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Updated: Oct 23, 2023

Most people have misconceptions about what an architect is and about what an architect does.  While a typical house in Canada is not required by law to be designed by an architect, there are excellent reasons why anyone building or renovating should consider hiring one.

Everyone knows what an architect does -- he designs houses, draws floor plans, and costs a lot of money.  Right?  You're probably expecting me to follow up that statement with an emphatic NO, but actually it depends.  Chances are, probably not.  I'm going to explain what I mean through three rather specific things: the job duties of an architect, the buildings on which an architect works, and when the law requires an architect to be involved.  Then I'm going to explain why you probably should hire an architect even when not absolutely required by law. 

Day in the Life of an Architect

The model of the architect is a generalist; he is a professional who has an adequate yet basic understanding of most aspects of his/her field but isn't usually an expert in any single part.  Consider a family doctor: he is able to draw upon a wide understanding of biology and medicine when examining and diagnosing a patient.  However, specialists such as cardiologists, surgeons, pediatricians, and dermatologists have received more education and experience in specific areas; each has become an expert in one facet of the medical field. 

The Jack of All Trades

As with the family doctor, an architect must demonstrate an adequate understanding of and skill in all areas of architecture - the theory of design, the aesthetics, the design process, the construction process, economics, client relationships, professional liability, business management, various legislation, accounting, and other matters.  The most common type of business for an architect is one in which he/she is both the business owner and the sole employee whether the firm is a sole proprietorship, limited partnership, or corporation.  This type of architect wears all or nearly all the hats -- salesman, designer, draftsman, project manager, IT guy, and often accountant. Since there is a limited amount of work that an architect working alone can produce, a sole practitioner usually takes on smaller projects -- single-family houses, commercial interior fit-outs or renovations, and small office or retail buildings.  He would be unlikely to design, draft, and manage the construction of a museum or of a nuclear power facility, for example.

The Expert

At the other end of the spectrum are architects who have chosen to specialize.  Some architects focus on managing the firm or on developing new client relationships.  Others create the designs or produce drawings or renderings.  Some architects spend almost all of their time managing the construction phase of projects. An architect who has specialized needs to be part of a team -- a medium- to small-sized company which has other specialists to ensure that all roles are fulfilled. One result of working on a team is the ability to participate in larger and more complex projects.  A larger firm can therefore take on commissions for hospitals, apartment buildings, shopping centres, schools, office skyscrapers, museums, and yes -- a nuclear power facility.

I wrote 'at the other end of the spectrum' because architecture is a spectrum; it includes a variety of building types, sizes, and levels of complexity.  There are plenty of small architectural firms which take on projects of varying complexity and size and whose typical employee has a range of tasks.  Generally, the smaller the firm the wider the range of tasks an employee will have.  In a single firm, a given employee (depending on his/her seniority) may be responsible for all aspects of a particular small project yet have a narrowly defined role on the next project.

The Fine Print

Now let's proceed to what an architect IS.  The Architectural Institute of British Columbia (AIBC) is the governing body for the profession of architecture in this province and is rightfully fussy about the use of the title 'architect' and the term 'architecture'.  Whether young or old, whether a designer of houses, conference centres, or of hospitals, an architect has received special education and experience and has been specifically evaluated to qualify for the title.  This qualification is assurance that the public can rely on the ability of the individual to design an appropriate, sound, and safe building or to know to defer to another architect with the required expertise.  It is therefore important to know whether or not you're working with an architect.  There are several more specifics and legal documents, but I've greatly simplified here so as not to put to sleep any readers still awake.

To address the first question at the beginning of the article -- do you need an architect -- let's address the legal requirements in very simplified terms.  In British Columbia, an architect is required for the design of:

  • houses over roughly 3,000 square feet

  • residential buildings of more than four units

  • hotels having more than 10 guest rooms

  • hospitals with more than 12 beds

  • public assembly buildings (e.g. museums, gyms, theatres, restaurants, churches) over roughly 2,500 square feet (3,000 square feet if one storey),

  • all schools, and

  • all buildings greater than roughly 5,000 square feet in gross area.

At the same time, an architect or engineer is required by the Building Code for any building over 6,000 square feet in total floor area and for public assembly buildings.  If your proposed building doesn't require an architect or engineer based on the above (simplified) requirements, you can hire a designer who specializes in residential design or a designer who prepares drawings for the interior of stores and offices.  You could also try to design your own building.

Many design companies, drafting companies, and home designers produce floor plans or even entire building permit construction sets.  These are not necessarily -- and usually are not -- architects.  Every registered architect in BC is permitted to use the title 'Architect AIBC'.  He/She is personally responsible for the soundness of the building's design (from a technical standpoint) for his/her entire life and carries professional liability insurance largely for that reason.  The qualification, expertise, and responsibility of an architect are serious matters governed by provincial legislation.  A store designer, home builder, or a draftsman is not subject to the same scrutiny or legal responsibility.  For a full explanation of who the players in the construction industry are, please read my glossary article "Who Are These People" that introduces you to the common individuals involved in the construction world.

So, back to the second question at the beginning of the article: does an architect design houses, draw plans, and cost a lot of money?  Some architects do design houses and draw floor plans; many do not.  What about the cost?  Generally speaking, hiring an architect to design your house is likely to cost more than hiring a home designer.  Will it be a 'better' design?  'Better' is subjective, so maybe you'll feel it's better.  Are you guaranteed to have zero problems with permits?  Of course not; nobody can guarantee that.  So if there's no legal requirement to engage an architect for the type of building you're considering, and you're not buying any guarantees, why would a person go to the expense of hiring one? Basically, it boils down to quality control, safety, and a perfect fit.

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Big Reason 1: Expertise

A licensed architect has undergone significant specialized education, training, and evaluation in building science, fire and life safety features of buildings, and familiarity with all relevant legislation.  Architects are also required to update their education regularly to stay up to date with advances and updates in those areas and to continue to offer competent, relevant, informed service.  At the same time, an architect is taught to recognize and to acknowledge the limits of his/her scope of knowledge and skill and is obligated to seek appropriate professional advice when required.

There is no regulatory barrier to becoming a house designer or to starting a renovation house builder company. Certainly a designer or builder who provides poor service or whose products are inadequate will receive bad customer reviews and won't be able to rely on referrals for new business; staying in business means building a great reputation. However, customers of companies that develop bad reputations suffer the poor performance meanwhile.

In other articles of mine (Permits Part 2 and Permits Part 4), I discuss the breadth and complexity of zoning regulations and of building codes. Architects are trained to navigate such material and can save you countless headaches and avoid major delays. Much like high-altitude mountain climbers who choose to hire guides, you could risk the adventure of design and construction on your own, but you will almost certainly find the process more onerous than expected and the pitfalls more numerous and obscure.

Big Reason 2: Safety and Accountability

A residential builder or developer often will create a company specifically for a project and may dissolve that company immediately after selling the building.  In contrast, an architect has a much higher degree of perpetual accountability.  An architectural firm is not going to disappear overnight regardless of its size since the registration of not only each architect but of each architectural firm is a process requiring AIBC review and approval.  After registration of an architect and of a firm, an architect's business is governed by the code of ethics adopted by the profession province-wide.  Architects are accountable to the provincial Architects Act, to the AIBC Bylaws and Code of Conduct, and are subject to the AIBC inquiry and disciplinary mechanisms in the case of alleged misconduct.

Builders are legally responsible for what's in the warranties, but nothing beyond that.  In home construction, Consumer and Licensing Affairs (previously Homeowners Protection) mandates at a minimum warranties of 1 year overall, 2 years for all materials, 5 years for the building envelope, and 10 years for the building structure.  While some builder companies take great pride in building a golden reputation, others prioritize short-term gains.  In contrast, an architectural firm must carry professional liability insurance to account for design errors, and it must maintain this coverage for decades.  In the case of extreme design issues, the architect is personally responsible and criminally accountable to the building's safety and integrity for the rest of his life.

Big Reason 3: Tailored to You

Custom homes are often not entirely custom. Although the arrangement of rooms, the colour of the exterior siding, and the door pulls on the kitchen cupboards are selections made by the homeowner, most houses share many commonalities since they're built using construction details and materials from a common pool of parts and methods. Why dream up a brand-new front door, design a unique main stair, or invent a new kitchen countertop if you can look through a catalogue of dozens of options and pick one that you like best? Why develop a strikingly daring, unique building form if a more conventional shape can house all the spaces you need? Any smart home builder will standardize as much of the construction as possible both to maximize the construction crew's efficiency and to keep construction cost down. The 'Vancouver Special' is a great example of rubber-stamp architecture, as the configuration is almost always exactly the same; these houses are unmistakable. The Vancouver Special was an economical solution that almost never involved an architect.  The result is in some people's opinion a boxy weed that has been criticized since its proliferation.

Similar to shopping for clothes in a department store, if you find a shirt or a dress that you like and that fits well enough, you'll probably buy it that day. Sure, the dress is maybe a bit too loose or tight in one or two spots, or the shirt is too puffy at the waist or isn't roomy enough, but these deficiencies are the trade-off of a low purchase price. When renovating or building a house, though, you're investing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. You certainly wouldn't pay $5,000 for a dress or a shirt if it didn't fit perfectly! Paying as much as several hundred thousand dollars (or more) for a new house that isn't truly tailored to your needs, lifestyle, and personality is just as ridiculous. Architects typically recognize each project as a truly custom solution.  Creating, developing, and shepherding that solution to fruition is the fundamental role of an architect.

Big Reason 4: Priorities

The Leaky Condo Crisis resulted from several factors including architects relying on the recommendations and assurance of builders and of submitting to pressure and bargain hunting by residential developers. Builders' primary focus is efficiency, and developers' primary focus is profit.  The process of building is a builder's business, and every business needs profit.  It's understandable and reasonable for them to take the number and type of construction shortcuts they feel comfortable with.  Sound business strategy encourages them to build as inexpensively as possible. Repeat business is not a big part of a builder's clientele -- referrals are. A cheaply constructed building won't reveal its flaws immediately. You're relying on the builder's honour to guard against deliberately taking shortcuts that compromise the building's integrity and on their level of site supervision for unintended shortcuts by subcontractors.

One more thing...

Often, a potential client will want to hire an architect only to prepare drawings to get a required Building Permit.  Some of these clients are new to construction; some of them have been involved in construction and land development for many years.  When you hire an architect, you can negotiate the scope of work.  However, there are some restrictions you should be aware of. There is a set of tasks identified as Basic Architectural Services.  Full Basic services includes work in five phases of a project, as described in my other article The FIVE PHASES of an Architectural Project.  Within each phase, there are additional tasks for which you could hire the architect (for additional fee).  Likewise, you may not need the architect to perform all the tasks in Basic Architectural Services, and the architect will charge less.  You can ready my other article that discusses the various tasks and the five phases of a project, but I must point out here that there is a provincially-mandated minimum scope of work for which an architect can be hired.  An architect must ensure that the design has been developed by him/her or another architect; check that the design complies with all applicable codes; prepare, sign, and seal necessary drawings and specifications; review the project during the construction phase, and confirm at the end of a project that the work is complete.  It's actually illegal for an architect to agree to do less.

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