Architect, Designer, Engineer – The Differences and Which Do I Need

Architect, Designer, Engineer – The Differences and Which Do I Need

By David Porter AIA – consulting architect to the Garlinghouse Company since 1989

Since I am a licensed architect, I would be remiss if my answer wasn’t just, “of course, you need only an architect.” But, nah, for your use in designing a house, that isn’t necessarily so.

I will first explain the differences between these professions and what the laws in most states say when one is required to use, or not to use, one of these specialists for the design of a house.

An “architect” is one who has a college degree in the design of buildings and the built environment; has been trained in the design of buildings mainly used for human occupancy; and who has passed stringent state-conducted licensing exams (usually two or three days of licensing exams that are not all passed the first time around). A person cannot legally call him or herself an architect without having passed the licensing exams in that state.

An architect’s education, training, and experience focuses on the aesthetic design of buildings and spaces, structures, mechanical systems, acoustics, sustainability, and all of the other attributes necessary to make buildings useful and enjoyed by people. In every facet that you can think about when in or around a building, the architect has put thought into all of those same elements to create that building and the spaces surrounding that building. An architect is issued a license number from each state in which he or she holds a license, and that number is required to appear on all correspondence, advertising, and on all of the architect’s drawings. An architect having the initials “AIA” following his or her name simply means that they are members of the trade group for architects called the “American Institute of Architects.” Someone having the AIA initials after his or her name does not necessarily mean that they are a licensed architect. It simply means that they are a member of the AIA trade group.

A “designer” can quite frankly be anyone. You or your neighbor can call yourselves designers and no laws will have been broken. The term “designer” has no legally defined boundaries or education or training requirements to help guide the public in their decision making process of selecting someone to design their house or building. Designers go by the terms “designer,” “residential designer,” or “building designer.” There are building designer trade associations that have a strong membership base and they have established minimum training and skill requirements in order to become and remain a member. The most notable designer organization is the American Institute of Building Design (AIBD). They do have a membership certification process that uses building design experience, knowledge, and continuing education to establish a credibility factor for its members to distinguish themselves from anyone who says he or she is a designer.

An “engineer” is also a licensed professional who has the education, training, and experience necessary to satisfy state laws and who has passed a state licensing exam. A person who is not a licensed engineer is not permitted by state law to call himself an engineer since using the term implies to the public that the person does hold a state-recognized license. There are many different engineering disciplines. “Civil engineering” involves roads, bridges, drainage, underground utilities, and other surface elements. “Structural engineering” involves the design of structures for buildings and for bridges (beams, columns, slabs, walls, etc.). “Mechanical engineering” is a very broad discipline that might be the heating, air conditioning, and plumbing design for a building, or the design of a machine to make better widgets, or it might be the microscopic design of a tiny metal device used in medical procedures. “Electrical engineering” can be the design of the electrical systems in a building or a city, or the complex electrical design of a computer. And, there are many more engineering disciplines, such as aeronautical, naval, acoustical, traffic, geotechnical, electronic, etc., however these are not as closely associated with the engineering disciplines of building design as the others I have mentioned. Engineers are trained more for the design of items and building types that do not involve human occupancy, such as oil refineries, power plants, water treatment facilities, etc. A crude comparison between an engineer and a architect or designer related to the design of a house might be that an engineer will make the house stand up and comfortably heated, but the architect or designer will make it attractive, functional, and spatially interesting to live in.

The question may still remain in your mind as to which one of these three professionals you should seek for the design of your single-family house. Is an architect, or a building designer, or an engineer going to suit your needs, wants, and desires the best?

If you reside in New York State, your choices are limited to using an architect or an engineer. If you are in Nevada, you are required to use an architect or a “registered residential designer” (a licensed designer who has passed a Nevada exam proving qualifications to design houses). A few other states have restrictions on the exemption to have to use an architect, such as houses taller than 3 stories, or houses larger than a certain square footage, or houses that are built for speculative sale to others. But for the most part, anyone can design a house and have it built. It does not have to be done by an architect, a building designer, or an engineer. However, I will offer up a caveat to this statement in that you should check with your local building inspector for the definitive answer on this. I have seen many building inspectors turn down a layperson’s drawings because they were not sufficient to meet the building code and the owner had to find an architect to provide signed and sealed, code compliant drawings before the inspector would issue a building permit.

If you’ve already purchased a set of home plans from The Garlinghouse Company or another plan service, beware that you may need to get them “sealed.” Sometimes local ordinances require an architect’s or engineer’s “stamp,” or perhaps the building inspector requires it to be that way. In either case, you may have a hard time finding an architect or engineer to provide that “sealing service,” because it is illegal in all 50 states. Such a service is called “plan stamping” and it is a violation of any architect’s or engineer’s license. Why? Because the plans were not designed and completed from the start by the architect or engineer who will be taking the legal responsibility for the design and safety of the house. States believe that if an architect or engineer just looks over a set of plans for five minutes, such a cursory review is not sufficient to determine whether or not the plans, the design, and the building structure that will enclose and protect your family are actually correct. Remember, the state laws for licensed architects and engineers are established to “protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.” If you need sealed plans, go back to the plan service from which you purchased the plans, to see if they provide sealed plans.

If you are not required to provide signed and sealed plans by a licensed professional, then the decision on whom to hire (architect, building designer, or engineer) is all yours.

For the design of a house, I think you will find that an architect who specializes in single family houses will be a better choice than one who specializes in the design of hospitals or office buildings. The majority of building designers who are members of AIBD focus on single family residential designs, so an AIBD member with the experience, and a design style similar to what you are looking for, would also be a suitable choice. As for hiring an engineer for the design of your dream home, I think you would have to find the one or two engineers out there who really missed their calling as home designers. I have nothing against engineers and I work them every day, but in my experience, they are not as in-tune with the spatial compositions of rooms in a house, furniture sizes, and organization of spaces, to provide you with the best house possible (as are architects and designers trained and experienced with home design).

In my next article, I will give you some pointers on what to ask for, what to look for, and what to interview your prospective house designer choices about, that might help you find the right fit for you.

‘til next month, hoping all of your building experiences are happy ones.

If you have an architectural, construction process, code, or technical building topic that you would like for David to write about, we would like to hear from you. You can send that question to [email protected].

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