— Architect vs. Building Designer —

Architects and building designers both play important roles in shaping the built environment. While the two professions overlap, there are distinct differences in their education, skills, responsibilities, and legal status. Understanding these nuanced contrasts is helpful for anyone commissioning design services or pursuing a design career.

04, Jul
Benjamin Harris

Architects and building designers both play important roles in shaping the built environment. While the two professions overlap, there are distinct differences in their education, skills, responsibilities, and legal status. Understanding these nuanced contrasts is helpful for anyone commissioning design services or pursuing a design career.

Architect vs. Building Designer: Key Differences Explained

This comprehensive guide examines the crucial distinctions between architects and building designers in terms of:

  • Education and training
  • Typical duties and services
  • Legal standing and regulations
  • Project scope and building types
  • Status and earning potential

Identifying how these two design professionals diverge provides clarity on their complementary contributions to the design-build process.

Educational Background

The first major difference between architects and building designers lies in their required educational background.

Architect Education

Architects must complete:

  • 5-year Bachelor of Architecture degree or
  • 4-year Bachelor's degree plus 2-3 year Master of Architecture degree

This education covers:

  • Architectural history and theory
  • Building design and construction
  • Structural principles
  • Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems
  • Sustainability and materials
  • Professional practice
  • Building codes, standards, and regulations
  • Spatial composition and visual representation

The design studio model trains students to think critically and creatively about complex design problems.

Licensure requires completing the Architect Registration Examination (ARE).

Building Designer Education

Building designers pursue:

  • 2 or 4-year degree in architectural technology, drafting, or construction management
  • Building design certificate program
  • Apprenticeship with architectural firm

Typical coursework includes:

  • Architectural drafting and documentation
  • Building and zoning codes
  • Construction materials and methods
  • Building systems
  • 3D modeling software
  • Design fundamentals

While rigorous in technical building knowledge, their education does not cover architectural theory or professional practice.

Typical Project Roles and Responsibilities

The day-to-day activities and services provided by architects and building designers differ significantly.

Architect Roles

The architect typically:

  • Leads design process from schematic through construction
  • Determines project feasibility, scope, budget
  • Refines overall aesthetic vision and functional requirements
  • Directs work of specialized consultants
  • Prepares permit/construction drawings and specifications
  • Administers construction phase services
  • Assumes liability throughout the project

Their comprehensive involvement spans from early visioning through project completion.

Building Designer Roles

The building designer commonly:

  • Provides technical expertise to architect’s vision
  • Prepares construction drawings under supervision
  • Assists with code research and permitting
  • Helps calculate areas, volumes, materials
  • Creates digital models, renderings, animations
  • Coordinates drawings across disciplines
  • May help administer construction

They focus on documentation rather than developing the holistic design.

While the architect takes ultimate responsibility for design, building designers perform instrumental technical execution.

Legal and Regulatory Standing

Architects and building designers operate under very different legal and regulatory frameworks.

Architect Registration

To provide architectural services, architects must:

  • Hold an accredited architectural degree
  • Complete internship hours
  • Pass the licensing exams
  • Maintain registration by completing continuing education

Unlicensed individuals cannot legally call themselves architects or offer architectural services. Using the title “architect” is regulated by law.

Building Designer Credentialing

Building designers are not subject to legal licensing and regulation. Voluntary certification is available through:

  • American Institute of Building Design
  • Association of Professional Designers of Canada
  • National Council of Building Designer Certification

However, certification is optional and not required for practice.

This lighter regulatory burden gives building designers more career flexibility but with less extensive credentials.

Scope of Practice

The kinds of projects architects and building designers can work on differs significantly.

Architect Scope

Licensed architects can provide services for nearly any project type including:

  • High-rises and large commercial buildings
  • Complex structures like stadiums, hospitals
  • Custom residences
  • Multi-family housing complexes
  • Institutional facilities like schools, churches
  • Public buildings like libraries, museums
  • Historic preservation and adaptive reuse

Their comprehensive education enables them to handle sophisticated design challenges.

Building Designer Scope

Building designers generally work on:

  • Single family homes
  • Small commercial buildings and offices
  • Tenant improvement projects
  • Small multifamily properties
  • Additions and renovations
  • Drafting services for other firms

Limited past a certain project scale and complexity, building designers fill an important niche.

Professional Status

There are marked differences in how architects and building designers are regarded professionally.

Perceived Status of Architects

The title “architect” conveys prestige and professional authority. Benefits include:

  • Higher earnings potential
  • Greater professional respect and visibility
  • Broad scope of practice
  • Leadership of project teams
  • Creative control of design

Architects are seen as possessing substantial expertise deserving of public trust.

Perceived Status of Building Designers

Building designers may be perceived as having:

  • Narrower range of responsibility
  • Less creative influence on design
  • More limited earnings growth
  • Lower public and professional respect

However, they fill an essential technical role that makes architecture possible.

While architects enjoy higher status, building designers make significant professional contributions in a supporting capacity.

Earning Potential

The income potential of architects and building designers varies notably.

Architect Salaries

Architect salaries in the U.S. and Canada average:

  • $70,000 to $100,000 for early career
  • $80,000 to $140,000 for mid-career
  • $100,000 to $180,000 for experienced

The highest paid architects working for top firms or in major metro areas can earn over $200,000.

Building Designer Salaries

Building designers earn:

  • $40,000 to $65,000 for entry level
  • $50,000 to $75,000 for mid-career
  • $60,000 to $95,000 for senior designers

Some may eventually earn over $100,000 in a leadership or principal role.

While earning potential overlaps, architects’ salaries skews higher - especially at leadership levels.

Which Career Path is Right for You?

Choosing between becoming an architect or building designer depends on your aptitude, interests, location, and career goals.

Consider pursuing architecture if you:

  • Want to guide overall design vision
  • Are passionate about theory and high design
  • Seek prestige and creative influence
  • Can undertake extended formal education
  • Wish to work on large, complex buildings

Consider becoming a building designer if you:

  • Prefer technical focus over abstract design concepts
  • Want to start your career faster and with less school debt
  • Are comfortable in a supporting role vs. leading projects
  • Possess strong 2D and 3D graphics skills
  • Enjoy home design and smaller-scale projects

Building designers fill a critical niche in architecture practice. Ultimately, choose the path aligning with your talents, aspirations, and commitment level.

While sharing core skills, architects and building designers follow distinct educational and career trajectories to arrive at complementary roles in the design and construction process. Gaining clarity on their nuanced differences allows for respecting the expertise each brings to creating the built environment.