10 things you need to know before hiring an architect

Facade of modern, cube-style double-storey home with double garage, balcony and mixed building materials

Tianna Nadalin & Beverley Johanson

Posted July 04, 2019

What does an architect do, and are they worth the money? Here are 10 things to know.

Building or renovating a home is a bit like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle. There are often many moving parts and it can be difficult to finish a project if you don’t have an idea of the bigger picture.

This is where architects come in. Toby Ewert, director of architectural practice Ewert Leaf, says the role of an architect, and the value they bring to a project, goes beyond simply providing design ideas and drawings – they can act as the conduit between you and the myriad other trades, contractors and consultants involved along the way, saving you time, stress and more than a few headaches.

“An architect is there to provide a service as well as the expertise to oversee the entire design or construction process from start to finish,” he says. “Basically, we’re problem solvers. It’s our job to make things easier for the client by wading through the different layers of the building or renovating process – from coming up with a design that meets the brief to dealing with engineers, building contractors, council planners and consultants. We’re able to manage and administer building contracts, provide design creativity and also deliverability, so it’s an end-to-end process.”

Ten things to consider before hiring an architect 

Are architects worth the money? 

Aside from the sale price of the finished project, Toby says time and stress avoided is another important consideration when thinking about engaging an architect. “Building or renovating can be stressful so our goal is to make life easier for the client,” he says. “An architecturally designed home will provide more value [when selling] than one that isn’t, but an architect also allows you to have a conduit to achieve what you want. Whether that’s dealing with town planning permits or building contractors, it can be a minefield if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Another major benefit of hiring an architect, Toby says, is that they bring a fresh perspective and might be able to offer design suggestions that, unless you work in the industry, you wouldn’t even consider.  

“What we need is the brief, the budget, the site and the vision,” Toby says. “Our job is to tie that all together and take it to the next level.”

What is the difference between an architect and a draftsman? 

Whether you should enlist the help of an architect or draftsperson has long stumped keen home renovators or would-be builders. The difference between the two, Toby explains, comes down to training. “Firstly, to be a registered architect, you need to have completed a minimum five years of university plus practical experience – an architecturally designed building has historically always added enormous value to a project,” he says. “Secondly, being a registered architect means you can legally administer a building contract, which helps to take the liability off the client.”

While a formal qualification is not required for certification, many draftspeople will still have completed a level of study (two to four years) and are knowledgeable on all technical aspects of the building and design process. However, there is no license required for drafters to offer technical drawings or architectural or drafting services. This often makes them a more affordable option up front.

Is this house/block suitable for my build/design vision?

Once a client decides they want to engage an architect, Toby says the first thing they will do is assess the site. He uses landchecker.com.au, which maps every property in Victoria, to check whether there are zoning restrictions, heritage overlays or any other development constraints. “The architect will work out what the constraints are and then start the design process with those in mind.” 

Toby says it is also the architect’s role to advise a client when something won’t work. “But there is nearly always a solution,” Toby says. “You might have 10 boxes but can only tick eight or nine. That’s still a successful project.”

Does my brief fit my budget?

Establishing a realistic budget and premise is often one of the biggest pain points in the design process. Clients often underestimate costs and contractors can overblow contract inclusions. Hiring an architect can help minimise frustrations in this area. Not only will they oversee the contracts, Toby says they also look over the contract to make sure what’s included is relevant and fits the brief. “We work through the design to maximise the highest and best use and result for the client,” he says. “It’s a matter of understanding – here’s my budget and here’s what I am trying to get for it – and unless they’re in the industry, they wouldn’t necessarily know if that’s right or not.”

Is my project big enough to hire an architect?

Whether you’re looking at a second-storey extension, new residential development or major commercial project, there’s an architect for that.  

“We love the idea of a bit of a challenge,” Toby says. “A good project is a good project. Some architects specialise in different areas so if you’re looking at a renovation project, you may be better off engaging a smaller residential architect than one who specialises in large-scale commercial architecture. But we consider ourselves designers – the intent of great design is the same for everything we work on.”

What if I don’t like the architect’s designs or plans?

When it comes to your plans, Toby says honesty is always the best policy. “Architecture is a collaborative process,” he says. “We want to get you the best result so, if there’s something you don’t love, don’t be afraid to provide feedback.”

Architect designed house with pool

I don’t know how to read technical drawings. How can I visualise the project better? 

These days many practices use 3D drawing and, in some cases, even virtual-reality technology to help clients gain a deeper understanding of what the finished design will look like. “We can walk you through the home in 3D to help you visualise the spaces,” Toby says. 

How do I find an architect?

Practices feature their projects on individual websites and Instagram. Look for homes similar in design and scope to your ideas. The Australian Institute of Architects website has a section called Find an Architect where you can filter by location, building type and budget.

Talk to people who have employed an architect and look through as many of the homes as you can. “Sometimes architects have access to houses they have designed and are happy to show prospective clients through,” says Amy Muir, Victorian Chapter president at Australian Institute of Architects and director at MUIR Architecture. 

Ask for references and examples of work similar to what you are trying to accomplish and question whether they were completed on time and on budget. 

How much will it cost?

Architects operate to a code of conduct that includes a responsibility to design and deliver a project within the constraints of a budget agreed with the client.

“Clients come with a brief and a budget. Those two things often don’t relate. It’s part of our role to work through this with the client,” says Amy. “It is also part of our role to be very open about costs and to discuss what is realistic.”

She says architects can be strategic about making savings and are open to discussions about aligning the brief and the budget. 

There are several ways that architects charge – percentage of build, lump-sum fees or time-based. Each practice sets its own fees. You decide with the architect, at the start of the process, how and when payments will be made.

What does the fee cover?

There are eight stages – examples of the design, schematic design, design development, contract documentation, tendering and negotiation, contract administration, construction and post-construction.

Toby’s top tips for engaging an architect

  • Engage an architect as soon as possible. The earlier, the better. Ideally, you’d do a bit of due diligence first – checking the property details on landchecker.com.au, which has details of things such as planning applications, zoning, overlays and burglary statistics, as well as details you would find about properties for sale on a general real estate site, will help you establish your brief and budget. It’s good for clients to have an understanding of the site and their vision for it, particularly if they haven’t bought it yet, as this can help eliminate risks from the outset. 
  • Work out what you are trying to achieve. Have a clear brief and budget and strong idea of what you want to do. Don’t be afraid to bring pictures or mood boards to give the architect an idea of the style or aesthetic you are trying to achieve, then they can help you understand if it is realistic in terms of expectations.
  • Be really open and transparent with the process. Honesty is a big thing when trying to balance commercial with aesthetic concerns. Don’t say your budget is $400,000 if it’s actually $800,000 because you’re trying to squeeze more out of the consultants. You need to be realistic and open so that they can help you get the best outcome.
  • Don't be afraid to try different things. People are really interested in design these days so you might have a picture of what you want in your head but the architect might have ideas you haven’t even considered or be able to suggest a solution that you may not even be aware existed.  
  • Finding the right architect for your project means talking to people. Referrals are great, too. And don’t be afraid to ask to see examples of previous projects they’ve worked on.  

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