Quite a few people have asked around regarding architects. Are they worth it? How much to they cost? Do you know this particular firm? Are they the right ones for us?? etc…
We’ve even acted as references to prospective clients a few times. So it seemed like a good idea to put some of our knowledge to paper.
Picking an architect
Our architect was James from Charlie Luxton Designs and I don’t think we’d have survived this far without him and the CLD team. You’ll have heard of them if you’ve been around Graven Hill for any amount of time as Charlie himself is often doing talks at the their events and presented in amongst their marketing material. You’ll also know him from the building show Building the Dream where he takes a more positive slant than the good old Grand Designs (in our opinion!). Charlie hasn’t let it go to his head though as hes great in person and has been very interested in our project every occasion we’ve met with him.
We’re also not the only ones at Graven Hill to use them as an architect. Simon’s stunning design at #35 was the one that convinced us they could deliver a uniquely fitting home for us using principles we’re aligned with. Christine & Peter a few houses down at #149 won their competition for a free conceptual design, and Sarah-Jane & Jordan from #277 and Anna-Frevisse & Giles #272 have chosen to proceed with CLD too.
Before we went with them however we did our homework investigating architects, focusing on the ones nearby as we figured face-to-face was pretty key for this relationship. A few of these were effectively interviewed after down-selecting those who’s style and philosophy we liked at face value. Of those ‘interviewed’ we went with CLD principally on the basis of how good of a personal connection we’d made. Yes CLD were the most inspiring and brought the most new and interesting ideas to the table. However at the end of the day they need to understand your fundamental needs for the house and you’ve got to trust them to deliver.
Are they worth the cost?
Architects aren’t cheap.
They vary in cost and pricing model, but if you want the full on self-build experience with an architect guiding you along the way it’ll be a sizable portion of your build costs. CLD based their fee on a percentage of the construction cost. This total fee could be between 18-12% of your estimated build cost but will depend on the size of your project, the expected degree of work required (is it using experimental methods etc…?), and of course how good you are at negotiating.
This cost is spread across the various stages of work as described in the table below, with the majority taking place well before any construction work.
Given a build cost of £200k, you’d be looking at ~£30k for getting this caliber of architect on board. Your budget will therefore need to stretch to £230 plus contingency. Obviously the majority approaching an architect will have nothing more than a very rough £/m2 estimate that won’t be fairly realistic yet (whatever it is, it’ll be more!). Instead we found it more useful to set a very clear and fixed total budget at the very first meeting. It helps to tell the architect how cutting edge on the creative scale they can be and also sets a hard line that shouldn’t be crossed long term. Their fee then falls out of the % agreed of the total budget and the remainder is what the architect has to construct it.
Now that is a heck of a large portion of your preliminary costs. It certainly wouldn’t be worth it if all one got at the end were floor-plan drawings. Thankfully you get a lot more than just drawings with CLD and comparable architects. You not only get great creative input, but you get a guiding hand through the chaotic world that in the UK building industry. They’ve seen a lot, can steer you clear of a lot of bad decisions, make sure you’re focusing on the right areas at the right times, and can put you into contact with all their trusted suppliers. Additionally, they often felt like the only people on our side; they were a sturdy third wheel keeping our project stable when everyone else reneged on promises or disputed responsibility. Hence why it is so important to select an architect you trust.
As mentioned above, we don’t think we’d have gotten all the way through the pre-construction phase of our self-build without James. We’d probably have thrown in the towel at several points. Before even reserving at Graven Hill we had a wobble given the plot price for our desired plot was £20k higher than estimated. No small sum! Discussions with James and a quick comparison with similar plots that we’d considered as alternatives quickly put us at ease. Our priorities were the parks and orientation, and their input convinced us that the advantages to us of the original outweighed the cost difference.
Would we go with an architect again? Unlikely, but not for the reasons you think. Now what we been through this once before and have some experience of the process and industry we could probably navigate a lot of it ourselves. We wouldn’t get the creative flair in the design, nor the reliable backup, but we think it’d be manageable if there was ever a next time…
If you’re undertaking a turn-key project, you’re an old hat at self-building, or you want to take pride in a total DIY approach then an architect isn’t for you. If it is your first time I’d highly recommend it. Find one you can afford and go from there!
What to Expect
Their process was also pretty clearly laid out and non-technical, and most importantly it was focused on our lifestyle rather than a plan. We’ve heard a fair few times that some architects will simply take your envisaged room layout and regurgitate them back to you. If you have a clear plan and just need drawings formalised for planning applications then they can service that need nicely. We however were keen on their creative input so were happy leaving that to them to take care of, so highly recommend not proividing anything too detailed at the onset. Give them room to be creative.
A breakdown of the standard RIAS plan of work model they used is available below. It was fairly fluid and flexible, not something we had to concern ourselves too much with, but was useful for inexperienced self-builders to know what lay ahead.
We hired CLD for stages 1 to 4 though they could have assisted with parts of stage 5 too. Some architects will project manage the construction for you, though ours didn’t provide this option. Instead they’d offer to undertake site inspections to ensure that construction of the building is being undertaken inline with their drawings and to support any missing information required by your contractors. They’d also identify any snags at the end to ensure the quality of the build is maintained. As we opted to PM our own build it was decided to omit this stage from the scope of CLD’s work. Instead we agreed on an time & materials basis for any site visits needed during construction.
Getting off on the right foot
The first thing we did once we’d settled on our architects was to meet with them to discuss our current and idealised lifestyles. Both individually and combined. We also listed the key elements that were important to us such as easy maintenance, low running cost etc… A phased building approach was also suggested to allow for more building over time, allowing for more house than our initial limited budget would allow.
This was then interpreted by the architects into rooms and spaces which they’d look to include into their concepts. You can clearly see the phased requirement being reflected in the bedrooms and bathrooms. Key assumptions were also clearly listed so that there’d be less likelihood of miss-communication between us. No floor-plans or the like were provided by us despite the many we’d drawn ourselves over the years leading up to this.
Two concepts were presented to us about a month or so following the briefing at a face-to-face meeting. They covered their thought process and we debated some of the features and layouts.
Have a look!
Concept A: RECTILINEAR
Concept B: SQUARE
Of the two, the square design really hit the nail on a couple of points. It was much more open plan and it was very efficient in terms of space, allowing for more to be squeezed in for the same budget. Not only did it account for phasing, it was perfect for Laura as the house could be subdivided fairly easily at a later date too… a key requirement for Spanish families as the kids grow into adults I’m told!
It also brought a lot of interesting ideas out in relation to it’s placement and orientation. The central placement of the house also divides the gardens into neat little pockets that could be made very distinct in character from one another, helping give an illusion of more. It was very quirky and unexpected to have it align with neither row of houses on each side. They should have argued, yet the veranda does a lot to tie it in by aligning to both roads. The trapezoid shape of the veranda intersecting with the square house also gives a sense of interacting geometry that is quite fun for the eyes. Turns out this isn’t just us being a bit particular, Dan’s design on plot #153 has done something very similar with two intersecting geometrical shames, one aligned N-S and the other with the road!
p.s. Oliver was NOT keen on the multi-gabled roofs when we first saw these concepts. They just jarred with the long single gable or jerkinhead roofs that he was accustomed to on rectangular properties common back in Denmark. However just like the corrugated metal roof he came around and now sees them as an iconic feature! That we could later make these vaulted with our timber-frame supplier was a fantastic advantage to this design too.
As you’ll see, the square concept is pretty much the final design.
Most of the ground floor was unchanged other than reducing the size of the kitchen and some of the internal walls around the office, utility and bath rooms. Else it was already pretty close to ideal. We spent a lot of effort around these rooms on getting the right layout between them. That was until after a month of tweaks and changes we ended up back where we started. Can’t say it was a waste, but the lesson learn’t was to spend ones effort proportionally on what really matters to you! The hidden office disappeared for a shot while but got reintroduced quickly.
The orientation of the house was altered slightly in the next revision so that it was in line with Read Lane rather than a pure N-S configuration. That was to better orientate the kitchen, dining and living room with the arc of the sun and to take more of an advantage with the views of the swale park to the west. It also had the added benefit of joining the two rear gardens into one, at the cost of the one at the front. This went against the multi-garden approach envisioned in the concept, but the advantages were just too good to pass up.
In the final iteration the carport became more substantial to cover at least 1 car, and the veranda turned into a pergola to allow for sunlight to get into the dinning room. A 20ft container was put in for the bikes and bins that could be used during the build for storage and later converted & cladded for permitted development.
The first floor was changed slightly more, but not much in spirit.
The initial iteration had a fair few voids for double height ceilings for that wow factor but these were lost in favor of space and potential future renovations.
The master bedroom was split in two for additional rooms once they realized we were not particularly into the grand master bedroom plus en-suite that is the trend these days. We figure it is just a waste of space that you can’t afford with kids on the way when all one does is sleep and get changed there. Even so, the dividing wall has been kept non-structural so that it can be removed at another point if we or anyone else felt keen to renovate.
Here you can also see the phased approach with the future 4th and 5th bedroom and extra family bathroom. In the final plans these are just spare open rooms for additional social and living space, but can be renovated at any time in the future.
All of the above concept work represents only about 1/6 th of the work our architects undertook.
The remaining 5/6 ths is all about detailing and technical design, or documentation for timber-frame tenders or planning applications etc… too much to document here. A lot of their effort was just trying to address the myriad of questions everyone has along the way and in supporting us when we were thrown a wobble.
Hopefully this has been insightful!
Oliver & Laura