How to start up a architect practice

A group of architects looking over designs in their officeArchitect practices offer their services to domestic and commercial customers and may charge on an hourly, lump sum or percentage basis. Our guide covers the key issues for starting and running your own practice.

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Estimating demand

You will need to make an estimate of:

  • the number of commissions you are likely to undertake - you might complete many small projects during the year or work on just one or two major commissions
  • the fee you will charge for each commission and when you will receive payment
  • the income you are likely to receive from other, related services that you might decide to offer

Competition

You will face competition from other architects and architectural technologists in your area who may offer similar services. Competition for projects also comes from major construction firms that offer design and build packages which often do not call on the services of an external architect.

As a first step, it would be a good idea to check out the competition. It's very important to establish who your competitors are and the range of services they offer. A look in the Yellow Pages for your area or a search on Yell.com will show the number of existing practices and will also give you a feel for the type of services they offer. You could also use the RIBA online Find an architect tool to find details of RIBA practices in your area.

Your clients

Give some thought as well to the type of client you will target and to how they will know about you. For example, you might decide to start off by concentrating on local domestic residential commissions, such as extensions, alterations or barn conversions. Depending on the area in which you plan to practice, there may be opportunities for work on second homes in addition to permanent residences. As well as advertising your services you could also contact local builders and developers to let them know what you offer and how much you charge. If you plan to undertake commercial or industrial work you could contact major local organisations such as colleges and universities or housing associations. Establishing and maintaining contacts with a variety of businesses and professionals in the construction sector will also help you to gain commissions.

Make sure you put together an attractive portfolio of work done to show to prospective clients. It makes sense to include on your website photos of some of the projects you've worked on.

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Type of commission accepted

Although some practices specialise in a particular type of commission, for example, sports complexes, many are prepared to handle a wide range of work. You may be commissioned to produce designs for new buildings or for work to existing buildings. This is known as refurbishment work. There may be a demand for conversion work, for example to barns or redundant industrial buildings. Work may be commissioned by the private sector or by the public sector.

The range of possible commissions is wide and you might undertake some or all of the following work:

  • industrial buildings such as factories or warehouses
  • agricultural buildings such as barns or sheds, other animal housing
  • commercial units such as retail outlets, offices, leisure outlets
  • community buildings such as halls, churches, cinemas
  • residential premises such as flats and houses
  • educational establishments such as schools and colleges
  • complexes such as sports halls, hospitals, nursing homes

Construction projects progress through well defined stages and you may be asked to handle the project from start to finish. In some cases, however, you might only be appointed to deal with a particular part of a project.

In order to be able to offer a full range of services to clients and to generate repeat business and word of mouth recommendations, it is important that you:

  • maintain a good working knowledge of different construction methods, building materials and so on. Bear in mind that pressure to cut carbon emissions means that more and more buildings are being designed with energy efficiency in mind. Recent years have seen an increase in demand from clients for both residential and commercial buildings to be designed to Passivhaus standards
  • make sure you keep up with changes in legislation that affect the construction industry - for example, understanding the architect's role under the Construction, Design and Management (CDM) Regulations
  • keep up to date with developments in the built environment so that your designs reflect current trends as well as complementing existing structures
  • have good organisational skills so that you can plan and monitor an orderly flow of work, coordinating the activities of the different members of the project team
  • are a good communicator - disputes often arise during the course of a project because the roles and responsibilities of the architect and the client have not been clearly established from the outset

Your clients

Your practice might target a particular type of client, for example, housing associations or private householders, or might be prepared to accept commissions from a wide variety of different individuals and organisations. It's important to make sure that the marketing of your practice, the way in which you present your design proposals and the formality with which you conduct negotiations is appropriate to each type of client. For example, a major commercial client might want to see 3D models of the project before going ahead, while a private householder wanting a proposal for an extension may require no more than drawings or computer-generated images.

No matter who your clients are it is very important that, once they appoint you, the terms and conditions on which your services are engaged are clearly set out in a formal document and agreed with the client. Professional bodies such as the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS), the Royal Society of Ulster Architects (RSUA) and the Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists (CIAT) produce standard documents which can be amended as necessary. The document should cover the services to be provided, the responsibilities of both parties, the appointment of any additional specialists and the fees payable. Details of when the fees are payable should also be covered.

Advertising your business

No matter who your clients will be it is essential that they know about you and the services you provide. If you are a member of a professional body such as RIBA, RIAS, RSUA or CIAT your practice will be included in an online Directory of Practices. You will also be able to put up a sign board at any site you are working on.

There are a number of other things you can do to promote your practice:

  • advertise on Yell.com, in your local newspaper and any other local publications and directories
  • set up your own website showing some of the commissions you have handled
  • have leaflets printed outlining your services and distribute these to local builders, housing associations, colleges and so on
  • enter competitions for building projects (these can be a useful way of raising the profile of the practice - particularly if your practice wins)
  • join the online network LinkedIn so you can keep in touch with other professionals
  • use social media like Facebook and Instagram to share details of current and completed projects

Stages of work

The design and completion of a construction project progresses through several well defined stages, from original inception through to final completion. Planning the work in this way helps to ensure that nothing is overlooked and also provides useful points at which a client can be invoiced. A brief outline of the different stages is given below (based on the RIBA definitions of the different stages).

Sometimes a project goes no further than the initial stages and for this reason fees for the early part of a project are often charged on a time basis. Once the preliminary stages have been completed and agreed with the client, the detailed work on the project begins and, from this stage until completion, the project is often charged for on a percentage basis.

Strategic Definition You will identify what the client wants and whether there is anything fundamental that might prevent the project from going ahead. You will prepare studies, including surveys if necessary, so that your client can decide whether or not to go ahead

Preparation and Brief You will put together the strategic briefing, confirming the key requirements and constraints. You will identify the procedures and organisational structure for the project, as well as any specialist consultants whose services need to be engaged

Concept Design You'll flesh out the strategic brief into the final project brief by preparing outline proposals, specifications and cost information

Developed Design You'll develop the outline design in more detail and update cost estimates

Technical Design All the technical aspects of the project are brought together and finalised and planning submissions prepared and submitted

Construction The building contractor and any other specialists involved proceed with the building work. You'll closely monitor and supervise the work and make frequent site visits

Handover and Close Out After making final inspections you'll formally hand over the completed building to the client and present your fee note

In Use Carry out any activities outlined in the handover strategy, like a post-occupancy evaluation and review of how the project progressed

You can see detailed information about the different work stages in the RIBA Plan of Work.

Charging for your services

There are several ways that you can charge for the architectural services you provide:

  • on a time basis, charging the client so much per hour for time spent working on a project. You'll need to decide at what rate to charge out your own labour and that of your staff. This will depend to a certain extent on where your practice is located and on your reputation. It is sometimes helpful to find out the hourly rate charged by accountancy professionals in your area as this is often in line with what practices charge for architectural services
  • on a lump sum basis. You would estimate the time you would be likely to spend on a particular project, plus the expenses you will incur, and then quote a lump sum to the client based on this. The danger of this approach is that you could end up out of pocket because the job takes much longer than you had estimated, or because the expenses are higher than anticipated. Some practices offer clients a choice - a lump sum (fixed fee) for the job or a time-based fee. The lump sum is set at a higher level than the time-based fee is likely to be, minimising potential losses to the practice. Clients may choose this option because it offers them more certainty
  • on a percentage of total construction cost basis. Many firms charge on this basis. Some vary the percentage according to the nature of the commissions - for example, a higher percentage would be applied to the cost of historic buildings work or work to existing buildings than to new work. Generally the percentage is reduced in relation to the value of the project. For some years the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) produced guidelines to help members to arrive at a realistic percentage to apply to the final construction cost. This varied from under 5% to nearly 18% depending on the nature of the building, the value of the contract and whether the commission was for work on new or existing buildings. Some practices based their charges on the RIBA guidelines, but at a lower percentage rate, to reflect market conditions in their areas

The Fees Bureau carries out a survey of architects' fees each year and publishes details of the average going rate for different types of commission. You can buy the latest edition of Architects Fees on the Fees Bureau website. Alternatively, you can subscribe to the Fees Bureau interactive online calculator which shows average fees and hourly rates for different types of project.

You would also pass on to the client the expenses and disbursements that you have paid during the course of the project.

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