Do I need an Architect, Building Designer or an Engineer?


Apr 14, 2023

What distinguishes an architect, a building designer, a drafter, and a structural engineer?

When considering a new construction, a remodel, an addition to an existing house, or the construction of an ADU or junior ADU (j-ADU), it's widely understood that enlisting the services of a professional is crucial. A professional can design the building to meet specific requirements, guide the project through the local approval process, secure the necessary building permit, provide assistance with construction-related issues, offer interior design advice, assist with material selection, and see the project through to the issuance of the certificate of occupancy. However, the question remains: what type of professional is best suited for the job? This article aims to help you make that determination.

What are the different aspects of a residential project?

When designing a residential project, be it a remodel, new construction, home addition or ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) it is important to consider the following aspects:

Planning: The planning process necessitates adherence to the regulations of the local governing body, which includes but is not limited to setback requirements, maximum height restrictions, permitted usage, and other applicable rules.

Design Functionality, and Aesthetics: The design should fulfill the desired functions and satisfy the client's needs while also considering aesthetics.

Mechanical systems: mechanical systems such as plumbing, electrical, ventilation, fire safety, heating, and cooling, should be designed to meet the local jurisdiction requirements.

Structural design must conform to the local jurisdiction requirements for foundation system, wind and snow loads, lateral bracing, and seismic requirements.

To ensure energy efficiency, various factors such as water heating, insulation, solar power, HVAC, etc. must be considered in the design. In California, the CalGreen and Green Building Standard Code stipulate the energy efficiency requirements for new construction and some remodeling projects.

Although licensed architects are capable of handling all aspects of a construction project, they bring particular value to the design, functionality, and aesthetic considerations. To become licensed, architects must undergo at least eight years of education and practical experience, including earning a B.Arch or M.Arch degree, as well as passing the ARE Exam after two to three years of additional experience.

As a result, architects may charge higher fees than other industry professionals. Nevertheless, in California, it is not necessary to hold an architect's license to design a single-family home (or up to four units) with two stories and a basement. However, for buildings with multiple stories or when adding a second story, an architect or engineer may be required by some local jurisdictions. Nevertheless, hiring an architect or engineer for the entire project is not a requirement.

What service provider should you hire for what? 

The subsequent section will examine every facet of the design and discuss alternatives and factors to be taken into account.

Planning requirements are usually simple. Property owners can contact the local planning department and ask if the desired project can be built on their property. We suggest that our clients do this as the first step, before investing time and money into designing something that may not be approved. Keeping a record of the department's reply can be helpful later in the process. On their website, the local Planning department usually provides an email address for such inquiries.


Should you hire an Architect?

When it comes to the design phase, it's important to consider how much creative freedom you're willing to give the designer, as well as budgetary, planning, family opinion, and other constraints that may limit flexibility. If you're looking to build a masterpiece and have more flexibility, hiring an architect may be the best choice, although their fees can range from 7 to 15% of the project's cost. An architect can guide you through the entire process and help you select finish materials, colors, and more. However, if you're working with a tighter budget and have specific needs and requirements, hiring a building designer or drafter may be a more cost-effective option

Mechanical systems- For single-family homes and up to 4 units, a licensed professional is not required to design the mechanical systems. In fact, building designers and drafters with knowledge of drafting can create the mechanical plans.

Structural design- a building designer or a drafter (unlicensed professional) can create the structural design for a single story with a method that’s called “prescriptive” (or prescribed) which is basically a set of rules for conservative design.

In some jurisdictions (cities, towns or countries), the authorities may require a California licensed engineer to design or review the structural design when the house is two stories, when adding a story, on hillside properties, or in other circumstances.

Energy Efficiency – this task is typically outsourced to people who specialize just in that. Most Architects, Building Designers, Drafters and Engineers wouldn’t do it themselves and even if they are providing full design service, this task would be outsourced. There is a score that your house needs to be above and very rarely the city has any feedback about that.

Cost (Q2 2023) – In this section we will break the different aspects of the design by their cost.

Design- a plan for your project, including the Floorplan, Elevations, Roofs, Mechanicals, not including interior design, nor structural design by an Engineer, with prescribed framing, will cost anywhere from $2/sqft to $10,000 for the entire project. The experience level of the building designer or drafter, the location of the job, whether the designer is local or remote, these factors will determine the price.

Structural Design – For a typical second floor addition, major remodel involving load bearing walls changes, or new construction up to 2500 sqft, the cost can range from $2500 to $5500. It is highly recommended to hire an Engineer for any project that involves more than one story, even if it's not required by the local jurisdiction. Natural disasters such as earthquakes and storms are unpredictable, and it's important to build your home in the most resilient way possible. Some building designers offer a bundle service by partnering with Engineers or Architects. This allows the licensed professionals to handle the calculations, while the building designer takes care of the drawings. This method can lower the overall fees and provide homeowners with a single service provider.

Energy Efficiency- Typically, Title 24 and Cal Green fees for a 2500sqft house range from $200 to $900. If you're planning a major remodel, you'll likely need complete energy efficiency calculations for the entire house. However, if you're building an ADU and not making any changes to the existing house, you may only need to go through the process for the ADU. Keep in mind that local building departments may have varying requirements.

These figures are based on actual transactions we've observed on BuildWiz.


Here are a few additional things to keep in mind

Local vs. Remote service providers: Professionals such as Engineers, Energy Efficiency Service Providers, and Interior Designers can work remotely without needing to be on the job site. However, if you're hiring an Architect, Building Designer, or Drafter, they may need to be local so they can accurately measure and draw the existing building. If you have plans for the existing building or can obtain the "As Built" plan or the original plan from the local building department, you may be able to hire a remote service provider, who typically charges less than a local one.Who should apply for the permit?


Do I find a contractor first? One mistake people often make is starting their project by immediately searching for a contractor. By California law, either a licensed contractor or the homeowner can apply for a building permit. For homeowners who prefer a one-stop-shop experience and aren't as concerned with the final cost, it makes sense to hire a trusted contractor to design and apply for the permit in their name. However, if the property owner is cost-sensitive, it's better to hire an independent service provider to design the project. This is because the contractor cannot provide a final price without a plan, and the plan determines the quality and quantity of the project. Attempting to price a project before having a plan would result in a high margin of error, which the homeowner typically pays for. It's advisable to shop around with multiple contractors once the plan is finalized or near completion. Keep in mind that the building department won't approve your project overnight, so you have plenty of time to compare prices without delaying the project.


Sprinklers design: It's possible that your project may require fire sprinklers if your house is bordering a wild area and is over 750ft from the nearest hydrant, or if there are other local requirements. To find out, you can send an email to your local building department and inquire about the specific requirements for your project.


A Soils Report or Soils Study is a valuable tool in determining the optimal foundation design, based on the soil's load-bearing capacity and the structural load. Your local building department may have previous soils reports that could be useful, even if they weren't conducted on your property. It's advisable to inquire with the building department about the availability of such a report, as it may help reduce your project's cost by enabling a less conservative design. Without a soils report, a more conservative design may be necessary, resulting in overbuilding. However, finding these reports in older neighborhoods can be challenging. If the building department is unable to provide one, it's recommended to make multiple inquiries to exhaust all options before engaging a professional for a soils study.

Septic Systems: When a building site lacks a central sewer system, a septic system must be designed and included in the building plans. Generally, building plans won't be approved without septic plans.

A land survey is usually required for new construction or when a building is being extended towards the property line to ensure that building setback requirements are met. The cost of a land survey typically ranges from $2,000 to $8,000 for single-family lots, depending on the type of survey needed and existing records.


Best of luck with your project! Take advantage of our complimentary consultation and obtain free quotes from our carefully selected and competitive contractors on BuildWiz. By posting your project, you can receive competitive bids, saving you time and effort.

BuildWiz promotes transparency and competition in the construction industry, empowering homeowners to make informed decisions.


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