How to Choose a Home Designer

20 March 2019 Tom Allen, Self Build Consultant
Image of a Potton house CGI
Design is the most important phase of a self-build project. Get it right and you can proceed with confidence, safe in the knowledge that you will end up with a new home built to a high standard and to your budget. As long as your sub-contractors can follow the drawings, of course. Getting the design stage wrong, however, will likely set the whole course of your project off on the wrong path, giving you a property that doesn’t meet your needs or your budget expectations. Good initial design can be the difference between finishing the process with your dream home and never fully realising your project.

If you’re looking to design your own house – even if you are looking at prefab houses – you should think seriously about guidance. By not taking advantage of professional advice and experience you could potentially be missing out on making your home special – it’s a huge risk. How can an inexperienced designer hope to create a beautiful home that perfectly meets your list of requirements? Here you should be thinking about budget, energy efficiency, and about the relevant regulatory bodies, like the planning office and building control.

So, how do you find a designer who can help you unlock the potential in your plot? In many ways, the approach should be part science, part art – a mix of hard-and-fast textbook rules and your own judgement and subjectivity.

Don’t Hire Based on the Title

The common mistake most novices make is in terminology. The term ‘architect’ is protected by the Architects Registration Board, and only a proportion of experienced house designers are qualified architects. Those looking at self-build homes don’t actually need an architect to design one for them – they need a house designer. Good house designers come with all manner of professional titles: Architect, Architectural Technologist, Architectural Designer, Architectural Technician or just plain old House Designer. Keep this in mind.

Always Check a Designer’s Previous Work

You should always ask to see previous projects. And don’t just ask questions about how they got this or that house looking so nice, ask about how exactly those projects ran. If you can’t talk to the building contractor that carried out a previous project, see if you can get a taste for common difficulties on new build houses like yours, and ask pointed questions regarding the potential issues you may face. Learn about problems that may occur that relate directly to the drawings – this is where your house designer’s skills are of paramount importance.

Build Costs - Ask Your Home Designer!

The design process is not simply a question of drawing an attractive house – that’s the fun bit. An experienced designer should be a project founder, basing the self-build project in reality, grounded in the build cost set by you, the client. What evidence can the designer show that their previous projects have been built to a budget? What grasp do they have of builder prices – do they know the latest costs of local projects, do they speak to main contractors? Can they break down the parts of the self-build costs – can they advise you on window prices, for instance? The best home designers can give you estimates on all of these based on experience.

Service Level

House designers love the initial elements of a new relationship with a self-builder – it’s the time when they can ‘wow’ you with their house plans. Hopefully, they will show you that their ideas are far superior to any flat pack home you might simply pick the parts for yourself. This honeymoon period may quickly come to an end though if you are, for example, left waiting to get amendments, and things can quickly feel like they have ground to a halt. 

You should also keep in mind the latter phases of the design, which often involves further detailed specification and technical drawings. Try to establish an agreed level of expectation in terms of turnaround times from your designer early on in the process, to save any future waiting around that you weren’t expecting at the outset.

Fees: When, How, and How Much?

Value is subjective when it comes to design fees – you can spend very little and feel ripped off, or spend tens of thousands of pounds and get genuine value for money. It’s important to be clear as to what the fees are from the start, and you should agree that payments will be made at different phases. It’s also important to be realistic about what you’re getting for your money. If you were to assume a day rate for a designer of £200, this would equate to £25 per hour for an eight-hour day. So, if you think £2,000 is what you should be paying for design, that’s a total of 80 hours, or 10 days worth of work. 

Remember, these fees count all the way from the initial concept, getting you through planning, and through to finalising the specification and producing working construction drawings. Scrimping on design fees is a false economy. Most self-builders spend between £5,000 and £15,000 + VAT on design fees. If you want to design your own house, remember that this is usually paid upfront, at the start of the project.

The Perfect Relationship

For most self-build home projects, the most important aspect of choosing a designer is how well you get on with them. Do they listen to your plans? Do they share your tastes? Your enthusiasm? Designers will likely have their own very strong views on house design, and while you can’t be expected to share the same views on every aspect of house building, you should share a similar outlook as to what actually makes a great house. 

Many people fall out with their designer on the basis that ‘they didn’t listen to us’. That’s a definite problem, but just as worrying is the designer who draws exactly what their client wants. You want to get their input, the value of their experience and skill – that’s what you’re paying for, after all. The perfect designer/self-builder relationship is a true collaboration.

Potton is not only one of the UK’s best known self-build companies, but we also have over 50 years of experience designing and building individual homes for clients. Find out how our experienced architectural design team can help you by reading about our House Design Service.