When you decide to get some building work done, whether it’s a renovation to your existing house, or building a brand new home, there are various professionals that you might need to call on for help. You’ve probably heard of architects, structural engineers and building surveyors, but who does what exactly? And do you need to speak to all of them about every building project?

It can seem as if there’s quite a bit of crossover with the roles of an architect, structural engineer and building surveyor, but they will be looking at things from a slightly different angle. In short:

Architects approach their work from a primarily aesthetic point of view, focusing on what the finished job will look like.

Structural engineers begin by thinking about the strength and stability of the structural elements.

Surveyors start from the premise of the value and use of the land.

We’ll run through some of the basics here to give you an idea of how all the pieces of the building project puzzle fit together.

What does an architect do?

Architects design buildings. If you’re planning a big building project, such as a new home, an architect will be one of the first people you should call. They’re the ones who design your building and put together the plans that a builder will then use to construct it. Their role is part artist, part scientist and mathematician. As well as the look of the building and how the space will be used, they also need to consider safety aspects such as emergency exits, loads, and whether the building is likely to be subject to any extremes of weather which might affect it.

However, the complete spectrum of their work can be much broader than that. They’re often the lead consultant on a building project and may be ultimately responsible for every aspect of the work, sometimes overseeing a build project from beginning to end including:

1)      Design – creating designs of the building, based on your ideas. The design will need to comply with building regulations, local planning regulations and any relevant restrictions. They can even help with things like site selection.

2)      Documentation – producing detailed drawings and using technology to test the feasibility of the design. They’ll also prepare construction documents, translating the design into technical specifications for the building team. An architect may help take care of planning permission and can even be the one to select the builders and other contractors for the project.

3)      Construction – they may still be involved at this stage, making site visits and overseeing construction to make sure everything goes to plan.

Just as artists favour different styles, different architects might favour one type of design over another. It’s a good idea to see examples of an architect’s previous projects to see if their style suits your vision before you get work underway.

Do you really need an architect?

Generally, if you need planning permission for your project, you’re likely to need an architect. If your project has a budget of under £30,000 you may not need the full services of an architect, a building contractor may be all you need. However, it’s important to remember that your building contractor is likely to have very little formal training in design.

Architects can offer advice on smaller projects to make sure you don’t make any costly mistakes. Most architects will offer a one-off consultation which can be very useful.

If you do work with an architect, it pays to be up front about your budget, your expectations and any specific requirements for your build. However, be open to your architect’s ideas – they are experts and may have something very valuable to add to a project. Choosing to go with an experienced architect from the beginning, rather than entrusting a large project to someone without design expertise or trying to DIY it can help you avoid a lot of heartache … and potentially save you money, because otherwise you may need to have faulty work redone.

What does a structural engineer do?

A structural engineer prepares the structural side of the building control application. They can play a key part in the design and construction team, creating conceptual designs and ensuring the structure can be built and is stable and durable.

A structural engineer will work in close partnership with an architect. They’re interested in the strength and stability of the elements of construction – the solid sections between the architect’s ‘spaces’, like the floor or wall between rooms. They’ll help choose appropriate materials for the structure to meet the design specifications. When work has begun on the build, they’re often involved in inspecting the work and advising contractors.

Do you really need a structural engineer?

If you need help with the strength or stability of a structure, or are planning a significant structural alteration, you may need a structural engineer.

For larger projects, or those with more ambitious plans, it will make sense to hire both an architect and a structural engineer. Engineers can, however, put together plans for simpler renovations so you may find that hiring one or the other will do.

What does a building surveyor do?

Building surveyors are responsible for making sure that buildings are safe, accessible and energy efficient. They are experts in building legislation, technical codes and construction standards and are trained to interpret building law. They can provide professional advice on all factors affecting existing buildings such as building defects, alterations, renovations and extensions. They will work with engineers, architects and builders, and even manage a build to ensure it is safe, energy efficient and livable, and provide advice to ensure it is designed and constructed to comply with building regulations.

Their services can be quite broad. You may need to hire a building surveyor for any of the following reasons:

  • To complete a building survey. This is particularly important if you’re buying an older property with the specific intention to renovate it. No council will grant you planning permission if the basic structure of the property is unsound.
  • For regulatory advice about building issues including technical, financial, legal, environmental, building regulations, planning permission and restoration matters
  • To draw up building plans, budgets and other documentation if you’re extending or renovating your home, or building a new one from scratch
  • To assess building plans to ensure they comply with Building Regulations
  • To help solve disputes if you’re having difficulty with a tradesman.

Much like an architect, a building surveyor is capable of managing your complete building project from beginning to end to make sure all work meets the appropriate legislation. They will often have worked in the construction industry as either an architect or builder in the past so have a good understanding of all aspects of the project.

Do you really need a building surveyor?

You would call in a building surveyor if you wanted a valuation for your project or renovation. It’s also a very good idea to consult a building surveyor if you are working on renovations to an older property to make sure you have a good idea of any hazards.

And how does a builder fit in with all this?

Well, the obvious answer here is that the builder does the building. They’re the ones responsible for physically laying the bricks and mortar. But the remit of a builder can be rather broad and where their service starts and ends will depend on the builder you’re working with and the project you’re working on.

Some smaller building works, depending on the complexity of the build and the experience of the builder, can be carried out without the need of an architect, engineer or surveyor. But it’s important to remember that, although they might be very experienced, your builder may not have any formal training in any of these other disciplines.

Many builders will, however, have very good relationships with local architects, engineers and surveyors which means they may be well placed to manage the entire project for you, including contracting and liaising with these other professionals at the appropriate points within a build project. Working in this way can make life easier as you’ll have one main point of contact, with the builder, who will take care of everything else on your behalf.