7 steps to finding a good architect for your small-scale property development project

Tips for small-scale property developers looking for the right architect for their project by Ritchie Clapson CEng MIStructE, propertyCEO:

A friend called me for advice after being presented with a £10,000 bill from an architect and a request for a further £10,000 to move to the next stage. My friend had an old light industrial building and the architect’s plan was to demolish the existing building to make way for three 2-bed flats and a studio complete with granite worktops, gold taps, and a fancy electric turntable that allows cars to be parked in tight spaces.

The problem was that the market for studio flats in the area was non-existent, the building was situated in an area where granite worktops, gold taps and parking turntables were unnecessary, and I doubted the plans would get planning consent.

I agreed to help develop the building. There was no demolition. Instead we converted the building to residential use under permitted development (neatly sidestepping most planning issues). 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.

My friend’s mistake wasn’t going to a bad architect – the plans were genuinely impressive – but he went to the wrong architect (one who specialised in high-end luxury homes) and he failed to give the architect a proper brief.

If you have a small-scale property project in mind, here are a few tips to help you find the right architect for you and how to get the best from them:

1. Set a design brief
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. Look for relevant experience
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 options
Make sure you’ve at least three architects 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. 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.

5. 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 – they’re the experts.

6. 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 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.

About the author
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 minimise risk and maximise returns.