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Embarking on a construction project can be daunting for clients. Here are five crucial things to know before diving in. From understanding the importance of selecting the right designer to navigating the complexities of building regulations, these insights will help ensure a smoother and more successful building experience.
1. Pick the right designer

Time and time again we come across clients that have tried to save money on their projects by appointing retired architects, technicians or simply someone who knows how to produce scaled drawings, who have then cost them more money and time than appointing the right designer in the first place.

We often find ourselves competing with these consultants who will win a project with a quote half of our fee as the client thinks they will be saving money. They will not. These consultants can only charge lower fees by producing the minimum required for planning and building regulations and falling short of their new responsibilities under the Amended Building Regulations 2023 (see point 2). When it comes to building regulations, they will give a low fee and say you can do the project under a building notice and so a full specification is not required. This means that when a builder quotes for the project they will have to add a percentage to their fee to account for the unknown elements that have not been specified. For a small project, that could easily be 10% which would far exceed the £2k – £3k those clients think they are saving. Many do not tell you there are fees for building control, structural engineers and any other consultants or fees for additional work. By appointing an architect, you have the confidence that the project will likely be approved for planning, will be buildable, and will be signed off by building control whilst saving you money on the construction.

So why not appoint a cheaper consultant just for the planning submission? This is also a bad idea…

We had a project in Reading a few years ago that we put together a quote for. The project was a simple loft conversion with extension and, not surprisingly, the client found a technician that was half of our price. After issuing the quote to the client and chasing for a response we did not hear back from them until 2 years later. It transpired that the technician they employed could only do planning drawings and so they came back to us for a quote for the building regulations. Despite the client never acknowledging our original quote, we decided to see how we could aid them in taking the project forward. The technician had not checked that the property did not benefit from permitted development rights and so the first certificate of lawfulness was refused. They then spent 2 years going through 3 further designs before the application was approved. That was over £600 wasted on planning application fees alone. Unfortunately, after spending less than 10 minutes looking at their approved planning application, we had to inform them that the project was not buildable. The technician also did not know that loft conversions must have a minimum ceiling height of 2.2m and have 2m head height above staircases (as well as other issues). We then informed the client that the project that they had spent 2 years and a lot of money getting permission for had to be restarted. As planning do not check projects for compliance with building regulations (which surprised the client), the problem was not identified. We then gave the client a fee for rectifying the application to a buildable solution, but again the client stopped communicating with us once this was received which we assume was because of our fee. Having driven past the property multiple times over the last 2 years, the project still has not been built. By appointing us, the client would have saved considerable money and years of time but instead they chose, what they thought, was the cost-effective solution.

The architect is the person that designs your project, coordinates the work with other consultants and fixes problems that may appear on site. They are singularly the most important consultant you will ever appoint for your construction project. So, if their fees are cheap, think why?

2. Know your legal responsibilities

Following the Amended Building Regulations 2023, there are additional responsibilities for duty holders. As a client, you are a duty holder. For all projects involving building regulations you, as the client, will need to submit a notice of compliance to building control stating that you have appointed the right people for the project. That means it is your legal responsibility to ensure that the designers and builders are competent and have the skills, knowledge, experience and behaviour to undertake your work. If you do not do this, you are then breaking the law and risking building control refusing to sign off the works. A domestic client may then ask themselves; how do I ensure the people I am appointing are qualified, how is that my responsibility as a domestic client?! By picking an architect that has undertaken similar work in the past, you satisfy this requirement. By picking an architect that can recommend builders and aid in tendering you satisfy this requirement.

If you are a non-domestic client, then you hold a share in being responsible for the design and construction to comply with building regulations. If you have no knowledge of building regulations, then you must ensure that you are employing someone that you know does.

You are also responsible for aspects of health and safety on site under CDM Regulations 2015. In the same vein as the Building Regulations, you must appoint the right people for the project and ensure that site information that may have a bearing on health and safety must be relayed to the design at the start of the project to forward on to the builder. Examples of this would be presence of asbestos, location of high voltage cables or any issues working from heights. Principal Designers must be appointed for projects involving more than 1 contractor, and a Principal Contractor must be appointed.

An architect will make you aware of your responsibilities and aid you in fulfilling your duty holder requirements. A designer who is only producing the minimum for planning and building regulations (despite now breaking the law) will likely not.

3. Pick the right builder

Following on from your responsibilities under the Amended Building Regulations 2023 and CDM Regulations 2015, you must be confident that the builder you appoint is the right person for the job. The builder is now equally responsible for ensuring that the works on site are built in accordance with building regulations. They can no longer use the excuse they were just following the drawings or ask building control for guidance. You must ask to see previous projects they have undertaken and speak to previous clients. Your designer or architect should be able to recommend builders they have worked with before.

There are governing bodies such as the Federation of Master Builders which builders can be a part of, however this is not an assurance of quality or competency. We have come across builders in the past who are registered with FMB who took the clients’ money and ran. If a builder now does not comply with their duties under the Amended Building Regulations 2023 and tries to close their company and open a new one, they are no longer protected by that limited entity and clients have the option to sue them personally.

Our advice is always to go with a builder that has been recommended and never the cheapest. If you must spend a bit more then you at least know you won’t be stung with a half-finished project that will cost tens of thousands of pounds to rectify and finish. With builders, as with any profession, you always get what you pay for.

4. Application and Professional Fees

On many projects that we end up picking up from another designer, the client has not been made aware of additional professional and application fees. All planning applications have a fee payable to the local council. If they are submitted via the online planning portal, then there is an administrative fee on top. All building regulations applications have a fee payable either to a Building Control Approver or the local council. This fee can either be a one-off fee, as in the case of a building notice, or be split into a submission fee and an inspection fee as in the case of full plans submission. Building over or near a public sewer often has a separate application and fee.

There may also be additional consultants that are needed for projects. Their fees are separate to the architect. Common additional consultants can include:

  • Structural engineers;
  • Ecologists for bat or newt surveys, or biodiversity metrics for all new builds;
  • Aborculturalist for sites that have TPOs, trees in conservation areas or are outside designated settlements;
  • Highways consultants for any new access to sites;
  • Asbestos survey

An architect at the start of the project should inform you of the additional consultants that will be required so you can budget for the project and not be delayed by trying to submit a planning application without the required consultants.

5. Always have a construction contract

Construction contracts are designed to protect all parties involved. If a builder does not want to use a contract, then ask yourself why? Our advice is to only use builders that are happy and have experience using contracts. JCT offer a suite of contracts suitable for all scales of projects and are typically the contracts we recommend. These provide payment schedules, dispute resolutions, and clearly define the scope of works and expectations of all parties involved. Most contracts do not allow for large deposits (although this is an industry norm that is hard to avoid), and must allow for a retention fee that is only released once the project is finished and snagging completed. We provide contract administration services for larger projects and tender all our projects with the appropriate contracts.

Quite a few builders tend to use FMB contracts which are also acceptable, however any bespoke contracts should be reviewed. Any bespoke contract should be reviewed for its legality and appropriateness by a suitably qualified person such as an architect.