Tips for small-scale property developers in search of a good architect

Looking for an architect for your small-scale property development? Discover the mistakes you REALLY need to avoid, and seven things to look for.

Let me begin with a true story, something of a cautionary tale. I once partnered with a friend of mine called Rob on a development project. He’d had an old light industrial building that he no longer needed and wanted to know what he could do with it. However, his story had begun a few months before I was approached. 

Rob was acquainted with an architect, the only one he knew, so he’d first asked them to see whether there was scope to develop the building. Several months and £10,000 later, the architect produced a set of drawings. And as plans go, they were impressive.

The existing building would be demolished to make way for three two-bed flats and a studio. There would be granite worktops and gold taps, plus they’d even included one of those fancy electric turntable things that allowed cars to be parked in tight spaces. It was all very smart and rather high-end.

The architect wanted an extra £10,000

The architect had then suggested that planning shouldn’t be a problem, and once they’d received a further £10,000, they could move things on to the next stage. At this point, Rob felt a little uneasy about parting with even more cash and somewhat belatedly gave me a call. Having visited the building and seen the plans, several things were obvious. 

Firstly, the market for studio flats in the area was non-existent. The architect had simply been trying to make use of some left-over space, however Rob could be left with a final flat that he couldn’t sell. Secondly, the building was situated in what could only be described as a less-than-desirable part of town. Not a ghetto, but certainly not somewhere you’d find granite worktops and gold taps. Or fancy parking turntables, for that matter.

Finally, I had strong doubts that the plans would get planning consent as the new building was out of character with the street scene, particularly the row of listed cottages next door over which it would loom. But apart from these issues, I loved it.

In the end, I agreed to help him develop it, and we did something completely different. Instead of demolishing it, we converted it to residential use under permitted development which neatly sidestepped most of the planning issues.

Then we built five entry-level one-bed flats, which our estate agent said would sell much quicker than two-beds or studios. And because permitted development doesn’t carry a parking requirement, we didn’t need to install a fancy turntable, which gave us a lot more space. And there wasn’t a granite worktop or gold tap in sight.

The expensive mistakes that my friend made

Now, you might be thinking, hold on a moment; that architect sounds like a bit of a sharp practitioner. Taking my friend for £10,000 and proposing to build a white elephant; surely that can’t be ethical? Okay, here comes the cautionary part. Rob made several fundamental mistakes, although to be fair, they are all too easily made.

Firstly, he didn’t give the architect a proper brief, so basically, the architect had free rein to design whatever he liked. Pretend if you will that I’d asked you to design me a car, and you’d knocked up a natty two-seater sports coupe.

If I then complained that I couldn’t get my eight kids in the back, you’d quite rightly say that I hadn’t mentioned that this was a requirement. In Rob’s case, it’s not the architect’s job to do some market analysis to see what type of development would sell; that should have been Rob’s job as the developer.

Neither did Rob check out the architect’s website. Had he done so, he would have noticed that they specialised in high-end luxury houses and wouldn’t know a commercial conversion if one jumped out of a dark alley and bit them on the backside.

Asking them to tackle this project was like hiring Frankie Dettori to ride in a donkey derby. In other words, all architects can design homes, but many have specialisms. It’s horses for courses. Asking a high-end architect to design a cheap and cheerful conversion project was not the way to go. Instead, Rob should have looked around for an architect with that specialism rather than talking to the only architect he happened to know.

All that said, I do feel that the architect in this case, while not technically at fault, could have had an ‘are you sure about this’ chat with Rob before banking his cash. But ultimately, it’s a case of caveat emptor. As for the planning issue, they’d got as far as asking the planning authority about the principle of building their new design but, in my view, had misinterpreted their response.

Still, we shall never know since events took a different path. A path, incidentally, that required far less capital and which could be completed in half the time since we weren’t demolishing anything. Good old permitted development.

Seven things you need to do when choosing an architect

So, where does that leave us when it comes to finding a decent architect? Our cautionary tale exposes a couple of golden nuggets, which I’ve included below, along with a few others you might want to have in mind.

1) Make sure you set a design brief

Any architect is going to want to know what to design. Do your due diligence to determine what will sell well and who your end customer is.

Talking to local estate agents will give you a great steer here, as will looking at what has been built recently in the area. The more specific you are, the less margin for error your architect will have, and you should be able to get a great design at the first attempt.

2) Pick an architect with relevant experience

It’s the horses for courses argument. You want to find someone with plenty of experience working on the type of project you will be building. Whether you’re tackling a development project or simply building an extension, it pays to go with an architect who’s familiar with the species. Ask to see some past projects similar to your brief.

3) Have a beauty parade

Don’t pick the first architect you come across that can do the job. Make sure you’ve at least three in the frame, and then make sure you go and see them all in person. Get quotes from each of them. If it’s a practice instead of a one-person operation, be sure to speak to the person with whom you’ll be working.

4) Ask about freebies

There will be times when you want to call your architect to discuss an in-principle idea. It happens all the time. You’ve just seen a great little opportunity but want to know if such-and-such is feasible. You want your architect to take ten minutes out to have a quick look and give a non-binding opinion.

What you don’t want is for your architect to say, “that will cost £500, please send me a written design brief, and I’ll get back to you in a month”. So, check this out BEFORE you appoint your architect, but make it clear that you’d fully respect a fair usage policy when it comes to freebies.

5) Get referrals and testimonials

Ask around to see who comes recommended. Speak to contractors and project managers to see who they would recommend. All architects look the part on their websites, but the proof of the pudding will come from talking to their previous clients.

Ask to speak to a client who has had a completed project and one that is ongoing. You’re looking to establish how responsive the architect has been, how easy to deal with, and how well they have interacted with the contractor and the rest of the team. Also, ask whether there have been any design errors and how they were rectified.

6) Learn how to block plan

When considering a potential development opportunity, a key question right off the bat is ‘how many units can I build on this site?’. If you have to ask your architect every time you look at a deal, it will soon get expensive and time-consuming.

Instead, learn the art of block planning yourself, and then compare your ideas with the architect once you know the deal is worth taking to the next stage. Challenge your architect to do a better job than you have – after all, they’re supposed to be the experts.

7) Have a reserve list

Not only may you be encountering a variety of projects that might suit different architects, but you’ve also got no way of knowing whether your first-choice practice, such as Northern Beaches Architectural Services, will be available when a deal comes along. It’s always sensible to know who your backup B Team will be, not just for architecture but also for every other member of your professional team.

My final piece of advice involves how you work with your architect once they’re appointed. Having worked on hundreds of projects over the years, I’ve often encountered situations where a project hits an unexpected bump in the road that suddenly needs to be dealt with or accommodated.

The default solution for many professionals, architects included, is to accept that there will be some additional work involved or some extra cost added to the project. The problem is that they’re not paying for it, but you are.

In these situations, I usually like to get my design team into a huddle and tell them there’s no more money to throw at the problem. So, instead, they’ll need to come up with an alternative solution that circumvents the issue but doesn’t cost me any more money. Whether they save the money from elsewhere, I don’t mind. But they need to come up with something.

Is it always possible? Not every time. But because the default thinking is to get the developer to pay, these people aren’t usually put in a position where they need to devise something more creative when it comes to problem-solving. And the reality is that they can often be rather good at it, particularly when they do it together.

Ritchie Clapson CEng MIStructE is a veteran property developer of almost 40 years and co-founder of propertyCEO, a nationwide property development and training company that helps people create a successful property development business in their spare time.

It makes use of students’ existing life skills while teaching them the property, business, and mindset knowledge they need to undertake small scale developments successfully, with the emphasis on utilising existing permitted development rights to minimize risk and maximize returns.