Architect or Designer — What are the Rules?

Homeowners and owners of commercial properties alike are concerned about the costs of building and/or renovating their properties, and are keen to make sure they stay within the rules and comply.  After all, nobody wants to build or repair a building and find out later that compliance issues are holding up the sale, remodel, or other transaction regarding the property.  This article is for those in the design and construction trades who want to know when an architect’s stamp is required, and likewise for owners to be similarly informed.  Nobody likes surprises, especially if they result in scuttling a project.

On June 14, 2011, the Design Professionals Council of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties hosted a panel from the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries and the Washington State Board for Architects to discuss recent changes to the rules for licensing architects (RCW 18.08).  There are a number of changes which were discussed by the panel, but this article instead focuses on changes the panel emphasized were intended to clarify the point at which a licensed architect’s stamp on a set of plans is required on a project. The changes took effect on July 1, 2011.

A Bit of Background

The relevant rules are at Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 18.08.410 (5), (6) and (7).  Before July 1, 2011, the rules governing architect licensing generally did not apply to or prevent “any person from doing design work…for the erection, enlargement, repair or alteration of a structure or any appurtenance to a structure, if the structure [was] to be used for a residential building of up to and including four dwelling units or a farm building or is a structure used in connection with…such residential building…such as a garage, barn, shed, or shelter for animals or machinery…[nor did the rules prevent] any person from doing design work…for construction, erection, enlargement, alteration, or repairs of or to a building of any occupancy up to four thousand square feet [4000sf] of construction.”

Given the occasional ambiguities of the English language and the realities of how things play out in the field, this version of the statute resulted in some confusion over the years, particularly on two issues: (1) whether residential projects of 4 units or less had to involve an architect if the project would be more than 4000sf, and  (2) whether sub-projects on commercial buildings  (such as tenant improvements) needed an architect if each individual project was under 4000sf, even if the total square footage of the area being worked on exceeded 4000sf.

The amended version of RCW 18.08.410 basically answers thusly:  (1) no, and (2) yes.

What Are the Changes and What Do They Mean?

RCW 18.08.410(5), (6) and (7), effective July 1, 2011, now say the rules governing architects do not apply to or prevent “any person from doing design work …for the erection, enlargement, repair or alteration of a structure or any appurtenance to a structure regardless of size if the structure is to be used for a residential building of up to and including four dwelling units…

As to non-residential projects, the architect licensing rules do not affect or prevent “any person from doing design work ….for construction, erection, enlargement, alteration, or repairs of or to a building of any occupancy up to a total building size of four thousand square feet; or…where the project size is not more than four thousand square feet in a building of greater than four thousand square feet and when the work contemplated by the design does not affect the life safety or structural systems of the building.  The combined square footage of simultaneous projects allowed…may not exceed four thousand square feet.

So What Does This Mean For Me?

Here are the practical effects:

(1)   If you are a homeowner, or are hired by a homeowner, to design the construction or remodel of any size (so long as it is 4 units or less), you are not required to have the plans stamped by an architect;

(2)  If you own a non-residential (commercial) building and plan to renovate it, you will not need an architect if the total square footage will be less than 4000sf; however, beware that this comes with a caveat: if the life safety or structural systems will be affected by the work, you will need an architect even if the total area at issue is less than 4000sf;

(3)  Non-residential projects larger than 4000sf require an architect’s stamp.

The upshot is to eliminate some confusion that has bedeviled the industry, and to more clearly express the intent of the legislature.  Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with where the line is drawn as to when an architect’s stamp is required, it is important to know where the boundaries are. Local building officials will be better able to enforce what the law requires be submitted to them, contractors working with customers can give sound advice, designers will know what limitations they must work within, and property owners can plan accordingly.

Of course, individual situations vary, so it is important to consult with your design professionals, construction team, and permitting authorities; this article is intended as a general overview only, and is not to be construed as legal advice.

© 2011 Law Office of Susan K. Fuller, PLLC

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6 Responses to Architect or Designer — What are the Rules?

  1. Nancy says:

    Thanks for the share!
    Nancy.R

  2. My first time here. Nice blog and great post. Well done.

    • Susan says:

      Thanks. I will soon be posting articles more frequently (about twice per month), so feel free to check back again soon. Regards, Susan

  3. Really nice blog you’ve got here. Congrats!

  4. Judy says:

    Hi Susan, This is great information. Thank you

Comments are closed.