01 Working With Your Architect - Consumer Guide

Completing a successful building project will happen partly because you had a good working relationship with your architect. This article describes what architects do for their clients, and gives you some advice about how to work best with your architect.

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An architect's role and obligations

As the client, you are entitled to rely on the skills of your architect; but you also have an important role to play alongside the architect. Depending on your agreement, your architect has a number of obligations and services to provide. Architects are obliged to abide by the NSW Architects Code of Professional Conduct. The Code details the standards expected of architects in their professional practice, and relate to general ethical standards, dealings with clients, insurance coverage, continuing professional education, alternative dispute resolution dealings with the public and professional relationships with other architects.

Your architect will:

  • Provide written terms of engagement or a client/architect agreement before any work is done for you and give you a copy of the NSW Architects Code of Professional Conduct 
  • Develop a design solution with you, appropriate to your needs and budget.
  • Communicate with you to ensure that you understand important steps in the project and important decisions taken, like with your local Council.
  • Work with you to develop a detailed project specification that records your material selections, finishes and fittings to ensure these items are priced in to the project by the builder.
  • If engaged to administer the building contract, will act as your independent advisor on contractual matters like variations, progress payments and when the project reaches practical completion.

Typical Architectural Services

Typically the services of an architect can be broadly divided into three phases. You may engage an architect for all or some of these phases. Whatever services you require should be agreed to before work commences and be included in a written agreement between you and your architect. This ensures everyone is on the same page. Before the design phase starts you and your architect might discuss important decisions like project feasibility, planning rules and the likely project program (how long it's likely to take).

1. The design phase typically moves through three stages:

  • Briefing discussions to clarify your requirements.
  • Sketch designs to explore possibilities; usually including some cost options.
  • Design development to produce detailed drawings and selection of materials, fittings etc and associated cost.

2. Contract documentation produces technical drawings and specifications to document your choices so you can obtain a planning and building permit, invite tenders, and for use in construction.

3. Contract administration. If you have agreed to engage your architect to administer the building contract, they can advise on suitable contracts for the project that balance your interests as the client, with accepted industry safeguards for contractors, and trades. This is essential for any tendering or negotiation with potential builders.

During construction, it's your builder that supervises the building works. But your architect will:

  • Liaise with the builder to assess quality of work at key stages and ensure that contract and specifications are delivered as agreed.
  • Keep you informed of progress, and let you know when key decisions need to be made
  • Approve, with you, any variations in price or time delays (due to rain, heat or other valid reason set out ion the contract)
  • Certify progress payments by you to the builder
  • Identify defects and administer their rectification
  • Advise when practical completion occurs so you can move in.

The built works need to be certified by the Council or an independent certifier to make sure they are built correctly and according to regulation. Your architect generally acts as your representative here too, and will keep you informed along the way.

Choosing an architect

You may know which architect you want to use; or you may look at the Australian Institute of Architects or the Association of Consulting Architects for advice. Some find it useful to ask friends who are building. Some local councils run design awards. Past winners of these awards have the advantage of being in your area, and being regarded highly by Council. However you choose your architect, you should make sure they are the right one for your project. The relationship you'll have with your architect will be a close one. Here's some advice on getting the right 'fit' with your architect;

  • Firstly outline your requirements.  Do your research first, before contacting two or three architects about your project.  Architects expect you to obtain a few proposals. 
  • Check the architect's qualifications and registration. If in doubt, call the NSW Architects Registration Board to ensure that the person you are dealing with is an architect.
  • Check out the architect's website for completed projects designed by the architect to see if you like work they've done.  
  • Ask for client references to check the architect had a good client relationship and whether they are happy with the outcome. Was the architect conscious of budget and time constraints? Was the client satisfied with the services they received? Is the client enjoying the project designed for them? Would the client recommend that architect? What would they do differently?
  • At the initial meeting with the chosen architect briefly outline the nature of your project and the budget you have in mind. Sometimes what you want, and how much you have to spend don't align. So spend some time talking with your architect about what's really important to you. Often, this is where the creative solutions really start. The architect can assist you in clarifying and formulating your brief. Discuss the services the architect will provide and the stages of the project. Clarify the fees involved (mindful that the cheapest fee quoted does not necessarily mean the best).  Make sure you have the right person for your job. Are you both a 'good fit' for each other? 

A client's role

What can you do as the client to assist realisation of your project?

  • Be as clear as possible about what you want to achieve, what you need and what you can afford.  
  • Don't hesitate to ask about the client/architect agreement before you sign the contract to clarify what will be done for what cost  
  • Changes are best made early so make sure your architect explains early sketch designs. The later in the process that changes are made, the more likely it will have a cost implication.  
  • Be clear about the responsibilities of the architect, builder and sub-contractors.  
  • If your architect is administering the building contract, avoid three-way confusion by dealing with all queries through your architect who will deal with the builder. This ensures your early discussions on what you wanted from the project are built-in all the way through.
  • Keep your own notes of meetings, either in the office or on site.  When decisions are flying, it can be useful to record them.
  • Talk about timetables; be aware that many factors can affect these including delays in Council approval, unseasonal weather, disruption in the supply of materials and delays in construction due to matters outside the control of the architect.  
  • Don't hesitate to ask questions, be involved, but allow your architect to do their job. 
  • Be aware of your rights as a consumer of architectural services. Professional conduct of architects is governed by the NSW Architects Code of Professional Conduct. Familiarise yourself with the Code which should be provided to you when you sign the contract with your architect. You can find the NSW Architects Code of Professional Conduct here.
  • If you have a problem, firstly talk to your architect and try to resolve these problems. Be open. But if you have a complaint or need advice about the professional conduct of an architect, contact the Board.

Download: WORKING WITH YOUR ARCHITECT CONSUMER GUIDE

Watch: Evonne Kalafatas share her story of working with her architect.

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