Home Improvement Expert Danny Lipford

Do You Need an Architect or a Designer?


Architect working at drawing board.

One of the most common questions homeowners ask remodeling contractors is, “Should we hire an architect or a designer for our project?” For most small projects, such as enlarging a window opening or removing a non-bearing wall, the answer is no. The contractor and homeowner can handle both the design and construction end.

For large additions, whole-house renovations, and new kitchens, you should consider hiring an architect or design professional to help plan the project. A design pro can make sure the esthetic considerations meld with the structural requirements of the project and that the space is both liveable and aesthetically pleasing.

Here’s what architects, designers, kitchen specialists, and interior designers do and don’t do, what they charge and how you can pick the right one for your project.

About Architects

Architects are trained in design theory, engineering, and project management. A design for your project and a set of code compliant plans will cost from $65 to more than $150 per hour (rates vary by region and individual architect).

If you would like the architect to manage the project, solicit bids, choose the contractor and subcontractors, control money, and oversee work; they will charge an additional 5% to 10% of the cost of the project.

Architects are skilled at coming up with inventive ideas to solve complex design problems and at making sure a project is true to itself aesthetically (whether it’s classical or original in styling).

An addition, or other complicated project with lots of roof lines, really benefits from an architect’s vision and ability to visualize ideas three-dimensionally. So does an older home where you want to extend the existing historic look to new work. And, of course, so does a home where you want to make a one-of-a-kind statement.

You’ll often see the initials “AIA” after an architect’s name. This indicates membership in the American Institute of Architects. Licensing of architects is a separate process that is administrated by each state.

As project manager, an architect can keep an eye on the progression of work. They act not only as a point person to handle the inevitable problems that arise, but also as your advocate with the general contractor and the subcontractors.

Danny Lipford going over plans on job site with architect.

Dealing with Architects

Usually homeowners will hire an architect before the contractor is involved. After the architect meets with the homeowners to determine their needs, they will present a full set of plans for bid, including renderings of the outside of the structure and all building details from roof to foundation.

If extensive changes are made, which often arise once contractors start bidding on the project, the architect will redraw the plans for an additional fee.

Hiring an architect to oversee a project is the highest level of service you can buy, since you’re responsible for little more than writing the check. It can be a good solution for someone who doesn’t want to deal with a contractor or get involved in the day-to-day decision making process during the course of construction.

While it might be nice, in most cases hiring the architect who designed the plans to oversee an addition or remodel isn’t necessary. So if you’re on a budget, it makes more sense to handle dealing with the contractor yourself.

About Designers

Designers usually do not have academic training in architecture and engineering but are experienced in interior space planning and simple additions. If you’re remodeling a kitchen or adding a family room, a designer may have all the skills you need.

Designers typically charge $35 to $70 per hour, with the price for a full set of plans for an averge addition costing around $1,500.

A designer’s plans will be reviewed by a structural engineer to make sure beams won’t sag and floors won’t bounce, something architects often do as a precaution as well, even though they have some engineering training. Designers typically don’t offer project management services.

Homeowner matching paint samples to fabric with interior designer.

Licensed Designers

Laws governing licensing of design services vary from state to state. All states require that architects be licensed, but the licensing of designers is a gray area, and many states exempt the design of single-family homes from architectural licensing. To find out the policy in your state, call the licensing board or ask your contractor.

No matter what the policy of your state is, check your homeowner’s insurance policy as well. You might have to beef it up, because professional liability or malpractice is rarely covered. In the event of a costly repair where it’s unclear if the designer or contractor is to blame, you could end up stuck with some of the bill.

Some designers work for remodeling contractors. These companies, called “design/build firms,” offer the complete remodeling package everything from plans to paint. Generally, the design of the project is included in the overall price.

Dealing with Designers

A designer or design/build firm can handle most residential remodels. And the designer and contractor typically operate as a team, not adversaries.

After initial meetings with the homeowners, the designer and contractor return for a second meeting with a partial set of drawings often just a rendering of the outside walls, or elevation, and a rough floor plan. The contractor will price out the plans only after the homeowners approve the preliminary drawings.

The designer is commissioned to finish the drawings once the budget is approved. This helps avoid sticker shock when the final bill gets presented. But even in a worst case scenario, in which a full plan set has to be redrawn, the cost is about half what an architect will charge.

There are some drawbacks to using a designer. Regulations covering designers vary from state to state, so you’re not necessarily guaranteed a basic level of skill and education. And, unlike architects, designers are not always insured against negligence or malpractice.

Hiring an Architect or Designer

After you’ve made a decision between an architect and designer, you have to find one to work with. Ask family, friends and neighbors you trust for recommendations. Then look at their last few jobs and interview the homeowners.

Remodeling contractors are another good source or architects and designers. Since they are responsible for building what that designer draws, they won’t recommend someone who does not know what they’re doing or that they have had trouble with in the past.

Homeowner looking at cabinet wood options with kitchen designer.

Other Design Professionals

Thought you had the architect/designer dilemma figured out? Think again! There are several additional types of designers to consider:

  • Certified kitchen designers (CKD)
  • certified bath designers (CBD)
  • Interior designers (ASID)

The National Kitchen & Bath Association certifies kitchen and bath designers after they complete course work and document years of field experience. They charge $40 to $75 per hour and work at least 10 to 20 hours on your plan with the contractor. Many certified designers work with a kitchen and bath showroom or a cabinet dealer. You’ll also find them on staff at home centers.

Certified kitchen and bath designers bring a focused expertise to the work space, traffic patterns, electrical layout, and cabinet and appliance clearances; all of which make kitchens and bathrooms different animals when it comes to remodeling.

Like architects or designers, kitchen and bath designers draw a complete set of up to code plans. And, like an architect, many will provide project management for a percentage of the gross cost of the remodel.

Certified kitchen and bath designers are aware of structural basics, though they should consult an engineer if they propose any structural changes in the walls or floors.

Certified interior designers are what most people call interior decorators. The certifying group is the American Society of Interior Designers.

Generally interior designers do not present building plans to a contractor, but they will consult on space reallocation and assist in designing the finished interior space.

For a $30 to $75 fee, depending on the range of services provided, interior designers also research, shop, and present you with decorating samples or introduce you to product lines for such things as furniture and lighting.

Please Leave a Comment

8 Comments on “Do You Need an Architect or a Designer?”

You can follow comments to this article by subscribing to the RSS news feed with your favorite feed reader.

  1. Roy Says:
    November 23rd, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    If you’re spending over, say, 10k on your project, do yourself a favor and hire an architect. Or learn the hard way. You get what you pay for. I’ve had bad experiences with ‘designers’ and contractors alike. Designers aren’t legally responsible for anything that they do (no recourse for the client, oops), and they won’t / can’t manage the construction. If you don’t have a competent professional overseeing the construction then the contractor will take this opportunity to extend the project timeline and budget. From what I understand, this has never NOT happened. There’s certainly no code of ethics binding these guys.

  2. James Says:
    May 7th, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    I work for a local General contractor with many lic. across the board there is not a project he wont take on this company offers full service from permits and plan drafting to all construction and handyman service. We hear all to often the famous complaint “the contractor will take this opportunity to extend the project timeline and budget. From what I understand, this has never NOT happened. There‚Äôs certainly no code of ethics binding these guys” While over the past ten years contractors have been poping up like wildflowers everyone and there brother no is a contractor there are still some of the orignial true Craftsman left look for a company who offers many services seams to be a kind person in general and look for a history 20 + years in buisness and thats in buisness not in the trades

  3. Margaret Spencer Says:
    January 6th, 2014 at 11:23 am

    I have a family home in Washington County that is way over a hundred years old. I want to restore it. It will be a major undertakig. It was a basic 2 maybe 3 room house with porches. Over the years those porches were closed in to make rooms and a bath added, a laundry room/hafe bath and one new room was added. The rooms are very choped up. Roof is Tin,has an old doubel fireplace/not useable. I just need some good advice where to start.

  4. Keith at Studio KZ Says:
    February 3rd, 2014 at 7:22 pm

    Hi Margaret,

    Hopefully someone has reached out to you to help you with your family home in Washington County. You are correct; a sensitive restoration is indeed a major undertaking and cannot be accomplished by just anyone. Considering the content of the article, you will certainly need some detailed drawings of the existing house and of design authentic to the history and context of the house. For those things, you will need an architect or a designer. You stand a far greater chance of finding a qualified professional in the licensed architecture realm, as architects, through their training, have had to study historic styles. Legally, you probably won’t need a licensed architect unless you’re planning on some structural changes (in which case an engineer will usually stamp the drawings). In older houses such as yours, structural changes are likely. It is much more probable that an architect will understand the complexities of a detailed restoration project. Your jurisdiction may require a licensed professional anyway if the house is on a historic register. In sum, I’d suggest starting with a round of interviews with architects, then follow up with designers.

  5. Nandini Says:
    May 20th, 2014 at 9:34 am

    I am not sure if I need an architect or an interior designer for remodeling my home. Or both. Does it help to have both? Or will it complicate things? I don’t want to be charged double. Can they both sit down together and discuss what they would offer? Then, itemize the job so that I won’t have to double pay? I will be making some structural changes and would like the advice of a designer for color, fabric, etc.

  6. Elisa Says:
    May 23rd, 2014 at 11:52 am

    I am an interior designer, and as there is a lot of confusion about the industry, I would like to clear up a few things.

    Design is literally as old as mankind; everything we produce is designed. As the building has become more complex, so have the professions: architecture, interior decorators, interior designer, landscape architects, engineers, and so on. Architecture has long history, and has been redefined time and again. There have been “architects” who have designed everything on a property, from the landscape down to the dining chairs.

    The term interior decoration appeared in 1807 and interior design appeared in 1927. Because they are so new, they are still being defined, and we are working toward recognition, just as architects did about a hundred years ago.

    Architecture – the practice of designing and constructing a building as a whole

    Interior design – the practice of planning and supervising the design and execution of architectural interiors and their furnishings

    Interior decorators – are concerned with surface treatments and aesthetics, and may or may not be formally trained

    Look for a 2 to 4 year degree from a CIDA accredited school and NCIDQ certification; these are the major avenues to becoming a professional, well informed designer. A designer must have at least 2-4 years of full-time professional experience under supervision to be eligible for the NCIDQ exams. There are a multitude of other certifications, but they are not widely recognized. The major professional organizations (equivalent to architecture’s AIA) are ASID and IIDA – these provide continuing education among other things, but they do NOT provide certification. The NKBA (National Kitchen & Bath Association) is the go-to organization for that specialty, and they do provide certification.

    The going hourly rate for a designer is $100; more for a principal in larger firms or otherwise more experienced professionals. Some designers charge hourly, some charge a percentage of the project cost, some vary; this will be negotiated in the contract.

    CIDA accredited programs include building codes, basic building systems, sustainability, professional practice (eg contracts and project management), environmental psychology, history of architecture, and history of interiors and furniture styles. Interior designers have actually led the way in evidence-based design as opposed to theory alone, which is a fantastic development for the whole industry and society as a whole. They are really focused on how a space functions and feels.

    In an ideal world, a project like Margaret’s would involve a team comprised of an architect, interior designer, and a construction manager; Nandini didn’t give enough details to say either way, but you can make that question a part of the interview process when shopping around – if they brush off the idea of collaboration, move on. And Margaret, DEFINITELY look for design professionals who specialize in historical restoration and preservation. Ask for proof of insurance. Always work with a contract. Get everything in writing. Everything. :)

    Best of luck!

  7. Alireza Abbasi Says:
    September 1st, 2014 at 10:25 am

    I want to have a dream house

  8. Jason Says:
    November 25th, 2014 at 3:54 am

    Hello. I recently purchased a home that I’m planning to do a pretty extensive remodel to. The remodel is alone is expected to fall in the $700K-1M range. Being such a large project, I sought an opinion from two local architects that I felt would be good candidates for the job. After meeting with the first architect, he visited my home once to preview the property. I met with his designers once as well where they gave me a roughy sketch the architect came up with…which was in all honesty just scribble on a piece of paper. He did sketch a front view of the home for a visual. After a month or so without hearing from him I consulted a second architect for a different opinion. I never signed a contract with the first architect then out of nowhere received a bill for $2,450.00. I honestly feel robbed/taken advantage of. The bill break down shows him spending X hours at $180/hour, the head designer spending X hours at $140/hour…and the regular designer spending X hours at $110/hour. I’m not exactly sure what to do. Please give me your opinion.

We want to hear from you! In addition to posting comments on articles and videos, you can also send your comments and questions to us on our contact page or at (800) 946-4420. While we can't answer them all, we may use your question on our Today's Homeowner radio or TV show, or online at todayshomeowner.com.

Click to check out all our great giveaways!