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Engineers And Consultants
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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 (NCBDC). 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.
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Who Should I Hire To Inspect Substandard Siding & Flashing Work?
I’m in need of recommendations for an inspector (or the type of inspector I should look for) that I could hire to do a inspect a newly installed vinyl/composite siding (Alside Ascend), trim and gutters? I know there are issues with the initial installation (not meeting Mfg. specifications) which I called out and the installer has agreed to address. However, I’d like to have a post fix inspection completed to make sure it has been properly corrected, performs properly over the years and meets the Mfg. specifications preserving the product’s warranty eligibility if a claim situation ever arises.
Thank you for whatever information and or contacts you’re willing to share. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.
I don’t have any names in your area.
I would look for a company that specializes in new home inspections (as opposed to inspectors who focus on exiting homes in real estate transactions).
Interview a few and make sure they are familiar with the specific products you have used and the issues that you have identified.
You may be able to get a technical representative from the manufacturer to take a look. I would start with the supplier who provided the materials or the regional distributor. They may have a warranty department that would take an interest in your project.
It’s great that you identified these problems right away and that the contractor is cooperating in getting them fixed — not always the case.
I appreciate the advice.
The part about looking for a new construction specialist is helpful. I was thinking that and one that specializes in water intrusion to make sure the trim/flashing has been done correctly as well.
I’ve had the local manufacturers rep (distribution center’s branch manager) out to look at it as is but he ended up being for all intents and purposes non responsive after the initial visit with the contractor. After going a different route I ended up being connected by chance with his boss (6 weeks after the site inspection) who finally provided the information that they would not warrant the current installation and that in short it needed to be installed/reinstalled in accordance with their recommendations/instructions. They’re trying to stay out of it for the most part since they somewhat dropped the ball with the contractor. As a result they’re going to help him out with some replacement material but he’s on the hook for the additional labor.
The contractor is being cooperative to an extent but I’m still holding slightly over half of the contracted amount until the issues have been fully remediated. The repairs are supposed to happen next week but I need to meet the contractor and make sure he knows all of the issues that will need to be addressed vs just the one (main) issue I brought up that the manufacturers rep confirmed. It’s unfortunate for all sides. At first I was asking myself, am I being unreasonable or too picky (and telling myself that I don’t expect perfection but) how much imperfection is acceptable? But now it isn’t so much about imperfection it’s about being done in accordance with the specs which can’t be shorted. If I’d let that slide I shouldn’t have spent the money on a lifetime warranted product Etc.
Anyway, thank you once again for your site, the prompt response and your advice.
It’s always tough to know how hard to push a contractor to get things built to a high standard.
What I advise others, and try to practice myself, is to choose your battles. Construction work is messy by nature and job-site realities rarely match the crisp technical drawings, spec sheets, and blueprints that are guiding the work. No job is going to be perfect. If a certain visual detail is of particular importance to you, explain this to the contractor ahead of time.
But you need to stick to your guns on substandard workmanship that is going to void warranties, create safety hazards, or compromise the integrity of the structure.
You mention water intrusion, probably the most common and most costly building defect in modern residential construction. This should always be a high priority – especially flashing around doors and windows in walls, and around skylight, penetrations, and transitions in roofs (hips, valleys, roof-to-wall junctures).
Windows and doors, in particular, are often flashed poorly due to poor training, confusing and conflicting instructions, everchanging materials and codes, and the wide variety of wall systems, sheathings, and building wraps in use today. What used to be pretty straightforward when I started in this business 40+ years ago is now a smorgasbord of details to choose from. Which is the best option is not always 100% clear.
It sounds like you’ve done your homework and know what needs to be fixed, so you’re on the right track!
Who Can Help Me Choose Interior Finishes?
Hello! I just need an architect for to make a couple of changes to a home plan I am buying. For example, changing a cathedral ceiling to a vaulted ceiling, etc.
Once he is done, who is the person that help me with the color coordination and other things that go in the home like carpet and and countertop, etc. Do I have to pay a designer to come in and help furnishing and color?
You should be able to hire an architect or home designer by the hour to make the changes to the ceiling that you have in mind. A simple revision like that should not take more than a few hours, but you should always get an estimate (preferably a fixed price) before proceeding.
You could also just bring the design, as is, to a contractor to see if he is able and willing to make the changes to the plan. Most general contractors are happy to make minor modifications to a home plan that you have purchased, or even to custom architectural plans. With a stock plan, there will always be a number of minor modifications and clarifications to the plan before a final “as built” plan is established. Depending on the scope of the modifications, you may be charged for the design time and revised plans.
As far as interior finishes and colors, you can either make your own decisions or hire an interior designer or decorator. A decorator can help with finishes and colors, while an interior designer can also help with space planning, floor plans, and general design. In some states, interior designers are licensed.
You can also get free help from retailers who may employ designers. For example, kitchen and bath showrooms, tile stores, carpet and flooring stores, and other material suppliers can often help you evaluate and compare the pros and cons of different options. But, at the end of the day, you need to make these decisions based on your tastes and budget.
Because there are so many material options (and a zillion color choices), this step of the process is a challenge for many homeowners.
Best of luck with your project!
J Quintero says
How to Hire a Designer
I’m looking for either a structural designer or interior designer for a remodeling project, but not sure what to say when making first contact. Can someone please tell me what’s appropriate? What should I say, what shouldn’t I say? Who would be the best choice? Thank you for your help!
There are many approaches to hiring a designer. Each has pros and cons. If money is no object and you want a very creative solution, you should consider hiring an architect. They can handle all the aesthetic and structural issues, and even supervise construction if you want. However, this is usually the most costly approach.
Non-architect designers are usually less expensive, but sometimes harder to find. One resource here is the AIBD website, which has a listing of designers who have completed their training course and met their certification requirements. If your project includes and kitchen or bath remodel, then you can start with a kitchen and bath designer. Most kitchen and bath showrooms have designers on staff who will help you plan a functional layout and select cabinets and fixtures. In many cases, this service is offered for free if you plan to purchase cabinets from the showroom. You can find a listing of certified kitchen and bath designers at the NKBA website.
Another approach is to find a design-builder, that is, a company that offers both design and building. This is usually less expensive than hiring a separate architect to design and oversee the project.
If you have a good idea of what you want, you can go straight to a remodeling contractor. Some will work with your rough sketch, photos from magazines, etc., and develop this into a usable set of plans. They may bring in a draftsman to create to prepare a set of drawings required in some areas to get a building permit. If there is anything unusual in the project that requires a structural engineer, they can also have an engineer review that aspect of the project.
An interior designer tends to focus on colors, finishes, fabrics, and furnishings. If you feel you need help in this area, by all means get their input before you make these types of selections – usually when you are further along in the design and building process.
Whichever way you go, you should do some of your own research ahead of time. To the extent possible, figure out what it is you need in terms of space, function, and size. Also discuss your budget early in the process with any designer. Otherwise they may produce a design that costs much more than you are prepared to spend and you will have to start over again from scratch.
Look for photos in magazines or online that appeal to you. Google “images” is a great resource that makes finding photos of similar projects much easier than the old days of rummaging through remodeling magazines. These can be valuable in pointing your designer in the right direction. The more information you bring to a designer, the more likely they are to produce a design that appeals to you.
Also you want to work with a designer whose taste is similar to your own. Ask to see their portfolio, ask for references, and get a cost estimate for their design services. If you don’t have any names, ask friends and work associates, or ask at your local contractor’s lumberyard. Also if you see a project under way in your neighborhood, don’t be afraid to knock on the door and ask the owner who is doing the design work and construction work. Best of luck with your remodeling project!
J. Thompson says
Do I Need A Draftsman or Architect?
My husband and I are about to begin building our retirement home. We have a design sketch and front elevation photos. We need some input on a few design ideas to maximize the square footage. We also need the plans drawn to California specifications with universal and energy-efficient design incorporated. Do we need a draftsman or architect? If we go with an architect, should we negotiate a set fees for the drawings?
Every state and municipality has its own rules regarding building permits, so the only way to get a definitive answer is to contact your local building department to find out what exactly will be required to get a building permit for your project.
I’d suggest scheduling a face-to-face meeting where you bring as much information as you can about the lot and your building plans. In general, building inspectors appreciate being consulted ahead of time, and you can save yourself a lot of headaches and dollars by doing so.
California has some of the country’s most stringent building regulations and may require that your plans have the stamp of a licensed architect and/or engineer before issuing a permit. In some cases, single-family, wood-frame buildings in California do not require a licensed architect or engineer, but you need to check with your local inspector. In that case, a draftsman or contractor could prepare the working drawings needed for a permit.
You should absolutely discuss fees and service ahead of time when interviewing any designer for your job. I hear from a lot of people who have spent many thousands of dollars on architectural fees for designs that, for one reason or another, cannot be built — or need major design revisions before construction can begin. The problems may be building costs, regulatory problems, or a design that does not meet the needs of the client.
The tricky thing in your case will be to define the designer’s scope of work. Are you really just looking for “a few ideas” or a complete plan with detailed drawings and written specifications? Do you want the architect to oversee the plans through plan review and permitting or just hand off a set of plans to you and your contractor?
For a comprehensive design contract including contract administration and site supervision, many architects charge a percentage of construction costs. For a la carte services, such as preliminary design or minor revisions to plans you provide, you can pay hourly or may be able to negotiate a fixed fee. In general, I prefer fixed fees for any design or construction work, since work by the hour has a way of spiraling out of control
You might also want to consider a design-build firm as an alternative, which could simplify the process and save you some money as you already have a basic design in mind.
Because of the complexities of building in California, and the potential liability, you may have some difficulty finding an architect to put his stamp on a set of drawings that he has not developed from scratch. Once you have clearly defined what you need from an architect or designer, interview a few to find the best match for your design tastes, business style, and personality. You will working in close partnership with your designer (and contractor) so it is important to find a trustworthy partner and a good match.
See also: Consumer’s Guide to Hiring an Architect in California