Do I need an architect? (Part 2)








When people ask me if they really need an architect, I eventually respond with, “who else would you trust with your $400,000 investment?” Which is usually after a lengthy debate that immediately follows, “well, it depends”.  But I would be careless if I said your best option is an architect. I can, however, list a few options and explain how each fits and how the law applies when building a single family residence.  You can then decide your best option.


Purchase plans

To design your own home you will need some degree of understanding proportions, scale, site orientation, materials for aesthetic, structural, waterproofing and energy purposes. You will also need to be organized and good at managing people, time and money. Or you can buy stock plans from a book or magazine.

  • Pros: A diversity of plan options are available and can range in cost from $1 to $2 per square foot. If you can find one that fits your needs and lifestyle then you have saved a few thousand dollars on hiring an architect.
  • Cons: The plans you purchase are still designed by an architect, but one that you never met because he or she lives in Arizona, Texas or maybe New York City. They do not include your needs and routines because the house was designed months earlier. He or she did not incorporate the site orientation or the cold New England winters and hot humid summers because he or she lives in Arizona. Building codes are mandated at the state level and zoning by-laws at the local level. Each municipality is unique and will likely require reviews for adherence to site and size restraints, and potential historical and conservation impacts. Your general contractor might be have the capability and resources to provide this service and any subsequent plan changes. But ask up front and be prepared to consult with an architect, structural and civil engineer. If an architect’s stamp is required, either by the state or local building officials, he or she will also be required by law to redraw the plans before they can be stamped. So verify before purchasing plans or you could end up paying twice.


Hire general contractor

Not a bad choice. Most are honest, hardworking and capable. Some may even have formal training in some kind of engineering, usually structural. But a contractor’s typical roll is to execute the plans and specifications, and they usually do not have the time or the desire to produce the necessary drawings that will satisfy the local building officials. He will likely want to consult an architect or has a working relationship with one already, of which who’s fee will be included in the contractor’s price. You may not need an architect’s stamp but you will need drawings as part of the permit application.

  • Pros: Many homes are built by a builder from his or her stock of plans. If the resources are available he or she may be able to revise the plans slightly to meet your needs.  A good contractor will also do his due diligence to ensure the house meets state and local requirements, or his architect will.
  • Cons: A builder is trained to efficiently construct and waterproof a building. The extent of their design skills are generally what worked on previous projects. They are not commonly familiar with designing space and dealing with the aesthetic, the form or function. They don’t care about window sizes, type of siding or overall building character. They build, and they are good at what they do. Does that mean an architect is going to propose oversized windows and copper siding, blowing your budget? Absolutely not, a budget is a budget. If it does not meet the budget it doesn’t get proposed.


Hire a designer

As you already know, to be an architect one needs a professional degree, a minimum internship and pass a series of exams. Architects are rigorously trained in design, theory, history, spatial relationships, proportions, scale, drawing, construction methods, structural, mechanical, plumbing, acoustics, lighting, colors, sustainability, etc.  However, to be a designer one only needs to call them self a designer.

  • Pros: Most are talented and capable. For some it is a career choice and have acquired many years of experience.  If the right one can be found they can provide the same level of design expertise as an architect.
  • Cons: Designers can hold a certification but are not required to hold any kind of license issued by the state.  Meaning they are not regulated and held accountable as a licensed architect. Architects also carry professional liability insurance to cover negligence and malpractice. Designers may or may not be insured, and some may be unable to procure coverage. Depending on their level of experience a designer’s fee is only slightly less than that of an architect.

There are many avenues that you can take to build or renovate your home. But ultimately it’s your money, your house and your decision. Hopefully you will be able to make an informed decision.

Laws governing the design and construction of any building will vary by state. Massachusetts mandates that an architect’s stamp be required for ALL buildings containing more than 35,000 cubic feet and any building that involves substantial and major structural changes. But call your local building official, it will be at his or her discretion whether or not the local requirements are more stringent. Massachusetts is also very clear about NOT using the title of “architect”, “registered architect” or “architectural designer” without being a registered/licensed architect.