So you are thinking of designing and building a home in the Province of Ontario? You have a number of options and factors to consider when engaging a Designer or Architect and Builder.
I’ve been asked more than a few times to explain the difference between Architects, and the other kinds of designers and design-builders out there, so I’ve made a concise list here that I hope will help distinguish a BCIN designer from an Architect. Many Architects, myself included, specialize in custom residential design. We love working with our clients to realize buildings that fit their vision of their dream home. It is a rewarding process for all parties, and one that lets us explore and refine a number of different styles and facets of our professional knowledge that we can bring to life on behalf of our clients.
Historically architects in Canada designed a much wider range of buildings in Canada than they do today. With the advent of tract housing and corporate builders in the residential market, together with standardized materials, assemblies and equipment as denoted by Part 9 of the Ontario Building Code (also referred to as the OBC or simply, the ‘code‘), the role of design splintered into a wide range of builder-designers and other para-professionals. In the late 1980’s, There was some confusion in the marketplace, with respect to who was qualified and who was not when it came to designing to the code and interpreting the code on the construction of smaller buildings. So finally in 2006, Bill 124 was introduced that set a new standard designation for designers in the construction industry called a BCIN which stands for Building Code Identification Number. Architects are exempt from the requirement for a BCIN as a result of their significant required code knowledge, mandatory professional liability insurance, extensive internship, commitment to Continuous Professional Development and a Code of Ethics, as well as additional qualifications.
The idea was, that by requiring all other designers that applied for construction permits to pass a uniform building code exam for part 9 or small buildings, there would be a more consistent stream of submissions that were in fact code-compliant, and municipalities could offload the substantial liability that fell to them as the sole enforcers of the code. Now anyone submitting plans for permit, must share in this burden, and municipal building officials can focus more on review and inspection, and less on teaching builders and amateur designers why a design doesn’t meet code. But what has happened instead, is that a proliferation of BCINs as building designers has in fact in my opinion lowered the bar for the fees, scope of services and overall quality of design in the residential architecture sector in Ontario, for a number of reasons that I’ll explain below.
Now, Architects are listed together with these minimally regulated, non-architect designers on sites like Houzz, Home-Stars, Google-maps and elsewhere. This creates confusion in the marketplace due to terms that may seem interchangeable, such as building designer and architectural designer, where only a registered, licensed and insured Architect is legally entitled to use the term Architect or offer Architectural Services as per the Architect’s Act. On reviewing the pros and cons of each class of designer, I hope to establish that Architects more than justify their fees, based on the following differences.
An Architect defined:
In brief, an Architect in the province of Ontario, must have:
- University-level education at a school expressly certified (by the Canadian Architectural Certification Board) to offer courses in Architecture. All Architectural Schools in Canada are now exclusively Graduate-level degrees, and typically only 15-25% of applicants are admitted. Approximately 75% graduate – attrition culls the weak. Architecture School is far from easy, which is why it is affectionately referred to as ‘Architorture‘ by students.
- Successful graduates then require an extensive internship under a licensed OAA practitioner. Internship requires a broad exposure to all vital aspects of the business of construction and design. The typical internship (3,000 to 5,000 hours) is carefully monitored and approved by the OAA, in all a wide range of building types, their design and construction, before the intern is even eligible to complete;
- The OAA Admissions Course, which then allows them to write;
- A series of four professional examinations called ExAC. These examinations, written over a span of four days, require months of preparation and a deep knowledge of design and construction, legal and ethical aspects of the profession, and finally detailed knowledge of the entire National Building Code, not just part 9 of the code (the section that deals with residences and small buildings of low-risk).
- Only then is the intern entitled to apply for a License to practice architecture in the province of Ontario, otherwise known as a Certificate of Practice.
- Mandatory liability insurance is also required as a precondition of this license application. An architect is exposed to liability for the scope of their design work to expected professional standards for a period of 15 years.
- Architects are strongly encouraged (by our insurer) to enter formal contracts with the clients that delineate and assign responsibilities, including designing to a budget, cost control, and a very clear set of tasks and deliverables. This ultimately benefits all parties as it establishes norms and expectations for the project.
It must be said, this process is more expensive, time consuming and generally onerous than the completion of professional requirements for lawyers, doctors, engineers and a host of others, and many graduates architects, and possibly even most, never make it this far. In a rotten twist of irony, many even throw in the towel, obtain a BCIN, and proceed with designing as non-architects which again, as I will outline below, are in many cases not ‘just as good as architects’, as we’ll explore further.
A BCIN ‘Designer’ Defined:
Here are the requirements to obtain a BCIN to become a designer of buildings under Part 9 of the Ontario Building Code
- Passing a Building Code Examination.
- Registration with the Ministry of Housing and in some cases, proof of liability insurance – individual designers aren’t required to carry insurance, only design firms
Of course to pass such an exam, one needs to have at least a theoretical partial (Part 9) knowledge of the Ontario Building Code, which can be obtained in courses such as these offered by Humber College. While insurance is not mandatory for individual designers, it is mandatory for Design Firms. But as an otherwise unregulated ‘professional’ designation, there is otherwise no regulation governing the conduct, ethics, education or responsibilities of BCINs, except that their conduct and their work be compliant with the building code, a fact that the AIBC in British Columbia has recognized as a gaping hole, and has since developed an ‘Associate Member’ status to recognize all classes of designers. This is not to say that all BCIN’s are hacks, there are many excellent non-architect designers, and there is also a number of mediocre architects, but this does not mean that BCIN holders and Architects are held to the same standards.
That’s just a start. Let’s explore the more substantial differences:
1. Education & Professional Knowledge
As outlined above, the educational differences required of an Architect and a BCIN are like night and day. But even for those of us that place little value on academic requirements over hands-on and practical experience, consider that many architects also have practical construction experience – a great majority of us worked construction jobs to get ourselves through school. But there are also many architects that don’t know which end of a drill to hold. It’s important to know the difference. While there is nothing preventing a BCIN from also having completing a university education, architects make a substantial commitment to enter their profession, but they additionally make a commitment to the public in terms of upholding the quality, historical accuracy and overall integrity and quality of architectural design. I would argue that one can expect a superior level of service from a licensed architect because of the responsibility we have to our clients, to our professional association and to the public. Architects are additionally committed to a mandatory program of Continuing Education that requires that their knowledge of building materials, methods, applicable laws and other professional subjects remain current and relevant. The BCIN only requires to renew their application annually.
2. Customer Satisfaction and Professionalism
Of course customer satisfaction is imperative in any enterprise, but any recent experience dealing with a customer service representative can illustrate how even this bar has been lowered. Such ‘unprofessional’ interactions can fray the nerves of even the most even-keeled person. What standards are these design professionals accountable to – one may ask? Professional is far too broadly used these days. As an actual registered and licensed professional (Ontario Association of Architects), an Architect’s reputation is paramount to their business success, but also to their continued good standing with the OAA. The OAA has a formal complaints process and a disciplinary body. They take the enforcement of the role of Architect and the protection of the public interest very seriously. A BCIN on the other hand has no association, or professional affiliation*, no code of professional ethics to uphold and therefore nobody to answer to, except you, their client. *With the exception of licensed Architectural Technologists, Interior Designers or Professional Engineers that are also BCINs. Furthermore, an unhappy client is an unhappy architect – we pride ourselves on our ability to professionally meet and exceed the expectations of our clients, and navigate through the myriad complexities that are typical of any construction project. In this context, it would seem fair to argue that the designation of ‘professional’ is not applicable to a BCIN designer.
3. Quality of Design
While it is expected that a BCIN builder/designer can read and interpret construction documents, translating a design on paper to a built artefact, the reverse is not necessarily true. Without an innate or learned sense of proportion, historical styles, or the elements that constitute ‘good design’, BCIN-designed buildings may often appear ill-proportioned, clunky or otherwise tacky, awkward or naive. When investing in the single most expensive asset one may ever own, one should avoid anything that looks like a white elephant (see image inset), or that cannot appeal to a broad range of potential buyers, if and when this is required.
But design is not restricted to sensible room layouts, optimal window placements, or the harmonic distribution of primary and secondary building masses, roofs or other building elements. Many of these aesthetic and functional aspects can be considered merely subjective. However, objectively superior design can include measurable criteria, including better thermal performance and comfort, lower energy bills, better indoor air quality, higher quality finishes and construction, ethically-sourced materials, improved durability, fewer leaks, mould, and assembly failures. A good designer, whether BCIN or Architect, will specify materials and assemblies with a proven track record. When it comes to the longevity of your principal asset, the cost of its maintenance, and the required energy and other operational expenses, it is worth investing in an architect that has experience with energy modelling, sustainable design, and has an up-to-date knowledge of the best, proven materials, assemblies and details. As insured professionals, architects have an actual responsibility to design to meet or exceed standards specifically outlined by our insurer. Window wall systems, face-sealed stucco, complex roof assemblies using incompatible materials are all to be strictly avoided, as they are all prone to early, and costly failure and legal claims– the subject of a recent OAA continuing education workshop for architects, that added quality assurance checklists for our workflow to help limit claims and improve design. There are no such directives that the BCIN must follow, they act at their own – and their client’s – peril. It should be noted that Tarion warranties are only a back-stop to a builder’s warranty, and coverage is limited only after two years.
4. Quality of Documentation
When one compares the drawings of a BCIN, with those created by an architect, certain things come to light. Just take elevation drawings – we have seen submissions with elevations completely omitted from BCIN drawing submissions. The architect’s elevations should denote dimensional elevation information (ie. max. allowable building height), exterior materials and detail references, as well as window vs. wall areas in order to calculate formulas required by the code with respect to ‘limiting distance’. Everything that is required by the design, from rain gutters, to downspouts, to hydro-connections, to railing heights, should be indicated with code references for the building department and for the builder’s information.
While simplified plans and a scarcity of details may result in a building permit, they often require significant interpretation and improvisation by the builder on-site, that can result in extras, delays, unintended design ‘accidents’ or all of the above. Accidents are often the result of a lack of coordination between the building designer and the mechanical, electrical and plumbing designer or sub-trades, such as when mechanical elements, plumbing and HVAC bulkheads are not indicated on sections, room elevations, or reflected ceiling plans. Experienced visual literacy and detailed drawings that more closely resembles the finished product result in better communication of intent, and fewer accidents and errors of omission. An architect will invest the same level of detail to every square foot of your home inside and out, as they would to the design of a hospital or airport. See the images below for a comparison of an architect’s elevation to a BCIN’s elevation drawings. Where we have often seen building permit submissions of 4 pages for a complete, extensive renovations and even new construction with no details, ceiling plans, interior design, schedules or other important information, where our minimum architectural set comprises 25 full pages all loaded with detailed information and contractual obligations.
5. The Bonus of Visualization
One of the many things architects learn in school, is mastery of the art of visualizing the intent of a design using a number of visual and physical media. While only a minimal set of construction documents is required for the purpose of obtaining a building permit, far more goes into a well-considered design than the creation of a few 2D drawings. If you wish to see what a view from any room of the house, or view from the exterior, or the effect of a few different flooring materials, a good architect will employ software that can facilitate rapid creation of 3D renderings or imagery that will let you explore your design in static, or animated presentations. While some architects charge additional fees for these visualization services (sometimes outsourced to developing countries with sites like Fiverr), the emergence of BIM (Building Information Modelling) software as the standard way of creating designs can mean that there is a 3D model created for every project that can be leveraged by you, the owner, to better understand, and to modify the design to best suit your needs and preferences. Most BCIN’s do not have the formal training or software knowledge to execute a detailed ‘virtual building’ or BIM model, and if they do, you are likely looking at an extremely limited version of what a complete architectural software such as Revit or ArchiCad can deliver – software that forms a significant portion of an Architect’s overhead (see below). We are very excited to be using a new technology called BIMx – that allows the client, builder and other parties to seamlessly navigate the 2D design and construction documents together with the 3D model all on their tablet or smartphone.
6. Value for the money
With the proliferation of BCINs since Bill124 was passed in 2006, we have seen the role of ‘builder as designer’ explode, and these design-savvy builders have been glamourized by attractive, successful and entirely personable celebrities on shows by HGTV and others. Why is it we almost never see an architect on these shows? But for every knowledgeable and competent builder, there are a dozen others that you will wish you had never met. Construction horror stories typically outnumber the success stories. These horror stories are almost always completely avoidable with a comprehensive set of documentation and thorough design. While a building permit application requires a minimum set of drawings created by a BCIN, an architect, being professionally liable for a properly executed building, cannot take short-cuts in drawing details or in writing product specifications. Rather than reducing services and offering rock-bottom fees by producing minimal or ‘thin’ sets of documents, architects will err on the side of caution, in the owner’s best interests, to see that the best quality materials and assemblies are executed on the job site.
There is a rule in construction, that price escalation is the norm, unless a number of controls are set in place. Low-ball fees, and low-ball estimates for construction, often initiated with a handshake or a weak, verbal or even complete absence of a formal contract, leave little room for quality and for builder profit. As a Contractor, the very least one should expect is a decent Contract! Typically contractors are under a lot of pressure to present an attractive and highly competitive price to ‘get the job’. But if a job starts to go sideways, one of the first things a builder under this pressure will do is make substitutions or cut corners. An accelerated process, to enable the rapid exit of a job that has become a drain on resources, almost always results in sloppy or incomplete detailing to make up for any potential lost profit. We have galleries of images of such deficiencies that an architect will not and cannot allow a passing grade on. An architect is obliged to enforce their design to what is indicated in the full set of contract documents, the code, and an acceptable level of workmanship. These kinds of material substitutions or failure to meet quality standards will be refused, reversed, or otherwise corrected. The architect can oversee construction as a kind of cop, always an advocate for the client, well before an owner is forced to submit for warranty claims. Small wonder some of the more slap-dash builders prefer to work without us! A 10% savings for a builder on a $1mln project is $100,000.00 in reduced value that you, the building owner, may never discover. An architect’s fee can in fact pay for itself in terms of ensuring you get the full value for your money, by doing things right the first time, avoiding costly failures and mistakes, and specifying quality materials and finishes. Without contracts, complete documentation and oversight, there is no way of knowing how, when and where substitutions or short cuts are being made. When details, specifications and spreadsheets clearly outline what is expected, the architect, obliged by code to perform General Review during construction, will review whether or not Building Code requirements are upheld, but also the compliance with design intent and overall quality of the project. Given that our fees when compared service for service are competitive with a BCIN, who is not required to undertake General Review, the Architect ultimately offers much better value, and can help you to realize a project that not only meets, but exceeds your expectations, while at the same time protecting the value of your most substantial investment.
The work of an architect is insured to the maximum of the statutes of limitation, 15 years, whereas the work of an individual BCIN is not required to be insured at all. The work of a design-firm BCIN is required to be covered by a minimum insurance policy, as defined in the Building Code. While Tarion (Ontario New Home Warranty Act) covers a wide range of builder-related construction warranty issues, the warranty period of only 1 year is woefully inadequate for shoddy construction, which is often not discovered until several years past completion. Tarion registration is not required for Owner Builder* projects, Rental Projects, or Renovations. It should be shocking that most cars have a bumper-to-bumper warranties that exceed that of houses, which have a significantly higher values and expectations of durability. Using a licensed, insured professional is paramount to protecting your investment. The more the designer or architect is exposed, naturally the better you can expect the quality of your design to be. Fear of getting sued over a period of 15 years of exposure is a remarkably strong motivation for doing an excellent and thorough job, while keeping current with all code requirements, and best practices in construction and design. *Note: If your builder is telling you that you will be applying for the building permit because your drawings were not created or stamped by either a BCIN or an Architect, and is suggesting that you are the Owner-Builder, not only are you taking responsibility for the design but also the significant legal responsibilities of construction site safety and insurance. Unless you are actually, physically involved in constructing your own home, this neither a legal or prudent situation for the home owner to be placed in, and this is also used as an end-run around the requirement for the mandatory registration with Tarion in the case of new home construction .
When an architect produces a construction budget – something we do on every project in order to reconcile a client’s wishes with their budget – the numbers hide nothing. We even provide line items for builder profit, fixture costs, rental allowances and a raft of contingencies. This is always in the client’s best interest, in order to be pro-active instead of reactive. When all of the numbers on the table, a builder will be required to play fair or not play at all. In fact, an architect can even help you to create bid-documents to take to a number of contractors – you need not be held hostage to the first contractor you interview. The benefit is, with firewalls between your architect-generated cost estimate, the design, and your builder, you are in control of the selections and build quality. The architect can also help you to understand who offers you the best value and experience for your project by critically observing how a builder responds to the drawings and comparing their bids or estimates, what kinds of questions they ask, and what kinds of assertions they make. The sign of a good builder is when the design is respected, the process is respected and the client is respected. The sign of a good architect is one that will defer to a builder’s experience when they offer good insight on alternative methods and materials, and integrate this into the design. When a project is sole-sourced, often the BCIN designer is in fact working for the builder, which may present a conflict of interest by effectively inverting the pyramid of responsibility and communication. The traditional pyramid, always has the owner at the apex, communicating their wishes through the architect, who in turn instructs the builder. In fact this is the very essence of the word Architect, from the greek, Archi and Tektos: to command the workers. There is leverage that comes from having an independent professional, free from conflict of interest, that gives you greater assurance that you are not ever in the dark about what is going on. The architect always operates as an advocate for the client, in a business where cutting corners (aka. substitutions) can be the pathway to profit.
9. Proposals and Contracts
Sometimes a builder will tell you, ‘contract with us and we’ll do the design for free’. What this really means is either a) we will bury the cost of the design in the total and often inflated contract price such that you will never know what it costs or b) we will be recycling the last design we did with a few modifications, or worse yet, c) we will claim to offer you an ‘architect’ or BCIN at arm’s length, which may or may not be subject to an illegal practice called ‘rubber stamping’ the drawings. Nothing very good ever comes ‘for free’. Nobody is fooled when tract builders offer appliances ‘for free’ with the purchase of a home. Design, when conceived as this kind of bonus, appears to be a good deal for the owner, until one understands that there is an inherent conflict of interest when a builder is also the designer – see point #8 above. A design should be tailored to your wishes and needs, as well as to your budget, and while a builder should be entitled to a profit, that profit should not be stashed in markups on every material they purchase at a discount, from lumber to tile to toilets. Every builder is eligible for material and fixture discounts anywhere from 15% to 30% and even 50%. This typically advantages the builder, not the owner. Another advantage of working with an architect, is that we have ample experience in dealing with the ‘game’ of construction, and we can recommend contracts that can limit and eliminate the inherent risk in these kinds of games, and that can hold all parties to a more transparent, honest and fair process. An architect will provide you with a detailed proposal outlining the services they feel are necessary for your respective project, and a fee that can accomplish the tasks enumerated, either as a percentage of the contract price, or an hourly rate, or a fixed lump sum, or any combination of these three. When you see in detail, what you will be getting from the provider of your services, you will be in a better position to know what you are paying for. No architect will ‘work for free’, but we invariably provide you with design that results in a much higher value project, even if it comes in at the same total cost of a BCIN or designer/builder project with the ‘design thrown in’.
10. Cost Control
The commercial construction sector, subject to projects of multiple millions of dollars, has found numerous ways to estimate, design, refine estimates, and tender large and complicated projects. How many residential projects start blindly, with some vague or unrealistic assumption of cost per square foot that end up shocking clients and forcing additional refinancing to complete the project? You probably know at least someone that has witnessed this firsthand. Don’t let it happen to you! Every time I drive past a house clad only in Tyvek, where progress has halted for months and even years, I wonder if something like this has happened.
As architects, we are required to be initiates in the Bidding (aka. Tendering) and Construction Administration phases of larger projects, something most residential builders will never have to deal with. The contracts and workflows developed from these kinds of projects, can be simplified and brought down to the residential sector, when properly administered by an architect. Far from being a meddlesome added burden or complexity, this methodical workflow can bring order to an often bumbling, ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ kind of project team, helping to keep a project on track, and on budget. Having ascertained an accurate budget from the outset, the owner is in control, and can design pro-actively, rather than constantly reacting to fresh crises on the job site. An architect can help you to bid your design to multiple contractors and subcontractors, and arrange an industry-accepted fixed-price or other appropriate construction contract that is fair and transparent to all.
Architects, even small practices, carry significant overhead. The cost of our insurance, membership and renewals, office space, software licenses and hardware, not to mention our education and continuing education, means that we are deeply invested in the business of staying in business. A BCIN can have significantly lighter overhead for all of the reasons listed above. They may have no education to speak of, can operate from a basement, and can survive on creating minimal drawings using software purchased from Staples, or even with hand-drawn sets. They may have little ‘skin in the game’ and many do not stay in business for long. Our overhead is symbolic of our dedication to our profession, but to be competitive, we must develop a very efficient process to take maximum advantage of our software, systems, specifications and workflow templates. To remain competitive in this market, we also need to be ruthlessly organized, responsive, and available! Consider, if you were hiring an employee for a high-knowledge position – whom would you rather employ? A dedicated professional, or someone that is merely exploring a new career path?
12. Limitations of the BCIN
While we are only discussing Architects vs. BCINs in the role of designing houses here, it should be noted that BCINs, even the most qualified and professional, have restrictions as to the type of buildings they can design. They cannot design a wide range of larger buildings, denoted by occupancy and/or construction type, and they cannot practice outside of the Province of Ontario. Even licensed professional engineers with a BCIN for small building designs, cannot undertake the scope of work mandated by law to be done by Architects as described in the Architects Act. They certainly cannot practice internationally. Architects, on the other hand, can design all classes of buildings without restriction, across all provinces and can also practice internationally. Never allow a BCIN to tell you they can undertake commercial projects, without doing your own due diligence.
An architect’s fee is more than ‘cheap insurance’ that can result in a superior building, but is a prudent investment in a higher quality building by virtue of materials and specifications, and by adherence to a more rigorous project delivery method, more complete documentation, and better oversight. Rather than a BCIN helping to meet a builder’s vision of a profitable business model, hiring an Architect as your advocate can result in a durable, ecological, high performance and high quality building that meets your vision of home. Whether you hire an Architect or a Designer, check that they have current insurance, and a solid knowledge of actual construction. Call their references if you can – the experience of their past clients will speak volumes to how they have handled themselves from start to finish on a job. In the larger context, house by house, the work of architects and good residential designers can aspire to a well conceived neighbourhood, our society’s legacy of a quality built environment, and the inextricably related quality of our natural world. Further reading:
- McMansion Hell – or – Don’t let a anyone tell you this is good design.
- American Institute of Architects – for the land of the free, they take their regulations pretty seriously – a short list of design related felonies.
- OAA Memorandum – Why the OAA is together with ARIDO, OBOA and the LMCBO is lobbying for a return of ‘Professional Design Requirements’ to the Ontario Building Code
- AIBC Crackdown – How a white-hot housing market has created a sea of ‘fake architects’ The AIBC has recently created an ‘Associate’ affiliation, as a catch all to regulate non-architect designers.
- OBC 2017 Proposed Changes Consultation Process – Submit Comments by December 20, 2016, I’ll be requesting a return of professional design requirements, and mandatory CBO verification of BCIN qualifications (there are many levels) for scope of relevant permit applied for – to form part of all permit applications.
- http://buildingadvisor.com/your-team/architects/ – From a builder’s perspective
- http://nationalpost.com/life/homes/mike-holmes-the-blueprint-on-hiring-an-architect – An article by Mike Holmes – he is spot on here.