Planning a building or renovation project? Read this before hiring an architect. 

When it comes to construction, people often have misconceptions about the process, especially as it is not that usual to have already a building project under one’s belt. This is probably true regardless of your location but the process might seem even more daunting if you don’t speak the language or don’t have a wide enough network to get reliable recommendations for an architect, builder and other tradesmen.

Undoubtedly, taking up a construction project is a big thing. Whether it is a kitchen extension, a listed building renovation (Falling for that charming piece of Dutch history, anyone?) or a villa built from scratch, it will always take a portion of time from your life, affect your budget for the year(s) to come and change your daily rhythm for quite a while.

On the other hand, when it’s all finished and cleaned up, the enthusiasm for your lovely new home can be worth jumping over the extra hurdles such as different building regulations or a different working process to what you are used to. 

For this interview we sat down with Richèl Lubbers, the man behind Richèl Lubbers Architecten and asked him what are some crucial questions you should think about when preparing to work with (a Dutch) architect.

 

Is it required to commission an architect for the whole process? Or is it possible for architect to work only on some parts and the rest is handled by the client?

Usually the project runs more smoothly if the architect is involved in all phases rather than working just on part of the process. Having said that, being commissioned only for the first phases is possible. In such cases, though, the client needs to be very sure about their choice for the construction company. They will also need to communicate with the contractor very frequently so they can build the design precisely according to the client’s wishes. This might get more tricky if you don’t have that much experience in construction and architecture. Potential problems and hiccups might be costly and prolong an original planned time frame.

 

How do architects differ in the way they work?

One of the things clients should ask an architect is if they propose just one design or several variations. A lot of architects work with several designs but not all do. The way we work at Richèl Lubbers Architecten is that we design together with the client. We propose several designs and let the client comment on them. What is also specific for our office is that we make a cost calculation directly during the preliminary design phase.

As this calculation is done by an independent adviser it has a great value in setting the course before finalising the design. Some architects make the calculations themselves but some don’t do them at all.

 

What is the difference between a preliminary and final design?

In the preliminary stage you can still make changes to the design. The final design is really final, no further new decisions should be made. As we work in a kind of a funnel, there are still a lot of things to sort out with the client, such as material choices and colours.

If there still need to be changes made in the final stage it is possible, but they may influence the construction. This means the contractor will have to make new cost calculations, implement the changes, the project gets more costly and will take more time than was planned for.

Clients sometimes change their minds and it doesn’t have to be necessary a bad thing. But they should keep in mind that some parts of the work should be finished at the end of a stage.

 

Architect doesn’t have to be present during the whole duration of a project, but they usually allow the project to run more smoothly.

As you go into final stages of your building projects, changes to the design should be minimal.

How big of a role does architect’s experience make?

A more experienced architect is always a big asset to a project. The clients should be especially interested in how much experience the company has in projects like theirs – whether it is listed building renovations, extensions, new builds, building in protected areas and so on.

For example, I’m a member of the Commission for Spatial Quality and Listed Buildings in Hilversum which tests applications for construction activities against the welfare memorandum and evaluates permits for changes to listed buildings. Not only it is a sort of an honorary role but it gives me extra knowledge in listed buildings renovations. It might be a good idea to look at the architect’s CV to see what extra experience they have that could be relevant to the commission.

Having said that, an architecture office might have more experience in various types of projects – which is also our case – and it is always good to ask for examples of past work and ask how they dealt with challenges that might be relevant for the client’s project.

 

How does one recognize a skilled architect?

In the Netherlands there are branch organizations listing active offices that you can look at. The register of architects is also publicly available. Both of them tell only about registration though – you still need to look for recommendations from previous clients. That is always a good reference for projects done in the past.

 

Once the client chooses an architect, who is actually going to work on the project? Will it be the architect – owner themselves or will they be present only in the initial phases?  

Sometimes clients might be concerned about this. A balanced approach is me being involved and having my team work on the commission with the project leader at helm. The balance could be something like 25:75 ratio for me vs the team under a project leader. There will be still quite a lot of work done by me even though I would not do everything myself. What you don’t want is an architect that shows up only during the acquisition phase and then disappears for the rest of the project. You can always ask in advance about how work is done in a particular office.

 

What do clients often underestimate about the whole process?

Two things people always underestimate are the budget and planning, unless they already have experience with building projects. In that case people can have a better idea of how long things might take and how to plan the budget realistically.

Most of the time people just don’t know what to expect, both in terms of cost and time schedule. The client’s wish list is usually much longer than what the budget allows for. That is why we always start with a specific question: What are your must-have’s and nice-to-have’s? That way we can see where to cut a line in the client’s wish list between the negotiables and non-negotiables. If there are no compromises to be made and all items on the list are non-negotiable, we advise them on a realistic budget based on our experience.

 

What about the time frame?

In terms of time expectations, people often don’t realise how much each phase takes. Let’s take preparations for a building permit for example – this is practically the entire design phase. Sometimes we have a client who would like to do two things at the same time – a large renovation as well as an extension on the first floor, which always needs a building permit.

Such a client might reach out to us sometimes in November with the expectation of having a building permit by end of the year. This is practically impossible. Let’s presume we can finalise the design in one day, including the client’s comments. You still need time to produce all the drawings and there are usually more projects running at the same period. We always have some capacity for new projects but if we worked only on one commission, the cost for the client would be much higher.

Another thing is, the clients are usually not used to think about architecture and construction projects the same way as trained architects are. This means they might need more time to digest the proposals and make comments. Even if we propose a new design quickly, the client might take longer to get back to us with their views.

Every project should start with a wish list but keep in mind the limitations of your budget.

Can this be shortened by having just one design proposal?

Hiring an architect and accepting the first design they produce could be unwise for the client and it is certainly not the way we work. The clients should absolutely take a step back and think about our proposals. Do they really fit with their ideas? Is there something that is not entirely according to their wishes?

If you are going to live in a space for a longer time, you want to make the design right and that involves some back and forth. And usually people need some time to get used to new ideas.

If the client would accept all the ideas we generate, the project might get way over the budget. Of course we test out a number of different options but usually you can’t have them all. So we need to test them individually to see how the client reacts and to give them time to find what they really want – this can change over time in ways clients don’t even expect.

So the time for commenting and design variations needs to be included in clients’ time expectations. Especially since this phase almost always takes more time than people think. Quite often it’s three months but it could be pretty well longer than that.

 

Where does this phase fit in terms of the whole process?

The first stage is generating ideas and making choices between them. In the next stage you need to kick out some of the ideas – because of time constraints, budget, building regulations or other reasons. After the design is finalised, the construction phase can finally begin.

 

Do clients have realistic expectations about the construction phase?

People know the building phase takes some time. But again, some clients expect that a project can be built in about eight weeks which is not usually possible. Especially with projects larger than just a small renovation. Most of the time the building phase takes around two months, larger projects up to six months. A newly built villa can take over eight months.

 

Could the construction phase be shortened using a smaller construction company?

You may be able to find smaller builders who can work just on one project at a time. These usually don’t have an office and combine several trades, such as contracting and specialising in timber. They might be more interesting in terms of budget, but they might have capacity only for small projects. 

 For larger commissions you want to hire a bigger company that works with teams. But still, even with larger contractors there will be weeks during a project when no one is working on the site. For example pouring a concrete floor requires time as all the moisture needs to evaporate. During those days you cannot continue with working on stucco for example.

Poured concrete flooring has many qualities but needs time within the construction process

Bigger construction companies have larger capacity and so are more appropriate for larger projects

Is there a difference in seasons when it comes to construction?

Luckily, in the Netherlands we can work on construction all year round. It is possible to start working on a project even in winter. We don’t have that much snow or freezing days. Even if it’s freezing outside, we can still work on the inside.

Having said that, around Christmas the construction slows down. Same goes for summer school holidays which influences the planning. For this reason if we are working on a project during summer, we calculate in one month loss in time because of the holidays.

 

That reminds me of Bouwvak, which is specific to the Netherlands. Can you explain what it is and where does it come from?

Bouwvak means building holiday – ‘vak’ coming from ‘vakantie’ while ‘bouw’ means to build. The origin comes from the 60’or 70’ when a lot of people were going camping during summer for their holidays. Back then people wouldn’t fly abroad in summer but stay in the country camping in the countryside.  

Seeing this the government decided to divide the Netherlands into three parts – North, Middle and South and spread the vacation period into separate three-week chunks among the three parts.

This prevented having all construction companies in the country closed at the same time. The vacation period is also more or less synchronised with the school holidays in individual counties. Nowadays the constructors don’t adhere to the building vacation as much as back then, but it still exists and is something to take into consideration. 

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