House & Home

Do You Need an Architect or a Designer?

Posted June 10, 2008 11:10 a.m. EDT
Updated June 10, 2008 11:32 a.m. EDT

Do You Need an Architect or a Designer?

 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. But for large additions, whole-house renovations and new kitchens, consider working with a design professional. A pro can make sure the esthetic considerations meld with the structural requirements of the project and, quite simply, that the space lives as well as it looks. 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.


Architects are trained in design theory and history, 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 the economic health of the building industry). If you want the architect to manage the project solicit bids, choose the contractor and subcontractors, control money and oversee work ,she will charge 5 to 10 percent of the gross construction cost.

Why hire an architect? Architects are professionals trained in the art, engineering and history of building design. They are skilled at coming up with inventive ideas to solve complex design problems and at making sure a project is true to itself esthetically (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 is a separate process that is administrated by each state.

As project manager, the architect can keep an eye on the progression of work. She’ll 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. In a sense, this is the highest level of service you can buy, you’re responsible for little more than writing the check, and 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 during the course of construction. But in most cases, this service isn’t necessary, and it’s not cheap.

Usually homeowners working with an architect will contact her directly, before a contractor is involved. After the architect meets with the homeowners to determine their needs, she’ll 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 there are extensive changes, which often arise once contractors start bidding on the project, the plans will be redrawn, for a fee.


Designers usually do not have academic training in architecture and engineering, but they 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 a 1,200-sq.-ft. 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.

Is Your Designer Licensed?

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 is, check your homeowner’s insurance policy. 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.

Why hire a designer? A designer or design/build firm can handle most residential remodels. And the designer and contractors 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 (see “Is Your Designer Licensed?” above).

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. Since they are responsible for building what that designer draws, they won’t recommend someone who does not know what he or she is doing.

Other Design Professionals

Thought you had the architect-or-designer dilemma figured out? Here come two entirely different classes of designers: certified kitchen designers and certified bath designers (you’ll see the initials CKD or CBD, respectively, after the designers’ names) and 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.

They 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, these professionals 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 with 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, they 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, they’ll also research, shop and present you with decorating samples or introduce you to product lines for such things as furniture and lighting.