Architect vs building designer

Should you choose an architect, a building designer or a drafting service for your renovation? Alex Brooks writes for Domain.

which profession should renovate your house

Aaah, renovating. Floorboards or carpet? Mosaic or terracotta tiles? Oh, and should you call an architect, a building designer or a drafting service to plan your renovated dream home?

Each has benefits and drawbacks but Sydney Building Information Centre’s Joe Pizzinga says, ultimately, it’s up to each home owner to choose a professional who can design a comfortable house for an affordable price.

Generally, architects charge the most sometimes as high as 15 per cent of the building cost but will oversee the entire renovation process from design right through to completion and then offer a warranty to ensure that any building faults are rectified.

Building designers are often cheaper around 3 to 5 per cent of the building cost but don’t usually oversee the “contract administration”, and leave dealing with the builders to the home owner.

A drafting service can be cheaper again sometimes as low as 1 or 2 per cent of the building cost but some drafting services don’t offer a high level of design skill, and are best for simple additions, such as an attic conversion or a garage.

Blame Premier Bob Carr for adding to the confusion over who to call when it comes to renovating a house. He opened a can of worms with his State Environmental Planning Policy No 65 (SEPP 65) mandate that apartments of three or more storeys be designed by a registered architect.

The president of the Building Designers Association of NSW, Dick Clarke, says the Carr decision to exclude building designers from the SEPP 65 rules gives the public the impression that building designers are second rate, when they probably design more residential housing than most architects.

“Architects make their living doing the big commercial jobs, the 20-storey buildings,” he says. “Most building designers are small-scale and make their living doing residential work.”

To be a member of the Building Designers Association of NSW, members have to be a qualified draftsperson (completing a three-year TAFE course in architectural technology) and have at least three years’ professional design experience with a portfolio; or they have to have eight years’ professional experience and a portfolio of design work.

In fact, some of Sydney’s biggest names in architecture are building designers Ercole Palazetti and Tina Engelen, of the famed Engelen Moore. “Even the man who designed Canberra, Walter Burley Griffin, was a building designer,” Clarke says.

Pizzinga, a qualified builder and draftsperson, is the first to recommend the most expensive option renovating with an architect.

“It’s better for the resale of your home,” he says. “An architect has spent six years at uni so he should know a lot about design. They also have professional indemnity insurance and their design will last a long time after you’ve finished renovating.”

Clarke, however, says a good building designer is better than a bad architect, and should be more cost effective.

To add to the confusion, some drafting services are actually building designers but choose not to become members of the Building Designers Association. Ray Pecotich, of Federation Drafting Services, charges comparable fees to a building designer, but chooses to call himself a drafting service.

“Having drafting service in my name means I get a range of inquiries,” he says, “but when I explain to people what I do and that I’m not just a cheap option for putting on an extension, they understand.”

On the other hand, draftsman John Ellston, of A Basic Plan, charges 1 or 2 per cent of the building cost for his services and says a drafting service suits most people down to the ground.

“The average Aussie doesn’t want a corrugated curved iron roof on his house, he just wants a tiled roof and he wants to tell the draftsman what he wants it doesn’t take a university degree to put a nice room on the back of someone’s house.”


A Bundeena Opera house

Mark and Jo Keohan reckon their renovated 1960s red-brick house in Bundeena now looks a bit like the Opera House. The concave and convex iron roof and deck gives the house a unique look.

Building designer Graham Irving, of Arctic Circle Building Design, was responsible for coming up with the design, which he says was inspired by ocean waves and the material’s cost-effectiveness.

“The clients weren’t afraid to do something different and they definitely wanted to minimise the cost,” Irving says.

The Keohans’ brief for the renovation was to capture views and create high cathedral ceilings with lots of natural ventilation.

“Graham came back with his drawings of this curved roof that didn’t need timber to hold it up we were surprised, I guess,” Mark says. “I’d done my own drawings of the second storey and it looked like a box, but Graham had done something quite unusual with offset walls so it’s not like a straight box and it cantilevers over our front porch.”

The Keohans loved the design, but had a lot of “toing and froing” with Irving over where to put the internal staircase in the end, they had to sacrifice a room downstairs to create a stair well.

“Graham also told us to take out a wall downstairs, which I didn’t do. And then, when we were nearly finished building, we got the builder to take out the wall. So he was right all along,” Mark says.

The Keohan’s budget was $145,000 for the extension, but they admit they have spent about $180,000 on their house so far.

“We paid Graham only a fixed fee $1800, it was so he was pretty reasonable. That only works out to 1 per cent of our building costs.”

The fixed fee (which Irving now charges as 3 per cent of total building cost) included design and documentation and organising council approval the Keohans were left to get building quotes and administer the building contract on their own.

The Keohans say they would never have used an architect “I work with architects and that reinforces the theory,” says Mark and insist that building designers offer better value and service.


A bridge to the light

Ron and Susan Hayes bought the house that nobody wanted to buy.

“It was your typical single-storey terrace, with damp and darkness and draughts,” Ron Hayes says. “It didn’t fit with today’s lifestyle of air and light and space and it’s only about 148 square metres which is the size of a three-bedroom apartment.”

Hayes immediately called architect Michael Barlow of Priestleys Architects, who had done the alterations on his previous home in Erskineville.

“Believe me, I didn’t have pots of money and I certainly am not a fan of architects in general. I’m just a fan of architects who can make things work, and Michael was one of those,” Hayes says.

The building budget was $200,000 and Barlow’s fee was 10 per cent (his fee has since gone up to 11 per cent to include GST) “money that I’ll get back five times over when I go to sell the place,” Hayes says.

The terrace is now a contemporary home with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a formal dining area and open-plan kitchen and lounge. One wall is glass and there is a mezzanine bridge connecting the top-storey bedroom to the rear bedroom.

Barlow supervised the 18-month renovation from design stage to building completion.

“We wanted the building to have a timeless look, which is why we got an architect in. We know that this house will look as good in 25 years’ time as it does now and that means that the house is worth more money,” Hayes says.