Property: Drawing on good ideas

A perfect home needs a perfect architect. So be sure to choose carefully
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Keen to transform your Victorian shrine into a sleek space where John Pawson might hang, or rather hide, his hat? Finding visionary architects happy to use their creativity in a domestic setting may not be straightforward.

First stop the Yellow Pages where, sandwiched between "Aquarium", "Pond Supplies" and "Armed Service Outfitters", lie pages of architects all keen to provide, in adspeak, "the benefit of their creative vision plus the commitment to interpret clients' needs in a creative way". But is this the best route?

"It is as good a starting place as any," says Simon Foxell of The Architects Practice, who agrees that finding an architect for smaller domestic projects can be difficult, and cold-calling, frustrating. Actually, there are many architects who will tackle domestic work but Simon found a better way to connect demand with supply. Last month the show "Mode" was held at the Islington Business Design Centre, where Simon organised the Architects' Lounge, sponsored by the Royal Institute of British Architects. Here visitors met architects from 30 London-based practices who showed examples of their work.

Potential clients brought snap shots, drawings or measurements to get opinions on their ideas for their homes, ranging from loft conversions to fitting out entire shells. Importantly, they learnt more of the process and costs involved. Simon believes this kind of event is the way forward for anyone considering hiring an architect. "It's important to see a range of illustrations of work, perhaps in books, exhibitions or libraries. A more traditional route is through personal recommendation. The relationship is far more likely to be successful if the client comes with a degree of trust having seen and liked the work you do."

Simon finds many architects unskilled in communicating about their work, so the ability to lift a project out of the ordinary and an appreciation of client psychology are useful assets.

He says: "An architect has to be a mind-reader and it can be very intimate, looking at the way someone lives as a family or as a couple. Do they like modern with glass and steel or small and cosy? I ask them to bring pictures which inspire them. They may not be of buildings, they could be of cats."

Iain Murray decided on a modern interior for his listed Georgian building, but after a friend's recommendation he nearly got a different look. "We were moving to Edinburgh from London. The architect sounded OK on the phone so I gave him the job."

Mr Murray wanted a contemporary feel using glass and steel surfaces, and after several phone conversations with his architect, plans were drawn up and work began. But when Mr Murray finally visited his flat he found the partially completed work "uninspiring and dated". He says: "The builder and architect blamed each other. I'd hoped the architect would take charge and believed this was what I was paying him for." The schedule slipped as arguments continued, but serious worry started when Mr Murray visited the architect for a meeting. "When I saw his home I freaked. I was trusting this person with my biggest asset and I hated where he lived." Mr Murray's preferred style was contemporary, but the architect's was traditional. "It was stuffed with partitions, cushions, rugs, and patterned fabrics, basically tacky. I knew I had to call a halt quickly."

Luckily, after consulting a solicitor, Mr Murray extricated himself from the contract, though not entirely painlessly, and found a replacement whose taste he respected and with whom he felt compatible.

The top of most people's worry list is generally cost. Fees for domestic work are often 15 per cent of the total cost but Simon Foxell says architects can save you money: "Most will talk to you for nothing to find out if they want to work for you as well as you finding out if you want them." He believes fees can be recouped, for example in sourcing of materials. "Simple things like finding the right door handles are difficult if you start from scratch."

Those with plans for their homes may find RIBA's Clients' Advisory Service a good start. They get more than 200 monthly enquiries, 80 per cent of them for small domestic projects, and offer leaflets explaining what's involved, a database of practices listed by sector and location and a website. You may have missed the chance to visit the Architects' Lounge but it is not too late to uncover the light and space you never knew you had.

RIBA's Clients' Advisory Service: 0171 307 3700

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