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Ten things to consider before hiring an architect

When you’re looking to renovate or build a home for the first time, knowing where to start can be daunting. Toby Ewert, Director at architectural practice Ewert Leaf suggests the best place to start for many people is to hire an architect. But is that the best option for you, and your property?

We talked to Toby Ewert about the things to consider before hiring an architect.

Are architects worth the money?

“Building or renovating can be stressful so our goal is to make life easier for the client,” says Toby. “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, our job is to tie it all together and take it to the next level,” Toby says.

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 upfront.

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 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.”

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 – the 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.

Buying or renovating a house? Purchase a Premium Property Report to check zoning restrictions, heritage overlays or any other development constraints.