Do I need an architect for my renovation or extension?

Having only done three quarters of a home renovation here in Leicester I don’t profess to have any great expertise. All I can do is share my own experiences and you can make up your own mind about whether you need an architect when you embark on the renovation, extension or reconfiguration of your home. In this post I will also give my advice on choosing the right architect.

This is a text heavy article with no pictures of my build progress, so my usual readers might not want to read this unless they want some advice about whether they need an architect or want to read about choosing an architect in Leicester or the East Midlands of the UK.

When you start on the renovation journey most of the advice you read about and get from others focuses on finding the right builder: “make sure your builder is reliable”, “get references from your builder”, “watch out for cowboy builders”, “don’t pay builders in advance”, “make sure you have a contract with your builder” etc. You can get to the point where you think that any builder who walks through your front door is going to mug you. Trust me, there are good builders out there and you just need to find them. They may not be the cheapest and you might have to wait for an opening in their schedule but it will be worth it.

What no-one says is “make sure your architect is reliable”, “get references from your architect”, or even “do you need an architect?” I think this is mainly because architects are a profession regulated by official bodies such as the RIBA and the ARB, and as a member of the public you place a lot of trust in this.

Do I need an architect?

Having had an architect on board at the beginning of our renovation (and letting him go because of his inability to listen to our needs and be mindful of our budget), I would now only consider hiring an architect if I knew that my renovation or extension was so big that I was going to need to apply to the local council for Planning Permission or deal with neighbours regarding a Party Wall. Things like that can get tricky so I think I would want a professional involved, though even then, with the right research and advice you might be able to get by. However, you need to remember that if your plans are so big that they might need either of these things I want you to double your estimated budget right now. Professionals don’t come cheap and neither does that kind of construction. I might also consider an architect if my house was Grade II listed or in a Conservation Area.

The rules on Planning Permission are being relaxed and if you go to the UK government’s Planning Portal you can look at a virtual house and see what kind of changes need Planning Permission and which ones are considered ‘permitted development’. My advice is that if you are on a limited budget, stick with permitted development changes and you will save time and money. You can be quite creative using the space you have and big changes can be made with relatively small extensions or even a reconfiguration of your current floor plan.

Start by drawing a rough plan of your house with basic dimensions and then play around with the spaces to see what you can do. Trust me, an architect is not going to be much better than you at this sort of thing and invariably the architects ideas will cost more (plus they don’t really know the way you like to live in or use your home the way that you do). It’s amazing what sorts of walls can be moved or even dispensed with completely – non-supporting walls (like the ones Phil and Kirstie always advise knocking down) can be taken down cheaply, and even supporting walls can be supported with steel for a couple of hundred or a couple of thousand pounds (depending on the size of the steel needed). This can give you terrific transformations quite quickly and easily. Of course, you and your builder will need the specialist advice of a structural engineer, but even then they are a lot cheaper than an architect (and an architect consults a structural engineer anyway). If you have a good, experienced builder with references and a track record you can put a lot of trust in them. Look out for their membership of the Federation of Master Builders. Do get references and meet them at the house and all of those other things people recommend, but in the end, between my builder and I, we created a cheaper renovation, a house that retains much more of its original fabric and character, and in fact uses space better than the original architect’s plans. All without extending the footprint of the house at all. After all the money we paid our architect, my builder ended up quoting me using my own hand drawn plans and a simple list I typed of the jobs I wanted done.

If you do decide that you want an architect on board, my fist piece of advice is don’t assume that being a member of the RIBA is a mark of excellence or quality. We met several architects and interviewed them at the house before we engaged one and even then we made an error in our choice. You are going to be paying a lot for your architect’s services (probably around 10% of your budget) so be careful. Ask for references and preferably meet a previous client and have a chat to them. Most people are very proud of their renovations and extensions and are more than happy to show them off to anyone who displays even a mild interest. Ask questions about time scales, how helpful their architect was, whether they had any problems along the way, whether things went over budget.

If you decide to engage an architect, of course do make sure that you have a contract and a very clear idea of their fees. You can quickly find their fees going up when they re-estimate your build costs, especially if you are paying them a percentage-based fee. Don’t be afraid to negotiate with them on their fee at the beginning. Ask them if they will take an hourly fee just to complete the basic things you need from them eg. a measured survey of the current building, or the plans to get planning permission, rather than paying for a “full architectural service”.

I always think it’s a good idea to do a quick company check on the architect’s personal and business name as well (you can do it with your builder too). You can Google them. You can look them up on the UK Companies House website. At The Gazette you can also search for public notices regarding insolvencies/bankruptcies. If I had done this at the start of the process I would have had the opportunity to ask my architect why his last business went into administration and alarm bells should have started ringing.

You can also check with the RIBA about whether they have reprimanded an architect but these only show very recent decisions. While we’re on the subject, there’s a good article here