Do You Need An Architect For An Extension?

architect plans

Well, we did. And we… didn’t

We didn’t need an architect to design our extension. We did involve one though. Most people planning extensive remodels either hire an architect, architectural technician or design and build company to draft their plans. We were confident that with the collective skills of a retired chartered building surveyor (my Dad), graphic designer (me) and three dimensional designer (my husband Phil) we could undertake the bulk of the design work ourselves.

Looking closer to home for expertise

Describing my Dad as a building surveyor doesn’t really do justice to his experience and expertise. His career was spent in commercial property; retail then licensed premises. He undertook the standard tasks associated with building surveying; site surveys, condition assessments, producing reports. But his remit was broader than that. As a trained draughtsman and experienced project manager he oversaw every process of each job. This included aforementioned site surveys, producing scale drawings, writing specifications and schedules of work through to overseeing works on-site.

When we first asked my Dad for assistance on our project he was keen to help if he could but thought his usefulness may be limited. He’d been retired for some time, lacking confidence his draughting skills were up to modern day standards while unsure of current building regulations. He said he’d undertake a site survey and draw up some initial sketches.

initial survey
My Dad’s Initial Existing Floorplan Sketches
My Dad's Initial Site Sketch
My Dad’s Initial Site Sketch

His contribution proved to be much more than that. In the end he produced all of the scale drawings for our initial application. I would sketch ideas which he would then realise in technical scale drawings. He knew all the fixed parameters, stair dimensions, height requirements etc and how they would impact the available space. He was then able to depict how the internal layout would manifest in the external facia and roof structure. Working closely we created a bold design which made best use of the plot’s topography and light. We didn’t always see eye to eye on the external design, but when we had a difference of opinion we talked it through until we arrived at a solution we agreed on.

Planning Sketches
My crude sketches working out the extension roof pitch

I’m really proud of the drawings we submitted. We made the best possible use out of a restricted site, it was going to be an amazing home. Even though we’re no longer going to realise that design, I still feel it was a really worthwhile endeavour.

Hand-Drafted Elevation Drawings We Submitted
The Hand-Drafted Elevation Drawings We Submitted
Hand-Drafted Floorplan Drawings We Submitted
Hand-Drafted Floorplan Drawings We Submitted
Hand-Drafted Site Plans We Submitted
Hand-Drafted Site Plans We Submitted
How Important is Three Dimensional CAD Modelling?

Once the drawings were complete, Phil translated them all into a three dimensional CAD model. The elevations on our house are not parallel to the front/side/back of the plot, and the house is always viewed at an angle. The 2D elevation drawings don’t give a very true-to-life image of the house, especially being as it is on such a steep hill. We felt some artist impression style views of the house might help neighbours and planners visualise the structure in context. This was an excruciatingly slow process. Not only was it a steep learning curve for Phil (who usually models exhibition stands – entire houses are somewhat more complex), he was also working with an ailing ancient MacBook. It also coincided with of one of the most stressful and taxing times his business has gone through. It took several months before the CAD model was in a state useful for producing rendered images. With hindsight it probably wasn’t worth the wait. While fabulous, I’m not sure the images we submitted had any positive influence and we ended up changing it completely anyway!

One of the visuals from the 3D model
One of the visuals from the 3D model
One of the visuals from the 3D model
Another visual from the 3D model
Finding my Own Skills as a Draftsperson

As the process unfolded, I found myself feeling increasingly confident to make changes to the scale drawings myself. My Dad was working in a less-than-adequate studio set up and because he was hand-draughting it, every amendment was extremely time-consuming. I realised I could make quick accurate changes in the software I use professionally, Adobe Illustrator. While it’s not a standard autoCAD program, its a great way to produce scale drawings that can be outputted to other software.

By the time we came to redesign the plans, I was entirely confident to undertake it from scratch myself. I wasn’t sure how I’d manage the external elevations and roof design, but I figured I’d just work it out as I went along and I did. With this version, we really wanted to create the simplest, most efficient structure possible and that was an enormous challenge in the tight space we were working with. The roofline of the entrance hall was something we puzzled over for days and I’m really proud of the parapet roof solution I finally devised.

My Own Elevation Drawings Showing The Parapet Entrance Hall Roof
My Own Elevation Drawings Showing The Parapet Entrance Hall Roof
The Proposed Floorplans I Drafted
The Proposed Floorplans I Drafted
So Where Did Our Architect Feature?

We were fortunate to have been put in touch with a local architect who had experience with our borough council. He generously offered to oversee our submission and was prepared to suggest any amendments or additions that he might think would improve our chances of securing approval. As it turned out, he felt our proposals were solid as they were. It was reassuring to have that safety net. His design sensibility and thought process was completely in line with our own and with so many unknowns it was great to have his support. If anyone is keen to work with a trusted architect in the East Midlands area then I can thoroughly recommend Will Aust

Conclusion – do you need an architect to design your extension?

We’ve saved ourselves thousands in fees by designing our extension ourselves. The saving alone is satisfying but in addition, the understanding I have now gained of the project at hand is invaluable. Especially now I am drafting our building control plans too. I believe an architect can bring incredible insight into the possibilities of a space, and suggest ideas one might not otherwise have considered. A good architect has experience to incorporate best practice as well as tips and tricks to maximise space and impact.

That said, based on experiences of friends and people I follow on social media, an architect isn’t always the best person to ensure maximum value for money in the design. George Clarke’s Ugly House to Lovely House’s Dream Schemes are testament to that. It seems too often clients are wowed with an impressive design only for the builder to confirm that certain elements bring unnecessary expense. The best architects cleverly incorporate standard size fixtures and sensible yet impactful features. But not everyone is lucky enough to have that experience it seems.

With medium-scale domestic extensions, often there are so many limitations already in existence. This means that in reality there’s only so much you can do when remodelling and extending. I believe anyone who feels they might be capable of drafting their plans ought to have a go. You can’t magic space and character out of nothing, but neither can an Architect.

People think it requires expensive CAD software and a deep inderstanding of architectural conventions. In fact you can actually gain planning approval with a hand-drawn sketch as long as it is accurate and to scale. Its not for everyone, but if you feel you might have an eye for it then I would urge anyone considering going the DIY route to be brave, buy a laser measurer and have a go.

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  1. All of this information is so helpful, I’ve been following a lot of blogs and Instagram accounts recently as we are beginning our own renovation and this is by far the most informative, so thank you. Our extension is pretty straight forward and after seeing some of the quotes from the architects which were eye watering we’re seriously thinking about if we could take on the challenge of doing some of it ourselves to a degree. Reading your posts has enabled me to create a list of things I need to research further and questions for certain professionals before we can truly make that decision. I see that you mentioned that you used Adobe Illustrator for your floor and site plans but can I ask what software you used for the CAD model please? (That part could definitely be beyond my skill set but wondered if it was an adobe program). I wish you the best of luck with your applications and build, look forward to reading your latest progress x

    1. Hi Jennifer,
      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, I’m so glad you found it helpful. My husband did the CAD model in sketchup pro, but I think regular sketchup would yield a similar result. If you’re that way inclined and have the time, there’s no reason why you couldn’t have a stab at it.
      I’m excited to hear how you get on, I’m currently doing my building control drawings which I thought would be completely beyond my capabilities but I’m finding them manageable, if time consuming!
      With hindsight I have a few points to add to this post about the positive things an architect can bring to the planning process beyond technical drafting input, And with that in mind further evidence why you might not need to engage one.
      Keep in touch!

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