Designs for living

An architect can bring light and space to the dullest interior. And these days they are client-friendly, don't cost the earth and won't insist your plumbing goes outside your house, says Oliver Bennett
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The idea of employing an architect to refurbish the home fills many of us with dread. Will you get a humourless dictator who insists that you live without curtains? Will you - hereafter known as "the client" - be considered a tedious irrelevance who occasionally signs huge cheques? Will your plumbing end up outside your house?

These time-worn fears are subsiding because it is becoming more commonplace to get in an architect to perform the smallest of tweaks around the home. "As people have become more design-aware, architecture is more client- led than ever," says Tony Chapman, spokesman for the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) which, with its growing Clients Advisory Service (CAS), is the first place most members of the public call to find an architect.

The CAS aims to dispel the mystique of hiring an architect, and in its brochure spells out the process step by step, reiterating that it adds value to the home and is not as expensive as you may think. "Architects are, in fact, the cheapest professionals in the construction trade, often cheaper than they should be as a result of the cut-throat competition that followed the recession," says Chapman. "They do not play God any more - perhaps they never did. They have realised the need to market themselves and be more responsive to clients."

Another by-product of the recession is that most architects rely on smaller refurbishment jobs for their income - RIBA calls these "small works", and has a special agreement which locates them as being under pounds 100,000 - which have become the backbone of the industry. The "loft" phenomenon's helpful way of selling in "shell" format, which often requires further work by an architect to make it habitable, has done much to make architects seem accessible.

Architect Mark Guard has done several refurbishments of people's houses and has amassed a reputation for his notion of "transformable" architecture, which emphasises the changeability of interior space. In a celebrated recent project - the reconstruction of a coach house in the London district of Deptford - he rebuilt the original property so that the only old portion it retained was the old brick skin. In other words, it was a baptism of fire for clients William Richards and Chris Mazeika.

"It was a derelict site so we had no choice: we needed an architect," says Richards. After two chance meetings and a consultation with Guard, they felt he was the right person for the job. "An important factor in choosing an architect is liking and trusting someone," says Richards. "Guard listened to what we wanted and quickly came up with an idea, which he presented to us in a clear way." The house is an architectural showcase, which students frequently visit.

Having found a die-for-it riverside mansion in the area, the pair are now selling the house. But the Guard house has been valued at pounds 300,000, which pleases them, as they are in profit. "We thought we'd built ourselves into negative equity," says Richards. Even so, an unexpected benefit of having a showcase house emerged: hiring it as a location for photographic shoots. But it was not, he insists, an investment gamble but "a commitment to architecture".

Richards refers to the client- architect relationship as a "creative partnership", with all the torment that implies, and adds that feuds with the architect are almost inevitable. "You love them in the beginning, hate them in the middle, then love them at the end," he says. Guard says, "The most important thing is that you get on with clients and gain a mutual understanding. There has to be give and take on both sides, the architect should always explain what he is doing."

Another key reason to get an architect, he says, is to estimate the cost professionally and guide the client through the process of the various building regulations. This whole process can become a bit like a marriage, but Guard thinks it should remain steadfastly professional. "I operate a policy that I don't want to be friends with them until after the project." As for the money, Guard recites a simple formula that is a rule of thumb for refurbishments: do not pay more than the purchase cost subtracted from the potential value of the completed project.

At the first stage, architect Niall McLaughlin finds that clients worry about technical, practical considerations, which they feel an architect won't care about. "They are certain that an architect is going to baffle them and are also anxious that, once started, the project will be out of their control," he says. "We discuss their anxieties and try to get them involved in the process: reading architectural drawings and talking about how to structure space and make daylight. Anything to get them away from whether the curtains will be pink, or whether it will be 'minimal'." Even if it is just a small project such as a window. McLaughlin, who met his first client on a night bus several years ago, is convinced of the publicity value of the satisfied customer. "Most of my work has come from the original commission: they have a lot of parties, you see."

Anyone interested in commissioning architecture should look around, take recommendations and find projects that they admire, says architect John Darke. "Look at architectural magazines, or even ask residents of attractive buildings who they employed," he says. Sir Richard Rogers, alas, may not be available.

Despite a growing appreciation of architecture, the public remain confused about how a building works, says Darren Jarvis, of the Building Centre in London. "They usually need guidance about the best way to approach a job." The Building Centre has a "guideline" which can help to navigate the public through the building process, and a little bit of reconnaissance can save a lot of money undoing the work of Messrs Bodgitt and Scarper.

For a copy of the RIBA Client Advisory Services leaflet, 'Why Use An Architect?', write to 66 Portland Place, London W1N 4AD, or call 0171 307 3700. Building Centre Guideline: 0897 161136.

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