Who Should Design my House?

Not all projects require an architect. Mike Hardwick helps you choose the best route for your home build
by Mike Hardwick
14th March 2018

When I ask self-builders who they think can design a house – and who they think should do it – more often than not, the reply is an architect.

While it’s true they are highly trained and able to design, plan and manage the construction of a new home, there are a number of alternatives to choose from.

Trained architects are professionals, and professionals aren’t generally known for being the inexpensive option. Moreover, while in certain circumstances an architect is the obvious choice, sometimes using their services can be a costly overkill.

So how can you tell whether you need an architect, or whether an alternative design solution would work better and be more cost-effective for your project?

Your design options

One of the key considerations when taking on a self-build or other major project will be the complexity of the scheme. Some of you might be tackling the kind of high-end scheme beloved of Grand Designs – but the vast majority of self-builds do not fall into this category.

Creating a modest family home with four walls and a simple roof is not rocket science. We build tens of thousands of them every year in this country. So do we really need to go to the expense of a fully-qualified architect to draw up something so straightforward?

I would suggest not. Here are some of the key design options available to you:

1. Architect

The term architect is legally protected. To be allowed to use the title, you must have completed seven years of training and will have to be accepted by the Architect’s Registration Board. You must also hold professional indemnity insurance. While anyone can design a house, unless all of these boxes have been ticked, they can’t call themselves an architect.

It’s this training and professional status that pushes up the price of an architect. It’s also why the very best can charge eye-watering fees for some of the most complex projects.

Interior designer Mark Brunjes came up with his own design to gauge the planners’ reaction to his ideas for the conversion and extension of an old fire station
Recognising his limitations, however, he engaged an architect friend and a structural engineer to help secure planning and building consents

If you’re looking for a cutting-edge contemporary home that pushes the boundaries of eco design and exploits the latest materials and thinking, then you should probably go straight to an architect.

You still need to shop around, though, because not all will specialise in the kind of house you want. An expert in brutalist concrete car parks isn’t going to be the best bet if you want a floating cantilevered glass cube, for instance.

An architect is also likely to be the right person to go to if you’re looking to develop a difficult site – such as a plot with a severe slope or tricky access – because they will have the skills to mitigate these issues.

The perennial downside of using an architect, and a concern I’ve heard repeatedly over the years, is that while they produce stunning designs, quite often the budget is forgotten and the project ends up becoming unaffordable.

This issue can be compounded by architects working to a percentage of the build costs, which acts as an incentive to design a bigger and better house than the original brief calls for.

Some practices understand the constraints on those of us creating a one-off home better than others. Among those would be members of the Association of Self-Build Architects (ASBA), which was founded by Build It’s own design expert, Julian Owen.

2. Architectural technologist

These professionals apply the science of architecture, specialising in the technological aspects of buildings, including design and construction methods. They work alongside architects and therefore have an understanding of space, materials and aesthetics. Add these aspects together and they’re well qualified to design individual homes.

As they’re not full-blown architects, they tend to charge less and offer tremendous value-for-money. This can be especially true when it comes to contemporary, energy-efficient buildings, as many architectural technologists are qualified to design to Passivhaus standards.

Architectural technicians possess similar qualifications to technologists – although they are not authorised to work as a sole practitioner. Check out the Charted Institute of Architectural Technologists’ website to find members working in your area.

3. Package company

The many package house suppliers in the self-build market rely on great design to sell their products. The basic idea is they come up with a scheme at little or no cost, using their in-house architects and designers.

You then fall in love with the idea and commission them to take the project through planning, Building Regulations and some or all of the construction works.

Chris and Lesley Wilkins engaged an architectural technician, Ben Todd Jones from Aaron Chetwynd Architect Studio, to plan their radical renovation of a boxy 1960s home
The £300,000 project, which features a green oak frame by Oakwrights, goes to show that it’s not only architects who can deliver imaginative design

The catch is that they own the design, so if you want to use it you will be obliged to sign up to their timber frame or materials package – and that’s where they make their money. The plans therefore become the sprat to catch the mackerel, so it’s important for these companies to have exceptional architects and designers on board.

Using a package company is a popular and sensible route into self-build, especially for first-timers, as you’ll have access to their support all the way through the project.

4. Designer

Anyone who is not formally qualified falls into this generic category. In effect, anybody can call himself or herself a designer – so it becomes all the more important to do your homework.

The key things to look for are examples of previous work, which must be followed up with client references to prove competency. You should also ensure you see proof of professional indemnity insurance.

These designers have a role to play. Many concentrate on small-scale projects such as simple extensions and cosmetic remodelling, where the costs associated with a fully qualified architect are sometimes not justified.

Into this category would fall the design and build companies who offer stock plans and the resources to build them. Costs are relatively easy to control, but don’t expect state-of-the-art architecture.

5. DIY design

Lastly, you could have a go yourself. Core versions of 3D design software packages such as Sketchup are free to download and, with the help of web tutorials, give everyone the chance to draw up their own scheme.

More powerful tools are also available, such as Build It magazine’s 3D Design Software.

Getting a self-drawn design through the planning process is not at all uncommon, but the key question is whether the scheme can be built safely and economically to meet the Building Regulations.

It’s at this stage where DIY designs can come unstuck, and many architects and designers will be familiar with the clients who call up having obtained planning permission for their drawings but with no idea what to do next.

If you think this is a step too far for you, another approach would be to use the software to mock up ideas that can be used to inform your brief to an architect or house designer.

How much should I pay?

As professionals, architects expect to be paid handsomely for their work. The very best can charge a fortune, and rightly so – some architect-designed homes are more works of art than houses. However, most of us just want a nice home or extension that isn’t going to break the bank.

After the financial crash, architects had to revisit their pricing because work was scarce; falling back on the old RIBA scale system, which was a licence to print money, made them too expensive. One self-builder I met had paid his architect nearly £40,000 under a RIBA contract but the project had not even gotten underway on site.

Five ways to safeguard  your design:

  • Always take and follow up references so you know what kind of service you will be getting.
  • Make a record of each meeting and phone call and write notes into an email so both parties have a clear understanding of what has been agreed.
  • Ensure everyone is on the same page about budget. If you have £200,000 to spend on your build including all fees but your designer thinks their costs will be added on top, for instance, you’ll soon get into hot water.
  • Avoid engaging your designer on a sliding fee basis, because this can become a license to print money. A fixed fee gives you greater control over costs.
  • Make sure any contract has a suitable termination clause in place so either party can escape if it goes wrong.

To get work, many architects reverted to a fixed fee approach – and this is the model that I would encourage you to use if possible, whoever you engage to create your scheme.

A straightforward design for a bespoke four bed detached home up to Building Regulations drawings can be achieved for £5,000-£10,000 depending on complexity. Plans for a simple extension to an existing property, matching the current house style, can be produced for as little as £1,500 if you use a local designer.

So should I use an architect?

Ultimately, it’s your call. For complex, cutting-edge designs, highly energy efficient homes or where you want to extract the maximum from a difficult plot, hiring an architect will be money well spent.

But if you are building a generic four-sided box with a slab roof or an extension, it may be a
waste of your budget, as there are designers who can do just as good a job for a fraction of the cost.

The trick, as always, is to shop around to find somebody who is on the same wavelength as you, who has a portfolio of work that inspires you and who understands your budgetary constraints. Letters after someone’s name mean nothing without ticking those three boxes.

Top image: With help from his parents and MasonKerr Architects, Richard Pender was able to create this innovative barn-style home

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