Everything You Need To Know About Working With An Architect

There are several design professionals who can help create your dream home, but none quite like an architect.

In Australia, architects require both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, followed by mandatory practical experience, and only those registered can lawfully practice and use the title ‘architect.’

So why are architects so important? Not merely concerned with aesthetics (although they’ll take care of those too), an architect is responsible for ensuring your home’s sustainability, functionality, orientation, and circulation. They won’t just take your instructions and turn them into a floor plan, they’ll analyse and interrogate your every request to ultimately form a better home. 

To make matters clearer, we spoke to four of our favourite architects to break down their practices and answer the following frequently asked questions: Architects EAT director Albert Mo; MRTN Architects director Antony Martin; Lisa Breeze from Lisa Breeze Architect; and Fowler and Ward directors Jessie Fowler and Tara Ward.

Amelia Barnes

What does an architect do?

Think of an architect as the head of your home’s design and build team, that may include interior designers, structural engineers, landscape architects, building surveyors and builders.

‘Architects are the only people in the building industry that are regulated to manage an entire project, from design and through the whole construction process,’  says Albert Mo, director of Architects EAT.

‘While we are the mastermind behind the aesthetic and pretty spaces, more importantly we are the logical mind who processes your wishes to combine with building regulations, sustainability and budget, to arrive at the end result.’

Architects are also problem solvers, possessing a unique skillset that’s both creative and technical. 

‘We get to use both the right and left sides of the brain to create elegant solutions to spatial problems,’ says Antony Martin, director of MRTN Architects. ‘We have the capacity to creatively resolve technical challenges and use technical know-how to bring creativity to life.’ 

Shadow Cottage Daylesford by MRTN Architects. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files. Styling – Annie Portelli

Shadow Cottage Daylesford by MRTN Architects. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files. Styling – Annie Portelli

Shadow Cottage Daylesford by MRTN Architects. Photo – Eve Wilson for The Design Files. Styling – Annie Portelli

What services can an architect offer me?

Like other design professionals, architects structure their work in stages roughly encompassed under three umbrellas: design, documentation, and contract administration. 

The design phase encompasses everything from an initial consultation through to the production of drawings, models and visualisations of the finished building.

The documentation phase is where separate drawings and documents for project approvals (where required) and construction are created. The finer details of the design will also be decided at this point, right down to the kitchen sink.

Finally, contract administration is where an architect works with the builder to help the construction process occur smoothly and efficiently. Usually your architect will act on your behalf throughout this process to check contractors are paid, questions are answered, and timely opportunities to tweak the design are realised, as the build progresses. 

Can an architect also improve the sustainability of my home?

Focusing on sustainability is an inherent part of any good architect’s process. Don’t think of this as its own design stage, but an embedded element of the overall project. 

‘Sustainability is an integral part of the design process and not something applied later as an add-on,’ says Antony. ‘Decisions about solar orientation, location of thermal mass, insulation, windows, heating and cooling systems and materiality are all essential parts to the design, and each of those parts is critical to the creation of a sustainable home.’ 

Architects can also specify additional systems to improve your home’s energy efficiency including solar systems, batteries, and water retention systems, says Tara Ward, co-director of Fowler and Ward.

Can I engage an architect to makeover just one section of my house, or does it have to be the entire home?

Generally speaking, yes you can engage an architect to design or renovate just one section of your home. The work of MRTN Architects, for example, ranges from complete new homes right down to small renovations such as kitchen and bathroom makeovers. 

With that being said, many architects prefer to work on a home’s entire floor plan rather than a singular element (such as a new addition). This approach allows them to consider how rooms relate to one another, where light comes from, how the orientation affects the internal comfort, and more. 

‘Most architects would ideally like to have some involvement in the entire home, to ensure that everything works together, says Jessie Fowler, co-director of Fowler and Ward. ‘On the other hand, if a client comes along with a tiny project but they want to push the boundaries and create something unique, then we might consider working on a limited area such as a kitchen or living space.’

You may not even know what level of intervention is required, which is why Antony recommends engaging an architect early in the project for their advice. ‘We often work with clients to define exactly what the nature of the project should be; a renovation or a new-build, larger or smaller, viable or not,’ he says. 

How are architecture fees calculated?

Every practice has their own way of calculating fees, however, a common method is to charge a percentage of the estimated total cost of construction. The exact percentage charged depends on the complexity of the project, which can sometimes outweigh other factors such as the floor plan size. 

Antony explains, ‘An addition to a Victorian terrace house in a heritage overlay is more complex and takes longer to resolve than a new house on a flat piece of farm land. Our fees for new homes or large alterations/additions that do not require a planning permit are 9-11% of the total construction budget, while smaller projects alterations/additions are around 12-14%. 

Fowler and Ward also charge a percentage-based fee, which varies from about 8-12% of a project’s total construction cost. 

For comparison’s sake, of all the architects we spoke to (all of which are based in Melbourne), the total construction cost of projects they’ve worked on has been between $300,000 (for a new addition only) and $10 million (for a 1000 square metre house). 

‘A home with a complicated form and hidden box gutters will cost more than one with a simple shape, standard construction details, and simple structural solutions. A laminate kitchen will be more cost effective than one with plenty of timber and stone,’ says architect Lisa Breeze from Lisa Breeze Architect who runs her own practice. ‘Costs also tend to vary between the inner city and coastal and rural areas.’  

Other practices including Lisa’s and Architects EAT charge an hourly fee or fixed fee, based on their experience designing similar sized and detailed projects. ‘This means that if you chose an expensive stone rather than a cost-effective stone, for example, you don’t pay us more for that decision,’ says Albert. 

When you reach out to an architect, be sure to ask them how they calculate their project fees, and their level of experience.

How long do the design and construction phases take?

The answer to this question again varies, however, for an architectural project in a built-up area – and particularly in areas of heritage overlay – the design and documentation phase, resulting in approved council permits, generally takes around one year, but some councils may make this process even longer. 

‘A fast application could be four to six months, and a lengthy application may be two to three years,’ says Albert of council approvals. 

From there, the typical dwelling construction phase is usually an additional 12-18 months. 

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