Hiring an Architect: A Homeowner’s Complete Guide

Hiring an Architect

If you’re considering extending, renovating or even building a new home, one of the most crucial decisions you’ll have to make is whether to employ the services of an architect.

Do I need an Architect?

The short answer is no, but this is not recommended.  

An architect will help you in many ways in what is a complex process, such as bringing a high level of creative design insight, timeless aesthetics, as well as practical and technical solutions, and they have a deep knowledge and understanding of the capabilities of building construction.

The process of each stage of the project development cycle is something that an architect does day in day out,  

  • Hiring an Architect, S&S Architecture

    • Discussing new projects with potential clients,

    • Preparing accurate sketches and initial concept designs,

    • Discussing projects directly with council planning officers,

    • Preparing detailed construction drawings and specifications,

    • Arranging tender documents to enable contractors to calculate the price of the project,

    • Preparing the contract documents,
    • Communicating with the client and other design team members,

    • Visiting site to oversee the project to completion.

These are all tasks that every qualified, experienced architect will undertake daily, and we have seen so many cases where clients have chosen not to employ an architect only to pay for it later.

Poor design, little or no drawings or technical information, planning approval not granted, or simply using a mate builder to do it for you because he’s “done drawings for his own house extension” are all examples of the result of cost cutting or corner cutting. 

A good architect will strike up a relationship with you with an aim to understand your goals and they will have experience in every stage of the whole process, plus they’ll more than likely have done hundreds if not thousands of past projects for other customers.

What is the difference between an Architect & an Architectural Technologist?

An architect is highly trained in the art and science of building design.  They develop concepts for structures that may be for a simple house extension right through to a commercial skyscraper.  They will turn concepts into plans and sometimes provide 3D visual images prior to the introduction of other design team members like architect’s technicians, structural and mechanical engineers, quantity surveyors etc. becoming involved before its eventual construction.

An architectural technologist is also highly trained in leading the design process and they also have a similar level of training in the technical ‘know how’ of how a building is assembled.  They develop effective building plans and solutions much like an architect will, that focus on innovative design as well as practical solutions, all whilst considering the buildability of a project.

In short, the two roles are very similar in that they both design and manage the building project from start to finish, so the main choice will boil down to the individual, and their abilities.  

How do I find the right Architect or Architectural Technologist?

Just like with any trade or profession there is no secret formula to finding the right architect, but there are the obvious routes you can choose, such as asking the friends you trust or a neighbour that has recently had work done themselves, because nothing beats a good recommendation.

If you don’t have a recommendation, be sure to shop around.  We would recommend that you invite 3 or 4 architects or architectural technologists to your home to discuss your project.  Perhaps check their portfolio on their website if they have one, or read their reviews online, as this will give a good indication if they are likely to fit the bill before you decide to ask them to visit.  

There are other options than employing an architect too, as mentioned above you could opt to employ an architectural technologist.  Whilst their title is perhaps unfamiliar, they are not to be under-estimated as they generally cover similar services to an architect, but for a lower fee.

It is important that whoever you choose, that you should look for their qualifications which are normally indicated as ‘RIBA’ for a Chartered Architect or ‘CIAT’ for a Chartered Architectural Technologist.  

If an architect or architectural technologist has either of these titles, this means that they are a member of a professional institution and therefore they must comply with the strict code of conduct and criteria set out by these professional organisations. 

One word of caution though is don’t always take the lowest price in fees as this can be a mistake. (We’ll talk about this later)

Hire an Architect, S & S ArchitectureHow much does an Architect or Architectural Technologist cost?

This is an important subject in the architectural industry that the public are perhaps not fully aware of.  

Traditionally an architect would have been the only person qualified to lead a project, especially at the design stage, as this was their specialist subject after all, so being at the top of the tree meant their responsibilities were very high and therefore would command a high fee.

As you will see from the table illustrated as figure 1 below, Architects normally use standard fees that are based upon a percentage of the estimated project value, with fees ranging from 7.5% to 15% for most new build houses, home extensions and renovation work.

They would often have an assistant called an architect’s technician who would be responsible for detailed construction drawings following the architect’s design.


RIBA Stages 1-7: Design + DeliveryNEW BUILDREFURBISHMENT
Traditional ContractDesign & Build ContractTraditional ContractDesign & Build Contract
Project valueMedian fee as % of project value
£ 51,000,000+n/a3.5%n/a4.25%

An architectural technologist doesn’t use such a table of fees but will normally calculate their fees using a simple approach developed through experience which is usually based upon the time they expect to spend managing the project.  This is almost always lower than the lowest architect’s fee (7.5%), in fact most architectural technologist’s fees are at least half of those quoted by the RIBA table of fees.

Today however, there are more and more people with the capabilities to “draw plans” and they’ll often be referred to as a ‘draftsman’ or ‘designer’, and with modern computers and software they are able to prepare drawings cheaply, but this carries risks as highlighted earlier.

Why could it be a mistake to choose your architect, architectural technologist, or designer just because their fee is the lowest?

The fees quoted by architects and architectural technologists for any given project can vary enormously from person to person, firm to firm, for what services they provide, so why don’t we just go with the lowest fee?

Well, we could ask that question of anything or any trade and most of us know the answer, that the cheapest isn’t always the best option, and this is something we have all experienced at some point or another.  

Whether you’ve bought a cheap product or toy that breaks as soon as you use it because it’s clearly been mass produced as cheaply as possible.  Or if you’ve bought a new sofa for say £150 – £200, then you will probably expect to have to replace it sooner than if you bought a higher quality one at say £1,200 – £1,500.  It may not be as comfortable either, and it won’t be constructed as robustly, and ironically, the expensive sofa will most likely work out to be the more cost effective over its lifetime.  

So, why would you choose a cheap architect, designer, technologist when you’re planning on spending £50,000, £100,000 or more on probably the biggest asset you own?!  They are cheap for similar reasons to the cheap toy or sofa; they will have standard extension plans and will deliver them in a standard way so that they can sell them in bulk.  They are not interested in building a relationship with you, they just want to be paid.

An architect who does not provide a thorough consultation prior to preparing drawings, e.g., understanding your vision, providing previous examples to grasp what it is that you really want should be an immediate red flag.

Using a highly qualified person or company when you’re considering spending a lot of money on your property is essential, you want an expert.  All too often, clients will choose to employ an unqualified person because they are cheaper at the outset, only to find out later that they’ve employed a person that has,   

  • Hiring an Architect
    • A poor understanding of high quality design & construction methods,
    • No qualifications or training, 

    • Sub-standard drawings or a lack of drawing detail,

    • No professional indemnity insurance,

    • Inexperience in the architectural industry,
    • A lack of the right contacts in the building trade.
    • Little or no support when building work begins.

    • Or simply winning work cheaply only to off-hand it to less experienced staff to manage.

Who you employ could of course work out perfectly, and the services provided could be excellent, but 9 times out of 10 you will find that the cheapest price will reveal something lacking somewhere.

When a problem does arise, it’s likely to be too late before work will need to be undone or corrections will need to be made, and this will likely mean extra costs for you.  This is not what you, the customer wants, as it can be stressful enough as it is just having building work done to your home, so the last thing you want is your already stretched budget needing more input.

Hiring an Architect

So, to avoid this, make sure that you do the following.

    •  Check their qualifications and background.

    • Thoroughly examine their fee quotations and the services proposed. 

    • Ask if they have any references from former clients and/or builders who are happy for you to speak to them in person or on the phone, as this will give you valuable insight into how good they are.

    • Contact the local council or a private building inspector as they are involved in inspecting drawings as well as the building process, so they are in an excellent position to comment on who’s information is concise and has very few or no problems at all.
    • I’ll repeat this again though – nothing beats a good recommendation!

Ten questions to ask when hiring an Architect or Architectural Technologist: 

      1. Who are you registered with, RIBA or CIAT?
      2. What level of services do you provide?
      3. Can we see some examples of your work?
      4. Do you have any former clients we can speak with or see their project?
      5. Do you work closely with any builders that you would recommend?
      6. What makes you the right person for my project?
      7. Is my budget sufficient to achieve my ideal goals?
      8. What is your relationship with the local planning department?
      9. Do I need any other specialists besides you?
      10. What role do I need to take as a client? 

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