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How to find the right Designer!

So you have an idea about building your new home or renovating your existing home. But your not sure what to do next and you found this article - Excellent, we're glad we can help you on your journey!

Most people approach a friend, builder or tradesmen initially for advice. This can be a successful start in many cases but our experience suggests this approach tends to derail and cloud the scope and or budget for the project before it has even begun.

The best approach is to ask friends or builders who they have collaborated with in the past, how successful was the outcome against what they set out to achieve and would they recommend you talk to these people initially to share ideas and undertake some feasibility. This way the absolutely critical discovery phase is not compromised and your own design path is untarnished before you start.

Have a casual conversation with friends about who they collaborated with and how they found their process.

Once you have a name or two to contact what should you do?!

Before you call anyone, ask yourselves a few high level questions:

  • Why are we doing this?

  • When the project is complete what do we want to have achieved?

  • How much do we know about the process we need to go through to achieve this?

  • What sort of costs are we prepared to entertain to complete the project?

Once you have a fair idea of these critical high level elements you can start talking with design professionals about the project. In order to find a good fit for your project it is important to consider a good working relationship with your Architect or Designer. Because Design Professionals are the conduit between yourselves, your dreams and your contractors this relationship is the most critical ingredient for building project success.

Make the process fun, drink wine and form a consensus on your high level requirements. Take your time, it can take 2-3 sit-downs sometimes to reach consensus (hint, the more sit-downs the more wine you get to drink).

Communication and collaboration are non-negotiable skills in this process and from design to completion you will be dealing with this person for a long time. A good Designer will adapt very quickly to your level of knowledge and ability to communicate and tailor their skills to suit but a bad one will not and it can lead to a very stressful process.

Most Design Professionals will offer an initial project scope meeting to introduce themselves. To be frank we are assessing if the project suits our practice as well. This can sometimes be at no cost, however it is common now for a modest fee to be charged for an initial meeting. This is particularly the case for those in high demand, a small consulting fee is a useful means of assessing how committed potential clients are to the process.

The initial meeting should lightly touch on your requirements and your own experience levels but is by no means a briefing meeting. Using a dating analogy, if you are to firm up the brief at this stage it is like starting to plan the wedding before a second date. A good process starts with collectively building the brief together as the first stage or the early dating stage as it may be.

So in the first meeting you are looking for a few important cues to establish early on whether you will be suitable to work together or not. Here's a few hints of what to look for:

What are the individuals values? Knowing these allows you to compare their thoughts and approach at a very basic level to your own. This often leads to finding someone who shares your way of thinking and operating.

What are the company values? Similar to above, but it is important to understand an employee of a larger firm is governed by differing factors to that of the owner of a small firm.

What type of work does the individual normally work on? Commercial Architects are seldom good at residential architecture, and while some adapt nicely often there is a time or cost penalty associated with the adaptation. This is similar with new residential specialists and renovation specialists having differing skill sets and knowledge bases.

Who is actually doing the work? i.e. Sales people and Directors of companies aren't often involved beyond the initial introduction stages and others from the firm may take the job over which may alter the experience you are expecting or advice you get offered.

What are the payment terms? You can reasonably expect to pay a modest deposit, however all payments from then on should be in arrears for work phases completed or justified progress.

Once you have a fair idea that your selected Architect or Designer 'gets you' or if you are unable to select between two the best next stage is to engage them for a Pre-Design and Concept design phases only.

The Pre-Design phase facilitates the collection of all information relevant to the design process to be either collected or discussed and incorporated into the future design. This stage is about setting your brief fairly accurately and making you aware of the sites features and limitations as well as some discussion about budget.

The Concept Design phase of work transfers the information gathered during the Pre-Design Phase to a drawn form studying high level matters such as building bulk, location, form, early building planning consideration etc. You will have a rough idea of the design direction from this stage without the Architect or Designer spending too much time heading in the wrong direction.

Some Architects or Designers present two or three design options at Concept Design stage so the idea is to get a really good feel for the design direction prior to committing to a full design development process and documentation and construction stage.

We recommend this approach as the risk of spending a little bit still offers an easy out if things aren't quite as they are expected to be. Consider it a bit like taking out an insurance policy. One thing to note though is the designer will always retain the copyright to their work so if you like the design direction but not the designer then a specific conversation about those issues need to include your ability to use the design going forward which may include some negotiation on additional costs.

This process may take a month at worst and costs could be in the vicinity of around 1% of the total project value (min value $250k usually, often hourly rates are charged for smaller projects) so it really is a minor capital outlay. Once you have a Concept Design you like and a Designer you like then you can engage them to complete the Design Development, Documentation and Observation with confidence they are the right fit for you and your project.

Sounds easy! Well like all advice there's always the 'what about this' so here's some comments I've had about this advice and my thoughts:

Feasibility and preliminary design: Why not commit to one person and run with it?

Well you can, but being locked into a thorough and costly process with someone before you know them well without an early exit option seems a bit unnecessary. Using the dating analogy again if you consider it like meeting a life-partner the initial meet is a first date, if things go well you go on a few more dates which is pre-design and concept design before you get engaged and commit fully to the design development and construction process. Don't take this as relationship advice though, I'm not qualified to offer that! And we certainly advise that genuinely dating your designer is a bad idea, we work long hours and don't tend to be interested in much outside of the projects we have going at the time.

Fees: Surely fees are a critical element in the process?

They can be, but in all honesty if you are selecting your designer based on fees then it is impossible to make an accurate comparison. It can be important to consider is what are these fees paying for? Inflated fees can be a result of increased emphasis on brand awareness of the designer, the amount of time being spent on different phases of the project, the use of sub-contractors, company overheads and the competency of the staff. For my mind this ties back to the designers values. If they value their reputation and their profitability higher than their clients outcomes then the project outcome will be disappointing. However, the designer that values their clients and offers exceptional service for fair compensation means it won't matter what the fees are it will be an extraordinary project at completion and elements such as build cost and design outcomes etc will be well managed throughout.

Design awards, magazine features or Instagram: Shouldn't we pick a company that wins a lot of awards or gets a lot of exposure on social media, they must be good?!

Sometimes! Depending on the awards programme and the magazine. There has been a noticeable trend in recent years where designers are winning awards for their own projects, whether personal projects or close acquaintance projects. Either way there is generally some flexibility around the priorities of the brief that affords some alternate decision making. The other thing to consider is it is not easy to enter or win awards. The barriers to entry are an outlay of thousands of dollars in photography, presentation and attending the gala's. Not to mention the client needs to sign a waiver that permits the use of the imagery from their project at the awards holders discretion. All of this means that yes, some designers do some lovely work and get recognition, but there are others out there doing great work with clients who choose to not spend the money (added overhead to their design business) to enter competitions or compromise their clients rights to privacy and enjoyment of their own home.

Past work: Surely if I like a certain style or house then I should use that designer?

That may be the case, but that approach severely limits the potential outcomes of someone who is not fixed or bound into a style or previous project. Past work is a window into what previous clients and the designer have collaborated on and the outcome is a reflection of the clients personality, preferences and budget. It is very hard for a designer to show a portfolio of work that may suit the project you have in mind because your situation is entirely unique. More often than not as a designer we don't enjoy the prospect of duplicating or copying design solutions from our previous clients or other designers and prefer to let the design process work out the solution that best suits the brief so more importantly you need to assess the designers adaptability to suit your project which is best done with a preliminary concept stage.

So this has been a little advice from our perspective on getting started with an Architect or Designer. Whether to engage an Architect or Designer is another article I'll write one day, however to paraphrase - there are amazing Architects and equally amazing Designers, just as there are terrible Architects and terrible Designers. The process outlined above gives you a chance to find the right fit for your project.

If you've read this and think HWA might be worth considering for your project, contact us now using the form below and mention you've read our blog post for a no-cost 45min initial meeting. Make sure you mention the blog post!

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