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Must I use an architect?

Anyone who uses the title “architect” or offers architectural services must be licensed or “registered” in the state in which they are offering the architectural services. California defines architectural practice as “…the planning of sites, and the design, in whole or in part, of buildings or groups of buildings and structures.” Architectural licensing laws vary by state, but all states restrict the title and practice of architecture to registered professionals, and the practice of architecture without a license is a civil offense.

Although it is generally recommended that you hire an architect for any project that requires a building permit and is larger than something you might take on yourself, you are not legally required to hire an architect in all circumstances. In California and in most states, you may hire a registered civil or structural engineer in lieu of an architect to stamp and sign the permit drawings. If your project requires architectural design or requires an understanding of building code and zoning issues, however, most engineers will advise you to bring an architect on board (just as most architects will advise you to hire an engineer if the structural issues rise above a certain level of complexity).

Secondly, certain building types do not require hiring an architect or engineer at all, HOWEVER, the local building department has the authority to override these exemptions. You should always consult your local building department before attempting to take on a project without a registered architect or engineer.

In California (other states are similar, but you should consult with your local building department) certain types of buildings do not require licensed architects or engineers.

Work that does not require a licensed architect or registered engineer?  The answers can be found in the CA Architect Board’s “Consumer’s Guide to Hiring an Architect”)

  • single-family dwellings of conventional wood frame construction that are not more than two stories and basement in height.

  • multiple dwellings containing no more than four dwellings.

  • units that are of conventional wood frame construction, not more than two stories and basement in height, and not more than four dwelling units per lot.

  • garages or other structures added to dwellings of wood frame construction that are not more than two stories and basement in height.

  • agricultural and ranch buildings of wood frame construction, unless the building official deems that an undue risk to the public health, safety, or welfare is involved.

  • nonstructural or nonseismic storefronts, interior alterations or additions, fixtures, cabinetwork, furniture, or other appliances or equipment, including nonstructural work necessary to provide for their installation.

  • nonstructural or nonseismic alterations or additions to any building necessary for the installation of storefronts, interior alterations or additions, fixtures, cabinetwork, furniture, appliances, or equipment, provided those alterations do not change or affect the structural system or safety of the building.


For most building projects, however, the answer is “yes,” you must hire a registered architect OR a registered engineer. And, even if your project fits one of the exclusions, you still might be required to hire an architect or engineer if your local building official determines that it is necessary for your project based on state laws as well as public health, safety, and welfare, local environmental and geographical conditions such as snow loads, winds, earthquake activity, tidal action, and soil conditions.