Nine out of ten times when a homeowner decides that they want to renovate, add on to their house, or build a new house, they first approach a contractor. They do this with good reason, thinking, “If I want something built, I should find a builder to do it.” It makes sense, because much of what it takes to build a renovation, addition, or new construction is accomplished by a builder, aka general contractor, or GC for short. And in general, to the homeowner, a builder and general contractor are interchangeable.
The general contractor
The GC typically applies for the building permit with the town’s construction office to be granted the approval to begin construction. The GC also establishes the construction budget, sets the construction schedule, purchases all the materials, and provides all the labor to install the materials and equipment that constitutes the full construction. The GC can source all the cabinets, countertops, windows, air-conditioning and heating equipment, wood framing, electrical systems, foundations and excavation, roofing, siding, plumbing, landscaping, and everything that goes into a house.
Additionally, many, but not all, GCs can provide drawn plans of how the spaces are arranged and what the exterior façades (called exterior elevations) of the house will look like. Often these plans are called spec houses, which are plans that get reused from project to project. They’re basically instructions for mass-producing the same house over and over. Other times, contractors produce specific drawings for a specific project. GCs who do this are often referred to as design-builders; they first design the project, and then they build it.
Why do I need an architect?
So in light of all the roles filled by a GC, why would a homeowner go to an architect prior to seeking out and hiring a contractor—or why even need an architect at all? Aren’t architects expensive? Don’t architects design skyscrapers, schools, and other larger buildings? Isn’t a house much simpler and an architect would be overkill? These are all good questions, and there are several big reasons to begin any project, large or small, with an architect.
Town building departments require engineering calculations and drawings from architects when the project calls for wood framing and foundation work. This means that if a homeowner is knocking down a wall between two spaces and needs a beam installed, is creating an addition with new walls, roof, and foundation, or is building a new house from the ground up, an architect will need to provide certified drawings to the town proving all structural members—wood and concrete—are correctly calculated and sized to carry weight (of people, snow, wind, and the materials themselves) from the top of the house through the foundation and into the earth. Additionally, all structural framing and concrete comes in different sizes, which takes up physical space. If a beam installed by a contractor is undersized, a proper, larger beam may not fit and the whole design is compromised. Contractors are not licensed to provide structural information.
Town building departments require your house project to comply with state and local building codes. Architects in New Jersey, for example, incorporate the International Residential Code (IRC) as “The Bible” for how all building parts are to go together, how parts are related to each other, and how spaces are to accommodate people in terms of walking space (circulation), access, and exit, among other factors. Architects have extensive experience with building code. Code is one of the main keys that make floor plans “real,” effective, and safe for inhabitants. Contractors become familiar with some code as they gain experience. But architects are trained and licensed to know it like the backs of their hands and implement it correctly with each project.
Town building departments also rely on architects to tell builders how materials are to go together correctly. They rely on architects being up-to-date on the current building codes, which changes every few years, and they rely on architects to cite code when an issue arises during construction, usually with framing. After all, the mantra of architects is to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.
Planning of spaces
Partly informed by engineering calculations and building code, partly informed by imagination, architects are extremely well-versed in the planning and arrangement of spaces. Architects are trained and experienced to take great care of how one space flows into the adjacent space, how one space links with several, how the individual space is related to the overall building, how the overall building affects the singular space, how there are spaces within spaces within spaces, and how efficient application of space can result in a building with a smaller footprint (in size and economy) versus an assemblage of spaces that was cobbled together with minimal thought.
Would you rather listen to nursery rhymes or symphonies? Sound is an important feature in architecture, but visual composition is king. How all of the elements, materials, textures, and light create a melody and harmonize together is the architect’s strong suit. The architect looks at proportion of window size to a wall, of column thickness to height, of roof pitch to story width, how one form interacts with another, how a building casts shadow on itself, all of the spirit of a place, and the soul of a space. Possession of the ability to compose these items into a work of art is unique to the architect.
Mastery with both spatial arrangement and physical characteristics, as mentioned above in points three and four, comes from the architect’s interest and ability to listen to the homeowner in order to extract, accumulate, and implement into a complete design the homeowner’s needs, aspirations, inspirations, and character. Many, not all, but many contractors too easily bypass this; they primarily have interest in the process of building in and of itself. They streamline the process, its expediency, the resulting profit, and the compartmentalization of the endeavor in order for it to be easily repetitive. But architects take on each project as a custom design, because all homeowners are unique individuals.
And so while many homeowners continue to believe that all they need is a general contractor to build their dream home, these points prove quite the opposite. Working with an architect from the very beginning will eliminate building issues and problems, saving you time and money in the end. The architect is the one who has the training, knowledge, and artistic know-how to not only put your dream designs down on paper but also see them to fruition.