Finding a designer

Considering hiring a designer to help with your project? Find all you need to know about how to source a designer and what to expect

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Input from a great architectural designer can more than pay for itself is added value, says experienced renovator Michael Holmes. 

Image above: An architect can guide you through all the stages of your project, from drawing up plans to overseeing the building process (Illustration by Paul McAneary Architects)

Why do I need a designer?

Of all the roles in your project, none will have a greater influence on the outcome and ultimate cost than your choice of designer. A talented architectural designer can help you to identify and unlock the potential in your home, making optimum use of the space, location, the existing building’s character and your available budget.

Experience and up-to-date knowledge of the planning system, building regulations and relevant materials will all help to inform a design solution that will meet the objectives of your brief without making unnecessary sacrifices and compromises.The result will be a building with high-quality space, an efficient and functional layout, greater market value and lower construction cost.

Conversely, an inexperienced or unskilled designer can have the opposite effect, leading to: ill-judged applications that could prejudice the planning process, resulting in refusal; over-complicated design, adding unnecessary costs and delays; unnecessary damage to period properties if there’s a lack of understanding of vernacular construction techniques; unnecessary compromises and expense due to out-of-date knowledge of building regulations, and an unsatisfactory result, wasted time and fees if the brief is not listened to.

How do I find a suitable designer?

Look online, in magazines or in your local area for inspiration, and approach the designer involved to see if they are interested in your project. You can make enquiries via the client advisory service at professional bodies such as the RIBA, CIAT and RICS. There are also independent groups of designers who specialise in residential projects and market their services together, such as Architect Your Home ( and Associated Self-build Architects (

What should I look for?

  • Flair

The most important quality is design flair – someone who will come up with ideas and solutions you would never have arrived at yourself.

  • Location

Unless you intend to retain the designer in a supervisory capacity during the build, location is not a major factor, as they may only visit the site once or twice. It can help, however, if they know, and have a rapport with, the local planning officers.

  • Style

Designers tend to specialise in certain types of work, for example, contemporary, period or ecological, so make sure you select a designer with directly relevant experience. budget As well as selecting a designer whose work you really like, it is important to choose one who is used to working to the sort of budget you have available and who understands how involved you want to be in the project. Some designers specialise in high-end work with intricate bespoke detailing and finishes that will lead to a very high-quality building but with an equally high-build cost. Others specialise in utilitarian design that is free of unnecessary embellishment and designed for the DIYer to be able to work on: the resulting building may still be of high design quality, albeit more humble, but very cost-effective to construct.

  • Quality of drawings

Accurate and well-detailed construction drawings will ensure accurate prices from contractors, and will avoid delays and/or errors that can result from a lack of detail. Ask previous clients and their contractors about the quality of a designer’s construction drawings.

  • Scope of service

As well as design services, architectural designers can help manage and administer the building contract during the construction phase, either in a supervisory capacity, or on a full project-management basis. If engaging their services beyond the planning stage, ensure that they have strong organisational and management skills and sufficient professional indemnity insurance to protect against professional negligence claims.

  • Fees

As with most services, you get what you pay for. A set of planning drawings may be very minimal and just sufficient to get planning consent, or include an intricate level of design detail, depending on the designer.:

How can I vet my designer?

Contact professional bodies and use their search facilities.

If you are using an architect, check that they are qualified and registered to practise with the Architects Registration Board (ARB,

  • Check that they have adequate professional indemnity insurance so you have recourse in the event of latent design faults.
  • View previous work and speak to past clients.
  • Choose someone with plenty of directly relevant experience.
  • Make sure that they understand your brief.
  • Discuss your available budget.
  • Discuss their role and the scope of service needed.
  • Discuss fees and terms of engagement including the contract/letter of appointment.
  • The first consultation should be free.
  • Discuss their availability and workload.
  • Agree on a fixed fee for smaller projects.
  • Agree a percentage for a larger project.
  • Get copies of their drawings and show them to a contractor to check clarity.

What about design-and-build packages?

Many home-improvement projects are undertaken on a design-and-build basis – the design services are provided as part of a building contract by a single supplier. Design-and-build contracts are typical for loft conversions, conservatories, smaller extensions, garden buildings, basement extensions and other residential scale projects. It’s also possible to have a whole new house built on a design-and-build basis.

The scope of service should be described in detail and will usually include both planning design and construction design services. The cost of the design service may or may not be separately itemised within the contract. The benefit is a fixed price contract and both the designer and contractor are likely to be specialists, having standard engineering solutions, and therefore being fast and efficient at designing and building residential projects. The disadvantage is that you cannot put the design you have worked on with the designer out to competitive tender to several contractors, unless you buy a licence to the design work.

What if I am remodelling my internal layout?

If you are making only minimal layout changes, adding or removing internal partition walls or doorways, and you already know the layout you want, you won’t need to make a planning application, and so don’t need full planning drawings. Instead, a measured survey – a scaled drawing of your home’s layout and elevations – is likely to suffice, showing the proposed amendments.

A structural engineer can then produce calculations and design details for any structural alterations, which will show compliance with the building regulations.

Architect of technologist?

The title ‘architect’ has been protected by law since 1997, and, since then, only sufficiently qualified individuals are allowed to call themselves architects. Anyone not certified who practises under the title will be prosecuted by ARB. The Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists describes its members as ‘specialists in the science of architecture, building design and construction’, bridging the gap between the creative side of building design (often undertaken by architects) and construction design, providing the detail required to turn creative ideas into buildings.

Architects and technologists offer different and complementary skills, which is why in many practices there is an architect handling the creative design and planning process, and technologists producing the construction drawings and specification.

Who owns the plans?

Ownership of plans and design concepts is a complicated area. Even though you are paying the designer for their services and may invest huge amounts of time in developing and personalising the design, the copyright will almost always remain with the designer, unless your terms of appointment specifically state otherwise. This means the designer could sell and resell your design to others should they choose to do so. In most instances, what you as a client are paying for is a licence to use the design, subject to full payment of the agreed fees.

Is there any way of reducing fees?

You can potentially reduce the cost of using a brilliant architect by limiting the scope of their service. For instance, you could commission them to help you develop your design scheme to planning stage only, and then move over to another designer to produce the construction detail. This could be an architectural technologist, and/or a structural engineer.

Trying to make a saving on design fees can be a false economy in some instances – especially if the design is a real one-off and requires specialist knowledge and experience to develop it to construction stage.

Equally, the majority of projects can progress through to completion without the continued involvement of the architectural designer in developing the design and managing the contractor, but, for a more individual bespoke project, it may prove essential to retain the architectural designer to help resolve design details and work closely alongside the contractor throughout the build


Useful contacts:

Architects The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) 020 7307 3700

The Royal Society of Architects in Wales (RSAW) 029 2022 8987

The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) 0131 229 7545

The Royal Society of Ulster Architects (RSUA) 028 9032 3760

The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) 00 353 1676 1703

Chartered architectural technologists Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists (CIAT) 020 7278 2206

Building surveyors Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) 0870 333 1600