It seems like many people in the building industry are offering design services of some sort. A first time homeowner or novice home builder or remodeler to be, need only look at a “Construction Services” referral site or an online internet directory to walk away in complete confusion. The usual heading one might first look under is Home Remodeling, Contractors, or Architects; followed by Building Designers or Home Designers. If the individual feels confident in his or her personal design abilities or is particularly frugal, then they might look directly under Drafting Services.

A trend observed (usually evident when the economy worsens), is Remodeling Contractors marketing Design Services. As a matter of fact, contractors often have the largest advertisements for design services and construction consultation in local phone directories, weekly newspapers, and paid referral service sites.

The especially naive individual may seek the services of mail order or internet house plan companies because of their apparent reasonable cost. When that person attempts to obtain a building permit by submitting generic drawings to their local Building Department (often with changes made to the copies in ink and liquid paper), the drawings are rarely approved without considerable additional work and often need to be totally redrawn and engineered by local talents.

So let us evaluate the alternatives starting with the most obvious. Whereas not to condemn mail order or internet design services in their entirety, it must be understood that California has unusually conservative design considerations which must be observed, including seismic and energy design standards, and more recently Green Building Standards. Despite the recent merging of the model building codes in the United States, construction techniques still vary greatly. Unless the working drawings are prepared by individuals familiar with code interpretations found within the local building jurisdiction; mail order and internet plans should be used as a starting point for conceptual ideas only.

With the obvious exception of an established design-build association between a contractor and a designer and his professional consultants, or contractors marketing prefabricated or packaged housing; an individual should be wary of retaining an unknown contractor directly for design services. Just as you may not want a police officer to represent you in court (although they may have a general understanding of the law), there are legitimate reasons why you should not have a contractor prepare working drawings for anything with the possible exception of pools, decks, patios, and the simplest of additions. Although contractors may often absorb some of the initial costs of the working drawings, the client often pays exaggerated construction costs to offset the investment of required professional services.

Drafting services should only be considered for modest additions. Although draftsmen are often capable of preparing drawings which may be able to obtain a building permit, their lack of experience and expertise limits their ability to specify materials and to detail concisely. Therefore many design decisions are ultimately left up to the contractor or a finish carpenter, generally on a time and materials basis.

Working drawings do not only guide construction, they are required to obtain a building permit and must comply to local building codes, municipal zoning ordinances, fire safety requirements, and state or federal mandated energy efficiency standards. They provide a legal document specifying materials and standards for construction, as well as providing a record of construction completed. In addition, working drawings are part of the legally binding agreement between the contractor and the client. Because of the complexity of information contained within the documents, it is imperative that they are clear and concise.

So you still want to build a custom home or remodel your existing house and need to retain a designer. Shall it be an Architect or a Professional Building Designer? Most people do not even know the difference. Architects are licensed by the state to practice architecture. Although some specialize in designing custom residences, many Architects specialize in larger projects including multifamily residential and commercial buildings. Building Designers are currently not licensed by the state (they have been in the past), but are limited by law in California to designing single family residential buildings (not to exceed two stories and a basement in height), multifamily residential buildings (not to exceed four units on any legally defined lot), some agricultural buildings, and in many cases non-structural tenant improvements and facade renovations to commercial buildings. Laws in other western states vary. Structural, Septic and Geological concerns are almost always addressed by licensed engineers, geologists and sanitarians, not Architects or Building Designers.

Like in any profession, there are both ethical and intelligent Architects and Building Designers. One difference is cost. Architects fees generally range from 8% to 12% of construction costs. Professional Building Designers in contrast, generally charge 3% to 6% of construction cost for comparable work.

So if you decide to retain a Professional Building Designer, which one? This is primarily a “word of mouth” business. Therefore, recommendations from friends, neighbors, building contractors, and real estate agents are one source of information. Interview the Designer and do not be shy about asking for job and client references. Is the Designer certified by National Council of Building Designer Certification or any other professional organizations? Before retaining a designer, ask your local Building Department staff for a list of recommendations if available. Review their work. Although quality work can still be completed by hand, drawings generated on the computer by a skilled technician can assure complete accuracy in the drawings and construction details. Of course the old saying “garbage in, garbage out” still applies, so still be cautious with your selection.

You have to have complimentary personalities with your Architect or Designer and have trust in their professional judgment. You may be working closely for a number of months, so good and frequent communication is essential. Don’t be scared to ask questions or be intimidated by the process.