How do I employ an architect?


James Finnie

March 13th, 2020
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As a developer running an SME property development business, where to start with employing an architect?

The guidelines set out in this article should help you choose the right architect.

How and where to start

The most obvious place would be to seek advice from others in your company, like partners and project managers, or colleagues and the guys on site, asking if they can recommend architects with whom they’ve had useful dealings.

Most professions have their own institutions, and for architects it’s the RIBA (RIAS in Scotland). The RIBA is a fountain of knowledge and they have guideline documents that can be downloaded easily from the website. They also have a referral system to help match you with architects, and there are regional branches all over the country.

It’s always good to listen to recommendations and get other perspectives, but remember that they are only opinions. You’ll need to do your own background research and be careful to filter according to your needs and parameters.

Even if you’ve never had the responsibility of employing an architect, you are probably aware of roughly what they do. Architects are trained to tackle any building type. So, it’s not necessarily the case that an architect who designs retail developments can’t deliver another building type to a high quality. It’s best to keep an open mind until you have done all your research.

Developers are always looking for maximum financial return, but are they also looking for value-add and delivering quality? Developers who wish to make a name for themselves and remain in the industry soon learn that quality is very important. You should also ask yourself the question: is your project only about profit and efficiency, or are you trying to create a legacy in delivering award-winning buildings that are recognised by your industry and the people who inhabit them? Successful developments tend to lead to other successful developments and that’s good business.

A quick search online of developments in your area or further afield should provide a good range of successful projects, as well as their location and the architects and consultants who carried them out. You could also consider chatting to developers and competitors you respect in the industry.

All of these suggestions should help you narrow down a list of potential architects you can approach. Prepare a careful description of your needs and intentions, including your brief for the project you wish to appoint them on.

Your preparations should include a list of standard questions which all the interviewees can answer. You can then compare notes as you go. Any new questions can be picked up with follow-up calls or meetings.

Best way to engage an architect?

The best way is exactly how you would go about employing a new member of staff: establish a list of candidates and interview them. Once you have done your homework and picked a few architects you’d like to approach, I would suggest meeting each one first as they will have their own way of selling themselves and explaining their roles and responsibilities.

Almost all architects will give you one or two initial meetings for free, so make the most of them. It’s a chance for them to tell you how things work and for you to gain inside knowledge while interviewing them. I like the idea of them selling their services and knowledge to you, walking you through their thinking and work ethic. It’s an ideal way for you, the developer, to get a feel for the value of their different offerings and to become fully aware of the process you are about to enter into.

The first phone call to a practice can tell you a lot about the architects there. If it goes smoothly you should be invited to visit them, or they may wish to come to you. I would prefer the former. That first meeting is crucial. Is the practice warm and welcoming? Do the offices meet or exceed your expectations?

At each meeting, clarify your needs and what you would expect from your architect, and check their references. A second round of more detailed intensive questions may be required, outlining how you see the architect’s role and their responsibilities.

Good architects should put you at ease at the very first meeting. They should show experience with the types of developments you wish to carry out – or if they don’t have specific experience, they should explain how their approach would still give you the quality building you want. If you’re looking to produce a quality development, you need an architect who designs and has a reputation for quality.

They should show you round their offices to see how they function. You also need to insist that they take you to visit some of their built work. They should be making an effort to woo you … if not, then they are not for you. A good architect will suggest potential ways to carry out a project as well as give insight into what’s worked for them.

Through these interview processes, you should be able to gain excellent insight and lots of knowledge before committing yourself.

If you have more than one project, it’s probably best not to employ just one architect for all your projects in case they become swamped. It’s also not ideal for an architect to have just one Client. Should the Client stop developing, you’ll have lost all your income. However, it does happen.

Depending on the size of the development, you could possibly consider two architects: the first to carry out the concept and design of the building and the second a practice who specialise in production information and site management. With this approach you could achieve the best of both worlds.

During these meetings, the architects should acquire an understanding of you the developer and your next project, and also have taken time to explain their role and responsibilities and given guidance on contracts. It goes without saying that you should leave with copies of their CV’s, portfolios and references.

The architect’s role exactly

Hopefully your meetings with your list have given you a good understanding of the role they play. Once appointed, the chosen architect should sit down and take you through all the steps and carefully explain each process.

The architect’s typical role is to establish viability, design and co-ordinate the building, from structure and services to landscape and interiors, as well as other elements making up the building. They can be appointed on partial services as well as the traditional full service, and also be appointed to undertake additional roles. For this article, it’s the traditional full service.

The typical service is outlined in the RIBA Plan of Work document which clearly sets out what happens in defined stages, beginning with Stage 0 – Strategic Definition.

  1. Preparation and Brief
  2. Concept Design
  3. Developed Design
  4. Technical Design
  5. Construction
  6. Handover and Close Out.

Initially the architect would be involved with establishing the viability of the project with the developer, QS and possibly the project manager (external or in-house) who oversees the macro running of the project. The architect typically spearheads the design and co-ordination of the project along with the consultant team.

Once viability is established, the architect will provide you with options and opportunities as well as compile the necessary submissions to obtain planning and building approval. The team will proceed and prepare tender documentation in close collaboration with the QS. There are various types of contracts which the developer (Client) can enter into with a contractor. It’s likely the developer will have their preferred method of project delivery. Assuming it’s the traditional method, companies will then be invited to submit prices based on the tender package.

The property developer will then enter into a legal contract with the successful contractor and the architect will act as the adjudicator of the contract – the contract administrator. The architect ensures that the contractor has been given all the information they need in good time to commence work and carry out and complete the building.

Once the building is ready to be handed to the developer, the contractor will notify the architect and consultants that the building is ready for practical completion. This sets in motion the close out of the project and brings to a close Stage 5 of the Plan of Work.

On what contract do I employ them?

Most professions have standard contracts and again the professional body would be the place to start. As mentioned previously, it is recommended not to deviate from standard contracts.

The RIBA has a suite of contracts called the Small, Standard and Concise Professional Services Contracts. As the names suggests, the Concise Contract is for more complex projects. These contracts are very user friendly and come with guidance notes and check lists. The chosen contract helps to guide a set of standard deliverables, the brief, project budget, payment terms, how information is recorded, dispute process, extents of liability as well as a list of additional services. This can be used to provide more detailed lists of deliverables as a basis and can be appended to the contract.

The architect’s fee forms part of the contract between the developer and the architect and should include how to calculate fees for additional work, as well as agreeing what is additional work.

There are other standard contact agreements, and the developer may well have their own versions. Most architects will typically try to avoid using any other format than the RIBA standard formats. If you insist, the architect should take the advice of an industry specialist who can advise on the pros and cons of unique contracts.

Where does an architect’s responsibilities end?

The end of the architect’s responsibilities starts with Stage 6 – Handover and Close Out.

The main contractor has notified the team that the development is practically complete. The consultant team members check to ensure the build has been built according to the contract documents. During construction, a good contractor will also try to ensure parts of the building are signed off as work progresses. This helps reduce the amount of work at the end that needs to be presented, inspected, and signed off as complete.

After this first review there is always a list of key items which the architect will insist must be completed in order for them to grant practical completion. They are typically health and safety related matters. This can sometimes be a tricky time as the client wishes to take occupation of the building but parts may still not be complete. Sometimes great pressure is placed on the architect to approve completion when arguably it may not be quite ready, which is a whole topic of conversation on its own. A certificate of practical completion triggers several contractual obligations by all parties and the architect oversees these. It means the owner can now take occupation of the building if they so wish.

The contractor has a defects liability period of typically one year from Practical Completion where any defects that become apparent need to be rectified. Once done, a Final Completion Certificate is issued and the final account settled. This is essentially the end of the architect’s responsibilities on the project.

The Close Out part of Stage 6 may involve feedback and lessons learnt and any specific requirements set out in the contract. The architect’s responsibilities have ended but liability continues.

The liability period can vary depending on the project and can become complicated legally should any defects arise. I believe the industry would like to see one set duration of 10 years after final completion, which is why architects need to continue contributing to their professional indemnity insurance until the end of that period. It is also recommended that architects keep records of all documentation for 15 years.

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About James Finnie

James has been based in Cape Town for the last 14 years, trained in Scotland, and has worked with some prodigious practices over the years. He recently started his own architectural practice where the philosophy of Kind Design puts kindness at the centre of the creative process.

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