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One of the more common questions we receive at Percipient Architecture is when should (or must) a licensed architect be hired for their project?  This, of course, is countered by when is it possible (or appropriate) to hire an unlicensed drafting/design professional?  These are good questions whose answers have both a legal perspective as well as a design perspective.  Hopefully you find this discussion helpful, even if it is a little dry.

Before getting down to brass tacks, let us preface the following discussion by saying we are not suggesting that an architect is “better” or more “able” than an unlicensed drafting/design professional.  It is true that there is a significant difference in the legal and educational  requirements between a licensed and unlicensed professional.  But in terms of design talent and industry knowledge, all architects have known and worked with MANY talented drafting/design professionals. That being said, there are some significant differences, which we will try to clarify.



First, there are situations where an individual is REQUIRED to utilize the services of a licensed architect (and/or a licensed structural or civil engineer).  The following examples are specific to the state of Oregon (note, every state has its own variations of these rules):

  1. Any single-family dwelling that, due to its complexity, cannot be constructed using prescriptive path engineering as described in the Oregon Residential Structural Code (ORSC), and therefore requires professional, stamped engineering.
  2. Any non-farm/non-agricultural building (e.g. commercial, retail, residential, etc.) that is EITHER over 4,000 SF in overall area OR is over 20 feet in height (measured from the top of the finished floor to the underside of highest overhead finish).
  3. Alterations or repairs to any single-family dwelling that requires structural alterations that are beyond the capacity of prescriptive path engineering (similar to item #1 above).
  4. Alterations or repairs to any commercial building that requires structural alterations of any capacity.
  5. When the occupancy of any building, or portion of any building, is changing.  For example: if a building owner wants to turn an existing house into a restaurant.
  6. When the type of classification of any building, or portion of any building, is changing.  For example: if a building owner wants to have an existing building originally permitted as a Type III (non-combustible envelope) changed to a Type V (fully combustible).  Note, this is not common.

This means that an unlicensed drafting/design professional may work on the following:

  1. Single-family dwellings equal to or less than 4,000 SF ground area, so long as they can utilize the prescriptive code path OR they enlist the services of a licensed engineer for their non-prescriptive engineering needs.
  2. Single-family dwellings under 20 feet in height, so long as they can utilize the prescriptive code path OR they enlist the services of a licensed engineer for non-prescriptive engineering efforts.
  3. Any farm or agricultural building (of any size).  Note, when it comes to pole barns, it is typically faster and more affordable to hire a design-build pole building contractor.Structures used in connection with, or accessory to, single-family dwellings or farm buildings.  These include but are not limited to: garages, barns, sheds, patio covers, or shelters used for housing domestic animals or livestock. 
  4. Alterations or repairs to a building when the structural elements of a building are not involved, or when the occupancy type or construction classification has not changed.
  5. Commercial projects less than a ground area of 4,000 SF and 20 foot height limit with no structural changes, unless a licensed structural engineer is involved. Note: the 4,000 SF maximum ground area includes the entire building, not just the commercial suite involved. For example: a tenant improvement of 1,000 SF in a building that is 3,500 SF DOES require a licensed professional. 
  6. Decks under 10 feet tall, or taller decks with the services of a structural engineer.

Second, there is a legal liability difference between a licensed architect and an unlicensed drafting/design professional.  A licensed architect’s primary (and legal) obligation is to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public which, naturally, includes our clients (ORS 671).  This means that architects cannot knowingly cut corners if they believe doing so might risk the health, safety, and/or welfare of a current or future occupant of a building.  An unlicensed drafting/design professional, on the other hand, does not have the same, explicit legal responsibility (or liability).
Finally, in addition to the above, a licensed Oregon architect is also legally liable for a building design up to ten (10) years after substantial completion (the statute of limitations can vary from state to state).  This means that if something significant goes wrong (e.g. a beam is proven to have been inadequately sized), a building owner can hold the architect liable as long as the claim is filed within the legally prescribed timeline.  As a result, architects typically carry Professional Liability insurance as well as Errors & Omissions insurance.  An unlicensed drafting/design professional, however, does not have the same legal liability (if any) and is typically uninsured.


To reiterate, we have had the pleasure to work with innumerable, talented drafting/design professionals over the years – some of whom can design circles around others.  So, the following discussion is less about design talent and more about design background, skills, and education.

Regarding the educational differences between a licensed and unlicensed professional, the difference in scholastic education is often three years, or more.  Beyond that, however, is the professional internship, the study requirements needed to achieve licensure, and the additional post-licensure continuing education.  A licensed architect has to complete at least five years of accredited college education, followed by a several-year, supervised internship, all culminating in the preparation for 5 to 7 individual exams (exam requirements have changed over the years).  All in, it typically takes roughly 8-12 years from beginning to end to achieve licensure.  During this long journey, a licensed architect has learned the fine points of a vast portion of the following (with each architect pursuing individual specialties):

  • Zoning & building code ●  Programming ●  ADA design ●  Space planning
  • Sustainable design ●  Climatic design ●  Site design ●  Daylighting
  • Lighting design ●  3D design ●  Material and product specification
  • Mechanical, electrical, & plumbing systems ●  Bidding evaluation
  • Construction methods, techniques, & materials ●  Passive heating & cooling design
  • Conceptual vertical load-path & lateral resistance eng. ●  Safety & access control
  • Plus MANY other possible skills & specialties

 Regarding the drafter/designer, it is important to recognize the difference between a drafter and a designer.  A drafter (or drafting specialist) is a professional that typically provides only drafting services (not design services) and translates their client’s vision into drawings. They translate client sketches directly into digital drawings and the other documents needed for the building permit. Typically they will make modifications to a client’s sketch based on code requirements (e.g. the distance a toilet must be located from a side wall), but otherwise a drafting specialist may not offer services beyond that.  That being said, a drafting specialist can definitely develop the skills to become a designer, either by going to design school, by working with (or under) an architect or designer, or simply through many years of experience – working with many clients and on many projects.

If you choose to utilize the services of a drafter/designer, make certain to ask them:

  1. How much design experience do you have with this type of project and in this jurisdiction?
  2. Can you provide samples of past projects?
  3. Do you use the services of an architect and/or engineer and can we contact them?
  4. Can you provide a list of references?

As mentioned above, we have worked with many talented drafting specialists over the years.  Sometimes hiring a drafting specialist is the right choice for a client and their project, especially if there is a clear and concise idea for your project. However, drafting/design specialists may not have the experience to provide suggestions for what you need beyond the basics. Architects will use their experience to make suggestions that might make you think differently about your options and your present and future needs. 

As described above, there are many variables that may determine who is “best” for the job. Note, the above discussion does not go into any real depth regarding the services of structural and/or civil engineers.  More often than not, engineers rely on drawings completed by an architect and/or drafter from which to work.  They are infrequently hired individually, except in specialized cases (e.g. industrial buildings).  If you are unsure who or what you may need for YOUR project, feel free to reach out to us at info@percipientarch.com.  We will do our best to assist you in deciding on the most appropriate path forward.