Country houses for sale

How to pick an architect

The relationship that exists between client and architect is often stereotyped as being fraught with tension and difficulty, but there’s no reason why it should be. The right architect will not only add to the aesthetics of your property, but also enhance its value: extensions and loft conversions can boost a house’s price by 11%-12%. Structural engineer Abigail Matthews experienced this first hand when she hired London-based architects AOC to build a garage and studio in the garden of her house in Norton St Philip, Somerset, in 2009. Two years on, she has already recouped what she paid in building costs through the uplift in the value of her property, which she is now selling (through WentWorth, at a guide price of £525,000, 01225 904904). Key to this success were both the open, lengthy discussions Miss Matthews had with AOC, and the fact that, from the outset, she set a fixed budget of £1,200 per square metre, within which she roughly remained.

Fixing a specific budget per square metre goes a long way towards establishing a good working partnership, because it gives everyone clear parameters to move within. If you’re unwilling to do that, however, you should at the very least make sure your architect has a good understanding of how much you want to spend (remembering to set aside an extra 10%-15% for contingencies).

It’s useful to have a clear idea of what you want the project to be like, but you will be more likely to end up with the right design for you if you approach the process as a creative dialogue. David Kohn, an architect who has worked on a number of residential projects, including Stable Acre, a barn conversion in Norfolk he created for gallery owner Stuart Shave, says that ‘good design results when the client has sufficient confidence in the process’.

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At the same time, he adds, people should be ready to make swift decisions at the right moment, as this will enable better budget management, which will, in turn, allow the design to move forward. And if you plan to be involved in the building process, whether as a cost-saving measure or simply out of interest, you should make this clear to your architect early on. But beware: Mr Kohn warns that ‘often, people have seen those television programmes that make them think that getting involved in building their own house will save them money, but there’s a reason why we have architects and builders. It’s a very rare person who will have the time and inclination to manage an entire project.’

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In fact, a good architect should be able to save you money in negotiating better fees with builders and contractors than you’d manage yourself, as well as helping you navigate the complexities of the planning system and assisting you with getting planning permission. ‘AOC helped enormously with obtaining competitive quotes on the specialist items,’ says Miss Matthews, ‘and this took a lot of the stress out of the build, because we could make small changes without worrying about being charged for variations.’

But how do you go about finding an architect who’s right for you? Even in the age of the internet, the best way remains through old-fashioned word-of-mouth recommendation. Ask friends and colleagues, or if you’ve seen a property you like, find out who did the design.

Once you’ve identified someone whose work you value, be sure to check that they’re registered with the Architects Registration Board, as all practising UK architects must be. Look through his or her portfolio carefully, obtain previous client references, and, depending on the size and nature of the project, consider asking more than one architect to develop a scheme.

You’ll have to pay for each proposal, but a choice of designs will ensure that you get exactly what you want. However, says Mr Kohn, no working relationship will function well unless you have the right attitude. ‘Go into it optimistically, with the hope of arriving somewhere wonderful you didn’t expect. Being a good client is an art in itself. I don’t think there’s good architecture without good clients.’