Be choosy when selecting an architect


TheArchitectsFind the right architect and you'll have a beautiful home, but choose the wrong one and it could be a nightmare, warns Emma Cullinan

When Richard and Joan Martin employed architects Sheila O'Donnell and John Tuomey to design them a house by the sea in Co Louth, the four of them piled into a JCB and were lifted into the air to find the ideal height for the perfect sea view.

The finished house enjoys views out to the sea from many rooms, has space for a grand piano (which Richard plays) and shelves galore for the many books owned by the clients.

So, choose the right architect and you will have a beautiful home that suits your needs and addresses the surrounding area. Choose the wrong architect, or try to go without one at all, and you face a potential nightmare.

Architects don't just do creative things with material and space, they will help you through the planning process, will ensure you conform to building regulations and meet your health and safety obligations, and will manage the building contractor.

Building anything, even the smallest extension, isn't easy. Anyone who's even just got painters in, or a roof repaired, will know of the disruption this causes, so multiply that by quite a few times for a new structure.

The reality is that, whoever you employ as your architect, there will probably be differences of opinion at some stage, so you need someone you are confident with to talk problems through. You are employing your architect to run a project that you have a deep emotional attachment to - your home.

It will also probably involve the biggest financial outlay you've ever made. At times you will feel that it's out of your control so you need someone you can trust, and whom you are prepared to trust.

If you want a traditional-style home or extension, the likes of which have precedents aplenty across Ireland, then you probably have a larger choice of architects because you can employ someone to just draw up your plans for the builder. If you want design input and creativity, you'll need to do more research.

Unless the architect is your sister, son or uncle, or someone highly recommended, you will need to interview a few architects. Ask for references from previous clients and visit buildings that they've designed.

Most architects are happy to have an initial discussion without obligation so you can sound them out about their design ideas and look for informed knowledge about space.

You may be sure of what you want but an architect can point out potential pitfalls: for instance, an extension may increase the space of your home but, if it blocks out the light entering the existing structure, it could reduce the useability of existing rooms.

Having said that, some architects are brilliant at discussing design whereas others are better at simply putting their ideas into practice.

How do you find an architect? While architects study for seven years (five at college and two years training in offices), unlike other professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, the title of "architect" isn't legally protected in Ireland.

The RIAI (Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland) has a list of registered architects on or phone 01-6761703. The RIAI can also arbitrate if there is a dispute between you and your architect.

Before talking to any architects, consider exactly what you want because a clear brief will help an architect come up with a design solution that will address your needs. When deciding on your needs, think about the future; if you'll be in your home in 20 years' time, will it suit you then? Once you've employed an architect, get details of the project in writing, in the form of a document known as an architect's appointment.

A standard form is available from the RIAI. Ask how long the whole process will take as well as each phase?

This includes drawing the plans, going for planning permission and then the time on-site. Write down details of stage payments to the architect and builder (never give either of them the full fee up front).

Also confirm that the architect is being taken on to run the whole job through to completion, and is not just being employed to produce drawings (unless that's what you've agreed).

Architects' fees are calculated as a percentage of the final construction cost. A higher percentage is usually charged on domestic jobs because of the work involved; it's a one-off design for a relatively small sum (compared with, say, building a mulit-million euro office block with identical floors). Fees range from around 8 per cent to 15 per cent depending on the size of the job. It's not a good idea to barter your architect down to too low as they will probably spend less time on the job to make it pay and the project will suffer.

If the job is aborted after initial sketches, then the architect will probably charge an hourly rate for the work completed - which ranges from around €50 to €150. Some architects will also charge a flat fee for drawing a building up for planning.

Don't just accept plan drawings of the proposed building, ask for pictures of every elevation. While the room layouts may seem sensible, it's important that the building looks good in its context. Ask about the materials that will be used internally and externally.

One Dublin-based architect talks of the three/four stage panic. This is where a structure is up and the client realises this isn't exactly what they thought they were getting. While the building looks incomplete it is actually nearly finished and changes at this stage can be extremely expensive. Any alterations made once the scheme is on site will add significantly to the cost - if your changes result in a team of builders staying on site for an extra week or two it may add thousands of euro to your bill. Major changes can also hold a project up if it needs to go for further planning permission.

If you are part of a couple, it often helps if just one person mainly deals with the architect. They can express the wishes of both parties without conflicting instructions coming at the architect from different people.

Before the final completion of the project the architect "snags" the building; this is to check that the building work has been completed properly and that everything is working. Only then do you hand over the final payment to your builder and your architect and sit back to, hopefully, enjoy your new home.