Check on who you are working with: Are they a licensed Architect?

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

We can’t emphasize this enough—a designer is not a licensed professional.  They may have certain skills and experience, some may even have a degree in architecture, but they do not have the extensive training of a licensed architect.  Unlicensed individuals are not legally liable for their work.  To verify whether someone you are interviewing is a licensed architect in California, you can check online with the California Architects Board at http://www.cab.ca.gov/

Would you go to an unlicensed person for medical services?  For legal services?  Why would you trust your home or business, probably your biggest single investment, to an unlicensed person?  It does not save you money in the long run.  You will not likely get the best possible design solution either.

Some folks have taken to calling themselves architects when they do not hold a California license.  (That is not legal.)  Some have licenses from foreign countries, or other states.  It’s simply not the same thing.  California has some of most stringent requirements in the world for design and construction.  This is partly due to seismic (earthquake) safety, but it is also due to environmental regulations, life safety, building energy performance, local ordinances, and other concerns.  A licensed architect not only has a four or five-year architecture undergraduate degree, they also have years of apprenticeship under a licensed architect, then a rigorous multi-part examination that usually takes multiple years to pass successfully.  For a good summary of the steps to become a licensed architect, see this blog:  http://www.modative.com/modern-architects-blog/topic/architecture-license by Derek Leavitt.  For more details, and the process to be licensed in the U.S. for foreign architects, see www.ncarb.org

Our firm was underbid for a contract on a commercial building remodel a few years ago.  A woman who claimed to be an architect offered her services for half of what we estimated.  The client didn’t check on her license, but trusted her claim.  After she created a full set of documents (and charged him for it), the project could not get permitted.  There were glaring errors and omissions.  The unfortunate client had to come back to us and start all over.  None of the designer’s work could be used.  Instead of getting the project for “half price”, he ended up paying 1.5 times what he would have paid in the first place.  He also had a huge setback to his schedule and lost potential revenue waiting to get his new tenants into the building.

Just recently we found out another cautionary story by coincidence.  A married couple interviewed us about a residential addition project.  We determined that the home already had a second story addition that was built without permits.  The couple wanted to add more square footage to the home.  We outlined the complexities of legalizing the existing second story to them, including that they would not be able to build as much additional square footage as they wanted.  Instead they chose an unlicensed designer who told them what they wanted to hear.  We found out the rest of the story later because we know the General Contractor that the couple chose to build the project.  After it was all said and done, the couple ended up having to do exactly what we had proposed in the first place.  The project had to be redesigned and downsized.  The drawings had to be redone and resubmitted to the permitting agency.  It took 2 ½ years of back-and-forth with the permitting agency because the designer was not familiar enough with the code requirements and kept trying to tweak the design to make it work.  The General Contractor told us that the original estimate he had given the couple had to be increased quite a bit after the 2.5-year delay due to rising construction costs.

Keep in mind that the “soft costs” of a project (architecture, engineering and permit fees) are typically far less than the “hard costs” of construction.  It varies, but soft costs usually run less than 15% of the project budget.  Don’t get scared of overpaying on the soft costs.  Hire the best, and most experienced, licensed professionals you can find, who are available and willing to take your project.  Double-check on their license status.  The fee for a good architect is money well spent, and could save you time and costs in the long run.

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