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Subtitled: Plan Book vs. Draftsman vs. Contractor vs. Architect

There are very few of us who undertake any building project without some planning. We try and figure out what we need, how it’s going to be put together and how much it’s going to cost us. For some projects, we plan it out in our heads. For others, we take pencil to paper and draw it out. Then, there are the projects that we know we can’t do ourselves. For these, we need to hire a designer.

Designers come in many different varieties. There’s the contractor who designs it himself. There are designers who’ll draft up your plans. There’s your good friend down the street. And there are architects. What’s the difference? Does it matter? What is each one going to give you for your money? And why should you pick the Architect?

First, no matter what they tell you, design services are not free. Design takes time, training and experience. Time, training and experience cost money. Anyone who offers “free” design will be charging you for it in some way. If you’re going to be building a new house you can pay $800-$1200 for a plan from a plan book. A draftsman will design you a custom home for between $500 and $4000. The architect is going to charge you between 3% and 15% of the construction cost of the project. These numbers are approximate, but give you an idea of what the range is for residential design services.

Second, there is a significant difference in the type of training different designers have received. An architect has significant training almost always including a professional degree from a university and several years of on-the-job training prior to being able to receive their license. A draftsman can have minimal training and a contractor may have no design training whatsoever. This doesn’t mean that a contractor with no training is going to be a poor designer and an architect is going to be an excellent designer. It does mean that you should check the qualifications of the person who’s going to be designing your project.

Third, architects are licensed by the state to practice architecture. Depending on the state, contractors are licensed to build. The licensing process is primarily concerned with life and economic safety issues. Draftsmen have no licensing requirements. Most residential projects are exempted from the requirement of an architect being involved. Again, check the qualifications of the designer.

Fourth, the architect is your representative. It’s their job to represent you to the contractor. They make sure that the plans and specifications are being used. They help mediate disputes between you and the contractor, should they arise. In the construction world the architect is like your attorney.

When you hire a designer you are asking them to come up with a design that gets translated into documents that can be used for building. The documents include not only the floor plans with dimensions, but also the other drawings and documents that are necessary to assemble the house. A good set of plans should always include a specification. A specification is a document that lists the specific nature of the materials that are to be used. A cooking analogy would liken the plans to being a recipe and the specifications to being the ingredients list. The specifications can be included on the printed plans, or can be a book that goes with the plans. Plans and specifications work together to tell the contractor building the house not only how and where the materials go, but what the materials actually are and the expected level of quality. Specifications also reference national standards for acceptable construction methods. No design or plan is complete without the corresponding specifications. Ask to see samples of your designer’s final plans and specifications.

An architect is more than just someone who draws pretty pictures. They earn their fee by helping you with in all phases of your construction project. Their fees are usually more because they do more than just draw some lines on paper. They do research on different products and construction technologies. They charge for there services in one of 4 ways: 1) hourly, 2) a percentage based on the cost of construction, 3) a fixed fee with all expenses included or 4) a fixed fee plus the expenses, including any necessary consultants. They have professional liability insurance and are required to maintain strict professional standards. Each architect and each project is unique and will be priced accordingly. When you’re interviewing your architect, ask them to explain their fees and discuss what fee structure would work the best for you.

Admittedly, there are some projects where an architect might be overkill. But ask one first. They’ll be honest with you and tell you that the project doesn’t need an architect and they’ll suggest some alternatives. But don’t discount the idea that a few hundred dollars spent with an architect may present opportunities and ideas you may never have considered.

When it comes down to it, a fee as high as 15% of the construction cost is one of the most worthwhile investments you can make. You don’t draw up a will without an attorney. You don’t do your taxes without an accountant. You don’t diagnose your own illnesses. Nor do you go to substitutes. A home is usually the most expensive purchase you’ll ever make. This is why you should hire an architect.