Architect vs Building Designer


In this series of blog posts, we’ve been walking through the steps to plan, design, and build a custom home. Last time, we talked about the pros and cons of using DIY software to do your own design, and the pros and cons of buying stock plans on the internet.

This time, we’re talking about architects and certified professional building designers. What’s the difference? Which should you hire to design your home? 

Both are trained and certified to do residential architectural design. One way to compare is to look at the requirements set forth by their respective professional organizations.


Here's what the American Institute of Architects says to its candidates for certification:

Education. Most states require a professional degree in architecture: a Bachelor or Master of Architecture. There are 100+ accredited professional degree programs in the United States and Canada alone. 

Experience. All states require that you work under a supervising architect. During this time you’ll get valuable work experience that will help you advance your career and earn credit in the AXP.

Examination. You’ll also need to pass the ARE. It’s a multi-part exam that will test your knowledge and skills in a variety of segments within the practice of architecture.

Licensure. Once you pass the exams and complete the experience requirement, you can register for a license. Individual states grant licenses. You can become licensed in multiple states.


Certified Professional Building Designer

Here's what the American Institute of Building Design says to its candidates for certification:

Experience. Using the application and supporting documents, applicants must display at least six years of engagement in the professional practice of building design (minimum 20 hours per week).

Educational Alternative. One year of education from a college, university or technical institute is equivalent to one year of experience. A maximum of three years of education may be substituted for experience.

Exams and Duration. Once an application is approved, applicants are listed as a Candidate. Candidates may begin the exam process at any time. Candidates have 36 months from the date of approval to start and successfully complete all five exams.

  • Business Administration and Practices
  • Design Process
  • Building Design I
  • Building Design II
  • Building Design III

Annual Certification. When all five certification exams are successfully completed, candidates will be asked to submit their first year's annual certification fee. Certification expires on the individual’s certification anniversary date. To re-certify, individuals must submit verification of eight continuing education credits obtained within the prior 12 month period.

Okay, so which is better?

Well, it depends. In my experience of building new custom homes and doing whole-house remodels, I've worked successfully with both architects and building designers. As you can see from the education and experience requirements, both are equally qualified.

Ask lots of questions

To choose a design professional, you'll want to get really curious and ask lots of questions. Take a look back at our blog post on design planning and review a list of questions you should ask. 

Put your team together early

One of the most important things you can do is to put your team together early. The designer, builder, and you. How many different times and how different ways do you want to have to explain your vision to how many different people? Early buy-in from everyone involved means a successful outcome. As one third of this team, please allow me to offer some insights from my years of experience.

  • Personality fit. Building a new home or embarking on a whole-house remodel is one of the most intimate experiences you will ever undertake with your team members. All the players need to get along well. Really well.
  • Architectural style. Sure, it's a great idea for a professional to be challenged, but do you want someone taking on a style of project they have never done before? It may work, but . . .
  • Time. Does the designer have time for your project? Will your project be a priority? 
  • Size. Do you want to work with a large design firm or a small shop? There are advantages to working with a large design firm that offers many services you may need. And you may find that a smaller shop offers you a more intimate experience with lots of opportunity for you to participate in the process.
  • Process. Will the designer's policies and procedures work with the builder's business model? 
  • During construction. How much time will a design professional dedicate to being on the job site?

In our next post, we'll talk about another way to go about things -- the design/build/consult model.