April 6, 2017 / Market Insights

How to Work With an Architect

Meet world-renowned architects with the power to make your dream home a reality


Atop a hill with sweeping 360-degree views of forested slopes and the San Francisco Bay, the barbecue was fired up, and over chargrilled steak and a fine bottle of wine, architect Mark Jensen and his client discussed the home that was to be built there. This was some site visit. “It was just one of many,” says Jensen, one of four principals at Jensen Architects. “We spent a lot of time hanging out together at the site, talking about what kind of home was wanted, and getting a sense of how the site changed throughout the day.”

The initial idea was for the house—which would become the Turner Residence—to sit on top of the ridge or just below it, but over time this morphed into something altogether more interesting and complex. “We arrived at the idea of the house nestled into the side of the ridge, like a nest, giving a high vantage point and a sense of protection at the same time,” says Jensen, whose clients were a graphic designer and his wife.

Mark Jensen, founder of Jensen Architects, suggests clients provide a written brief. “You can talk about things, but when sitting down and writing, the mind goes to places that it might not otherwise go.” Photograph: Jen Siska. Banner image: The Turner Residence, near San Francisco, designed by Jensen Architects. Photograph: Mariko ReedThe result is an award-winning home, in which a glass pavilion containing the living and dining areas sits on top of the hill, while the rest of the residence is built into the ridge and is unseen when viewed from the north. The pavilion’s expansive glass panels allow stunning views, but can also be completely retracted for that much-desired “outside-in” feel.

It’s the detailed, time-consuming, and thoughtful stages that turn an interesting idea into a great building

The house is an inspiring example of the impact an architect can have on a project, pushing the frontiers of what is possible, to create a home that is exciting and groundbreaking yet also finely attuned to modern life. This expertise is not only possible with a new build: in London, Alison Brooks Architects transformed a derelict 19th-century house into a standout home and spacious office. Particularly striking are the trapezoid-shaped extensions that pull in light and beautifully frame the garden views.

The clients dreamed of a hilltop home that was sensitive to its setting, and an example of the best in contemporary design. Jensen Architects delivered the award-winning Turner Residence. This glass pavilion housing the living and dining spaces, and affording stunning views, sits separately from the rest of the property. Photograph: Mariko Reed“A home is such a high-performance piece of architecture,” says principal Alison Brooks. “People experience their home every single day, and it is tested at all times; it has to live up to this scrutiny. An architect’s skill is to be able to make domestic space, form, and materials work as art, and in ways that you would not have thought of yourself, such as inventive approaches to working with light, capturing unexpected views, and creating new relationships—it’s about connecting spaces and people more joyfully.”

Whether it’s a groundbreaking project or something more straightforward, the first step to a successful outcome is choosing the right architect. Reputation and recommendation are the most common methods of finding one, although professional bodies representing architects can also offer suggestions. “Focus on architects who have experience in the type of project you want done,” says Nigel Ostime, director at Hawkins\Brown Architects and chair of the Client Liaison Group for the Royal Institute of British Architects, the professional body representing architects primarily in the UK but also internationally.

An architect’s skill lies in “connecting spaces and people more joyfully,” says Alison Brooks, principal of Alison Brooks Architects, pictured here with projects director Michael Woodford (left) and associate Nelson Carvalho (right). Photograph: Cristian Barnett “Make a short list of three or four and look into their previous work,” he advises. “Getting the right contractors to do the job is also critical to the quality of the work, so an architect should have a good track record in managing relationships with contractors—ask them for examples of previous projects and references from their clients.”

Ostime also recommends meeting each of your short-listed architects: “It’s a very personal relationship so you need to feel that you can get on together, and that they will listen to you and what you want. Ask how they will go about the work: the design process and the project timescales. And, finally, ask for proof of appropriate insurance. Once you have agreed the scope of work and the fee, make sure you have a written contract of appointment.”

Alison Brooks Architects converted a 19th-century north London property into Lens House, a home and workspace for a client involved in photography and design publishing. The extensions were designed as a series of “apertures." Photograph: Jake FitzjonesBrief encounter
Once you have selected an architect, it’s all about the brief. “In the age of social media, people want architecture to be distilled down to a single image,” says Jensen. “Clients come with tags and websites, which in one way is a good thing as it means they are consumers of architecture, just as they are consumers of pop culture. But at the same time it has become super-reductive as it skips over a lot of what an architect does,” he continues. “Most clients think there are just two stages—design and build—but I say there are five: the schematic design is the first and construction is the fifth. In between there are the detailed, time-consuming, and thoughtful stages that turn an interesting idea into a great building, that ensure the house works but also that it doesn’t lose its spark over time.”

The trapezoid-shaped extensions of Lens House pull in light and frame the garden views. Photograph: Paul RiddleBrooks advises against being overly prescriptive. “Try to avoid the word ‘should',” she says. “Great clients are open to ideas that are the opposite of what they first think of as the solution to the project. They welcome the discovery and surprise at the opportunities that arise.” That said, being clear about the details is also important. “It’s a step-by-step dialogue,” adds Brooks. “A comprehensive list of desires, down to the smallest details, and including intimate things such as how you envisage using the staircase or whether you prefer drawers to cupboards, helps designers to invent, and tailor the design to your way of life.” Jensen suggests clients take the time to write out their brief: “You can talk about things, but when sitting down and writing, the mind goes to places that it might not otherwise go,” he says.

Two existing floors were transformed to create the double-height kitchen, living, and dining area of Lens House. Photograph: Paul Riddle“Think about your goals,” says James Wagman of New York’s James Wagman Architect, a practice specializing in renovating old buildings into stylish modern homes. “An architect will want to know what you’d like to happen in your new home that isn’t happening now,” he continues. “And then there is the budget, which should include the architect fees as well as construction costs. A timeline of when you want the work completed is also good to know.” Ostime advises including a 10 percent contingency in the budget. “Whether it be opening up an existing building or a new build, it’s rare that everything goes to the original plan with no variations,” he says.

A home is such a high-performance piece of architecture. It is tested at all times; it has to live up to scrutiny

Based on the brief, an architect draws up a set of initial designs, usually with several options to choose from. The designs will then progress in complexity as the architect incorporates the needs of outside contractors, such as structural engineers, to create the detailed plans from which the property will be built. Most will create 3D models, both as physical and computer-aided design versions, to help the client to visualize the space. “An architect needs to introduce levels of design complexity incrementally so the logic can be fully understood,” says Brooks. “If a client wants true originality, there must be risk. If there is trust and commitment to a shared vision, the reward will last a lifetime.”

At AL House, on a steep site in the hills near Rio de Janeiro, Studio Arthur Casas captured panoramic views for its client by elevating the living areas. Photograph: Fernando GuerraThis is certainly the case for Studio Arthur Casas, which was charged with designing a house on a steep triangular-shaped plot in the hills around Rio de Janeiro. “The plot is surrounded by high walls and the owner was quite skeptical about the possibilities of reaching the splendid views towards Pedra da Gávea and the Atlantic,” says director Regiane Khristian. “We needed to prove to him that architecture could transform the apparent disadvantages of the steep terrain and the presence of neighbors into the starting point of an exceptional project that lifts itself to reach the sea.” This the architects did with a truly spectacular house that’s arranged over three stories so it works with the slope of the land, the middle level opening out to a raised terrace that has breathtaking panoramic views.

Arranged over three stories, AL House fits in with the slope of the land; the middle story lines up with ground level at the rear of the site and opens out to a raised terrace. Photograph: Fernando Guerra   While agreeing on a design does, and should, take some weeks or even a few months, what is often the most time-consuming part of the entire process today is obtaining planning permission, especially in dense urban environments. “In New York, anything beyond cosmetic changes gets bureaucratic as there are a number of building codes and preservation bodies to deal with, and you have to be a licensed professional before you can apply,” says Wagman.

Think about your goals… An architect will want to know what you’d like to happen in your new home

“The whole process can take from two months to two years, although the latter is unusual. More typical is the process for our recently completed New York City cooperative apartment,” explains Wagman. “We first required approval from the co-op board, followed by an asbestos inspection, and finally approval from the city’s Department of Buildings [DoB]. Sometimes the DoB will have objections and require revised drawings, but this design, which included the removal of existing walls and built-ins to reconfigure and expand the apartment layout, was approved and we were granted permits for construction after 10 weeks.”

In a renovation project in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, James Wagman Architect introduced flow and a streamlined aesthetic to an apartment previously created by combining three separate properties. Photograph: Sean LitchfieldThe work completes
Once construction has begun, an architect will visit regularly—from once a month in the early stages to at least every two weeks as the project draws to a close. Cost management varies internationally. “Generally, architects in the US will deal with this, but in the UK you should consider appointing a separate cost consultant, especially on larger projects,” advises Ostime. Completion comes once the house is ready to be occupied, and the architect issues a completion certificate. “At this stage the project should have been totally completed, with all snags sorted out including the heating, electrical, and IT services,” Ostime explains.

The building process is famously stressful, so what can clients do to smooth proceedings? Ostime offers the following advice: “Unless you have a real reason to do so, do not change the design after the contractor has been appointed and work has started, as that is when it gets really expensive to make changes.” 

The owners’ love of the ocean inspired the serene blues used throughout this Manhattan apartment renovation by James Wagman Architect. Photograph: Sean LitchfieldWagman agrees, and further counsels, “Keep the lines of communication open; let us use our expertise. Don’t do things without informing us or keeping us in the loop—it throws the pace off and can affect the entire process.”

“There has never been a successful project where the client/contractor/architect relationship hasn’t been cooperative and collaborative rather than confrontational,” continues Jensen. “It’s not in anyone’s interests to have a bad relationship—this not only makes the entire process a bummer for everyone, it also affects a client’s relationship with their home; it tarnishes their memories.”

However, the memories are definitely happy ones for the couple who commissioned Jensen to design them a penthouse that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline. “I was recently invited to dinner there,” says Jensen. “And after years of design and construction work, it was a joy to sit around a table with the clients and their friends and enjoy that view.”

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Rachel Loos
writes for The Daily Telegraph and The Times, and is former editor of Elle Decoration UK