Thursday, February 12, 2009

What is the difference between a residential building designer and an architect?

This is perhaps the most important question a person should ask before hiring someone to design their home. To be fair, I should preface that I am an architect, but there are substantial differences, as well as myths that should be dispelled. For the sake of this article, designers may go by many different designations (building designer, residential designer, home planner, etc...) I will use the title of 'designer' for simplicity.

So to begin, at the surface the difference is very simple:

1. Qualifications:
A designer can be anyone. A homeowner with an idea and a sketchbook, a contractor working at a drafting table to fix a problem, or a consultant hired to coordinate a project. A designer is any unlicensed person who designs buildings, and due to that lack of license are restricted by most states to a very limited number of building types that they are allow design.

An Architect is a state licensed professional in the design and construction of all buildings. The licensing process is for most a 10 or more year path that includes a university degree in architecture, and a multi-year internship, followed by 5 written examinations, 3 graphic examinations, and in California an additional oral examination. This process ensures that a licensed architect is knowledgeable in project planning; interior and exterior design; site planning and drainage; construction methods; mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems; construction management; construction contract and dispute resolution; mechanics liens...essentially all the tools needed to effectively manage any building project from house, to office, to university building, from start to finish.

2. Price:
A prevalent myth is that hiring a designer is less expensive than hiring an architect. In most cases, an architect's fees for basic services and those offered by a designer are actually quite similar. Most services typically range from 5-10% of construction costs depending on the level of complexity of a project and the amount of construction supervision an owner wants to leave to the consultant. If engineering is required in addition to the basic design, that may cost an additional 2-5%.

What the price myth also fails to take into account is the benefits of qualifications. An architects experience not only equips them with more knowledge in how to design a more cost effective construction project, it also includes many benefits in relating to contractors. A great deal of architectural training is in what are referred to as "CD's". Most people mistakenly refer to these as the 'construction documents' because they include the drawings that a general contractor will build from. The true meaning is 'contract documents', and drawings make up only one piece of them. A projects drawings, specifications, and written contract are all equal parts of the contract between and owner and a builder. The accuracy of these documents is the only real basis that an owner has to protect themselves from change orders in the construction process. Additionally, an architect will typically review all contractor payment request for accuracy to ensure that overbilling has not occured and that mechanics liens are released upon payment.

So the virtues of the architect have been extolled, even so there are projects where hiring an architect is excessive. If you want to replace cabinets, remodel a bathroom, or do a similar interior project that does not include the relocation of walls, it is typically safe to assume that a contractor can handle the needs of the project without involving an architect. Likewise, an designer can be incredibly valuable in helping you envision a particular layout, color scheme, or fabric and furniture coordination. However if a project involves adding space, raising ceilings, moving walls, or cutting large openings, an architect is the only professional specifically trained to manage all the disciplines of design, engineering, and construction necessary to make the project successful.

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