Home life: Back to the drawing board

Nice building, but would you want the same treatment for your living room? Gwenda Joyce-Brophy considers hiring an architect
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Architect-designed - if this phrase puts you more in mind of creations like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao than your neighbour's living room, then you're not alone. True, Peter Mandelson used an architect to redesign the interior of his now infamous abode, but that did little to promote the idea that calling in an architect before embarking on house alterations is a typical, everyday occurrence.

Yet while a handful of superstar architects may continue to concern themselves with the "grand project", there are vast numbers who make a living getting to grips with the design issues in the average home.

Muriel Morris-Jones recently used an architect to address a modest problem. "I wanted to try to fit a downstairs loo and shower to fit the space then occupied by the washing machine." Instead of the usual "get three quotes from builders" route, she first called in the services of an architect.

Using an architect for more modest projects such as these is something that the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) is now actively encouraging. "The role of the architect is misunderstood," says Riba's Tony Chapman. "There is vastly unexploited potential out there for people thinking of making changes to their homes." Riba holds regular events such as "Architecture Week" and "Architect in the House" whereby for a token fee you can have an architect visit your home and give specialist advice. Riba has also set up of a Client Advisory Service which assists in finding the right sort of architect for a proposed project.

But what exactly are you buying when you use the services of an architect? "Creativity," says Tony Chapman. "An architect can help you translate your vision into reality, or offer solutions to deal with a particular problem. It may be fairly broad - you want more light and space, for example. The architect will develop that brief, taking into account your budget, design aesthetics, etc."

In Muriel's case, she was, as a sculptress, desperate for more work space with good light. When architect Patrick Garnett was brought in, he immediately saw the potential for a glassed-in courtyard studio. The only problem was that to transform the wall meant covering existing windows, transgressing light and window regulations.

"Patrick came up with a solution that involved moving one of my windows so that little light was lost, and dealt with the regulatory side so that the project became a realistic possibility," says Muriel.

"The advantage of using an architect is that they can guide you through the building process," says Tony Chapman. "For a start they will know how to apply what can be complex building regulations and rules relating to things like ventilation, ceiling heights, sanitation and party wall agreements."

It is not necessary, however, to use an architect for the entire process. You can select part of their service. If an hour's general advice is all you require, that is all you need to agree to. Some clients ask the architect to take the process to planning permission stage, then no further, while for others the idea of someone taking on the overseeing role to see projects through to completion is what appeals most.

Yet given that most people have a budget for their alterations, isn't adding another layer of fees simply a luxury? "A good architect should be able to save you money," says Tony Chapman, "whether it is by offering an alternative solution for the problem, or suggesting alternative materials. They can also make sure that you have the right builder for you - at the right price. After planning approval is obtained, they will obtain estimates of costs and timings and monitor the builder's work. In what may turn out to be a critical part of their role, they can also recommend a form of contract that will set out the terms, timing, and consequences if builder overruns on costs or time."

In the relationship with your architect as much as any other, however, compatibility is essential. Beth Forrest and her partner called in an architect to give them some suggestions for their loft apartment. "We told him the sort of thing we were interested in, but what he came up with was totally out of line with our thinking. With some of the ideas we felt he was completely going along the wrong track. The experience really compounded my misgivings about using an architect in the first place - that they'd want control rather than us - but afterwards we found one with whom we gelled perfectly."

Muriel Morris-Jones was happy to take on board the advice of her architect. "He told me it was particularly important to have a `master plan' of what you are trying to achieve - even if, as in my case because of financial constraints, you don't do all the work at once."

DESIGNER CHOICE

To choose an architect, follow up those whose work you have seen and liked, use recommendations, and obtain names from the Riba listing.

Make sure that you feel comfortable with the architect, and that you both understand each other's views. Both communication and compatibility are vital.

Ask to see a portfolio of work and, if possible, visit works that the architect has undertaken.

Initial consultations are often free. Architectural fees are charged by the hour - there are no standard fees, however, but anything between pounds 30 and pounds 50 is common.

Alternatively, you can pay a percentage - usually 8-15 per cent - of building costs, the method of pricing to be agreed at an initial stage. Riba can provide standard appointment documents to select the precise profile of services you need.

Riba-registered practices hold professional indemnity insurance cover appropriate to the scale and type of work that the practice undertakes.

Riba's Client Advisory Service: 66, Portland Place, London, W1N 4AD, tel: 0171-307 3700. There are also regional offices in Wales, Scotland and Ulster.

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