In part 1 of this series on hiring building professionals, we discussed the role of the architect. Our focus now turns to the engineer. First, a brief word on today’s division of labor between architects and engineers . . .

In the old days, there was typically one man in charge of the design and construction of a building project. They called him, “Architect,” or “chief builder.” This person was versed not only in geometry, form, proportion, shapes, colors, etc., but was also intimately familiar with every detail of how a building was put together. He solved problems in novel ways and without volumes of codes with which to deal, was largely left to his wits and the lessons of historical failures to make proper judgments as to what would work and what would not. This heroic daring made these men well-known and admired throughout the world. Architecture was often seen as the ultimate form of art as it not only provided beauty, but utility as well. For a wonderful read on what is was like for this type of historical Architect, see Ross King’s book, Brunelleschi’s Dome.

As building science progressed throughout the industrial revolution with more sophisticated ways of estimating loads on buildings from gravity, wind and earthquakes, there came to be a division of labor. The work of the Architect came to be the work of an architect and a structural engineer. It was in such an office, Adler and Sullivan, that the young Frank Lloyd Wright cut his teeth as a draftsman after dropping out of his civil engineering program at the University of Wisconsin. In such offices, one man focused on the structural function of the building project while the other focused on its spacial function and appearance. As technology continued to progress, additional engineers came to focus on the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing aspects of building projects.

So, with this very brief and general history, let’s return to the purpose of this article — do you need to hire an engineer for your building project? The answer requires a basic understanding of how your local jurisdiction (city or county building department) operates.

While each jurisdiction is slightly different in their approach to regulating the construction of buildings within their boundaries, one thing is universal among them — none of them wants to be liable for damages if something goes wrong. This may sound like an overly litigious approach to how building departments operate, but the reality is that while jurisdictions are charged with ensuring public safety and protection of life, limb, etc. they really need to protect public funds from lawsuits, and so they require that someone else — a design professional — be held accountable for building projects. The way they do this is to assign an Engineer- or Architect-of-Record to a building project. Either of these professionals has a seal of authority to stamp and sign projects and has agreed to abide by an ethical code and is subject to disciplinary action if he or she acts irresponsibly.

In most states throughout the country, a professional engineer who is qualified to do structural design on your building has a degree in civil engineering with an emphasis on structures, has experience working in an actual engineering office, and has passed a state qualifying exam. Generally, an architect or residential designer, after having completed plans for a project, will hire an engineer to perform the structural design. This includes sizing framing members and designing the building for lateral wind and earthquake loads.

There is one exception to jurisdiction re-assignment of liability to a professional, and this involves a prescriptive code provision referred to as “conventional construction.” It allows for buildings that are built within certain guidelines of simplicity to be constructed without the design services of a professional engineer or architect. If the project is a simple, straight forward new wood light-frame construction, or a basic addition that does not include the removal of significant bearing walls that might require calculation, a lay property owner can do everything he or she needs to get permitted. Bear in mind that when a project is built using conventional construction, a jurisdiction will do its best to verify that it is done correctly, but ultimately the liability will be with the owner.

For ambitious project owners with fairly simple projects, it is worthwhile to study the current International Residential Code (IRC) section pertaining to conventional construction. All this said, it is getting more and more difficult to complete building projects without a licensed professional engineer due to the complexity of these provisions, but it is generally doable.

So, in summary, here are your basic options for residential projects of wood light-frame construction:

  1. Hire a licensed architect and/or engineer to design your project.
  2. Hire a non-licensed residential designer and engineer to design your project.
  3. Design your own project and hire an engineer to do the structural design.
  4. Hire a non-licensed residential designer to design your project using conventional construction.
  5. Design your own project using conventional construction.

As you can see, two of the five options requires the hiring of a professional engineer (options #2 and #3). If you have an architect experienced in structural design, option #1 allows you to hire an architect only, but it most cases he or she will opt to hire an engineer to assist with the structural detailing. Options #4 and #5 are dependent on adhering to the simplified provisions of conventional construction.

With a basic knowledge of the circumstances under which architects and engineers should be hired, we will focus in the third and final part of this series on how to hire a qualified contractor to build your project.

If you have any questions pertaining to your building project, don’t hesitate to call (925-695-7461) or email ( Good luck!

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