What makes a great client

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Being a client is something most of ours do for the first time. Here are a few tips to navigate the process with clarity:

A young family hanging out in their daylight-filled dining room

Early on:


Be clear about what you want to achieve. Is your main aim to create a large open space or a series of smaller spaces? How much flexibility will you require? What are the expectations of budget, timing, quality? Who is making decisions? Communicate if there are areas that you don’t need help with.

Choice of consultants:

The architect can help you find a suitable team of consultants such as surveyors, engineers or specialist advisors. While cost is naturally a consideration one key aspect is if you feel comfortable working with a consultant for 1-2 years. Same as for the choice of architect, questions to ask are: Do they understand you? Do they have the required experience? Can they provide referees you can speak to? Can you perhaps visit an example project if relevant? Can they accommodate your timescales and level of service you require?


The earlier the surveys are carried out the better as they often affect the design process by providing background information and accuracy. However, if you are only exploring possibilities initially before deciding whether to go ahead with a project it might be ok to delay some of the surveys and delay the expenditure. Yet, if you are fairly sure that you want to go ahead with a project in one shape or another it is advisable to gather as much information about the existing house as early as possible and de-risk the process as much as possible. Your architect can steer you through this process of course.

The environment:

Discuss with your architect early on where you stand in the debate. There are exemplar projects such as Passivhaus standard buildings that aim for net zero environmental impact. Yet particularly in retrofit and refurbishment projects other considerations such as conservation and moisture balance need to be taken in account so this standard can difficult to achieve. As a result most projects end up aiming for a high standard just short of this. Setting out your overall aims early on and discussing these with your architect is important: Does the heating system need to be replaced or is a ‘ready for upgrade’ installation enough for now? How deep into the existing building do you want to extend the project? Can the improvements be phased?


At the outset it is important to be clear on realistic programme expectations. While everyone would like to ‘move in by Christmas’ the key here is to weigh up possible fast-track solutions against risks. For example it is generally advisable to wait to receive planning approval in writing before starting the detail design stage as this prevents potentially abortive work. However, in this example, if the financial pressures of waiting for the approval outweigh the risk of spending additional fees it may make sense to overlap the design stages. The same principle applies to the later stages, eg on a smaller project it may make sense to order windows ahead of time to ensure they are available on site by the time the main contract works are progressed to the installation stage.

During the planning design stage:


Planning authorities have statutory frameworks on which they base their decisions. These normally allow for some room for interpretation, using phrases such as ‘appropriate scale’. This can be helpful as it potentially allows a broad range of creative solutions. It is important to note at the same time that as a result of this interpretation space there are no guarantees on approvals of statutory bodies. However, a  carefully prepared Design and Access Statement combined with drawings which honestly show the relevant planning context can help make the case.

Read more about working in conservation areas or on the Dulwich Estate


We always advise to be as transparent as possible towards your neighbours and hear their concerns about your development as early as possible. Quite often it is possible to address these concerns through careful design work.


Most development can be mitigated with a considered soft landscaping scheme. Most Planning frameworks (and the Dulwich Estate Scheme of Management) promote screening through planting so seeking advice on landscape/ garden design in parallel with the architectural design usually helps significantly in creating a balanced development and might support the environmental goals of the scheme.


Technical/ detailed design stage:

Design programme:

In this stage a lot of decisions are required from the client, ranging from choosing door handles or floor finishes to more complex issues such as integrated window seat designs or sustainable building services solutions. We recommend listing the various activities in a design programme and agree a timeline with the design team. Doing so it is key to allow time for reflection and some of your own research, depending on how much time you are able to spend and how fast you wish to move the project forward.

Remember the budget:

Due to the quantity of decisions that needs to be taken at this stage it is tempting to upgrade a few areas of the design or to expand the refurbishment into wider areas of the building. Some of these additions present overall savings for the long term as you can roll smaller improvements into the project that would otherwise not be addressed for a while. Yet it is important to note these additions as they will most likely impact the capital cost of your project.


During the construction stage:

Starting on site is a very exciting and also nervous time for clients. The construction phase can be a stressful time so worth bearing these tips in mind for making a smoother journey.

Safety first!

The site is under the care of the contractor and so walking on site without their knowledge could be dangerous. Wear appropriate clothing and listen to any potential dangers that they may raise with you when visiting.

Good communication and management

Feedback early if you need to make changes or any issues with the built design. Make sure that you have clear target dates for client supply items on site. If client supply items are not available when needed this may cause a delay which would push the programme back at the cost to the client.

Clear lines of communication.

Keep to the lines of communication ie. through the architect if one is appointed. This keeps the works moving smoothly and allows the contractor to concentrate on the build.

Do not direct their subcontractors on any of the works without prior consent from the main contractor and architect.


Designs often have to shift in line with what is possible once working with an existing building starts. Being flexible and patient as solutions are often found that are as good. Do not expect perfection – most buildings are prototypes.

Limit Changes

It is inevitable that changes will have to be made but try to limit these as it impacts the momentum of the contractor and opens up the possibility that they might have to extend the programme at the client’s expense.

Appoint an architect

We may be biased. However there are many advantages to retaining the services of your architect during the construction stage, from dealing with the contract and variation administration to assisting the contractor to interpret the drawings correctly, all with the aim to provide clarity for all parties involved, translate ‘tech speak’ along the process and ultimately help achieve a high quality build that reflects the aspirations set out at the beginning of the project. This goes hand in hand with appointing an architecture practice who is well-versed in construction.

A young family hanging out in their daylight-filled dining room