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How do I work with an architect?

A guide to finding, appointing and working with an architect based on the questions we are asked the most.

Unless your project is very simple, it makes sense to at least talk to an architect for advice before you get going. Generally, architects begin to offer a wider range of services for projects with a budget of £50,000 or more, but for a smaller fee, an architect can help you get the best out of your project in the early stages, regardless of size and whether they are needed later on.

Most architects offer one-off consultations and these can be incredibly useful. They will give you guidance on all aspects of your project from design and cost through to planning and construction. In a short space of time, you can gain valuable insight to help you realise your project.

How to tell if someone is an architect

The title ‘architect’ is protected by law (Architects Act 1997), so that only those who have undergone rigorous training and are fully qualified, can rightly use it. Watch out for companies styling themselves as ‘architectural’ designers or similar wording as this is likely to indicate that they are not qualified architects.

All architects must be registered with the Architects Registration Board (ARB), with most taking up RIBA membership also. If an individual has neither credential then they may be operating unregulated, providing you with no guarantees of their ability to deliver the service you require.

You can check if a person is a RIBA Member on our directory.

Why you should choose a RIBA Chartered Practice

RIBA Chartered Practices are quality-assured and committed to design excellence and customer service. That’s why the RIBA only promotes accredited Chartered Practices to clients.

All RIBA Chartered Practices:

  • employ a required number of individual RIBA Chartered Architects
  • have appropriate Professional Indemnity Insurance
  • have an effective Quality Management system
  • have comprehensive Health and Safety and Environmental policies in place
  • are expected to conduct themselves in accordance with a Code of Practice in a manner appropriate to their status. View the full Code of Practice.

Creating a brief

The ultimate success of your project depends on the quality of your brief, i.e. your ability to describe clearly to your architect the requirements and functions of your building, and proposed methods of operation and management. Your architect will help you prepare the final brief. They will need to know:

  • your aims
  • your budget
  • your design style: are you looking for a design in keeping with the existing building?
  • do you want a contemporary or high-tech design?
  • are you concerned about having a sustainable or ecological design?
  • your reasons for embarking on this building project: what activities are intended for it?
  • your authority: who will make the decisions about the designs, costs and construction when the project is underway?
  • your overall expectations: what do you hope to achieve by this project - more space, more light, variety of uses, greater flexibility?

Choosing the right architect

Clients often appoint an architect who is known to them or who has been recommended, or whose work they admire. This can be a sensible approach, unless you need a range of particular skills and services to match your requirements more precisely, in which case a more structured process of selection is recommended.

The RIBA’s free to use ‘Find an Architect’ service enables you to create a shortlist of practices that match your project needs. Visit the Find an Architect webpage or email clientservices@riba.org to find out more.

In the video below, a homeowner explains how working with an architect helped her to build her dream home, flooding it with natural light.

Look for a practice with experience of your type of project or one that shares your aspirations. Check how many similar projects they have built, their contacts with the local planning department and their track record of approvals. Follow up their references to find out about how well they communicated, how responsive they were to changes, and how effective they were at managing the budget.

Speak to each firm on your shortlist, describe your project and ask if they have the capacity to take it on. If so, request literature that outlines the firm’s qualifications and experience. Visit their website. Ask to see a portfolio of work, or to visit finished buildings. Above all, get to know your intended architect. It is important to ensure that you are compatible. Your architects must convince you of their creative thinking and their ability to get things done.

Payment for the first meeting

Architects are not obliged to offer their time for free, but generally don’t charge for an initial conversation. This will take the form of a short meeting to discuss the project and the architect’s ability to deliver it. Anything more than this - i.e. detailed design advice - you should expect to pay for.

What’s offered in initial meetings may differ from architect to architect, so it’s best to ask if there is a charge before arranging a meeting.

The cost of architectural services

Architects’ fees will vary depending on the location and complexity of the project and level of service expected from them. Some architects will base their charges on a percentage of a total project cost, others as a fixed price lump sum or on a time charge basis.

How much or how little you commission an architect is up to you - from an initial design discussion through to the final delivery of the project on-site.

How to employ an architect

A good working relationship between architect and client is crucial to the success of any project. You and your architect should discuss and agree on the scope and cost of architectural services before the project begins and ensure that the agreement is in writing.

To help clients who are embarking on smaller building projects the RIBA publishes the Domestic Professional Services Contract which is suitable for use where work is required on your home.

If you are acting for a business or commercial purposes, the RIBA Concise Professional Services Contract is more suitable for your needs.

The RIBA Standard Professional Services Contract is suitable for larger projects where detailed contract terms are necessary. It can be applied to most procurement methods, including design and build.

Planning permission

Your architect will advise you on all the approvals needed, but if you would like to find out more then you can visit the Government’s Planning Portal website.

Health and safety obligations

The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (CDM 2015) are the regulations for managing the health, safety and welfare of construction projects.

The regulations changed in April 2015 and apply to both domestic and commercial clients.

These place a duty on the client to make suitable arrangements for managing a project, principally making sure duty holders are appointed (ie a Principal Designer and a Principal Contractor).

Building contracts

With planning approval in place, your architect can recommend an appropriate form of building contract and will prepare drawings with technical specifications that describe your agreed proposals, for selected builders to cost.

The RIBA publishes a number of contracts suitable for domestic and commercial projects. Find out more on the RIBA Contracts webpage.

Maintaining build quality

The contract administrator is the individual responsible for administering the construction contract. Unless you appoint someone to this role, this will become your responsibility.

Appointing an architect as your contract administrator provides quality control over the build. They can carry out regular inspections, deal with queries, instruct any additional work required, monitor progress on sire, keep track of cost, value works and certify payments due to the builder.

Project process

All projects go through more or less the same process, starting with the initial briefing; through to design development; preparing documentation for planning permission where required; producing the technical drawings for building regulations and construction purposes; tendering and finally construction and handover.

The RIBA Plan of Work sets out these stages and is used by the industry as standard.

Dispute management

Construction projects can be complex and unfortunately, contract disputes sometimes happen. See further information on our guidance and resolution services on Architecture.com

Further information

The RIBA Client Services team is here to help you with your project.

Read our collection of articles designed to help homeowners make informed decisions on their self build, renovation, extension or conversion projects via our Find an Architect service

If you have any questions please contact us on +44(0)207 307 3700 or email clientservices@riba.org

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