When To Hire An Architect For Residential Construction

I have worked professionally as a licensed architect for 8 years and have been in the profession for 18 years. Over my time in the profession I have designed over 200 residential projects from small additions to 6,000 SF custom homes. I have also worked with several home builders and have talked with several hundred potential project Owners. Throughout my experience with residential construction and design there has been a reoccurring question that I get asked or potential owners seeking to build ask themselves. The question is, “do I need to hire an architect?”

The reason that this question keeps coming up is because there is no “one size fits all” answer and trying to decide what is right for your situation can be confusing.  To make things even more confusing, the advice you may get can change depending on who you talk to. Being a licensed professional, I am a strong advocate of consulting with an architect when designing new residential construction projects, but the fact is that it is rarely required, and the choice comes down to personal preference.

There is only one scenario when you are required to hire an architect when designing and constructing residential projects. This is when the jurisdiction you are building in requires the home design to be sealed by a licensed professional. If you are unsure if the jurisdiction you are building in will required a sealed set of plans you can simply call your local building department and ask to speak with a building code official or a plans examiner. In almost every case, a commercial project will require an architect’s seal. But for residential work it is not as common. In the city I practice out of there are multiple jurisdiction with different building departments, each building department has different requirements. Some require the plans to be sealed and some don’t. It is illegal for an architect to seal design work that they have not prepared themselves so if a seal is required then you will need to hire an architect. I have seen cases where a builder will try and “save money” by having a drafter draw the plans and then try and get an architect to seal them. This is illegal, and it is recommended that you avoid this situation.

Aside from the one exception above, the decision to hire an architect is more about preference than a requirement. So, if you are not required to hire an architect how do you know if it will be in your best interest to do so? To answer this question, I should first say that having a good set of plans should be a given. It is critical that when building a home that you have a clear set of blueprints so that you know what you are building and what you are paying for. This may appear to be an obvious statement, but I have seen situations where a builder will sketch something out on a sheet of paper and present this to the home owner as a building plan and more surprisingly I have seen some building departments approve them. This is never a good idea. The money you think you are saving up front will be lost many times over through lack of planning and there is a much greater risk of being dissatisfied with the final product. Having a good set of plans that is well thought out will save money and frustration in the long run even though there is an up-front cost.

That being said, since a good set of plans is a must then it’s more of a question of who should prepare the plans. One alternative to hiring an architect is to purchase the plans online. I am not an advocate of on-line plans in most cases for several reasons. One reason is that most jurisdiction have “amendments” to building codes. In most cases a jurisdiction will follow the International Building Code (IBC) and will then have special requirements which amend the code and they are different from town to town. For example, in one area I recently worked in, the plans didn’t have to be sealed but the building code was amended which required different reinforcing in the foundation walls than what is normally installed in the surrounding areas. Online designers will not be in tune local amendments and these requirements will not be spelled out for the contractor during construction. Another negative to purchasing on-line plans is that many times people will purchase plans on-line but will want them modified. The modifications and initial cost can sometimes be more than hiring and architect to begin with or the savings will not be worth the hassle of dealing with people on-line. In many cases I can complete a home design for the same cost or comparable to the cost of online plans with modifications.  It comes down to cost and local requirements in this situation. If you can find a good set of plans on-line that are affordable, and you don’t need modifications to the plans and the jurisdiction you are building in doesn’t have amendments to the building code or require a seal then purchasing plans online may be a worthwhile alternative. However, if your area does have amendments and you need modifications to the plans it is highly recommended that you find an architect even if a seal is not required.

For building departments where the plans are required to be sealed I highly recommend against buying plans on-line. As previously mentioned, it is illegal for an architect to seal someone else’s design. What ends up happening is that the home owner pays for the on-line plans and pays twice for the architect to recreate them and then seal them. If your building department requires a seal, then printing the floor plan and giving that to the architect as starting point is usually the best option and will help you avoid paying twice for the design. Some on-line sites will seal the drawings, but this is still a bad idea. If a building department requires a seal, then hire a local design professional who is familiar with the requirements of that particular jurisdiction.

Hiring an architect as your best option assumes that that there is a reasonably priced architect available in your area. There are many architects who charge fees more than what makes sense for your situation. In this case finding an experienced designer who is not licensed can become your best option assuming the plans don’t need to be sealed. There have been several situations I have seen where a builder or home owner will hire a recent graduate to draft a set of plans to save money. This can be a reasonable alternative but keep in mind that there is a lot more to home design and construction than may appear on the surface. When you hire someone with no experience to draft or design a home it’s like everything else; you get what you pay for. Many times, paying a little more for a good design is well worth the cost. Hiring a professional who has the experience to know appropriate rooms dimensions, circulation widths, appropriate garage dimensions, roof framing concepts, standard fixture dimensions, clearances and codes will help ensure that you get a home that is well planned and makes good use of the space.