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Digital contracts save time and protect users

They are convenient, legally robust and come in styles to suit different projects and practices. As new updates are set to be released, we find out what users are saying about RIBA digital contracts.

Running a successful architecture practice is never going to be easy, let’s face it. But there is something practices can do to simplify an important aspect of their business: use the RIBA’s digital contracts. Easy to use, the contracts can be drawn up and signed, without ever having to print anything off.

Wendy Charlton, operations director at London-based practice RCKa, is a big fan. “They’re intuitive and easy to use, and they’re really good value for money, professional and time-saving. I would say to anyone who hasn't used an RIBA digital contract, just do it. It's brilliant.”

RCKa, a practice of 22 and working on bigger projects such as retirement villages and large residential and mixed used developments, uses the digital version of the RIBA’s professional services contracts mainly to appoint subconsultants, such as the landscape architects and structural and mechanical and electrical engineers.

“I have the main account online, and then I can invite any of our project architects to use it as well. It means I can purchase the contract, set it up for the project architects, fill in the basic details as much as I can, and they then log on and fill in the fine detail.”

She adds: “Before the contracts were available digitally, we wouldn't have used a formal form of appointment for our subconsultants, which was exposing us and them. But now because it's so easy, we do it for everything,” she says.

The RIBA contracts have been around for 100 years or more and have been a bedrock of the profession, becoming available in a digital form at the end of 2018. Like those in print form, the contracts are available for both the appointment of professional services and as building contracts. Then, in each suite, there are a number of variations to suit project type and/or professional specialism. And both suites of contracts come in versions for domestic work – which includes the extra legal protection afforded to consumers – and for small commercial works. The professional services contract comes in standard or concise forms for architectural services, and there are versions for conservation architectural services, interior design services and separate, stand-alone contracts for client adviser and principal designer.

The terminology is similar in both professional services and building contracts so as to provide continuity and familiarity to the client and architect, many of whom act as contract administrator for the building contract between client and contractor. There is constant dialogue with users to find improvements and the RIBA is continually evolving both the contracts and the digital tool, with a new Design and Build professional services contract due to be released in 2023.

Steven Cross, director of knowledge partnerships, who developed RIBA Contracts Digital, the platform that delivers the online contracts, says that 85% of all contracts now sold are in digital format. However, there is evidence that some architects still operate without any written terms, or with very limited or inadequate ones.

He cautions: “A lot of cases against architects tend to arise where they have a poorly drafted form of appointment. Clear terms are needed to define the parties’ obligations and rights, and hence avoid possible confusion and disputes. They protect the architect’s interests, limit their liability, and from the client’s perspective provide a detailed explanation as to what they can expect from their architect. This includes the services that will, and will not, be included in the fee.

Cross continues: “Projects start with all the best intention between the client and the architect – everybody is happy and everything is going well. But the minute something goes wrong, you need a form of appointment that clearly sets out who is responsible for what, where, and when.”

By making the RIBA digital contracts easy to use, and therefore time saving, Cross hopes that those who currently take a more informal approach will be tempted to use them.

Tom Gresford, founder of Oxford-based Gresford Architects, can vouch for the benefits of having an RIBA contract in place. Gresford runs a practice of nine, which has a focus on low carbon and Passivhaus new build housing and retrofit. “We've got about 50 live projects at the moment and we recommend to our clients that they use RIBA professional services contracts and the building contracts for the building work, which Gresford Architects then administer.

“It’s not so much about the final word of the contract. It's about the principle of having a formal agreement in place. For almost all the projects, the contract is never referred to again. However, we have had a scenario recently where one of our contractors went out of business. It was very clear that the contract afforded the clients some considerable protection against being chased by the liquidators. For the sake of spending 35 quid on a contract administered as part of overseeing the work, it more than paid for itself.”

He adds: “Having contracts as a digital offering is helpful for our practice. And professional services terms are clear. We know from experience that the building contracts do work for our clients and afford them protection.”

Cross at the RIBA says the RIBA contracts have been approved by lawyers and are legally watertight and fair. “Because they've been around for so long, and they've been tried and tested by the courts, we know they are legally robust. They adhere to the RIBA and ARB codes of conduct, and have been developed to be fair and balanced for both the client and the architect.”

Recently, an addendum slip has been introduced into the professional services contract, so if the project changes in any way – for example, the client wants an extra bathroom – this can be quickly created as an addendum. It will take the user through things like any additional meetings required, whether it will influence the programme or on the construction cost and so on. This addition is free of charge.

Tom Crooks of Tom Crooks Architecture, a conservation practice based in Hathersage, Derbyshire on the edge of the Peak District, says that knowing that the contracts have been drafted by an organisation that understands architecture, and has had them legally checked to make sure that they are fair and compliant with up-to-date legislation provides assurance for his four- strong practice.

“We don’t tend to modify the main body of the contracts at all, nor the terminology or the conditions. That way we can be confident that the contract we’re presenting to the client is not going to cause us any compliance problems. And we can confidently say to them, “This has been drafted by specialists, and checked by legal teams and is considered to be a ’fair contract’. The fact it's stamped with RIBA, rather than it just being our own bespoke terms and conditions, gives clients confidence that their best interests are protected as well.”

Crooks says that having the wide range of contracts is also useful. “We often use the conservation version, which I was loosely involved in contributing to, through the Ecclesiastical Architects & Surveyors Association, to make sure that it accommodated the various nuances of a conservation project.”

He is particularly pleased that architects can provide feedback on the contracts and the digital tool, which is then taken on board as the system or contracts are updated.

For the smaller projects such as house extensions and smaller conservation jobs, some of the larger forms of building contract, like JCT, or the more complex forms of appointment would be overkill. “It is handy to have the concise ones, particularly when taking clients through the terms of the contract. Almost everyone glazes over by about page five of the bigger documents!”

Ease of use is again something Crooks appreciates. RIBA Contracts Digital guides users through the form, and options are available to suit the projects and the way the practice operates. So, for example, there are options to fill in the fees box as a straight figure or a percentage of construction costs and schedule of payments. Standard clauses covering terms and conditions are easy to change – though few do.

Cross says: “Completing a digital contract is easy and straightforward. You simply enter the contract details and then just literally go through each of the standard services unticking those that you are not delivering or adding in any services that you are. Once you've been through the contract, you can prepare a draft, send it to the client to review, and then take in any amendments. Once both parties are happy with the contract, you finalise it and can either download a PDF and sign it by hand, or use the new digital signature process.”

Crooks agrees that being able to do everything online is a huge benefit. “You can draw up a contract quickly. There’s a facility to autofill for repeat clients, and it also autocompletes all our details, which is helpful.

“If people respond to emails promptly, you can get the whole lot tied off in a couple of days. Historically, a project could be well advanced before the client or contractor actually got around to signing the contract.”

For saving time, protecting the interests of practices and their clients for a small amount of money, RIBA digital contracts should be on every architect’s download list.

For further details on RIBA contracts and the digital contract creating tool, RIBA Contracts Digital, please go to

Article written by Denise Chevin MBE a freelance journalist with over 30 years’ experience working as an editor and commentator in housing, construction, architecture, sustainability and technology.

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