Engaging a Spanish architects: Insights and advice
After a lot of bargaining, paperwork, and meetings with your solicitor you have purchased the plot of your dreams and now you are told you need an architect. Then most probably you have asked yourself the question; but what does an architect do? Or perhaps the question should be: what shall I expect an architect to do for me?
To answer these questions, you need to understand the range of services architects normally provide in Spain and which might make economic sense for you.
Watch out for those pseudo architects’ firms!!
Before we start explaining the work of an architect in Spain let me inform you that there has been a proliferation lately of intermediaries who position themselves on the internet as professionals of the building industry or even solicitors or accountants who are offering the services of architects. Well, these people will obviously pass the work to the architects that they have on their list and charge a percentage of the fees that you will end up paying yourselves.
They make themselves visible on the web gaining a privileged position by paying a high SEO.
The role of an architect in Spain
Spain is becoming in many aspects very similar to the UK and for that matter to the rest of European countries due to the increasing influence on the Spanish legislation by the EC, but when it comes to architects’ services there are substantial differences, especially if we compare it to the services offered by my colleagues in UK and France.
To start, it is obligatory in Spain to engage the services of a Spanish-registered architect for new builds and for any rehabilitation if it will include structural reforms or changes on the façades in any way or form. A good rule of thumb is to ask the local council if the work you intend to do requires a” minors work licence” or a “major works licence”. An architect is always required for the latter.
What does an architect do? Services that architects usually provide
The next question that you may ask yourself once you know that you require an architect is…. what does an architect do?
Ask different architects about their daily responsibilities and you’ll get a different answer every time. What an architect does on a daily basis depends on where they live, what kind of firm they work for or whether he is the principal of that firm, and an uncountable number of other factors.
Here at Pacheco Architects, we do offer a comprehensive service that normally is broken down following an old protocol from the Spanish College of Architects. The jobs are broken into various phases and broadly meet the vast majority of architectural associations throughout the world. While different architectural firms use different terminology, they generally fall into five or six main categories of works or phases.
One important point to take into consideration is that, while in most European countries the architect requires the hiring of specialists such as structural engineers, energy consultants and quantity surveyors, here in Spain we are qualified to carry out these tasks and are normally included in our fees, this single fact makes our fees very competitive compared with those charged by our European colleagues.
However, we are not demigods by any means and there are idiosyncrasies which need to be explained here.
An independent assistant architect has to be engaged by the client by law before the construction starts to supervise the building work. Does that mean that the architect does not supervise the work? No, it doesn’t. The architect will supervise the works providing any additional information to the contractor and clarifying any aspect of the work that he may need.
The aparejador’s job is to supervise that the contractor uses the materials and specifications stated on the project and he normally, (not always) will supervise the health and safety of workmen on site. I say not always because sometimes this task can also be carried out by the architect if he so chooses and the client agrees.
Please note that although your Spanish architect will undertake most of the tasks designing the building for you there are however exceptions and here is a list:
The architect does not normally provide you with the services of an aparejador (He doesn’t normally include this service in his fees) and if he does, he will normally charge you an additional fee.
Two other services have to be engaged by the client separately.
One, is a geological laboratory which will perform soil tests that will indicate to us architects the load capacity of the ground as well as its chemical composition so that we know what type of foundations to calculate and what type of concrete to use in case of sulphate or other chemicals may be present in the soil. This requirement is imposed by the new Building regulation.
The other service that the client has to engage in before the building work starts is an approved and registered laboratory to carry out concrete and steel testing during the construction of the structure. They will take samples of both concrete and steel and will implement approved tests and pass the reports to us architect and to the client. This requirement is also imposed by the new Building regulation.
Phases of works
Schematic design: (Also called Basic Design, Initial Consultation and Design, or Building Program & Site Analysis, among other things): Here the architect visits and analyses the building site and gathers information from the clients about their design ideas, budget, and housing needs to develop a detailed “program,”. Here it is highly recommended that a written statement of your needs and design goals are passed to the architect so that there is no misunderstanding in the future. Don’t forget that any decision made at this early stage will have a tremendous impact on the overall design. It is the architect’s job to put all in the boiling pot and come up with key concepts and rough sketches showing the size, general layout, and appearance of the building and how it fits into the building site. A couple of options may be presented. It is highly desired that at this stage you communicate clearly to the architect what is important to you in the design or you can waste a lot of your time and the architect’s time going back and forth on design ideas that do not meet your needs.
Design development and construction documents:
These two phases may come together in simple buildings such as individual houses or relatively simple buildings, however, in more complicated buildings such as office buildings, hotels, airports, hospitals, etc it might be divided in:
Once the client accepts a preliminary design, then it commences the process of producing the nuts and bolts of the project turning a rough concept of three-dimensional relationships into a real construction design with floor plans, including roof design, and some of the interior and exterior details that will provide a building with its grace and personality. This will usually include some scale drawings, a basic structural plan, and basic specifications for the main components of the building. Today we use modern design software so that we offer our clients the possibility to see your whole house in 3-D and walk around and through the 3D building on the computer screen and we are now trying VR (Virtual reality) scenes using VR glasses.
Here we include the detailed drawings (blueprints) and written specifications or “specs” that should be detailed enough so that you can obtain quotes from different contractors based on like for alike, who will produce essentially the same building. Detailed drawings are also required to obtain a building licence.
One major change in this phase in Spain that has taken place in the year 2007.
In 2007 it came into effect the new Spanish Building Regulation called “El Código Téncico de la Edificación CTE” (The Technical Building Code).
Where before the architect could specify any materials without any major consequence, this has changed. The construction documents have to follow a protocol of minimum requirements and specifications so that all materials have to be proven that they will comply with the new requirements imposed by EC directives on energy saving etc.
This new CTE is no joke. This new approach has instigated that architects have to produce a minimum of 500 pages in any small rehabilitation work. A single villa project will necessitate 700 to 1.000 pages of calculations and specifications.
Our plans and specs are now very precise and highly detailed, where the architect had to comply with the CTE nearly every element that the contractor will handle have to be properly thought of, specified and quantified.
Bidding or negotiating…. and the building licence
At this stage, things become a little fuzzy here in Spain compared to say the UK so it is important that you discuss with your architect who will do what is right at the beginning before you sign the architect’s contract of engagement.
Here in Spain, most architects do not get involved in this phase of the project. They hand over the construction documents to the client and wait to be notified as to the commencement of work. Sometimes they will present the project to the local authorities on your behalf but do not always do so.
It would advise that you get your architect to act on your behalf on obtaining tenders and go through the bureaucratic process of obtaining your building licence.
The architect’s fees may vary if you opt to do it yourself but I can be sure that it will not be worth your while.
I urge you to read this link “How can my architect save me money in dealing with the contractor?” which shows that the fees paid to the architect on this phase may be more than amortised.
At this stage, your loving architect will help you obtain bids from a list of contractors whom the architect feels are qualified for the project, although we normally ask that you suggest your contractor for the bid. The architect will answer contractor questions to clarify items in the plans or specs, possibly make revisions to the plans or specs, and will negotiate with one or more of the contractors on your behalf. They will then make recommendations about who can best meet the needs of the clients in terms of quality, cost, and schedule. The owner, however, makes the final decision.
Here, both the architect and the aparejador function as the owner’s agents, making sure the builder and subcontractors are following the plans and specifications (there’s always room for interpretation), and not cutting corners. It’s important to note, however, that the architect is not contractually supervising the contractor but the aparejador is.
The architect will carry out various inspections in good faith to make sure that the contractor is interpreting his project. At the beginning of the construction phase, the architect may visit the site, weekly or even more often than that, to answer any questions that arise. Construction administration will also include preparing additional detailed drawings if needed approving the contractor’s requests for progress payments approving any changes to the plans and resolving any issues stemming from conflicts or ambiguity in the plans or specs.
Change orders can result from poorly drawn plans, owner’s requests, “hidden conditions,” material substitutions, or other deviations from the original plans inserted in the original bid.
The architect may finally aid in getting all the services connected to the companies, such as water, electricity and gas, and that leads us to the small question:
How much does an architect cost in Spain?
For a newly build i.e., to design an individual villa, the fees of an architect may be circa 10% of the construction cost.
There was a standard fee proposed by the Official College of Architects some years ago but these fees were forbidden by the government as they were considered against the free market so each architect would charge a fee, however, the standard charges are around 10% to 15% of the official cost of the works (Precio Ejecución Material or PEM) which is not the same as the real costs, they tend to be lower than the real cost.
The PEM are official prices that historically were supplied by the College of Architects and are still used by some Local Authorities based on the type of works, locality and size of the project. Overall, they tend to be around 30 to 40% of the real costs which makes Spanish architects` fees substantially lower than those of the UK if you also take into account that here the Spanish architects do include in their project’s structural calculations, full bill of quantities and the lower construction price taken to calculate the overall fees.
As it was discussed above it is a good idea to find out exactly beforehand the list of services that the architect will fulfil. Anything under 7% is starting to be suspiciously low and anything above 10% needs to be argued with the services that will be included.
Most architects in Spain charge a percentage based on the construction costs obtained from the number of square meters. We normally have a database of construction prices throughout Spain or at least our studio has and we can easily work out a construction cost based on the initial brief obtain from our clients.
The percentage depends on whether the project is for new construction or rehabbing existing construction. Rehabbing existing construction often costs more because the architect has to investigate the existing construction and the technics used. In a very old house, they may be dealing with elements that aren’t up to the new code. In this case, we may be talking about 12%.
There is an exception to this rule and that is when dealing with relatively small projects. As it has been explained above with the new CTE code we have to produce the same amount of info as per one individual villa so the pro-rata rule does not work here.
In any case, the best advice that I can offer here is that although the architect may base his/her fees on the square meters and the total cost of construction the fees once provided should be fixed unless the square meters are changed up or down by the client or circumstances by saying more than 10% in which case the fees should be changed accordingly.
Otherwise, we may start getting into smudgy waters when you try to figure out what counts as a “construction cost”. Not every decision affects the cost of construction. For example, what sort of lighting fixture is going in should have no effect on the cost; the junction box to hook the fixture into is the only thing the architect is concerned with.
As a rule of thumb, I suggest that the elements to be taken into account are going to affect the walls, the structural part of the house or the total amount of construction, it’s a construction cost. Having said that any architect worth his salt will know the construction per square meter of any type of construction in Spain
How much do architects charge per hour?
Many people are hesitant to hire an architect on an hourly basis and I am not surprised, mostly because as everyone knows everything takes longer than previously anticipated, especially in Spain. No one wants surprises. However, when dealing with a planning consultation, specific construction enquiry or perhaps managing some paper works with the local authorities, this may be the best method to engage an architect.
As a guide our fees range between 100€ to 150€ per hour depending on the job itself, however, it has to be said here that in large development projects an enquiry to the right architect could save many thousands of Euros to the developer and the price cannot be based just on the time factor but also on the relevance of the information provided. “It is not the time that it takes to tight a nut but to know which nut to tight”.
Choosing the right architect
Selecting an architect should be done with care. You’re going to be working with this person for a long time, so you have every right to be choosy. In fact, by being particular about whom you hire, you stand a better chance of satisfaction with the end result. It is obvious that to hire an architect here in Spain it is indispensable that he or she speaks English and not just enough to get by, design involves a lot of erudite approaches and sometimes it has to be explained properly and fluently to the client and vice versa not least when dealing with a technical matter, confusing explanations or clarification may cost a lot of money. Please see this link where further explanation is provided on how to select an architect in Spain.
Nevertheless, here are some clues that you should look for:
A genuine passion for your project. Yes, I sincerely believe that if anyone does not feel passion for what he does he is not producing the best possible work. It is a difficult attitude to detect but I am sure you will know it when you see it. Your architect should believe in your project from the start, so you should look for an architect who will undertake your project with enthusiasm and passion.
Ability to work together. As mentioned above it is essential that your architect should speak English fluently, so meet the people in the practice whom you will actually be working with. You need to be sure you both communicate well with each other and most important that you can get along with.
Capacity to handle the scope of your project. You may wish to consult various architects first to discuss cost, feasibility and design coordination. Select two or more firms and ask for references from previous jobs similar to yours. Verify their expertise in your type of project and their ability to complete projects on time and on budget.
Only registered architects.
A quick call to your local College of Architects will determine if the architect is qualified and registered. If your Spanish is not so good you can always ask a friend or your solicitor to do it on your behalf. That will ensure that the architect that you are about to hire has an active license and if the architect is also a Member of the Royal Institute of Architects (RIBA) of the UK even better!!
What shall I ask my architect at the first meeting?
So, what are the pertinent questions to ask your architects at the first meeting?
You have to understand that we are normal people and therefore you will not find two architects alike. Each will bring its own expertise, skills, values, and interests to a project so you want to find one that will be the most compatible with your project’s needs. According to the Spanish College of Architects. Here are some indispensable questions I would ask my future architect:
What is his/her design philosophy? Understanding of Design philosophy and how the architect approaches the design such as organic, modern, functional art, or industrial. Basically, what is their “style? You want to hire an architect who is experienced and familiar with the style you want, or that can provide a design that you feel is what you are looking for.
What’s his/her experience with projects similar to mine? You want to be sure that the architect has the experience to handle a project of the size and type that you are looking for. Someone expert in one- and two-story residential homes might not have the experience to handle a multi-story sky-scrapers block.
What problems, issues, or reflexions does him foresee? This will let you know about the architect’s experience in dealing with similar projects.
What is the estimated time to handle this project? Depending on the his/her workload the time facto may vary quite a bit. It could be that the time factor may not be important or all the contrary time could be a crucial issue in your project. Some factors can’t be controlled by either the client or the architect, such as weather, zoning reviews, and contractor scheduling.
How much will your services cost me? Knowing the architect’s fees will help you manage the total development budget. As you ask this question and establish your budget, be sure to add an extra percentage to account for any unforeseeable items.
What are his/her services, and what would incur additional fees? Be sure you obtain a detailed list of his services and also a list of the services that you will require but he will not provide. Such as 3-D modelling, and interior and kitchen design. As mentioned before here in Spain architects will not provide the services of an assistant architect, laboratory services etc.
There are more questions to ask depending on your project and preferences, such as if the architect has experience with “green” design and what fees may be incurred by certain design changes. It’s best to ask as many questions as you can think of to get all of the information you need before the engagement contract is signed.
What can an architect do for me?
We looked at the advantages of engaging an architect when you want to build or renovate a property in Spain and how you can obtain value for money.
Also, how an architect can inject imagination into your project and provide peace of mind by dealing with all the necessary paperwork, especially in a bureaucratic country such as Spain.
As you get involved with the architect in developing the design you can both work together to obtain the best of the conceptual ideas, to my mind the most exciting phase of the process, then there is the developing of the design process, the local authorities approval stage and the construction stage of course where the architect can help you select suitable builders, obtain appropriate prices for construction, monitor progress and standards, supervise safety on site, liaise with other specialists and oversee the construction through to successful completion.
However, I did not mention how to select an architect here in Spain.
How to select an architect in Spain.
All building projects are different, every client, every site and therefore every brief is unique. There is no single solution to your project and a range of architects can offer their own approach.
Selecting the right architect is one of the most significant decisions you can make in any building project but here in Spain, it is probably the most important decision that you can make after deciding to build or rehabilitate your home.
As I mentioned in my previous article the necessity of finding an English-speaking architect is an overriding factor which will make a world of difference in the whole process.
So how do you find the right one?
Before you start looking, consider the demands of the project you are undertaking and ask yourself a few questions:
- What are the challenges of your project?
- How much do you want to spend?
- How important is it for the practice to be local to you and your project?
- What specific experience or areas of specialisation would you like your architect to have?
- Is there a specific approach or philosophy of design (e.g., traditional, contemporary, green etc)?
Setting the design brief
A brief is your wish list; it will cover everything an architect needs to know about what you want from your project. A well-written design brief is essential to success. It should be clear and unambiguous, setting out key requirements, outlining the vision and communicating your aims and aspirations.
The brief should describe the main function of the finished project; outline motivation and expectation; design direction; establish a single point of contact and set a realistic timeframe and budget.
One of an architect’s most important skills and roles is helping to formulate the brief. They can point out what is possible in terms of cost and design, ask you questions and make suggestions. Your architect can be well-placed to help identify the best and worst spatial characteristics of your home and offer ideas that will enhance your living space.
Your contribution at this stage is vital and will involve a number of discussions which is essential for the success of a project. The brief will form the basis of the professional contract you sign with your architect.
The Client/Architect contract
Once you have selected your architect, the responsibilities of each party and the services to be provided by the architect should be set down in a formal contract, usually referred to as an agreement.
When you have work done to your home you are acting in your private capacity your architect will discuss these issues with you so the terms of your agreement are fully understood and “individually negotiated in good faith”.
Nowadays the College of Architects has English-written standard contracts which is very useful if you don’t speak Spanish or it is a bit rusty.
Normally the agreement will record details of your project and services to be provided; it will specify the exact fees and expenses;
It mentions the procedure that must be followed in case of any dispute between the parties.
In general, the contract includes that the architect will:
• Perform the services required using reasonable skill and care
• He or she will act as your representative in certain instances
• Will advise you on compliance with certain statutory requirements
• Will keep you updated on progress and on issues affecting quality, cost and time
• Will not to make any material changes to the services or the agreed design without your consent, except in an emergency.
For your part, the client should be prepared to:
• Advise on the relative priorities of requirements and provide necessary and accurate information
• Will make decisions and respond promptly to questions asked by your architect
• Will pay the fees, expenses and disbursements due and VAT where applicable.
How can my architect save me money in dealing with the contractor?
If we just consider a simple rehab job for a home, if it is the architects who collect the estimates from local contractors and not “Mr John Smith” most probably will save you at least 10% of the total price just on the offset. It shouldn’t be so, but unfortunately, local contractors feel that dealing with non-Spanish speaker clients would delay the work due to the lack of communication and possible confusion during the execution of the job.
With an architect involved the contractor feels reassured that all the relevant construction info is available from the offset and most important, the main decisions about the works have been taken well in advance avoiding unforeseen circumstances and expensive delays difficult to charge clients once the work has started.
In our long experience when any of our clients have tried to obtain different bids from local contractors and then we have followed exactly the same procedure our prices have been at least 10% cheaper and in some cases much more.
A firm of architects worth their salts has big data banks of building materials and labour prices around Spain divided by provinces and locally by individual towns, so any tender prices from contractors can be scrutinized by our staff and renegotiated down to local prices. On the other extreme, we can detect when prices obtained are so ridiculously cheap that will represent a future problem.
When architects prepare a bid, it does so by presenting a full bill of quantities so that all tenders received are based on exactly the same materials and labour so that you can compare like with alike. Most often contractors prepare their own specifications and materials and it is terribly difficult for a non-expert to differentiate the disparity in prices and in quality.
When clients are told that they can obtain big discounts on materials, sometimes as much as 30% etc they think that with those savings they have made a good deal and by subcontracting the labour direct no one will do carryout the job cheaper. First, think if the building store will give that reduction in price to the one-off client that most probably will never see again, what discount will give to a local contractor who has been buying materials for the last 10 years and probably will continue doing so for the next 20!!
Most ex-pats have had construction works done by contracting directly without the supervision of an architect, and when I have asked them about the time they have spent supervising and managing the job and asked them to put a price on the hours spent, they become very surprised concerning the total amount of money that they could have saved by engaging an architect. And here I am not talking about the hustle and problems encountered in the development of the works.
Paper works. Yes, we spend 60% of my working time “lobbying” and managing building licenses, planning approval etc, and I know by their Christian names practically all the civil servants of all the town halls in Costa Blanca and Costa Cálida.
After 25 years of professional practice even I have to arm myself with patience and breath ten times before I answer back (usually young technicians) at the town hall who do not know their jobs and pretend that my clients carry out absurd construction solutions.
Let me quickly add here that the majority of civil servants (especially those who have been at the post for a number of years) are very helpful and try to provide fair solutions for both parties, the town hall and the citizen involved. However, inexperienced town hall technicians may propose very expensive solutions that may be counter-argued and thus making great savings.