Key Stages of Working with an Architect

We are often asked about the key stages of working with an Architect and during a building project.

This is often by those who haven’t been on a self-build or property development journey before. However, we often find it helpful to review the process with all of our clients at some point.

We adopt a stage-by-stage approach for managing the process of designing a building from brief right through to practical completion. This approach follows the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) excellent plan of work. The RIBA’s plan of work is essentially the gold standard for managing construction projects, and we always recommend our clients follow it step by step.

You can see a graphic below showing the RIBA’s full plan of work (last updated in 2020):

Here’s a quick summary of each of the key stages we work in with our clients:

Stage 1 – Preparation and Brief

Preparation and brief is the first stage of every project. It is when the design brief, the budget, the programme and initial design ideas are established. It’s also when professional consultants are engaged, and any surveys commissioned to prepare for the concept design stage.

That seems like a lot to include, and they are all the core ingredients of a successful building project. 

Let’s take a quick look at each:

The design brief is a crucial document because it outlines your expectations for your building and, crucially, our understanding of what you are looking to achieve. Getting this right at the outset will make all the difference to the outcome and your budget. It pays to spend plenty of time on this part of the process. 

You will hear the word programme repeatedly during your building project. It is essentially a timeline of what is going to happen and when. The magic words you want to hear are “we’re on programme”, which means your project will finish on time. Programmes are most often formatted as a Gantt chart.

Building projects usually always require a team of professional consultants, often referred to as the design team. For any size project, alongside an architect, you will likely need a structural engineer, a planning consultant, and probably a quantity survey. But, there are lots more to consider, too, depending on the size and nature of your project. 

We’ll write about surveys in another post, but depending on your project and site, you may need a range of them completed to help with securing planning permission, including: 

  • Measured Survey (always required)
  • Topographical Survey of the site
  • Geotechnical / Ground Survey
  • Structural Condition Survey
  • Arboricultural Assessments / Tree Surveys
  • Bat Surveys
  • Protected Species Surveys
  • Ecology Assessment Report
  • Environmental Statement
  • Sustainability Appraisal

All of these factors will have an impact on your budget. At this stage, you need to think about what you would like to spend on your building project as this will shape your brief, your programme and your initial design ideas. Generally speaking, most things in construction cost more than you think, so it pays to factor a contingency into your budget too. 

Stage 2 – Concept Design

At Stage 2, we start to translate your brief and our early design ideas into concepts created in concert with the design team.

At this stage, the creativity and fun start. The output will be a set of design ideas for you to choose from and also that you can take forward to your local authority’s planning department in what is commonly known as a “pre-app”.

The pre-app – or pre-application consultation meeting with the local authority – takes place at the end of Stage 2. It is where you can get informal advice on the prospect of a future application for planning permission. 

Want to know if your idea to build houses at the bottom of your field, or a new block of flats in town, will be supported by the local authority? A pre-app is your first step in the journey of engaging with the local stakeholders that can make or break your vision. 

Stage 3 – Spatial Coordination 

By now, you will have some design concepts and feedback from the local authority on your ideas. Stage 3 is about moving your concept design forward into a more detailed and coordinated plan with your design team and getting ready to submit a full planning application. In a nutshell, your planning application needs to provide enough information for your local authority to make an informed decision on whether or not to permit you to build your property.

The drawings and models you see at this stage will give you more clarity on what your building will look like but should not be confused with technical or detailed design. This is the next stage, where you will get much more into the nuts and bolts of your designing property.

Sometimes drawings prepared for a planning application can seem a bit simplistic, but that’s okay. You don’t want to spend a lot of time and money on detailed design because you don’t know if you will be allowed to build your new property.

The output of this stage is a package of building information, or drawings, that you can submit in a full planning application for your local authority. 

We can submit this application on your behalf or work with a planning consultant if you decide to engage one. 

And then, you will have some time to wait before finding out if your application has been successful, generally 12 weeks or longer. 

Stage 4 – Technical Design (aka Detailed Design)

At Stage 4, we will develop the planning drawings into packages of technical design information that a contractor can use. These drawings are where we refine the design, in collaboration with you, into a set of construction information that perfectly matches your brief. 

We may work with an interior designer at this stage, particularly where you want to get into the finer details, such as kitchen and bathroom designs, curtains, tiles, wall coverings etc. 

At the end of this stage, we would submit the technical design information to your local authority Building Control Department for Building Regulations approval. This is when the local authority, or an approved building inspector, verifies that what you are planning to build meets the Building Regulations, i.e. the rules that stipulate construction standards.

The technical design information is also used to tender the construction work and find your contractor. They will also give you more clarity on your budget.

We can run the tender process for you to get three quotes for the building of your property, which will help you get a fair price (and no, cheapest is never the best option). We will guide you on your choice of contractor and the type of building contract you choose, but, ultimately, it is your decision on which contractor to appoint. You must also appoint them directly. 

Stage 5 – Manufacturing and Construction

With all of the work done to date, it is hard to believe that only now will you get on site. But you know how the old saying goes:

“Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

At stage 5, your contractor will get on-site and put the building together according to the technical design. During this stage, we will inspect the works frequently to verify they are being carried out in accordance with the contract documents / technical design. This will likely involve other members of the design team too. 

We will also help your contractor to deal with any issues as they arise and, where necessary, issue what are called Architects Instructions (AI). These are formal instructions to your contractor, such as when they need to vary the works from the original design or where other guidance is required.

You can find out more about AIs here

The construction phase can take several months to several years to complete, depending on the nature and complexity of your scheme. But, you will have a detailed programme in place by now, so you should have visibility over the timetable. 

Stage 6 – Handover a.k.a. Practical Completion

At long last, after all of your hard work, the construction of your building is complete. 

The new property is handed over from the contractor for occupation, subject to a certificate from the architect that defines practical completion.

You will then become liable for the property again and need to ensure suitable buildings insurance cover. Apart from that, it’s time to start enjoying your new building, right? Almost. 

You will have retained a sum of money from your contractor, which will encourage them to fix any defects – often referred to as snagging – in your building. 

There will always be some works that need a bit of attention after the building is handed back. That’s just the nature of building works. 

Once you and we are satisfied the building is what we designed, and you paid for, we’ll advise you to settle your bill. You will now be in your bespoke new home, or school, or office building.

You are now in Stage 7 of the plan of works, called Use. This is about ensuring the building performs as it was intended to, covering factors such as energy efficiency for example.

I hope you have found this short guide to the key stages of working with an architect useful. If you would like to know more, please get in touch. Our architectural team are always happy to guide people through the construction process. 

We love to design buildings and see them come to life, but we also appreciate not everyone has the same depth of knowledge about how buildings work or how to get from an idea to a real-life structure. We are happy to explore this with you, whatever type of building you would like to achieve. 

Image sources: Royal Institute of British Architects