainly with the planning process) and you should not only be willing to knock on doors of similar projects within your local planning authority’s boundaries, but look through the lists of successful applications to see which designers are working in your area, on homes similar to yours.
  • If possible, try and approach the homeowners independently, as it is the only way you will be able to verify how they get on with their designer.

Able to listen and engage
You will be relying on your designer to interpret your wishes and translate them into a house design. They will also need to match this to your plot, and your budget, and any structural requirements you might have (e.g. highly airtight).

As a result, you need to be able to speak to them constructively and freely, and feel listened to. Not all designers have this ability, and in some cases it might just be a clash of personalities. You need to interview them — sizing them up for their people skills in this respect.

Specialist project? Specialist designer
It’s a good idea (and on some schemes, essential) to try and match your designer to your project. Specialist briefs (such as meeting PassivHaus standards or successfully replicating certain period styles) are beyond the call of most designers. In these cases, you need to track down the specialist designers in that field, many of whom will have carved out a very successful niche.

The Right Brief

How much information is too much? The general consensus is that designers like to have as comprehensive a wishlist – or requirement list – as possible before starting. These are usually split into:

1. The fairly factual, objective requirements (such as number of rooms).
2. The more esoteric issues around look and feel, which are visual and more difficult to pin down.

The Architect’s View

We asked some prolific architects what they think are the essential factors in a healthy working relationship.

a frameless glass extension and staircase with glass balustrade and rocking horse

This stunning frameless glass extension was created when the homeowners asked AR Design Studio to help them find a way to bring light into their dark period property

Andy Ramus of AR Design Studio

“A comprehensive written brief is essential,” says Andy Ramus, director of AR Design Studio. “It should list rooms required; room sizes; detail of the required functions; and kit that will go into the spaces, e.g. a dog basket for the pet Great Dane. The draft brief from the client should be viewed as a working document that the architect can flesh out through further discussion.We always ask clients to compile a scrap book of likes and wishes from images cut from magazines. This allows the architect to work in a style appropriate for the clients wishes. In addition, pictures of your dislikes are often a great way of preventing an architect heading in the wrong creative direction.”

However, many designers like to avoid being confronted with what they might perceive to be a prescribed house. For them, a good brief is one which contains key factual requirements and a few ambitions for the key spaces, without having a fixed and definite vision.

A stone and glass self build designed by Hall & Bednarczyk

Carreg a Gwdyr – meaning stone and glass in Welsh – was designed by Hall & Bednarczyk

Martin Hall of Hall and Bednarczyk“We don’t generally work for clients who wish to predefine solutions in a highly prescriptive way, as there is limited scope for an architect to make a meaningful contribution,” says Martin Hall, a Director of Hall & Bednarczyk. “Any enquiry that starts with a phone call along the lines of ‘I know what I want and just need some plans drawn up’ is politely declined.”

“The best clients are good at clearly expressing their aims for the project and are able to describe how they wish to live as a household and what they value on a site. Developing a clear brief, whether it is written down by the client at the outset or teased out over a number of conversations with the architect, is the foundation of a good working relationship. The best clients have generally given some prior thought to the process, but without completely fixing their ideas.” 

Perhaps the most important thing a client can bring to the relationship is to let the designer do their thing, within the parameters that have been set — and be willing to be pleasantly surprised. Trust is the key. When you’re working with a designer, you’re signing up to the principle that they have something to offer that you can’t achieve — let them do it, and don’t tie their hands with an ‘I want that one’ approach.

Coffey Architects designed this extension to contrast with the existing home

Coffey Architects designed this extension to contrast with the existing home

Phil Coffey, Director of Coffey ArchitectsPhil Coffey, Director of Coffey Architects, agrees. “While clients know more about their lives than the architect can ever hope to understand, an architect can and should bring to the conversation an ability to mould the life of the client to the site/home in a rich and textured way. That takes a trusting relationship.”“At the inception of the project, a loose brief that describes how you live and how you will live in the future is helpful — this is not necessarily a list of rooms with area schedules; more of a lifestyle brief. This will allow the architect to consider your lifestyle and explore the spatial structure of your home, how rooms connect visually, acoustically and spatially; the result may be something that you hadn’t imagined, and it is in these first sketches that a real difference can be made. Overall, take your time choosing your architect and trust them to deliver by giving him/her enough space to express why you chose them in the first place.”

A low profile home built from Dutch engineering brick

Liddicoat + Goldhill designed their own home which was built in a Conservation Area

David Liddicoat of Liddicoat + GoldhillRelax is the message from David Liddicoat, Partner at Liddicoat + Goldhill.

“Designers train for years to harness the creative process, which (when it works best) is unpredictable and nuanced. However, clients are often uncomfortable with uncertainty and struggle to let go.”

“I recommend clients avoid pre-empting the final design — to remember that the designer was hired to find solutions the client would not have considered. At the same time, I would recommend clients be very demanding for guidance through the design process. Working closely with the architect to write a clear brief, deciding priorities or agreeing when particular decisions must be made (or deferred) gives them the freedom to invent a beautiful response to the brief.”

The Right Fee

Fees are a bit of a dirty word in that initial meeting. No one wants to talk about such stark realities on a first date. This is fair enough, but use your first couple of meetings to get a realistic sense of how much their services will cost.The fee is a matter for negotiation. Indeed, in line with all professionals, they have fixed fees but the price they give for your job is likely to depend on various factors. These include:

  • how much in terms of resource they estimate your job to take — this will be a factor of the size of the house, the complexity of the design, the to-and-fro with you as the client
  • what service they are expected to provide
  • how much they want the job as a practice (it may be a brilliant chance for publicity)
  • what they make of you (to put it bluntly will you be a pain in the… behind).

Nowadays there is no standard RIBA scale. However, fee surveys carried out back in 2007 suggested that architects were receiving fees of between 6-11% on private housing work. For example, a £150,000 build contract for a house averaged 8.7% in design fees (£13,000). Architects are encouraged to price jobs in whatever way suits them, whether it be:

  • time charges (hourly rate)
  • value-added fees (percentage of the build contract)
  • or fixed fee (in which case they are advised to usually allow extra for unseen issues down the line)

Guidance suggests that around 30-50% of the design fee is actually assigned to the design work (roughly a third to managing that all-important tender process) and 20-30% in the construction phase (namely managing contractor queries and any additional detailing required on site).

One important point, made by a Hampshire-based self builder HB&R met a few months ago, was the danger of trying to negotiate them down on price. Ultimately, you want your designer to be motivated and engaged with you and your project and not feel like they have had to come down too far – on price and in aspiration – to get the job. They will inevitably come to resent it, and so the cleverest part of a successful price negotiation on your part as a client is to keep the architect interested.

Fixed-fee design work is, of course, hugely attractive to self builders and renovators. You have more chance of agreeing this with a designer if:
a) you can minimise the uncertainty in your project (which is why most architects like percentage rates)
b) you require just design work and have a fairly fixed, possibly limited design requirement (with minimal to-and-fro and complication).

Once you’ve agreed a fee and arrangements with your designer, get a Standard Form of Appointment Agreement or, at least an exchange of letters to the same end.

Main Image: projects by AR Design Studio, Hall & Bednarczyk, Coffey Architects and Liddicoat + Goldhill. Image credits on linked project pages.

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