Architect or building designer

Architect or building designer?

Before you decide between a registered architect or a registered building designer you should understand the difference between the two.

Differences & similarities

Registered architect Registered building designer
Qualifications An architect who is registered with the Architects Registration Board of Victoria (ARBV) must complete a five-year university course, undertake two years of industry practice, and complete registration exams.

Architects are trained in the science of building, the sociology and psychology around building, and in using creativity to develop design ideas.  They are trained to draw detailed plans, negotiate with builders and councils, administer building contracts, and inspect building works.

Architects can, but won’t always choose to do the work of town planning, interior design and landscape design.

A building designer who is registered with the Victorian Building Association (VBA) must complete a TAFE diploma or an advanced diploma (typically a two-year course), and have two years of industry experience.

Designers are trained in technical drawing, can draw detailed designs from an architect or bring to life the design ideas of the client.

Designers are not qualified to do the work of town planning, interior design, or landscape design.

Technical drawing Both architects and building designers can deliver a high level of technical drawing. Both architects and building designers can deliver a high level of technical drawing.
Range of services Architects can do all stages of the project.  Architects may also be willing to do one or two stages in isolation, such as only doing the concept design.  The range of services include:

  • Concept design
  • Hire and co-ordinate consultants
  • Apply for permits, including planning and building
  • Documentation, including working drawings, specifications, and tender
  • Contract administration – ensure the building works fulfil the contract
Building designers can do all stages of the project except contract administration.  The range of services include:

  • Concept design
  • Hire and co-ordinate consultants
  • Apply for permits, including planning and building.
    However not all designers do planning permits.
  • Documentation, including working drawings and tender
Cost Architects usually charge more than building designers. Building designers usually charge less than architects.
Design direction* Architects will interview you thoroughly at the concept design stage, get to know you to anticipate your needs, and will take the lead and direct you. Building designers will interview you at the concept design stage, listen to your needs and will respond to your directions.
Aesthetic quality* As architects are trained to use creativity to develop design ideas, you should expect a level of originality and aesthetic quality in your design. As building designers are trained in technical drawing, you should not always expect originality in your design.
Contracts Architects are allowed to use building contracts designed by the Australian Institute of Architects (links) which tends to favour the client.  AIA contracts allow retention (link) which means the builder doesn’t get the final payment until up to twelve months after completion and only after all the defects are fixed. Building designers are allowed to use the building association contracts, eg an HIA or MBA contract (links), which tend to favour the builder.  In these contracts, there is no retention, and the defects, variations and extension of time clauses are written to make it easier for the builder to dispute any defects, to claim variations and to extend the time.
Specifications* Architects create detailed working drawings and detailed specifications.  With these documents, there is a lower chance of variations and a higher chance your project will be delivered within budget. Building designers tend to create working drawings but not specifications.  Some building designers will provide a basic specification document called a scope of works.  Without a detailed specifications document, there is a higher chance of variations (link) and a lower chance your project will be delivered within budget.
Structural elements* Architects will adapt the design to seamlessly integrate and hide structural elements, like beams and support posts.  Architects usually resolve all structural issues before the building work begins. Building designers tend not to adapt the design to integrate or resolve structural elements. Designers may not resolve all structural issues before the building work begins. If this happens, the builder usually resolves structural problems as they come up on site.
National and State building regulations* Architects are more likely to know the National and State building regulations and the State and council planning regulations.  Architects are more likely to ensure their designs comply with the regulations. Building designers are less likely to know the National and State building regulations and the State and council planning regulations.  If you have a complicated project, designers may struggle to get the council permit.

* Please note: there’s no guarantee that an ARBV registered architect will deliver a better result for you than a VBA registered building designer.

Finding the right architect or building designer

There’s no right way to find an architect or building designer.  However, we strongly recommend the following:

Word of mouth

Ask your friends and family who have built for recommendations.  Ask for a detailed explanation of why they liked the architect or building designer.  You could ask questions like:

  • Were they professional?
  • Were they clear about costs and what you’d get?
  • Did they give you, and meet their delivery dates or were you left waiting?
  • Did they listen to your ideas or did they push their own ideas?
  • Did they design to budget?
  • Did they work well with the builder?
  • Were you happy with the outcome?
  • Is there anything they would have done differently?
  • Would you use them again?

Check their registration

Check the registration of the architect or building designer.  You should only hire a qualified and registered architect or building designer.  Check that their registration type suits your project.

Check their website

Study their website get a feel for their style.  Pay attention to the number of projects they’ve done (the more, the better!) and make sure they’re able to handle the type of project you have.  For example, an architect who specialises in shopping centres may not be right for a kitchen renovation.  If past projects are not on their website, be sure to ask for a detailed list.

Meet the architect or designer

If possible, arrange to meet with your prospective architect or building designer.  By chatting with them, you may be able to get a sense of their character.  They will also size you up to decide whether they want to take you on as a client.  Some questions you could ask include:

  • What kind of clients they usually work with?
  • Will they do the energy report, the town planning, interior design, and landscape design associated with your project?
  • What percentage of their designs get the planning permit first go?
  • What percentage of their designs are built?
  • Have they ever been taken to VCAT?
  • What is their availability?
  • How busy they currently are?
  • When could they start?
  • Ask for references from three previous clients. Remember they will usually put their best references forward.  Ask if you can ask to visit a past project.

You should also ask direct questions about money, management, and what is included in your contract:

  • What is their meetings policy?
  • Will they give you deadlines for the plan stages?
  • What is a feasible deadline for this project?
  • What will happen if they miss a deadline?
  • Will they offer a reason if they miss a deadline?
  • At what stage of the project do they expect payment?
  • What sort of situations will attract extra charges?  For example, if you finalise and sign off on a plan stage, how much will they charge you to make changes?
  • How will they charge for additional changes – flat fee or by the hour?
  • Exactly what documents you get?  Ask for examples of these documents so you know the level of detail to expect.  You can also ask for examples of:
  • Their fee proposal
  • Concept design
  • Working drawings and specifications

Ask the difficult questions

In the early stages of negotiation, it’s important to discuss what happens if things go wrong.  For example: if you pull the plug halfway through a plan stage, do you pay up to that point, and do you own the incomplete plans?  Or will you have to pay in full and not retain ownership of the plans?  It can be uncomfortable to have this type of conversation, but it may make it easier in future if things go wrong.  Also, it’s a good idea to get the answers to these questions in writing.

Meet their previous clients

Follow up on the three provided references.  If possible, go and look at the projects.  It may take time and effort to arrange, and may not always be possible, but it can help you get a better understanding of the architect or building designer.  These are some questions you could ask:

  • Were they professional?
  • Were they clear about costs and what you’d get?
  • Did they give you and meet their delivery dates or were you left waiting?
  • Did they listen to your ideas, or push their ideas too strongly?
  • Did they design to budget?
  • Did they work well with the builder?
  • Were you happy with the outcome?
  • Is there anything you would have done differently?
  • Would you use them again?

Disclaimer:  The information in this article is general advice only, and should be used as a general guide only, and not relied on for decision making purposes.  Every building and renovation project is different, so before acting on the information in this article you should consider its appropriateness to your specific project.  For guidance around your specific building or renovation project, seek assistance from a building consultant such as a qualified architect or building designer.