July 26, 2019

Ask a Builder: What's the difference between a building designer and architect?

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So you’ve decided to build a custom home…now what? You probably have some idea of what you want in your new home, (open concept great room? Sauna? Coffered ceilings?), but before you start picking tile and paint colors, you have to start thinking about design.

Which areas on the property get the most sunlight? Does the zoning of your property fit with your plans? If not, what are some design work-arounds? Is it better to save money on architectural details and splurge on finishes, or the other way around?

These questions (and many more) can be answered by a qualified design professional. When planning a custom built home in Vancouver or anywhere else, you should be consulting with either an architect or residential building designer.

Architect vs Building Designer: What’s the difference?

The main difference is that architects have a license from a regulating body, such as the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada. This means they have a bachelor’s degree in architecture, completed a 3-year internship and passed the licensing examination. Architects are also legally responsible for their plans and must carry liability insurance.


Custom Built East Vancouver Home 2

This custom built East Vancouver home was designed in a heritage style by an architect. 

On the other hand, the title “building designer” is unrestricted, meaning anyone can use it. This is not to say that architects are always better than designers – in fact, many building designers are former architects who didn’t renew their membership to the regulating body, or they may have a degree in architecture, but decided not to get their license.

Additionally, building designers tend to specialize in residential construction where as architects also work on larger projects such as hospitals and office buildings.


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This modern, custom built North Vancouver home was designed by a building designer.

Another consideration is price: architects tend to be more expensive than building designers, though this is not always the case. Often both types of design professionals either charge a flat fee for plans or charge per square foot.


What to look for in a design professional

We say that good builders are good communicators – the same thing goes for both designers and architects. At your first meeting, your home design professional should start by listening to what you want in your home, and may even give you a survey to better understand the needs of your family.

Though they will be able to design the home from survey information alone, a good design professional will also make one or more site visits to check sunlight, the lay of the land and the look of the street. Additionally, they will tailor the design of your custom built home to the building and zoning bylaws of your lot and municipality.

The design professional should also keep your budget in mind and be willing to work with you (the client), builder and other consultants (such as the structural and electrical engineers) to incorporate their feedback into the design. The last thing you want is a designer or architect who refuses to incorporate changes to their designs.


 Vancouver Custom Home

This Vancouver custom home is built on a filled in swamp, requiring the geotechnical and structural engineers to work together. 

In deciding who to go with, don’t be afraid to ask for references and examples of recently completed projects. These will often be the best indicator of talent and competency, regardless of whether you choose a designer or architect.

Don’t forget!

After the plans for your custom built home are complete, a structural engineer must sign off on the design before you can apply for a building permit. If you are denied, the architect or designer must work on the changes with the structural engineer and have him or her sign off on the changes before you can apply again. 

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