Why use an architect?

In medieval times, if you needed any surgery, you went to the barber, who could cut your hair … or amputate your arm.

These days have thankfully long gone.

For most people, getting a new house built will be by far the biggest investment of their lives. Why would you cut corners on the design of that investment? Why would you not go to someone that has years of training and is professionally recognized as an expert in designing buildings?

Kevin McLeod from Grand Designs says that "a good architect actually pays for themselves - more than once. You will reap the reward and the building will be hugely better and deliver much better value for it."

Even though the term “architect” has very specific requirements under the Architects Act, I’m going to talk about the different skill sets that different professional designers possess, especially as in an architects office, there are often people with different skill sets and qualifications. In my own office we have someone that has experience on building sites, someone that is skilled in commercial fitouts, someone with structural engineering experience, technical experts, presentation experts, someone experienced in the different legislation involved in building law, as well as an award winning architect and architectural designer.

It is this combined skillset and experience that makes the difference, rather than going to a one trick pony.

You always hear the bad stories, so lets have a look at them:

Cost of fees. Architects hourly rates are similar to engineers, and often cheaper than the rates of the city council. Architects fees are also often cheaper than the margin a builder puts on their construction costs.

Budget blowouts. These do happen, for many reasons. The process undertaken needs to make sure it doesn’t. We use cost estimation software at a concept level, and then get quantity surveyors involved early in the design process, as well. Or, if we can agree on a builder early in the process, work closely with them to ensure we’re all on budget.

Leaky buildings. Architects are renowned for pushing boundaries with design rather than sticking to the status quo. This can come with risks. This is no different for anyone in the building industry however if they don’t understand the products they’re using, or blindly rely on certification of systems, like happened in the 90’s with some of the cladding systems.

Lack of practical knowledge. I shudder to think how many times I’ve heard from builders that architects should spend a few years on building sites. Senior architects do. I love going to the building sites of our projects while they’re under construction, and have been doing this for over twenty years. The builders I work with are part of the team, and I learn from them about construction as much as they learn from me about compliance and the reasons for the design. It’s all about understanding your limitations, and working with the right people on the team to get the best results.

Now lets look at what you benefit from:

More energy efficient. A well designed home positions the rooms and windows in accordance to their environment, and considers how the building works. French architect Le Corbusier said that “a house is a machine for living in”, and on a technical level, this is correct. A poorly designed house will be expensive to run.

Potentially cheaper. We’ve recently designed a home where the initial cost estimate from the builder came in at $1800 per meter. It was a focus to keep the house as simple as possible, in its design and construction.

Simpler. Simple proportions and forms work. An architecturally designed home will normally have a very simple roof form compared to a typical housing company home, and will also have fewer materials on the walls – a well designed home doesn’t need the extra detail to make it interesting.

Focussed on sun and light. A house that considers its environment is much nicer and more rewarding to live in. Room placement is critical, as are the placement of windows, and roof overhangs.

Interior spaces designed. Your home isn’t just designed from the outside, the internal spaces are designed as well. This isn’t just adding feature walls, it’s considering the play of light, the height of a ceiling, and the way the finishes interact.

Team approach to design, including engineers and landscape architects. Similar to working closely with the builders on site, it is an advantage to include the engineers and landscape architects in the design – this gives a seamless package, rather than it being disjointed, and potentially expensive.

Independent contract management and construction quality control. We like being involved in the projects from start to finish. This will include organising and analysing tender prices, writing construction contracts, and managing the payments, controlling cost variations, and checking the quality. It is becoming more crucial that the architect or designer is involved in the construction due to liability issues and council requirements – this can become very complicated and risky for owners if they decide to do it themselves.

Legislation familiarity, whether its the Building Act, Resource Management Act, or Earthquake Commission Act … to name a few. An architect knows the rules, and must prove this to become registered. Most of the time the rules aren’t an issue … just like technically you don’t need a pilot until the auto-pilot doesn’t work properly…

Added value when selling. A well designed house is worth more than a poorly designed house, even if they cost the same amount to build.

What to do? Talk to your friends. Check for websites, including sites like ARCHIPRO and Houzz.

Meet a few and have a chat - architecture is part psychology, so you need to get on so your architect can understand you and what you want, beyond your doodles and notes.

Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying “the bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten”.