Adrian Dobson, Executive Director Members at the RIBA, explains how to find the right architect for your project.
Interview with Adrian Dobson
Adrian was a practising architect, mostly working in the education and social services sector, before joining the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) around 10 years ago. He is currently the RIBA's Executive Director Members and is also author of 21 Things You Won't Learn in Architecture School. Adrian lectures at schools of architecture to trainee architects, and also gives seminars for architects in practice.
An architect “helps you to navigate the whole complexity of the build process”
Adrian defines an architect as being someone that can help a client through the complex issues of designing and constructing a building to meet their needs. It is someone who is a trusted adviser and facilitator, and while the core skill of design is at the heart, they are able to contribute much more than that to the architectural process.
Training to be an architect takes at least 7 years
It is a rigorous process which predominantly takes place in a university setting for the academic training, followed by supervised professional experience.
The use of the title ‘Architect' is protected by statute, meaning that only someone that has completed the training is permitted to use the title.
Architects are continuously trained throughout their career. By undertaking compulsory Continuing Professional Development, they keep up to date with changes in legislation, building design technologies, etc.
Additionally, some architects will specialise by sector or by type of service they provide. For example, if you wanted to do a conservation project, you would need to look for an architect with that further specialism who is going to understand the intricacies of listed buildings.
Most planning applications are not architect designed
With so many planning applications being small alteration works, often there will not be an architect involved. Adrian's view is that even in small projects an architect can often release value in terms of imaginative use of space or making the best of a constrained site, but appreciates there is a level at which you've got to make that judgement.
Adrian acknowledges that there are extremely talented designers who operate in the industry, and that architects don't have a unique right to be the only designers in the built environment. He does however believe that employing an architect gives you peace of mind and reassurance. It offers you:
- certain guarantees about the training they've received
- assurances that they are undergoing Continuing Professional Development
- core design skills
- an understanding of the legislative framework in which buildings are constructed
- an adherence to the code of conduct
- standards of professionalism / a degree of quality, by way of them being registered and the accreditation that bodies like the RIBA offer around practices
An architect can add most value during the early stages of a project
Adrian believes that if you're going to employ an architect, to delay their engagement is actually a false economy. By having an architect at the earliest part of the process they can help to appraise a site, to assist you with defining and understanding what your brief is, and show how you can maximise the value to give you the kind of space and lifestyle that you aspire to.
There is no fixed basis for setting an architect's fee. It might be that employing an architect in these early stages you pay an hourly rate for the site appraisal, feasibility study and brief writing, but then move to a fixed sum arrangement after that.
The fixed fee is divided over the RIBA Plan of Works Stages. It’s a number of stages, 0-7, that splits the design, development and construction process up. It starts with the brief, moving through concept design, developed design, technical design, and on to construction.
“Satisfy yourself that the architect you choose is someone you can get along with over a long period of time”
The RIBA has a service called Find an Architect which can help a client filter through categories and arrive at a shortlist.
When selecting an architect, Adrian feels it's important to remember that this is going to be a relationship that needs to be maintained over months and perhaps years, so getting a personal and cultural fit is wise.
Other considerations when deciding which architect to choose, are:
- The reputation of the practice
- Look at previous projects and speak to previous clients
- Consider their area of expertise. Do they have the required accreditation if you're wanting to build to the Passivhaus standard, for example?
- Does their design approach match your way of thinking, i.e. traditional or modern?
- Think about the range of services you want and whether the architect has experience in delivering those
Adrian explains that it's about “product and process”. You should satisfy yourself that your chosen architect can produce a product of the type you want, and that it is someone that understands the process and can explain that process to you in terms that you can understand.
You should ask about the performance and feedback from previous projects. Adrian feels that, not just architects but the whole construction industry, have historically been weak in this area of seeing whether buildings have actually delivered the performance that was promised. With around 45% of business for architects being from repeat clients, it's an area where it makes sense for them to be far more customer focused.
Understand the scope of services that are being provided
Regulations impose that there must be an appointment agreement in writing. The client must be told what the architect has committed to deliver and what their obligations are in return. As part of this documentation it is important that a client understands and has a realistic expectation of the scope of services that the architect is going to provide. This could entail establishing how far along the route you wish to employ the architect, i.e. only as far as planning, include building regulations, the tender of the building contract, inspection of works on site and administration of the contract. It could also be as simple as deciding how many options might be shown in the feasibility stage.
An architect provides a level of quality control over the build
One of the advantages of employing an architect to cover the contract administration is that they provide the quality control over the build, without which a client would need to provide themselves. Contract administration is about time, cost and quality requirements, and an architect will have experience to ensure that things happen on time, that the building is completed on budget and to the right quality.
Adrian says however that a client may feel confident that an experienced contractor on a small project may be able to deliver that for them. This will come down to personal preference and about how actively engaged the client wants to be in the design and build process.
Clear and honest communication is key to maintaining a good working relationship
When projects do go wrong, poor communication and a lack of honesty are often to blame. Adrian always tells architects that if anything occurs during any stage of the project that is going to affect the brief, (what’s going to be delivered in terms of the spaces and accommodation, or something that is going to affect the cost, timescale or quality) they must inform their client as soon as possible.
Adrian thinks what a client can do to help the relationship is to be decisive and make the right decisions early on. Although the construction industry is flexible and things can be changed throughout the project, there will be an impact on cost. It is far better to make changes at the design stages and then stick to these decisions as the build progresses.
The architectural profession has been at the leading edge of the sustainability agenda in the construction industry
Adrian says that he wouldn't like to claim that architects are the lead innovators in the construction industry in every aspect, but certainly he feels that its engagement with regards to sustainability issues has given it a reputation for trying to support and encourage its clients to push forward and not be bound by legislation.
He says that, even with very modern design approaches, we are seeing a return to a more vernacular way of thinking where buildings are being designed for locality and climate.
While the volume house building industry tends to rely on standardised products in every location, Adrian credits the self build industry for focusing on locality, being space specific, and with response to climate being a part of that.
Find out more
Use the RIBA Find an Architect service
On the first day of Ecobuild 2016, Tuesday 8th March, we're going to be holding a House Planning Help meet-up. We would love to see you there – there's no cost – so please sign up to let us know you'll be coming!
The Hub update
Our latest module in The Hub is addressing insulation and airtightness. We've focused this on Passivhaus, following a question from one of our Hub members. He was asking about best practice, so we've got the basics of that and have built in things to look out for and checklists to help you.
We also have a new video from the Long Barrow self build project. We're up to the stage where they're building the basement in Insulated Concreted Formwork. If you've never seen it being used before this is a great chance to see how it goes together and how you get the great airtightness and insulation.