For many clients, whether individuals or organisations, a building project is a once-in-a-lifetime activity. The explanations that follow are intended mainly to help them or for those who embark on building projects only rarely and anyone else who is not familiar with what architects do and the services they can offer.

Architects work with clients to clarify their ambitions in the form of a brief, develop a programme of requirements, explore the opportunities and constraints offered by one or more sites or an existing building and draw up plans for the necessary building work. They will also secure necessary consents and prepare information for the costing, procurement and construction of a new building or adaptation of an existing property.

Architects are knowledgeable about all aspects of building projects and where more specialist expertise is required they will advise on and help you select and manage other consultants.

What does the term ‘Architect’ mean?

Architects are professional consultants who offer services to individuals and institutions dealing with the design and procurement of buildings and related matters. An architect works directly to secure his or her Client’s interests, taking into account a full range of important issues including purpose and function, the character and location of a site, methods of construction, value for money, design quality and style as well as related legal and contractual matters.

Architects differ from builders and building contractors essentially because of their expertise and skills in design, their knowledge of Town Planning and Building Control legislation and their capacity to offer impartial advice on the full range of project related issues including the selection of building products and services. Building contractors range from those who are experts in their own right in all aspects of building construction to less sophisticated firms who, though competent to build, require more vigilant monitoring by a third-party to ensure a satisfactory overall outcome. In all cases architectural services are best offered by a registered architect appointed directly to his or her client.

Design is the central skill of the architect and requires both rational and intuitive skills that are brought out through extensive training. A good architect will listen carefully to his or her Client, helping them to question and clarify the brief taking into account practicalities, site opportunities and legal constraints, before moving forward with fully drawn up proposals. For most people, even the smallest building project touches on emotional, aesthetic and cultural issues that demand the kind of attention that an architect is trained to give.

The title ‘architect’ is regulated by the Architects Registration Board (ARB) and it is only after having completed seven years of training, including two years gaining practical experience working as an assistant, that an architect can become registered. Thus, while builders and architectural technologists may offer some of the services that the architect carries out, it is only by employing a registered architect that a client may expect to tap into the full range of skills and services that an architect provides. All members of the Association of Consultant Architects are required to be Registered Architects.

When should I employ an architect?

When you are contemplating any kind of building project, whether large or small, a new building or modifications to an existing one, an architect is best placed to give initial advice and then progress with you to the design and procurement of the necessary building works.

It is a good idea to employ an architect as early in your building project as possible. He or she can help you clarify your ideas and requirements and may very well forestall expensive mistakes.  At the outset, the architect can give you an important overview of the issues and commitments that you will need to address as the project develops. He or she can help you to find any other consultants that may be necessary, understand town planning and building control obligations and compare and select builders and subcontractors. They will also monitor the progress of what works on site and if required and administer a building contract.

Provided that you choose carefully someone you trust and respect, employing an architect  to provide the full service throughout your project from initiation to completion on site will ensure that you have professional and impartial advice at all stages and the services of a skilled designer.

What will an architect do for me?

An architect will act as a consultant and as a designer.  He or she will advise on all aspects of a building project or property related task. They will help you clarify and develop

your ideas, set a time schedule for the job, draw up a programme to meet your requirements and then develop a design solution taking into account site constraints and opportunities as well as cost and legal parameters.

Depending on whether the project is for a new build or adaptation of an existing building the architect will also carry out, or help you procure, a measured survey of the site or building as a basis for design work. Once a design is agreed an architect will prepare the  drawings and, collating specialist input where required, the necessary documentation for town planning submission and in due course Building Control submissions as well as any documentation required for other legal requirements or agreements.

An architect will assist with the procurement of the building as designed and where required, the administration of a building contract.  The architect will draw up the necessary information on which the project maybe tendered for building and in due course complete the information necessary for construction on-site. This will often include the monitoring of design work carried out by specialist subcontractors and suppliers. He or she will explain the extent to which they will monitor works on site.  For smaller projects, some architects will offer a construction management service, which means that they will manage and coordinate the work of the individual trade subcontractors necessary to complete the works on site rather than assist in the procurement of the project through a general contractor.

While all architects are competent to carry out the normal service, some develop specialisms, for instance dealing with historic and Listed buildings or urban design and master planning. Architects will also have built up specific experience and skills leading to a degree of specialism. A practice may concentrate on projects within a particular price range, sector (retail, healthcare, domestic work etc) or may restrict themselves to working within a specific area.  Reference to the ACA directory will help clarify the services and specialisms an individual practice offers.

How do I know that I will get a design that I like?

The ACA Directory provides access to a ACA member practices.  Using the keywords you can shortlist architects most likely to cover your requirements. The best way to make sure that you will be happy with the design of your project is to carefully choose an architect who seems to have values similar to your own.  This starts by looking at jobs that architects have completed in the past.

Most architects adopt an approach referred to as “modern architecture” that was forged in the first half of the last century, though some still work within a more traditional genre, sometimes referred to as “classical” or “vernacular”. There are, however, almost as many approaches to architecture as there are architects. Look at the work the architect has in his or her portfolio.  Compare the work of different architects to try to see what you do and don’t like and then make an informed choice.

Choose your shortlist carefully, certainly having looked, at least at pictures of, their work and then meet and discuss feelings about design and other priorities, such as budget, before committing to an appointment. Once your architect is appointed, it is important to have a relationship of trust, but the more you take an interest in how the project is developing the more likely it is that the end result will be what you wanted.  Sometimes it may turn out quite different from what you originally imagined, but maybe even more to your liking.

Your architect will help you understand the order of decisions to be made, mostly from the general to the particular, and how important decisions at the outset affect detailed decisions later. Once the design has crystallised and been agreed, it is important not to have major second thoughts. While some changes may be made during the course of building, even, or at a late stage, they can be costly and disruptive.

Many people find it difficult to understand or “read” architectural drawings and so it is important that you feel confident that you understand what is being proposed, especially before a Town Planning application is made and certainly before construction commences.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions and, if necessary, ask for some kind of example similar to what your architect is proposing, if you are not sure that you fully understand the drawings.  Make sure to tell your architect if you don’t understand what he or she is proposing. They will be happy to find the best way of explaining the project to you.

How do architects charge for their work?

Most architects will set out their fee proposal with sign-off and payment stages. Fees are charged either on a  “lump sum”, “percentage” or “time charge” basis:

Lump sum:  when the work that the architect has to do is straightforward and the client requires certainty then a lump sum fee may be offered. This is most likely for very small projects and limited appointments or for a preliminary stage of work: for instance a home extension where the architect is initially only being asked to make an application for Town Planning permission.

Percentage fees: in this case the fee offered is calculated as a percentage of the estimated cost of the work to be carried out on site. This figure is adjusted as the project progresses and a more definitive cost for the work becomes available. It offers both client and architect the assurance that the fee will reflect the scope and size of the project. Percentages vary depending on the size and complexity of the project. Generally percentage fees are higher on smaller projects where there is little opportunity for economies of scale.  Works to existing buildings also accrue higher percentages due to the need for investigating and understanding the existing construction and more complex survey work.

Time charge fees: Fees are usually charged on a time basis for services other than the normal service or at the beginning of projects when the architect is asked to explore different possibilities, look at alternative sites, study feasibility or draw up a complex brief. In this case the architect will submit time sheets and charge for the hours he or she works.

Whichever of the above methods of charging fees is adopted, the architect of may require regular payments, say monthly, which will include agreed interim payments as well as stage completion payments. This is especially important on larger jobs where the architect will be committed to expenditures on staff etc.

Sometimes an architect will commence work on a project on the basis of a lump sum or time charges and his fee will be converted to a percentage fee once the basic parameters of the project have been sufficiently mapped out to establish a reliable budget.

How can I gauge progress with my project?

For all projects an architect should be expected to set out his or her fee on the basis of work stages. Work stages are based on clearly identifiable “deliverables” such as a preliminary design, a town planning application, a full scheme design, a set of working drawings for construction etc.  Recommended stages are set out formally in what is called the architect’s Plan of Work and there is a generally recognised apportionment of the full percentage fee to each of these work stages.

The acknowledgement of the passing and signing off of these work stages allows both client and architect to gauge progress of the project. On large projects it is a good idea to gauge how much of a given work stage has been completed at any given time as well and this may be estimated and reported at regular intervals to gauge progress.

What expertise and value do architects bring to a project?

An architect will be your personal consultant working with you to ensure that your specific concerns, requirements, rights, obligations and liabilities are fully addressed. It is important, therefore, that you make clear your views and priorities in all aspects of the project as far as you are able. Your architect will also act as a disinterested adviser when procuring contracting services or building products.

Architects are trained to balance complex interacting issues to reach the best possible solutions that overriding constraints will allow. In design work they will take into account functionality, practicality, sustainability, aesthetics, cost and legal constraints as the design work is progressed, aiming always to fully address the client’s brief with excellence of design, prudence and service. To arrive at a good design solution on some projects it is worth exploring different possibilities in a preliminary way and evaluating their costs, risks and benefits.

How do I find and choose the right architect?

Choosing the right architect is is often tied up with a client’s concern that they will achieve a design that will suit them.  As explained in the section ‘How do I know that I will get a design that I like?’, though all architects offer a generally similar kind of service, there are many different kinds of architect with different skills, persuasions and concerns. Location, sector experience, size of project, type of service, size of practice are all things which should be taken into account when choosing an architect.

You can short-list architects from the ACA Directory on the basis of their “practice descriptions” and the projects they have carried out. It is very important to have seen examples of their work. Talk to more than one architect about the things that are important to you. It’s going to be a long-standing relationship, so try to think how you will get on over the anticipated life of the project, during which there may be difficulties unforeseen at the outset to grapple with.

Personality and demeanour as well as skills and experience are often important, as is the enthusiasm the potential architect displays about your project. Gut feeling is always important too.

When dealing with a practice that has more than one partner and may also rely quite heavily on senior staff, it is important to know who will be your point of contact throughout the project. In some cases, it may be appropriate to have access to different personnel for different levels of contact or concern. While most projects will run smoothly most of the time, practices should have in place a complaints procedure.

How do I employ an architect?

Having completed a selection process appropriate you your needs and the size of your project and having decided who you would like to work with you need to put in place some kind of contract between you and your architect which sets out what both parties are to do. While you will expect your architect to provide a professional service, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the client also has obligations. Architects will usually put a proposal to a potential client that includes a fee proposition and an appointment document. The ACA publishes a Standard Form of Agreement for employing an architect (ACA SFA 2012) and we would recommend this document as a sound basis for any building project.

The ACA SFA sets out the services that the architect will provide, which can be amended and adapted to suit the project in hand and the scope of work you wish the architect to carry out. The appointment will include the fee basis for these services. It is sometimes acceptable to start the project on the basis of an exchange of letters, but this should always anticipate progressing to a more formal appointment at the stage when the scope of work for the architect is sufficiently understood.

There is a misconception that architects snatch designs from thin air with little effort. This is not the case and therefore you should not expect an architect to work, even on the most preliminary design, without agreed remuneration. An architect deploys his or her most valuable skills at the beginning of a project when experience and hard-won skills are brought to bear in an intuitive way.

What can I do if things go wrong?

Be honest with your architect if you are not happy with the way things are progressing with your project. In the first event, take time to try to discuss your concerns or misgivings with him or her directly. Architects are keen to provide the best service possible and it may be that the problem you see can be resolved through discussion or negotiation.

If discussion doesn’t resolve the matter, you may need to adopt a mediation procedure.  This requires that both of you and your architect agree to jointly appoint a mediator to resolve what is effectively a dispute or complaint. If your architect is a member of the ACA, we offer a conciliation service to resolve your disagreement fairly and impartially if one of our contracts has been used. Other bodies, such as the RIBA also offer mediation services. If you and your architect agree to mediate and jointly agree the person who is to act for you, then you are obliged to abide by the mediator’s decision.

All architects (Including all ACA members) have to be registered with the Architects Registration Board and must comply with its code of conduct. If you believe you have a serious problem with your architect, that he or she is falling short of your expectations of competence, or is acting negligently in some way, then you should contact the Architects Registration Board (ARB). Please refer to the ARB website  for an indication of what they can do.

ARB does not mediate or adjudicate, but will give an informed opinion of the legitimacy of the architects behaviour. The ARB Professional Conduct Committee is the disciplinary tribunal constituted under the Architects Act 1997 to hear allegations of unacceptable professional conduct and serious professional incompetence against architects.  These are the two “offences” under which an architect can be found guilty.  The Committee has the power to issue reprimands, levy fines, and suspend or erase an architect’s name from the Register. The full ARB code of Conduct can be downloaded from ARB code of conduct.

All registered architects should be registered with the Architects Registration Board. To check their registration, we suggest you visit:

Architects and Architectural Derivatives

To help you understand the difference between architects, architectural technicians, architectural technologists and other classifications of design professionals, the ACA in collaboration with the ARB, CIAT and RIAS have produced an information leaflet which can be downloaded from here  Consumer information leaflet DOWNLOAD version.

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