While many homeowners find themselves tempted by the allure of DIY for their renovation projects, sometimes you simply need to call in the professionals. If you’re making fundamental structural changes to the floor or wall plan of your property, you’re probably going to need to find and choose an architect.
For the average homeowner, architects can seem somewhat enigmatic, making the thought of hiring one more than a little daunting. All kinds of questions spring to mind:
- Where do I begin?
- Is my budget too low (or high)?
- Who can I ask for recommendations?
All this, along with the prospect of approaching a firm with (potentially) nothing more than a drawing on a napkin, can be a fairly intimidating prospect - but fear not.
We’ve put together a simple, no-nonsense guide for the complete beginner to finding and choosing an architect. With some helpful additional tips along with way, you should have an easier time turning your home improvement dreams into reality.
Step 1. First things to consider
When you first contact your shortlist of architects (don’t worry, we’re going to explain how to put that together), you’ll need to have already considered the following things. Before you start looking, you’ll need to think about:
When you first talk to an architect, you’re going to need to have at least a vague idea of your budget. This is entirely down to your own individual project and situation, but you should be clear about how much you’re willing to spend before approaching anyone for a consultation, site visit etc.
Architects charge a wide range of rates, which vary with the extent of the services required. The firm you hire will make their fees clear during the process, but it’s important to be sure about your maximum spend, and factor this into any quotes you’re given. After all, the more expensive the architect, the less you’ll have left for the other aspects of the project.
Simply put, the place where you live will have an impact on which architects are available to you; some firms work all over the country, and some only operate in a small catchment area. Though this might seem like an obvious consideration, during your search it’s easy to forget to check exactly where an architecture firm is based.
This also has implications on planning applications and laws. These can differ from council to council, and it’s important to ensure the architect you choose is both familiar and confident in dealing with any applicable regulations to your local area.
Step 2: Research
When you’ve settled on a budget, and decided exactly what it is you’re actually looking to build, it’s time to start doing some homework. If there’s one thing you should take away from this, it’s not to be hasty. Don’t just settle on the first architect you find (at least not until you’ve done plenty of research), and look into as many options as possible as you draw up your shortlist of potential firms
The act of doing research can be a bit intimidating if you don’t where to start, but it doesn’t need to be. There are plenty of sources of information you can look to, including:
- Internet directories, Houzz etc
The internet is a fantastic resource for finding architects in your local area, and it’s a great place to start your search. Directories such as Houzz or RIBA’s ‘Find an Architect’ system are qualified and recognised, but you can simply use your search engine of choice with queries such as ‘architects near me’ or ‘architects in Your Location’.
TOP TIP: As you broaden your search, it’s easy to get a bit carried away with an ever-widening catchment area. Use a tool such a Google Maps to check where each architect you find is based, to see if they’re actually local to your property.
The time-old practice of simply asking around remains just as valid when you’re finding an architect for your renovation project. Builders and contractors, local homeowners, local councils and businesses can all point you towards people they’ve worked with in the past.
A personal recommendation is also often far more useful than a digital review, particularly if it comes from a trustworthy source, as you’ll be able to probe for the most relevant information to your specific needs. This is also one of the best ways of finding out what an architect is like to work with, on both a personal and professional level.
When drawing up your preliminary list of potential firms, get in touch with as many people as you can who have worked with them in the past, by following up on their references (if provided). It’s a good idea to ask previous partners how flexible the architect was in making changes as necessary, and how well they stuck to the provided budget.
Step 3. Draw up a shortlist
As you’re researching, you’re likely to come up with an extensive and slightly unmanageable list. It’s not feasible to contact every architect in your local area, so the next stage of the process will involve sifting through your findings, and reducing the list down to the few most promising candidates.
What you’re essentially doing here is sorting the wheat from the chaff, and aiming for quality, not quantity. To whittle down your list, there are a couple of essential things to think about:
- Do they have the necessary experience?
In the most basic sense, an architect with plenty of experience is likely to make the process smoother and easier - and it’s a truism that the more experienced the firm is, the better. This also relates to the connections and network the architect in question is likely to have.
However, It’s important not to confuse experience with the amount of time an architect has been working. Just because an architect has been in business for decades, this doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to be a good choice for your specific project.
When drawing up your shortlist, take into account the types of projects the firm in question has worked on in the past, and how experienced they are when it comes to working on designs similar to the one you’re planning.
- Do they have any additional accreditations or awards?
While no one likes a show off, an architect with a few awards under their belt will (usually) have had to pull off something special to earn the accolade. Awards are generally a good sign that the firm in question employs individuals with exceptional skill and talent, and treats them well enough to stick around.
Similarly, any recognised accreditations the firm holds can provide an insight into the type of work they produce, and the projects they are most qualified to work on. At the very least, ensure the architect you hire is RIBA chartered (although they are almost certain to be - the title ‘architect’ is legally protected, and everyone practicing in the field needs to be chartered).
When looking into awards and accreditations, dig a little deeper to understand the specific titles your potential designer holds. Some awards are more prestigious than others, and understanding exactly what the architect has achieved can help you decide if they should make it onto your shortlist.
Step 3: Initial discussions
It’s up to you how many architects you want to feature on your shortlist, but we’d recommend including enough to provide a good point of comparison. Three or four is usually the right number to start with, and once you’ve made your selection you’ll need to make contact.
There a number of ways you can do this, but the main thing to remember is that you’re under no pressure to go with the first architect you speak to. This stage gives you an opportunity to get a first-hand impression of what each architect is like, their potential visions for your project, and whether or not you get the sense that you’d like to work with them.
During this stage of early consultation, there are a few things you can consider to ensure you choose the right architect:
To call or not to call?
The first question to ask is how to actually get in touch with each firm. While you can email or message on social media, we’d recommend picking up the phone and having a chat in person first.
This can be totally informal - what you’re mainly aiming to find out is how best to get the ball rolling with the firm in question. Briefly explain your project, and ask if they think it sounds suitable. If so, then enquire as to their availability, both for a face-to-face meeting and for the actual work on your project. If everything seems in order, and you get the sense that things could work well, arrange to meet in person.
If everything goes well with your initial contact with a specific architect, the next phase is the initial consultation. This is the meeting in which you’ll go over your proposed ideas, and talk through their initial ideas for potential designs. Initial consultations are usually free, so it’s best to think of this almost as a job interview - with you as the employer!
Don’t be afraid to ask about how they structure their fees here - some architects will charge a fixed sum, while others will negotiate a percentage based on material and time costs.
In the case of the latter, don’t be afraid to ask about if they include a maximum fee guarantee. If they don’t, then unless you have money to burn it may be better to work with a more affordable alternative.)This also relates to the connections and network the architect in question is likely to have.
When meeting with your shortlist of potential architects, don’t just pay attention to their suggestions for your project, but also bear in mind how well you get on with them more generally. You’ll be spending a lot of time with your chosen designer, so it’s vital to have a positive working relationship. If you sense any tension or difference of opinion, they’re probably not a good fit.
Final Stages - Making the decision
Ultimately, this decision will be an entirely personal one. Every project is just as unique and individual as every homeowner, and taking the time required to find the perfect architect is not only advisable, it’s vital. There are admittedly a lot of things to think about, but the key takeaway is to take things logically, step by step.
Do your research, filter your list of potentials down to a few, and then meet in person. If things don’t go according to plan the first time around, don’t feel like you have to hire a firm you’re not 100% confident in. Pause, take a breath, and rinse and repeat the same steps. It’ll be worth it when you take that first step into your beautiful new home.