It has been our experience over the last 25 years and counting, that the building projects that have succeeded over and beyond client expectations are those where there has been a very good client-architect relationship. Successful partnerships on building projects inevitably result in the blossoming of excellence in the final building.
So how can clients ensure they do the best by their building project by not only setting off on the right foot, but continuing to hold a good relationship with their chosen architect?
First and foremost a client needs to choose their architect wisely. This can seem a challenge in itself, but a good place to start would be the RIBA online ‘find an architect’ service which will help to narrow down your selection. There is nothing to stop you engaging a professional with a good reputation in your project sector far away from the project site. But this will inevitably add to your costs and critically there will likely be limited knowledge of, or relationship with, the relevant planning authorities in the area. Ideally an architect needs to be located in the region where the project is (unless you have already worked together on previous projects and share a good working relationship).
The RIBA selector will guide you through a series of questions to determine your project needs and will invite a selection of suitable architects, according to your input criteria, to contact you with further details. They will all be approved RIBA Chartered practices which is your guarantee that they are capable of delivering your project.
There is good reason why qualified architects charge more for their expertise, not least because it traditionally takes over seven years of training (in the UK) to become accredited. There is also an obligation to undertake a minimum of 35 hours of CPD (continual professional development) annually in order to maintain competence. A practice offering particular expertise in any given area (eg: sustainable housing) will additionally be investing heavily in remaining up to date with legislation, new products and technology relevant to that sector.
It is a good idea to keep in mind that when you engage an architect to help you on your building project, you are not simply buying a service, as you would perhaps with a builder, an engineer or a surveyor. Engaging an architect is more akin to entering a relationship – hopefully a long (or as long as it needs to be!) and fruitful one. It is more of a partnering: the architect bringing their expert technical knowledge, network of contacts and comprehension of technologies as well as understanding their client needs.
It is the task of the architect to assist, guide and educate the client in the often bewildering world of design and legislation, explaining the various processes involved from design conceptualisation through the planning phase to the construction and completion stages.
The architect, having listened closely to the clients’ brief, will usually conceptualise the scheme in initial (or soft line) drawings to enable the discourse to deepen and solidify. The process is a collaborative one, each listening closely and considering things with an open mind to allow the ideas to come to life on paper. Remember that a good architect wants to hear about you, the client, at this stage: your hopes, needs, concerns… anything that helps your architect to understand you, your family or your business and the project you hope to achieve.
A client’s fully invested attention and collaboration is particularly vital at this stage. By taking time to look properly at the drawings and closely reviewing your architect’s suggestions, a great deal of money, time and frustration can be saved as the project progresses. Final (hard line) drawings, construction drawings and information packages will all be based on the agreed outcome of these initial drawings. Changes to the design at any of these later stages are possible and occasionally unavoidable, such as when hidden discoveries are made on site but will inevitably involve extra work.
Although a degree of organic development is to be expected, a later change in the brief or alteration to the design by the client, often challenges the integrity of the scheme which, after all, is the key to its success. It is the clients’ duty to themselves and to their project to engage closely, listening to advice and asking questions along the way. It is important to remain flexible too, being prepared to alter one’s ideas and to consider different approaches demanded by the site, neighbours, planning authorities (another important team participant) or technologies.
However experienced your architect is and however closely you may or may not be working together, be mindful that changes and alterations take time and that time may affect the overall programme of the work as well as adding to the cost. A good architect will be investing a great deal of thought and energy into your project. But remember too that your project is likely to be one of several others that have to slot into the working programme of an architect’s practice. A time frame will have been agreed at the outset and the aim will be to keep to it as closely as possible (unforeseen delays by planning departments or on-site discoveries aside).
A good client will therefore ensure that they contribute to the success of the set time frame for their project by keeping a dialogue going and responding to questions and clarifications in a timely manner. They will also let their architect know if they plan to be away for any length of time or unable to pick up emails so that the next stage of their project is not delayed by documents sitting unread in their inbox.
Similarly the architect will keep a client fully appraised of any unexpected delays. At the end of the day it often comes down to dealing with individuals. The planners are people in a position of authority that must be convinced by the scheme and be ‘on-board’ with the design in the context of any given location and an experienced architect will be fully conversant with the local planning departments and how they prefer to operate. There are often elements of the design Planners wish to see changed or adapted and these must be addressed through further discussions.
Starting out on the journey to fulfilling your dreams and desires for your building project is an exciting leap of faith. Having chosen your architect with care and consideration you now need to trust in their ability to deliver. Give them your confidence. Get onboard and immersed in the process. Be flexible. Be reasonable and realistic. Be prepared for changes and embrace the unexpected. It is all part of the adventure. And most of all, enjoy the experience. The best and most successful projects are without doubt the result of collaboration, trust, good will and investment on all sides.