Tips on choosing an architect

STEPHEN CRAFTI
Last updated 11:02 12/06/2014
architect
Joe Armao/FAIRFAXAUS

SHORLISTED: Ian and Nicola Minchin at home at 45 Alexandra Street, South Yarra, with Robert Simeoni, the architect they chose.

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A house is more often than not the owner's pride and joy. After making the ultimate purchase, perhaps the biggest question the owner will face, at one time or another, is how to make the house, bigger, lighter and more harmonious.

Most people find themselves left with two options; work with a builder in developing the house, which often means adding on a box or engage an architect in a bid to get the most out of the property. Yet, the costs of the latter are often substantial and are they really worth it?

Architect Peter Malatt, president of the Victorian Institute of Architects and a director of Six Degrees Architects, has been in practice since 1992. He poses three questions around choosing an architect: "Does the architect have a natural affinity for design? Have they received awards from the institute or from their local council?' says Malatt.

Also of importance is "consistency". "Have they been widely published in architecture and design magazines? And finally, have they got the right personality for you," says Malatt, who compares the relationship, which can extend to two or three years (depending on council and other factors) to your local doctor, or even to a spouse. "It's not unlike a marriage, with shared trust, but the contract is considerably more detailed".  And not unlike a marriage, according to Malatt, if you are unsure with your choice of architect 'don't sign the papers'.

While driving past  houses designed by your short-listed architects is important to get an appreciation of the building's aesthetic and quality of construction, there are other ways of checking an architect and client's compatibility. "Visit their studio and see how it operates. Is it a congenial environment, well organised or a little chaotic for your way of thinking,'" says Malatt.

Having a clear brief is also important for the relationship to work. Apart from stylistic features, there should be a clear idea of what's required, from the number of rooms to how they are used. The cost must also be put out there, including the architects' fees, varying from 10 to 20 per cent.  "If it's a $1 million house, the difference can be over $100,000," he adds. Those wanting to terminate the ''marriage'' can do so, but Malatt advises this be severed at the end of a stage in the design, documentation or building phase, with costs roughly broken down to 30 per cent for the design phase, 40 per cent for construction drawings and tendering, and 30 per cent for administration and supervision.

According to Philippe Batters, Director of Williams Batters, people need to be careful when selecting an architect. "It should be about what the client is looking for rather than appeasing a magazine editor or potentially receiving an architectural award. The architect needs to be a great listener and steer clients in the right direction," he says.

Although some people believe a builder can create their "dream home", according to Malatt, it's worth investing in an architect from the outset. "They are acutely aware of natural light, ventilation and how spaces function. Builders are not trained in design." While engaging an architect is not commonplace, there is a correlation between the value of land and the use of architects. "You'll find more people using an architect in affluent suburbs such as Toorak, South Yarra or Malvern where the value of land is higher," says Malatt.

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And does it really matter if an architect is involved? Surely watching the various makeover shows combined with a sharp pencil can generate an architect's signature? "I think you'll find that people using an architect enjoy the wonderful light and spaces created. And often it's the things not seen. The lower running costs, including the low-maintenance materials selected by the architect," says Malatt.

10 things to consider when choosing an architect

  1. Is there a sensibility to the architect's work that resonates with the client?

  2. Are there references given by the architect that can be checked out?

  3. Is it clear which services will be provided in the contract?

  4. If a decision has been made to change architects, are there any outstanding fees?

  5. Make sure the architect has an ability to communicate, not just their ideas, but also the stages involved in the process.

  6. Will there be weekly updates by phone or email? Or will there be regular meetings, say every two weeks?

  7. Is the scale of the work sufficient to engage an architect?

  8. As many projects can extend over a period of up to three years, it's important to think carefully before appointing an architect.

  9. Don't just look at magazines, photographs can be deceptive. And let's face it, when, if ever, did you read a poor review of a house that was published?

  10. Is the architect going to add value to the site and is the property worth the investment of using an architect.

Case study: 'Layers of importance' guide designer

Ian and Nicola Minchin have engaged several architects over the years, commissioning homes for the city and out of town. When they purchased an old timber house in South Yarra on a 350-square-metre site five years ago, they could have simply used one of their previous architects. However, they sought out architect Peter Elliott for advice.

"Our first house was designed by Peter, but he now only works on commercial projects. [But] he still has his finger on talented architects," says Ian.

Elliott presented the Minchins with a shortlist of three suitable architects, one of whom was Robert Simeoni. "Robert is a fine architect, having designed many homes. I also thought he would be a good fit for Ian and Nicola," says Elliott.

The couple looked at three of Simeoni's projects, including his own award-winning house in North Fitzroy. On a slither of land, barely 90 square metres, the house overlooks a park. "It might be small, but it shows an ability to be extremely efficient with space," says Nicola.

During the five years from when the Minchins first met Simeoni to moving into their present home, they engaged Simeoni to rework their previous home, an apartment in South Yarra, and also design a home on a vineyard at Main Ridge. "There's always a fine balance between what a client wants and what an architect has in their mind," says Nicola.

Simeoni doesn't believe in disagreements. "It's about resolving things and understanding the 'layers of importance'," says Simeoni, who was on site at the South Yarra house nearly every day towards the final stages of completion. "I think that was above the call of duty," says Ian.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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