Many people are surprised to hear that the vast majority of single family homes are not designed by architects. In fact, only 1% to 2% are. So who designs the rest? Owners, design-builders, developers, engineers, and house designers who are not architects. Also, different parts of the design process may be handled by different people. For example, the owner may come up a general vision or select a plan from a plan book. He may then hire an architect or designer to refine the design, have a draftsman prepare the blueprints, and a kitchen & bath designer at Home Depot lay out the kitchen cabinets. If anything looks questionable structurally, the building department may require an engineer to review and “stamp” the plans.
Not only is it true that most houses are not designed by architects; it’s also true that most architects rarely or never design houses. The day-to-day work life of the typical architect revolves around schools, public buildings, multifamily housing, and other large-scale projects. This gap in house design has been filled by a variety of others. Except in a few areas where all plans need to be stamped by a licensed architect or engineer, literally anybody can design a house or major renovation and call themselves a “designer.” In fact, many architectural designers have some architectural training, but for whatever reason, didn’t go the distance to obtain the credentials of licensed architect. (Learn about working with architects.)
People trained in house design can join the American Institute of Building Design (AIBD), an organization that provides design and ethical standards, continuing education, and a certification program in conjunction with the National Council of Building Designer Certification (NBDBC). Using the AIBD website, you can locate AIBD members in your area. Kitchen and Bath designers can get certified by the National Kitchen & Bath Association, which has a similar directory on the NKBA website.
Compared to an architect, a certified house designer, is likely to have less academic training in architectural styles and history, but probably has equal knowledge of the practical elements of house design – basic structural design, space planning, proportion and detail, and the practical issues of building construction. In fact a certified house designer may have a lot more hands-on experience with the details of house construction than a licensed architect who specializes in schools and public buildings.
Whether or not you will like their design work will depend on a) whether you have similar tastes in house design b) whether you clearly communicate your needs and desires, and c) whether the designer is a good listener. This is true of any designer you will work with. For that reason, I highly recommend, that with any designer of anything, you start by looking at their portfolio (or perhaps they have done a project for a friend of yours). If you like nothing in their portfolio, there’s a high probability you won’t like what they design for you either.
Once they’ve passed that test, interview potential candidates using a standard list of prepared questions. What specific design services do they offer? How do they work with client’s input? What do they charge? If you decide to terminate partway through, can you keep the work done to that point? Who owns the final plans? (With an architect, it is typically the architect who owns the plans!) Will the plans produced be sufficient to obtain bids a building permit? And anything else that is important to you. Ask for references and for a list of other projects in the area you can look at. Talk to at least three references and, if possible, a former client who was not listed as a reference.
Interview two or three designers, keep a written record of their responses and feedback from references, and make your choice.
Drafting, sometimes called “technical drawing” is a skilled trade, formerly done with precise mechanical tools, but now largely done with computers. An architectural draftsperson (formerly a “draftsman”) is trained to make precise drawings of buildings. Architectural firms employ draftspersons to transform their creative work in “working drawings.” These are drawings that can be used to obtain a building permit, and the contractors can bid on and build. The assumption is that two builders working from the same set of drawings and specifications will end up with exactly the same building (however, in the real world a certain amount of interpretation and problem solving may result in small variations.
An experienced draftsperson usually knows quite a lot about construction details, codes, and specifications as they are putting final details on hundreds of drawings. If you bring a rough set of plans you have hand-drawn, or pulled out of a plan book and modified, a draftsperson can prepare a professional set of blueprints that you can use to obtain permits (assuming an architect’s or engineer’s stamp is not required). Before soliciting bids, however, you should draw up a list of detailed specifications, calling out materials and how to install them. Even items shown on the plans should go in the specs as these are generally more specific and take precedence over the plans if there is a conflict. More on specifications.
Working with a draftsman will save you money vs. hiring an architect or designer. However, full responsibility for the plans will be yours. Even though the draftsperson will correct any problems or mistakes he notices, he is really being hired only to accurately draw the plans you provide. Even if he draws everything to code, you may still have awkward spaces, doors that clash when opened, bathroom fixtures with inadequate clearance, and so on. There could also be not-so-obvious structural issues related to load paths, non-standard roof framing, cantilevers, or other structural issues. Always remember that the building code establishes minimum standards for safety – not standards for comfort, convenience, or intelligent design.
A design-build contractor or design-build remodeler is a general contracting company that offers professional design as part of their services. Someone in the company may be an architect, a non-architect designer, or someone with a lot of experience but little or no formal training in building design. While most contractors do some basic design work on most or all of their projects, a design-build firm typically offers design as a separate service in their contract and charges for it separately from the construction phase of the project.
As with any designer, the proof is in the pudding. Look at their design work, talk to their clients, and you might decide this is the right approach for you. See more on the pros and cons of design-build.
ENGINEERS AND CONSULTANTS
I have these listed as part of the Design team as they can assist with specialized aspect of design. Structural engineers are often called upon to review the structural design of a building that has bigger spans or heavier loads than normal, use novel materials for structural support, or otherwise fall outside of the standard rules and span tables that most builder’s rely on.
A geotechnical, soils, or civil engineer, or a hydrologist may be called in to develop a dewatering plan for a wet site. A engineer may also be needed if you discover that your foundation will be resting on filled land, peat, expansive clay, or other problem soils.
The several times I have hired an engineer, I never not spend more than a few hundred dollars, and the money was truly well spent. In some cases, your building department will require an engineer’s stamp on a plan that they do not feel qualified to approve on their own. They want someone else’s name on the plan in case there are problems down the line.
Some contractors roll their eyes when you bring an engineer into the job, thinking that they will require that things be massively overbuilt. In fact, engineers do “overdesign” things, using a standard safety factor of about 2.5 on this type of work – meaning that a bolt, post, or beam will be 2.5 times the minimum needed to support the calculated load. The safety factor accounts for defects in materials or workmanship, deterioration over time, excessive loads, and other real-world variations. So it’s best to tolerate the rolling of the contractor’s eyes and end up with a rock-solid structure rather than one that’s a little bouncy and might sag in 20 years, at least that’s my take on this.