KEY QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR ARCHITECT
1. Are you an architect? | What is your background?
Not all architectural designers are architects. Understand the skillset of the professional you look to appoint, their qualifications, and their background. All qualified architects are registered with the Architects Registration Board, are likely to be “Chartered” i.e. members of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and they are legally obliged to carry professional indemnity insurance for the benefit of you and your project.
2. How do you work? | How can you help with my project?
Find out about their past experience, about their previous projects, their likes/dislikes, their approach to managing the process from understanding your priorities to dealing with the builders and other construction professionals you will need for your project. Find out how they calculate their fees, what are the terms of their appointment, how many design options and site visits they include in the fee proposal, what other services they offer, who does the design work in their practice, what will be the level of their personal involvement in your project.
3. Team work | Who do you work with?
Architects develop working relationships with structural engineers, landscape architects, interior designers, party wall surveyors, cost consultants and builders over time and through previous projects. Take advantage of the synergy they have developed overtime and the opportunity to work effortlessly as a team to solve problems and come up with solutions, ideas and answers.
4. Approval matters | What are the chances of getting planning approval?
Architects can foresee what the planners might approve for your project but they cannot guarantee an approval; it is for the local authority to assess an application, consider it in the context of the local planning policy, evaluate the immediate physical context, and take a view on the design merit of a proposal and the validity of any objections received. What you need to understand from your architect is what is likely to get an approval, what is less likely to get an approval, and with that knowledge decide on this: is worth applying for something more adventurous in order to test what the planners are prepared to approve, or should you apply for something safer that is likely to get approval the first time and in predetermined timescales? Your specific circumstances will determine what is the best way forward and your architect will then proceed as necessary.
5. Money matters | How much will it all cost and can I afford it?
Take a step by step approach when assessing potential building costs and your budget.
Before starting, consider a reasonable budget for the works and discuss it with your architect to see if it is realistic; do not expect your architect to cost design features and design decisions that are yet to be made but your architect will have a feel about whether your budget is in the right ball park figure or not.
When starting the design development stage, make some initial decisions about the design proposals and the extend of the alterations you wish to carry out. At this point obtain cost estimates either from a cost consultant (detailed estimates on the basis of the initial information you have prepared) or by a builder (a more realistic but also rough estimate of how much the works might cost).
If the estimates are around the ball park figure you are comfortable with then proceed to obtain planning approval and start the preparation of the required technical and structural information. Ask again the cost consultant or the builder to provide you with more accurate and reliable estimates.
If the estimates are still within your budget parametres then proceed with obtaining the rest of the approvals and prepare the detailed Tendering information for builders to provide detailed quotes on.
If at any point the estimates are outside your comfort zone then change the design as necessary, and remember: before obtaining costs you need to have prepared a “shopping list” of what you need costed.
6. Time matters | How long will it all take and will it be done on time?
Allow a minimum of around 5-6 months between appointing your architect and the building works starting for a typical residential extension that requires a planning and Building Regulations approvals and a Party Wall agreement. Invest time on the design development stage and on the selection of your builders. Some stages can be speeded up (e.g. how/when you prepare the technical/structural information). You will still have to wait for fixed periods of time to get some of the approvals (e.g. typically 8 weeks for the planning approval). And you will not know how long some stages might take (e.g. Party Wall agreements depend on the level of co-operations you will have from your neighbours). Also remember that no good quality builder sits around waiting for the phone to ring and that they are typically pre-booked months ahead.
7. Practical matters | What do I need to do before we start?
Create inspirations/look boards, collect images of things you like, look online, look at magazines, consider your budget info, research about environmental measures, such as adding solar panels, having a green roof, explore how you can improve the house insulation levels. Also, check ownership issues (i.e. who owns the “air” above the roof you want to extend or who own the roof / loft space of your top floor flat). Also consider questions such as the following:
“What are the special elements of the design we do not want to compromise on, and where can we be more flexible within the context of our budget?”
“What is the feel we look to achieve with regards to natural light? Should we keep the amount of roof glazing to a minimum which will make the rear garden appear more spectacular (Theatre stage effect)? Or should we go for lots of roof glazing to create an outdoor effect? Where do we want the cosy living areas to be?”
“How long do we plan to live in the property, and how is our lifestyle likely to change over this time? What are the chances for a growing family, working from home, or picking up gardening as a hobby one day?”
8. Practical matters | Will the neighbours object to my project and can they stop it?
The neighbours can object to a planning application, and they often do so. Always have a chat with them before you make the planning submission; it is always a cause of worry when you receive a letter by the Council informing you the neighbours are building an extension and you would like to prevent your neighbours getting worried unnecessarily. Unless legal or ownership matters are at play, your neighbours can not really stop your project if the proposals are otherwise acceptable to the planners and within planning policy. During the Party Wall negotiations the neighbours can potentially delay the process until an agreement is reached under the Party Wall Act but they can not effectively stop your project either.
9. Practical matters | Will I be able to stay in my home during the works or do I need to move out?
It may not be ideal but it is possible to stay in the property during the construction stage; could you camp on the first floor with a microwave and the odd takeaway while the builders are finishing your dream kitchen extension on the ground floor over a period of three months? Are there young ones involved that tend to be more sensitive to noise, dust and allergies? Discuss all this with your builder and agree a plan that will allow for a physical separation between what will practically be a building site and the rest of your home. For example, agree working times and get an understanding of what happens when during the project. However, if you are able to, it might be beneficial to give the builders full access to the property while you live elsewhere. This tends to speed up the building timescales, it reduces costs as a result, and it also simplifies insurance liabilities during the construction period. Do a calculation about the mortgage costs vs the costs of renting elsewhere or ask friends and family if they could accommodate you over the few critical months of the project – weigh up the pros and cons and see what works best for you.
10. Practical matters | Do I need an architect?
Or as a potential client once put it to me, “if we knew how to design it, we wouldn’t be calling on a professional designer, would we?”. If you are reading this guide then you probably need an architect but this is not always the case. Architects are highly qualified in areas of law and contracts and project management and they can have additional specialisms in areas such as interior or environmental design. Ultimately though architects tend to be problem solvers and the type of a professional you would want to bounce ideas with and pick up their brains and ask for advice and benefit from their experience of working on many similar projects. Depending on your project requirements you might only need an interior designer, a structural engineer, a builder, a surveyor, a project manager, or any combination of the above.
11. Help me understand what I want | What are the options for the future?
On the outset you need to be clear why you want to carry out the project and let this inform all your design and other decisions; discuss these matters with your architect. Consider whether you need flexibility built in (do you plan to live in the house with your family and how long for?), how important is it to you adding value to the property (or is this your “home” and should the project brief only reflect your personal preferences?), what are the circumstances that might change in the future (Need to downsize/upsize or need to move due to work?).
12. Help me understand what I want | What are the layout options?
Ask your architect to explain the layout options in regards to where the kitchen, dining and living areas can be located and how they could open up to the rear garden. Do you like open plan arrangements or would you also retain an “escape from everyone” evening/reading reception room? Understand the relative cost and structural implications for each option. Understand the “feel” of the various spaces, how they can be defined, what sightlines you can create, how the circulation feels like, which spaces have access to daylight and which spaces need to be cosy, how to make everything balanced, proportionate and “right”. 3D illustrations and fly-through visualisations are the best way to explore and understand the spaces you aim to create.
13. Help me understand what I want | What are my options in regards to environmental design, external finishes, internal fittings and materials?
Ask your architect to show you a wide range of options on materials, technologies, products, finishes, fittings. Make this part of the appointment agreement; this is a process you are likely to go through only once in your lifetime and the decisions you will make will need to stand the test of time for as long as you live in this property. Explore ideas, take your time, get it right for now and for the foreseeable future.
14. A roadmap for your project | What happens when?
There is always a more efficient and practical and necessary way to go about things, and it totally depends on your priorities and the project requirements. Find that way and follow it faithfully without being distracted from it. Ask your architect to advise you on the options and a sensible plan of action about when you need to speak to the neighbours, when you need to appoint a structural engineer, when to confirm the internal finishes, when you need to deal with Party Wall agreements and Freeholder approvals, and when to approach builders to obtain quotes for the building works. Remember that design is a process of continuous refinement and decision making; not all decisions are made at the outset and your architect will allow for a step by step approach to deal with all the complexities along the way. See diagram.
15. Finally, should I even go ahead with this project? Or should I actually move and find another property?
You have set a budget for your project, say for example, you want to add a single storey ground floor extension and to convert the loft to create another bedroom, this is also a chance to refurbish part of the house and you start talking to an architect. However, during the feasibility and design development stage you realise that that what you really need from the property at the moment is a great living space and the loft bedroom can wait when your family grows in the future. This way you get to spend only a part of your budget now which is also convenient.
Or maybe your family is expanding now and what you realise that the priority is that additional loft bedroom because timescales would not work otherwise; in this case you forget the rear extension, you improve the living space at a later stage and you focus on that bedroom now.
Or after discussions with your architect you come to realise it is simply not feasible to remodel or extend your property for your budget and in a way that will allow you to live in it in the long term.
Or you might realise that you cannot add the necessary value to the property to justify the alterations to it. In this case the answer is not a new extension, in this case you need to move to a property that has the potential to accommodate you and the family requirements as your new home.
Sometimes the answer really is that you should not go ahead with your project, and if this proves to be the case then your architect should tell you so. You might find the realisation unexpected but sometimes it is the right decision.