Now in its sixteenth year, the Architect in the House (AITH) scheme lets people get an hour's consultation with an expert from the Royal Institute of British Architects in their home for only £40 — a donation that goes to Shelter, the charity for the homeless.
Architect Guy Morgan-Harris has been part of the scheme for more than a decade, donating up to 10 sessions each year, and he still loves doing it. And the house that he and his wife, Tara, own in Twickenham is a perfect example of what an architect might do for you.
The pair bought the very ugly duckling of an Eighties brick house a few years ago for about £350,000. "It was in really bad condition and badly designed. We wanted to extend it a lot — front, back, and upwards — but it was in a conservation area, so the planning process took a year," recalls Guy.
However, the end results speak for themselves. Guy completely changed the front and the back, and enlarged upwards to create an additional bedroom and bathroom.
The house is unrecognisable in its smart new incarnation. At the back, large concertina doors merge inside and out, adding a huge living-dining area, and the couple's two little boys love riding their trikes in the garden. At the front, big new windows and off-black render create a very sophisticated look.
It has paid off financially, too. The works cost about £200,000 but the house is now worth about £670,000. But, as Guy adds, altering your own house to suit your lifestyle — the way you move around, the way you cook — is so incredibly satisfying that it can be priceless.
Buying somewhere cheaply in poor condition or with problems can work out well if you can see how to tap its potential, says Guy. But be prepared to consult an architect, a structural surveyor and the local planners before rushing in. Do your sums and make sure you have finance in place, or know how you will raise it, for all the works you plan, and contingency funds for any unforeseen snags.
Do the work in carefully phased stages, particularly if you have a family. Get the first phase of essential works done and move in. Then you can work out what you really want from the house by living in it for a while.
Don't rush. Take plenty of time, see how light works in the house as the sun moves, get used to how you move around and use the space you have. All this will help you make the best decisions and avoid costly mistakes.
Let in more light. Guy put in bigger windows at the front and big folding French windows at the back and it has completely changed the family's experience of living in the house.
Even small changes, if well thought out, make a big difference. Moving or improving the bathroom is one of the things that can make life much more enjoyable on a daily basis. Finding space for a second bathroom, even a tiny one, can transform a home and make it seem much more luxurious — particularly with a family.
Make a small garden work harder. By connecting the garden with the new extension at the back of the house using concertina French doors that open fully, Guy's family now enjoys a huge flowing space in summer.
Use an architect. "A good architect," says Guy, "will also assess you psychologically, to make a home for you that is smooth and elegant, so that you end up with a bit of a jewel, designed around the person."
Photographs: Paul Scannell
GIVING THEIR TIME FREE
The architects taking part in Architect in the House — and there are lots of them — give their time free and last year raised £110,000 for Shelter.
You could even end up getting a visit from the president of the RIBA, Angela Brady, a partner in Brady-Mallalieu Architects, who is taking part in the scheme as an architect.
Guy Morgan-Harris enjoys every minute. "It's fantastic — you can suggest all sorts of things," he says. "Everyone is in such a rush these days, but an architect can help you strategically plan ahead. If you take your time and get the design you want right, you will get better costings, better quality and a much better end result.
"It's a huge relief if you take away the mad rush. Take your time, and then you will understand how, for example, the sun comes through the windows.
"An hour with an architect can really help people unlock what they actually want in their home. My practice specialises in domestic projects, and we can do something as small as moving a toilet, or a really simple thing such as bringing in more light. These things can change someone's life.
"One of the best suggestions we ever made to someone was to do nothing. That particular man, who had been thinking of spending a lot of money, came back to us with another job years later."
* Find out more about the Architect in the House scheme at www.architectinthehouse.org.uk or via the RIBA website at www.architecture.com See Guy Morgan-Harris's work at www.morganharrisarchitects.com and Angela Brady's work at www.bradymallalieu.com