Loft conversion options (architect/builder/specialist firm?)

8 Jan 2013
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United Kingdom

Not excactly a DIY query but any advice will be gratefully received :)

We have just bought a 3 bed granite cottage that we will be using as a second home and for holiday lettings.

We are planning to convert the loft space into a bedroom and move the main bathroom from the ground floor to the bedroom directly above. We plan to keep a small wc on the ground floor and use the rest of the downstairs bathroom space as a scullery/laundry area.

Before buying we had a loft conversion firm check the property and they have said the loft space is suitable for conversion. As we will be using the cottage as a holiday let we also need to make sure that the current building, as well as any additional works, will comply with fire regs etc.

Neither of us have any building or DIY experience so we're not planning to do any of the work ourselves. We are really looking for advice on where to start and who to contact. We have a realistic budget for the work but obviously don't want to spend money unnecessarily. We are also trying to be realistic about our own level of experience and ability to project manage the work.

Quite a few people have advised us that we can save costs by using an architect and experienced building firm rather than a specialist loft conversion company. An architect could also advise us and draw up plans for the new bathroom upstairs and utility area downstairs. However, other people have said that using an architect is a bit OTT for this type of work and, if we find a decent firm, we could just work directly with the builders.

After witnessing many other people have problems with building works by trying to cut corners, I am wary of trying to do it for the first time without the advice and support of a professional such as an architect. However, am also aware this will add at least £1500 to our costs.

I'd appreciate your advice on the pros and cons of a) using a specialist loft conversion firm, b) hiring our own architect, c) working directly with builders or d) any other options!!

Many thanks

P.s. We know that we are not going to be adding a huge amount of value to the property by doing this but we got the cottage at a very good price, we're planning to keep it for a long time and are happy that the costs of the improvements will be worth it to us.
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There are indeed different benefits / things to look out for when deciding upon the best route to take.

a) using a specialist loft conversion firm
Is a way to get loft design & building under one roof. Essentially, most of these companies are basically design and build contractors - the difference being that they only specialise in loft conversions. Design and build companies often say that they will do any design work for free (although this is normally just built into a slightly elevated construction cost). In my experience what happens is as much a "cut and paste" copy of previous work as possible. This is not necessarily a good nor bad thing. The real trouble is probably that the builder is already selected for you which means that he can price as he sees fit, removing any "competitive" pricing.

Don't get me wrong, you can get good deals, but most of the time you lose the ability to shop around for the most cost effective builder (note that cost effective is not the same as cheapest). This may end up costing you without even realising it.

b) hiring our own architect
Most architects offer broken down services which means that you can approach them to take on as much of the project work as necessary. For instance, you can ask them to just deal with any planning, or building control concerns.

Importantly, architectural drawings will be "designed" giving you a more engaging interior and exterior building which can help add value. Choosing the right designer is important because you want to ensure that they can convey the right look and feel to your property. Even more important though, is that the drawings they provide you with can then be used to get competitive quotes from a range of builders. This is the best way to ensure you get value for money building.

You can often keep an architect on to oversee work, although they may also help find you a competent builder that can be trusted to work to the plans.

The trouble with engaging an architect is that they have fees that you need to consider and are not necessarily the cheapest way to design. I would say that they should still offer you good value (no one becomes an architect because they want to make a quick buck!)

As a designer myself I like to think that the money spent on good design in the first instance is invaluable as it helps provide project cost certainty and control in the later stages - meaning that you should not be met with a builder saying that he needs more money when he is half way through a job!

c) working directly with builders
With all due respect to any builders here, I would not recommend engaging a builder to design your project as he goes. Builders will always choose the passage of least resistance and whilst this will ensure that the building work will be quick, there is not normally the broad over-view, pre-planning and knock on considerations that you get from a designer.

The biggest trouble though is that you again give the builder all of the cost control. He can quote you one price for something but you have no chance to say if this is good value or not. This is even worse if changes are made whilst a project is on site... you may decide that you want something in a different spot and he may give you all sort of jargon and tell you how much extra the variation will cost... you will have little choice but to accept his quote. If this was already considered by you and a designer then you have already made a saving. In other words, a good designer should be able to save you money you didn't realise you'd be spending...

Generally speaking I am a great believer that people should stick to what they are good at. You wouldn't get a designer to build your house, so why get a builder to design it? Builders are great at building - they should do that.

As a designer myself, I would always say that you should use one in order to help get you the best designed project for the best value for money. You can use an Architect or an Architects Technician or similar.

Architects Technicians will work out more cost effective and are not necessarily any worse at the job!

Where is your property?
as freddy and luis said, a Technician is the way to go, by and large, they do more lofts and extensions than any architect's practice.


Some small Loft specialists do fine work, but the "large", nationally advertised companies can be a nightmare. Many have no direct employees, and they will take large deposits, and might leave you waiting for months before any work starts.
Their contracts can be lengthy and convoluted - all in their favour.

Local builders would be your best bet, working to an A/Tech's plan, this kind of job is their bread and butter.
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Using an all-in-one loft company is a bit like having a loan shark as your financial adviser.

There will be no impartiality and no in-house quality control.

As the guys have said seek out a good teccie with local knowledge and find a builder who has been recommended and who you can trust.
Architects are a waste of time on a job lie this. They are OK for the pretty things in design but often clueless about the practical aspects of construction.
Use a good local tech. and competent joiner; lofts are more joinery than anything else.
Thanks for all the friendly and helpful replies :) And cheers to Luis in particular for taking the time to write such a comprehensive answer.

Sounds like a technician is the way to go then. Exactly the sort of sound, useful advice I was hoping to find out here.

Freddy - I read your post in the other 'Loft Question' thread and will look at local authority planning records to see if I can find a good technician that way. I have tried Googling 'Architectural Technician' in my local area but nothing obvious coming up. Are there any other terms I could use to search?

Luis - the house is in Cornwall.

Thanks again!
Just did another Google search and have found quite a few local technicians. Must have been doing it with my eyes closed before
Just seen you're from Devon Freddie. Practically neighbours then ;)

Our house is just outside St Austell. Any local recommendations gratefully accepted!
Haha yea me! Seriously you're a bit too far for me I think, about 2 hours away. Sorry don't have any recommendations.

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