When, how, and why should you use an architect? I spoke to Chris Medland, of acclaimed architecture firm One World Design, for his views on those questions and a number of renovation related things.
How did you get to where you are now?
I qualified as an architect in 2001 and started working at Jestico and Whiles – a leading middle-sized practice. There were about 60 architects on staff at the time, and they focused on residential projects for social housing and some sustainability-led office projects. I was there for 3 years, then moved to BDP, a multinational, multidisciplinary practice. I quickly became an associate, working on very complicated, huge projects. I learnt a lot by seeing these from conception to completion.
But my passion is sustainability and designing for ‘one world’ – hence the name – so when I had the opportunity I left to start up my own practice. We started in London, the day after I left we found out we were pregnant so had to take it quite seriously! At times over the past 9 years we’ve been up to 7 people and as small as just me. We moved to Hazelmere six years ago, still do work in London and a little further afield, and most of our big projects (over £1million) are there, but we’re picking up work more locally which is great because I can cycle to work. Residential development is the focus, generally between £250k – £1 million.
What does an architect do versus an interior designer?
It’s a very good question, despite working with interior designs for years on various projects I still find there is a grey area. What is clear cut is that whether it’s a new building or extension or refurbishment that is structural – if it needs building control, then you really should be using an architect. Generally speaking, an interior designer’s expertise is the layout of the furniture, the colours, the materials, the things you touch. There is an overlap, but the project has to have a certain size to warrant both professions. Unless you’re renovating a £10 million house, the client often selects the items themselves with our help. The interior designer can almost be a handholding exercise, they get to know the client and their needs and use their experience to help select the best options.
The skills are complementary – architects study interior design as part of their course and interior designers study architecture. But, generally speaking, an interior designer doesn’t have the professional indemnity insurance to cover the architectural design of a building. The big-ticket item is the refurbishment/extension – the building design. That’s the architect’s job.
There are architect firms that embed interior design within their practice, for example Jestico and Whiles are award-winning interior designers as well as architects. So they will include the design within their scope of service. All of these things come down to what you appoint the consultant to do.
Where does an architect become necessary?
If anything you’re doing requires planning consent of any kind, it makes sense to have an architect, because they can guide you through the process. If you need planning approval, generally you need an architect. It boils down to what you’re going to do; let’s say it’s a rear extension to a victorian house – why wouldn’t you get an architect? You can do it yourself, sure, but you would have to make sure you comply with planning requirements and submit in the right way. It’s not rocket science but you need the time to devote to getting it right, having a solid contract, and getting lots of advice.
Even if it’s just a 10-minute phone call at the beginning of a project, it’s worth getting an architect’s help – and make sure you take notes so you can avoid the major pitfalls.
What does it mean for an architect to be the project manager?
Design is an iterative process – the important thing at the beginning is to understand the process – we use the RIBA plan of work, it’s a really good source document – explains at each point what you’ve committed to and how you change things and what is done by when, and where you are in the process from inception to completion. At the planning stage, you will have a set of drawings that are accurate enough for planning and can be built in principle. You might not know cost or details but it’s a general arrangement that shows what the client wants – it’s this shape and looks like this. Planning authority approves the plans and it goes ahead, although they will want further details closer to time on materials.
When you get to the point where you have an agreed set of tender information (not final construction details) and have a specification that sets out what is known and unknown so the contractors can price them, you get your quotes and select your contractor. At that point, the client can either appoint the architect, project manager, quantity surveyor, or someone else neutral, to act as contract administrator. They administrate the terms of the contract between the client and the contractor. You need someone neutral in between to the two because there are always changes as a project develops, so you need a process in place to enable that. If there’s a JCT procurement contract, you don’t actually need a project manager – you need a good contractor, an architect or quantity surveyor as the contract admin, and you’ll need to engage with the process and manage emails every day. The main benefit of a separate project manager is in large-scale builds where the client is not living anywhere close to the site, and is willing to delegate decision making to the project manager.
What should clients do before meeting with an architect?
Write down and agree what you really want. Particularly if it’s a couple! Often it comes up in the first meeting that the two partners don’t agree, and we’re architects, not marriage counselors! It sounds funny but actually it happens quite often that people literally start arguing when we sit down to talk about what they want.
Be honest – know the facts of what you can afford and what your budget can do. £250k is actually £200k before VAT, and if there is demolition work it’s really just £180k for the building work, which actually isn’t a lot for a substantial extension. Sometimes people have unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve.
Cost and shared ambition are the two most important things to get right before you start. Otherwise, you can end up with many weeks of going back and forth and creating different versions.
How do you find out what things cost so you can budget?
There are only two ways of finding out what something is actually going to cost. The first is to get a quantity surveyor to do a full cost analysis, and the second is to send it out to tender and get contractors to quote for it. With contractors’ quotes, there will be variance that has nothing to do with the actual cost, they might be busy or they might take a dislike to you or the project and add 20%. And then you have the costs going way up because of Brexit and so many other factors outside of your control.
TV programs don’t help either – Grand Designs might say it was £180,000 for the budget, but they haven’t included VAT or separate furnishings or the cost of the professionals.
What tends to go wrong on a project?
The projects we work on, they go right! Our job is to be that buffer, to catch things before they become a problem. The work of an architect never gets recognised because you’d only realise what they do if they weren’t there – the idea that an architect adds expense is nonsense, they save much more than they cost. We can resolve potential issues before they cause problems, and save expense by finding more cost effective ways to achieve the vision.
Something we see that can go wrong for people is when they have overambitious timelines. It can take 6 months to get planning permissions – it’s just how long it takes, the councils are under pressure, their funding has been cut, it just takes time now. Don’t rush into it – everyone’s always keen to get things done quickly, but it’s better to be flexible. If you rush in you might regret it later, and sometimes a project evolves over time, your circumstances might change, the family situation might change.
Agree your plan, your budget – what it really is – and your timeline. Do it right. It’s meant to be fun! A house is normally the biggest expense of anyone’s life – and the investment of renovating or building is the second biggest. Take time to enjoy it, do what it takes to eliminate the stress, use your architect or project manager or whoever else you can to help plan and make it enjoyable.
What do your favourite projects have in common?
The ones that I most enjoyed I was involved from day one until well after the client moved in. All the way through the client has listened, I’ve listened, we’ve come up with the right design.
The Herondale extension for example – that design hasn’t changed since we were having a cup of tea on a lovely sunny afternoon in their garden. And they’ve stuck with it, despite budget pressures, neighbours, planning hurdles, etc, and we got to the finished result. It’s beautiful, unique, and suits the homeowners and they’re delighted with the finished result.
One-world design architects is a London-based, multiple award winning RIBA Chartered architectural practice. Chris Medland has over 20 years experience of complex mixed use schemes in the UK and abroad, ranging from a £1m small airport extension to a £150m retail-led town centre scheme with 184 apartments, as well as the experienced gained on small and charitable projects. One world’s focus is delivering sustainable, elegant and practical solutions that work with their client’s needs. Their designs both add value through efficient space planning and seek out opportunities for energy reduction and renewable energy production. Their work has been exhibited in London and featured widely within the architectural press along with the Evening Standard, the Sunday Telegraph, BBC and other media.