FOUR WALLS: Draughting in an architect

FOUR WALLS: Draughting in an architect - Who hasn't fantasised about commissioning a knight of the drawing board to conjure a contemporary masterpiece for their roof and four walls?

by RORY ROSS, a freelance journalist and property owner
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Who hasn't fantasised about commissioning a knight of the drawing board to conjure a contemporary masterpiece for their roof and four walls?

If money were no object, the likes of Richard Rogers and Norman Foster would almost certainly thrill to the thought of an icon to rival Philip Johnson's Glass House or Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House.

But before you reach for the telephone, be aware that commissioning an architect can be fraught with problems. 'We haven't done a private commission for years,' shrugs Robert Torday, spokesman at Lord Rogers' offices, 'maybe because no-one has thought of approaching us. If we were presented with an interesting commission for a private scheme, I'm sure we'd consider it.' Interesting? Architects measure the interest value of a commission in pieces of string. Among Rogers' tiny handful of private commissions is a house he completed in 1968 for his parents in Wimbledon. The structure of two yellow boxes has an open-plan interior and is home to Lord Rogers' son. How interesting is that?

Certain back-of-the-envelope rules-of-thumb should be borne in mind. One unhappy client of a cult architect warns that any architect 'will be chiefly interested in the financial and social value of the commission.

He'll want full control and only discuss it with you to have it rubber-stamped. Remember that the client's kitchen extension is the architect's cover of Architectural Digest.'

Then there's the cost. Top architects work in the best media. 'The cheapest building is made of bricks, block, render, wood and slate,' says one developer.

'A cutting-edge architect wants to experiment with the latest materials.

But when you get into stone, glass, stainless steel, fancy roofs and teak floors, for which several Greenpeace activists still bear the scars, you go up in multiples.'

Next up is where to draw the line between your own input and the architect's 'creativity'. Some clients bring their own ideas to the party: gargoyles modelled on family members, a Buckingham Palace-style Wendy House. These novelties may be wrapped up in I-bent-a-great-designer-to-my-will notions of self-worth. Being able to brag 'I had this wonderful idea for a barbecue area with marble floor and Renaissance appointments, so I had Quinlan run me up the drawings while I was at the hairdresser' sounds better than 'He sent me the plans; I posted him a cheque'.

Much of the success of an architect lies in their ability to get far-fetched new-fangled ideas around planners; successful architects are by definition adept at this legerdemain. A point is reached, however, at which an architect's reputation precedes them and often the more illustrious the architect, the more likely planning officers will be swayed by the perceived masterpiece.

Once you have convinced a top architect of the merits of your commission, how much time will they devote to it? Will they pore over it laboriously, or chuck a few sketches at the backroom staff while en route to lunch at The Ivy? Whatever your status as a private client, your project will inevitably be passed on to a team of underlings and sidekicks. Often they'll be more concerned to second-guess their boss than minister to the client's whims. What you end up with, in effect, is 'school of X', rather than X himself.

Says a retired architect: 'I'd never ask any of the big boys to do a private house. I'd find a brilliant young tiger with about 10 years' experience.' Where to find such talent? Interiors magazines and specialist publications such as Architectural Digest are a starting point. The weekend press often runs projects in which architects are challenged to design a house in two minutes, using a few sheets of plastic, five washing-up liquid bottles and a rear bus axle.

For established architectural practices, the Royal Institute of British Architects runs a comprehensive clients' advisory service. For raw, unfledged talent, try the Architectural Association, which exhibits student work.

Finally, get a really hot lawyer onside. Part of the life of architects is litigating over snaggles and disputes ... Now what's this writ doing on my desk?

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