How to know whether you need an architect, designer, contractor, or all three
Depending on the nature and extent of the remodeling or building project you are planning, you may need an architect, one or more specialized designers, a contractor, all of the above, or just one.
For anything that involves structural work, such as removing or building walls, you will likely need an architect. Though generally the costliest option, architects have the ability to produce plans required by your local building department; they can also get bids for the work to be done and help manage the work to make sure the plans are carried out to specification and on time.
Architects must have passed a certain list of requirements to become licensed, though these requirements vary by state. Make sure the one you choose is licensed for your state. Some architects are also contractors, though this is not common.
Designers can accomplish much of the same, do not need to be licensed, and so are less expensive. However, if your project requires stress calculations, an engineer (who does need to be state licensed) will need to be engaged to produce the plans. If this is the case, hiring an architect may be a more efficient way to go and will probably cost you about the same.
Some contractors are skilled at producing plans that meet building department requirements. However, they also will require the services of an engineer if your project is complex. (See our state-by-state list of contractor licensing boards.)
Many building professionals belong to various institutes or associations. An architect, for example, may belong to the American Institute of Architects, and a designer may be a member of the American Institute of Building Designers. A designer specializing in kitchens or baths may belong to the National Kitchen & Bath Association, which dictates ethical standards members need uphold. In addition, various associations are dedicated to ongoing educational programs to keep members up-to-date on developments in building materials and methods through seminars, conventions, and trade shows.
Each kind of building professional has different ways of charging for a project. Some may bill for time spent assessing a project; others will forgo this fee and, like contractors, simply base their ultimate charge on a percentage of the entire cost of the project, usually 10 percent. Drawing up plans may be additional and charged by the hour. Overseeing construction may also be charged by the hour or as a percentage of the total cost of the project. Even if your architect or designer does charge extra for this service, think carefully about taking advantage of it because it can save you money in the long run. Whichever professional or professionals you end up hiring, make sure the services they are expected to perform are described in detail and in writing before any work begins.