Architect Barton Meyers at his Toro Canyon home
Paul Wellman (file)

It’s an age-old question: Why hire an architect? To begin answering it is to recognize that an architect does much more than just help you construct a building. There are numerous talented architects in the community — each with their own perspective on design aesthetic and style. Do you want a modern-looking house, a Spanish Colonial Revival house, a French Normandy house, a Prairie house, or a more eclectic design? There is an architect out there for everyone’s tastes.

But why hire an architect, you ask?

A licensed architect is specifically trained and rigorously tested on all aspects of what it takes to design a building and apply the various building-code requirements for the structure to be permitted by city building departments. They apply environmental factors to the design that improve the use of energy and assess natural forces to increase the livability of the building. They take into account the diverse needs of the occupants, whether for an office or a residential project. In the design of a house, they have to consider some of the most intimate of requirements — where to store your knickers, for example. Why to not locate the TV/media room next to the sleeping rooms is another example. Which spaces are part of the “public zone,” and which are not?

How will one approach the building from the street? How should you configure the outdoor spaces? What must be done to ensure that the building is weathertight and can withstand the natural forces of wind, earth movement, and other external forces? An architect will take into account that buildings are moving all the time — expanding and contracting with the temperature. An architect will know intuitively the common spacing of framing elements and where to place shear walls that will absorb the forces of wind or earth movement. The architect has to be aware of all of these factors and aware that they vary greatly depending upon the site where the building is to be constructed.

These major issues are all part of why engaging a licensed architect on your project is a must. While the California Building Code will allow you as an unlicensed individual to design your own house, doing so can prove to be to your peril if you don’t understand the codes and local laws that govern your project. Ignoring these codes and laws can lead not only to costly mistakes, but also to structural failures for which a person without an architecture license cannot cover the liability.

Architects are also ringmasters to a cadre of specialists, from landscape architects to structural and mechanical/plumbing engineers to other technical consultants. Architects know when to engage these resources and how to coordinate their efforts with their own to ensure the integration of all the building systems.

As consumers, we look for the Good Housekeeping Seal of approval, and we should do the same when we build. You want to know that your doctor is accredited and that he or she stays current with his or her field. You want to know that the half gallon of milk you just bought has not expired. And so it is with architects who are members of the American Institute of Architects, or AIA. AIA membership is Good Housekeeping Seal of the architectural profession; it can give you confidence that your architect is being held to an ethical standard. Knowing that your architect is required to stay current with technology, codes, and area requirements in daily practice will give you the confidence you require that the outcome of the design will both meet your expectations and satisfy the highest standards.

As well-meaning as unlicensed drafters and licensed architects are, if you insist on the Good Housekeeping Seal of the AIA, your project is much more likely to turn out just as you dreamt of it — perfect!

Architecturally Speaking is written by members of the American Institute of Architects’ Santa Barbara chapter. Robert Ooley, FAIA, is vice president of AIASB. He can be reached at


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