Building Designer vs. Architect

Must I hire an architect for my building project?

         No.  California law provides that persons who are not licensed as architects or engineers may design certain types of buildings or parts of buildings.  In fact, you could try your hand at it if you feel lucky but realize that it takes more than that high school drafting class to be competent in the art of building design and preparation of construction drawings.  Those professionals who are experienced yet are not licensed are commonly called Building Designers or Draftsmen.  Generally, you or a Building Designer may design:

  • Single-family dwellings of wood frame construction not more than two stories and basement in height;
  • Multiple dwellings containing no more than four dwelling units of wood frame construction, not more than two stories and basement in height, and not more than four dwelling units per lot;
  • Garages or other structures added to dwellings, of wood frame construction not more than two stories and basement in height;
  • Agricultural and ranch buildings of wood frame construction;
  • Non-structural store fronts, interior alterations or additions, fixtures, cabinetwork, furniture, or other appliances or equipment including not-structural work necessary to provide for their installation; and
  • Non-structural alterations or additions to any building necessary to or attendant upon the installation of such storefronts, interior alterations or additions, fixtures, cabinetwork, furniture, appliances, or equipment.

         However; before you attempt to design or alter a structure or hire an unlicensed person to do the work for you, you should consult your local building official.  The official will tell you if it is appropriate for an unlicensed person to submit plans, drawings, or specifications for these exempt structures.  In some cases, you may need to hire a licensed architect or a registered structural/civil engineer to design a portion of, or all of, the structure.  Therefore, you may save time and money by first discussing your plans with the official.  In deciding if you need a licensed architect, the building official will consider public health, safety, and welfare, as well as the local environmental conditions in various areas of the state, such as snow loads, high winds, earthquake activity, or tidal action.

  • It is important to note that California law prohibits any non-licensed person to advertise as a architect, building designer or planner.  Neither may he/she use these identifications in any way as part of his advertisement or identification.  The legal description is drafting service, or similar title. 

Selecting an Building Designer or Architect

         To begin, you will probably want to obtain referrals from more than one source.  You can ask someone you know who has done their own project for recommendations.  You can also search internet under  ARCHITECTS, BUILDING DESIGNERS or DRAFTING SERVICE for individuals, firms, and professional associations or organizations.  The Board of Architectural Examiners does not maintain a referral service and cannot recommend architects to prospective clients nor is your local building department free to recomend a firm to you.  There may also be websites sundh as that also has listings of profesionals in your area.

         Unless you are absolutely satisfied with one referral from a reliable source, you will need to determine which from the list of referrals you have complied will be able to provide you with the services you need for a reasonable price.  You will probably simply want to interview three or four firms from your referral list.

The Interview

         When you interview an architect, or building designer you should be prepared to give him or her specific information about your project.  Before the interview you should determine:

  • Your needs;
  • The services you expect the firm to perform for you;
  • The size, appearance, and function of your building;
  • What you intend to spend for construction (budget);
  • What you intend to spend for design fees;
  • The estimated starting and completion dates of your project;
  • How the project will be financed; and
  • How you intend to build the project.

         Make sure you give the same information to each architect or building designer.  They should be allowed to base their project proposals on the same criteria. 

Then, you should begin the interview by asking the architect or building designer if he or she has a California license, and what his or her certificate number is if any.

         To obtain an idea of the services the architect or building designer is able to provide you, as well as what these services cost, you will probably also want to ask most of the following questions.

Previous Experience

  • Has the architect or building designer designed the kind of structure you want to build?
  • May you see examples of his or her work that are similar to your project?
  • May you have the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of the clients whose projects the architect is using for these examples?
  • What formal education and background experience does the un-licensed building designer have in architecture?


  • What services did the architect or building designer provide for the clients of the example projects during the design, bid, and construction phases?
  • What services can he or she provide for your project during each of these phases?
  •  Who willbe providing these services, the architect or building designer or other employees.


  • What is the architect's or building designer's project history of actual construction costs versus budgeted costs for projects?
  • Is he or she able to provide probable construction cost estimates for your project?
  • How will the fees for your project be determined?
  • What is the basic, or estimated, fee for this project?  What services does it cover?
  • What will the fee schedule be?
  • If consulting engineering fees are necessary (civil, structural, soil, etc.), will they be included in the basic fee?
  • What additional costs, if any, does the architect or building designer anticipate for your project? 
  • How are rthe charges for redesign or modifications requested by you the owner?


  • Can the architect or building designer meet your schedule for the project?
  • Is he or she receptive to your ideas and suggestions about your project?

 Making the Final Decision

  • Did the architect or building designer maintain required schedules and budgets?
  • Are the clients pleased with the architect's or building designer work and their relationship with the architect or building designer.
  •  Did the architect or building designer listen to the clients' concerns and did the architect attempt to resolve them?
  • Would they hire the architect or building designer again?

 If possible, visit the projects the architect or building designer have presented as examples of their work.


         Once you have selected your architect or building designer you need to make a written agreement for design services with him or her.  There is no state requirement for a standard type of agreement.  Many architect or building designer prepare their own agreements or have them prepared by attorneys.  The agreement for design services is a legal document that binds you to the architect or building designer and the architect or building designer to you for the life of the project, and in some cases beyond.  If the specific services you and your architect or building designer agreed to during your interview and the conditions under which these services are to be rendered do not appear in the agreement, problems may arise during the project that may prove both expensive and time-consuming.  Review the agreement carefully; you have the right to challenge and change the terms of the agreement before signing it.

The agreement for design services should at least contain the following:

  • Your name and address and the name and address of the architect
  • Who is party to the agreement;
  • The title and address of the project;
  • A description of what is to be done and at what phase of the workapproval must be given before proceeding to the next phase;
  • The suggested time in which the design work must be completed;
  • The cost estimate of the built project;
  • The itemized listing of the architect's basic services;
  • The maximum basic fee you are willing to pay for basic services;
  • A clarification of who pays consultant fees if consultants are required, and the disciplines of these consultants (i.e., engineering or soils);
  • A clarification of what will require additional costs, and who will pay for them;
  • A clarification of whose approval is required before the costs areincurred;
  • A statement that the architect needs your written approval before proceeding with the next phase of work;
  • Your responsibilities during the life of the agreement;
  • A schedule of when and in what amounts you must pay all fees;
  • The amount of the retainer fee and where it will be applied;
  • A procedure for either party to terminate the agreement before design services are completed;
  • What payments are required at termination;
  • A clarification of who owns the project documents;
  • Place to sign the agreement and the date the agreement was signed.

         You, the owner, should retain an original copy of the signed agreement.  Make sure everything you verbally agreed to during contract negotiations is included in your agreement before you sign them.  It is your responsibility, as well as the architect's or building designer's, to follow the agreement to the letter.  You should not make agreements with other parties without notifying the architect or building designer with whom you have the primary agreement.

Other Documentation

         The written agreement is not the only document you should keep.  You should also keep a written record of all verbal communication with your architect or building designer that relates to the project.  Do not assume your architect or building designer will interpret everything you discuss with him or her the same way you do.  When you have a discussion with the architect or building designer about your project, write him or her a memo confirming your intentions.  These memos can not only help to prevent problems from occurring, but may prove invaluable to you should a problem or dispute occur during your project.  Include the date and time of your conversation in the memo, as well as the date you write it.

         You may also want to write memos or notes to yourself about the progress of your project.  Carefully evaluate each phase of the contracted work.  Make sure your architect or building designer knows that he or she needs your written approval before proceeding into the next phase of work.  Keep records of the date and amount of each payment you make to your architect.

         Make sure that you receive a copy of all documents you sign, and keep a copy of all documents you give to your architect or building designer.