Warning signs when choosing an Architectural Professional

The decision to appoint an architectural professional is arguably the most important choice in setting a construction project up for success. Choosing the wrong person to guide such a massive investment can be an exceptionally costly mistake, so it is important to know what to look out for and how to recognise a bad fit. Luckily there are some red flags that are easy to look out for.

The first thing to make sure of is that the architectural professional is registered with the South African Council for the Architectural Profession (SACAP). Our article on the legal requirements (https://www.xeno-urban.com/post/the-legal-requirements) explains the different registration categories in greater detail, but without a valid registration, the professional cannot legally sign off on and submit building plans. Luckily, registration status is easy to check. The professional's SACAP registration number should appear on all of their documents and communications while they must be able to present a registration certificate. SACAP also recently launched the 'privyseal' initiative which is specifically aimed at making it easier for the public to verify a professional’s current registration status. The privyseal is a live image that includes a date stamp, a QR code and the professional's name and registration category. It updates in real time to authenticate registration status and should be included in all the emails and important documents issued by an architectural professional. For reference of what this looks like, our own privyseal can be seen via the following link: (https://seals.prod.privyseal.io/3d100812-dc99-4a3d-a0b7-02c1f2220162)

In addition to SACAP registration, the actual category of registration can also be important. Professional Architects have the highest level of registration and are generally the most qualified, while draughtspeople tend to have the lowest level of qualifications, followed by architectural technologists. Larger or more design focussed projects generally require more highly qualified professionals. For a detailed discussion of this topic, check out our article on the topic (https://www.xeno-urban.com/post/architects-vs-draughtspeople-1).

The level of experience of an architectural professional is also hugely important as professional registration can be obtained with as little as 2 years' practical experience. It also may not be as simple as looking at a company project portfolio as many architects work for a number of years and gain a wealth of experience at other firms before starting their own firm, meaning the firm may have a small portfolio of projects even though the lead architect personally has a large portfolio of works. Conversely, large experienced firms may appoint very inexperienced staff members to a given project. It is therefore important to inquire about the level of experience of the professional who will specifically lead the project in question.

Part of a good fit between architectural professional and project is having a scope of services that is well defined in relation to the unique needs of the client and project. We wrote a more in-depth discussion on the topic (https://www.xeno-urban.com/post/the-structure-scope-of-architectural-services), but lacking certain services might result in a considerable cost saving on fees while having a huge detrimental effect on the project. Minimal service packages are generally only appropriate for very small projects where the quality of design and construction are regarded as unimportant. Most importantly, both the client and the architectural professional must feel that the service package offered includes all the services necessary to ensure the success of a project and this can depend heavily on the experience of the client and the other professionals involved.

We have previously written a number of entries about architectural fees to address topics like how much architects charge (https://www.xeno-urban.com/post/how-much-do-architects-charge) and when it is worth paying more for architectural services (https://www.xeno-urban.com/post/when-is-it-worth-paying-more-for-architectural-services). The most important takeaway from these discussions is that architectural fees should be related to SACAP's recommended fee structures but adjusted in relation to services added or subtracted from the standard services in an understandable way, with reasonable discounts if appropriate. A big red flag is therefore if the quoted architectural fees are massively reduced in comparison to the SACAP recommended fees without an equally large and well-understood reduction in the scope of services, as this inevitably suggests that the quality of service will be unacceptably low. Ultimately clients should always evaluate architectural fees against the much larger investment of a complete project with an awareness that the architectural professional will carry the largest responsibility in guiding that investment towards success.

Most architects excel at designing particular styles and with consideration of particular themes. Here at Xeno-Urban Architects, for instance, we aim to create an intimate relationship between our buildings and the natural environment. We are also well-versed in various contemporary and futuristic styles of architecture. These elements are visibly present in most of our designs, so for clients who value these themes and styles, our firm would be a great fit for their project. By contrast, a client who dislikes this style or wants their building to look classical, for example, would be better off appointing an architect who specialises in that type of architecture. Looking at a firm's body of work and perhaps having a simple conversation with them about architectural styles is an easy way to determine if a given firm is a good or bad fit for the style of a particular project.

Last but not least, general professionalism and communication skills are perhaps the most underrated skills a good architectural professional should possess. It might surprise most clients to know that the single most time-consuming activity your typical project architect engages in is talking to other professionals. Architects need to coordinate with engineers, builders, product suppliers, sub-contractors, the local municipality, and most importantly with the client. An architect’s ability to communicate clearly with their words is just as important as doing so with their drawings, as is their ability to collect, organise and keep information. If an architectural professional cannot write a coherent email or produce a professional-looking quote, it most likely points towards a shortcoming in this area which is a major red flag.

Ultimately the relationship between client and architect is one of the most important in driving the success of a project. Clients must be comfortable in trusting their architectural professional with guiding what is more often than not the biggest financial investment of their lives. The above discussion points out some basic boxes that must be ticked for this to be the case. If any of the warning signs are visible, be very careful of placing your investment in the hands of the wrong architectural professional.