Who will design your house?

The house design is a critical stage of your self-build and it’s important that you make the right decision about who will design it. Before you decide the who, you first need to decide the which ie which type of designer. The main options are:

  • Architect
  • Architectural Designer
  • Architectural Technologist
  • In-house designer at a timber-frame manufacturer
  • You

Each option has its merits but you must consider very carefully whether your particular project and your particular circumstances will suit your preferred option. Factors to consider are:

Complexity of the project
At the straightforward end of the complexity scale, you might see a standard 3-bedroom family house on a flat plot in an urban setting. This could be a DIY project – one that you could design yourself. At the problematic end of the complexity scale, you’re more likely to find a Grand Designs style of house perched on the side of a hill, with limited access and miles from any utility connections. For this project, the services of an architect might be appropriate.

Your time and skills
If you feel capable of a DIY house design, consider how much time it would take to absorb the full range of information that you would need to produce a competent design. This might include learning a new piece of CAD or modelling software.

The costs involved
For a relatively simple house design, the cost of employing an architectural technologist could be less than half of the fees charged by an architect, with little discernible difference in the result. Who will produce your House Design?

Architect
Architects generally have 7 years of training behind them plus membership of the architects’ body, the Royal Institute of British Architects. As long as they have the requisite Professional Indemnity insurance, they can operate an architects practice in the UK. No-one else can call themselves an architect.
With this professional status, architects can command high fees. Fortunately, the days of architects working to a percentage of the build costs are largely over but, be careful, there a still a few practices that have not moved to a more equitable fee structure.
Architects are good for:

 cutting-edge design
 fully embracing eco principles
 exploiting the latest materials and techniques
 difficult sites, where their training will assist in overcome challenges such as steep gradients, restricted access, flood locations and poor ground conditions

Architects are not usually very good for … your bank balance.
Architectural technologist
A growing number of architectural technologists operate their own businesses in the private residential market. Although they are not able to call themselves architects, they often promote themselves by offering “architectural services”. They have an expertise in contemporary house design and with a very competitive fee structure, they tend to be excellent value for money.
These are professionals that have a long tradition of working alongside architects. The degree course for architectural technologists is a lot shorter than the architect course but, nevertheless, they are suitably qualified to prepare house designs for self-builders.
To find suitably qualified practitioners, click here for Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists,
In-house designer at a Package Supplier
By employing in-house designers, Package Suppliers are able to offer the complete package, from house design through to planning, fabrication and build. This can be very attractive to the self-builder with little opportunity to get hands-on. It can also be a very cost-effective solution.
Very often, there will be a design catalogue available also. If you are happy to select a house design from the catalogue, making only minor changes, you can often get a very good deal.
DIY Design
A significant proportion of self-builders actually design their own houses. If you feel capable of producing your own house design, then the DIY option is perfectly reasonable. While you may not optimise your design in the way that a trained architect would, you will save thousands in fees. You will also have the pleasure of knowing that you designed as well as built your own home!
There are various 3D modelling software packages available, such as Sketchup and Revit, that allow you to draw in both 2D and 3D. Obviously, you will need to spend time assessing which software is suitable for your skill-level and your needs.
There is very little educational material available to help self builders design a house using 3D modelling. To address this gap in the market, I am currently writing a 3D modelling book aimed at the self-builder. It’s entitled “Rapid 3D Modelling of Residential Structures, using Sketchup” and there is more info here.

Who will prepare the planning application?
Many architects will handle the planning application for you. This is useful where it turns out there are lots of drawing amendments arising from the planning process. There are some Archi-Techs who will handle planning applications but these tend to be for straightforward designs; they will generally steer you towards planning consultants for anything contentious. Some of the larger Package Suppliers will include planning as part of the package.
If you are pursuing the DIY design route, you could always prepare the planning application yourself. My Rapid 3D Modelling book explains how to produce the required planning drawings – a very easy process once you have generated the 3D model.
DIY Construction Drawings
I recognise that most self-builders might struggle with the stage that follows a successful planning application. This is where construction drawings are produced to prove the house will be constructed in accordance with Building Regulations. However, there are plenty of architects and archi-techs who are willing to assist with the production of construction drawings. Naturally, they will want to preview the design before agreeing to any supply contract.

Appointing a House Designer
It’s not a good idea to appoint the first designer that you meet, no matter how persuasive, knowledgeable and affable they are. All designers are different. They have their own preferences, biases, personalities and fee structures! Take some time to meet a few. I guarantee that after you have met 3 designers, you will be saying “I can’t believe how different they all are!”
Ideally, try and find an designer who has worked with self-builders previously and who empathises with your particular project. It helps if they have a portfolio of previous projects as it’s a good way for you to assess their style.
You can search for designers with self-build experience in our Supplier section here.