The Difference Between an Architect and a Building Designer

A successful building design project requires you to make dozens of decisions. Whether you’re fitting out an existing space or committing to full-scale construction, designing new premises for your business is no small feat. 

That’s why you’ll want to enlist a building design professional who intimately understands every part of the process and knows how to customise it for your business.

Someone who can help you distill the kind of brand experience you want for your customers, and create a design concept that brings it to life. 

At their best, they should be a partner in your project, seamlessly evolving your design from initial concept to final realisation, in accordance with your budget.

But what kind of building design professional do you actually need? You’ve heard about architects and building designers - but which one is right for you?

This decision sets the stage for the scope (and success) of your project. But understanding the differences between design professionals is a source of confusion for many people. Like any industry you’re unfamiliar with, there can often be a whole bunch of terminology that’s difficult to decipher. 

So with this in mind, I decided to break down the difference between architects and building designers so you can make the best decision for your business.

First of all, let's start with some definitions.


An architect is a design professional who can be involved in every stage of your building design

They can generate design concepts, create detailed drawings, renderings and plans, obtain quotes for labour and materials, assist with scoping and budgeting and manage construction consultants.

Architects complete a 5+ year university degree and to qualify for this course, they'll require a HSC ATAR in the high 90’s (this differs from other educational pathways which have lower barriers to entry). Architecture students typically deep-dive into the art and science of building design, with a focus on conceptual and technical design, as well as periphery topics like design history and contract law. 

To legally operate as an architect, you must:

  • have a formal tertiary education / degree in architecture
  • be covered by the necessary liability insurance (this is required for registration)
  • be officially registered as an architect with the governing architecture body in their state or territory

Their official registration is the most important distinction that separates an architect from another design professional. In fact, you could hold several relevant degrees and still not legally qualify as an architect UNLESS you’ve officially been registered with the appropriate governing body. To be eligible, you need a tertiary qualification and a minimum of 2 years professional experience under a registered architect in the field. 

Building Designer

Because it’s been an evolving role within the industry, people are generally a little less familiar with the exact definition of a ‘building designer’ and how it’s distinct from an architect or a draftsperson.

The simple answer is that a building designer sits somewhere between those two roles, with skills in technical drafting and documentation AND generating design concepts across residential and commercial construction.

A building designer will be able to help you at every stage of the design and construction process, including generating initial concepts, drawing and documentation, liaising with regulatory bodies to ensure compliant designs and managing external construction consultants. Building designers may work directly with individuals/businesses or be employed by a builder.

While an architect must meet highly specific nation-wide prerequisites to qualify as such, there is more variance among building designers. Each state and territory has different regulations around formal licensing and registration. In Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, there are specific registration codes in place. 

To use the example of my own Melbourne-based business, i.Balter Design falls under the Victorian Building Act (1993). This Act requires me to be registered with the Building Practitioners Board. To be eligible for this registration, you need to supply evidence of your formal qualifications and practical work experience within the industry, as well as sitting an exam (which can involve evaluation via a panel) and holding the necessary insurances.

A building designer may have a university degree in architecture and simply lack the formal licence of an architect, or they may have chosen an alternative pathway such as a TAFE Diploma.

While the same regulations do not apply in NSW, WA, SA or NT, it’s important to note that any building designer must produce work that fully complies with external building and planning regulations. If they don’t, their design cannot be executed.

Like any business decision, it pays to do your due diligence and understand the codes that apply to your own state or territory before hiring your building designer.

So, what's the difference?

When you break it down, architects and building designers actually perform remarkably similar roles. The key distinction relates to their formal qualification and registration process.

While an architect MUST have a tertiary degree and registration with a nation-wide governing body, the regulatory process a building designer must undergo will depend on the state they’re operating in. 

Also, architects will typically be more expensive than building designers. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t necessarily because they’re carrying out vastly different or more complex tasks and responsibilities. 

Rather, it can be viewed as a logical by-product of the additional years invested in study. Think of it this way - if you had to obtain a costly 5+ year university degree and gain practical experience in the field BEFORE you could even register as an architect, it would make sense that you’d want your fees to be commensurate with this time/financial investment. 

But ultimately, whether or not there is a significant cost difference between the two will depend on the scale of your project, as well as the specific qualifications and experience of the design professional in question.

Like any industry, no professional will have the exact same qualifications and on-the-job experience. In some cases, a higher cost will translate into a higher level of expertise - but not always!

How do I decide between them?

At this point, I’m going to have to deal out the ultimate ambiguous answer - ‘it depends’.

I know,I know - you want a definitive response. But here’s the thing; blindly making a decision without truly thinking through the specific requirements of your business won’t do you any favours in the long-run! 

Instead, I want you to consider the scope of your building design project and the budget you have to spend.

Is your project extremely large-scale?

Are you willing to outlay a significant financial investment in order to get something highly conceptual, bespoke or experimental?

Or are you looking for something that can evolve with your growing business?

As a rule of thumb, large-scale building design - multiple buildings, or structures with multiple levels and complex design requirements - will be suited to an architect.  

If you’re a large corporation seeking a bespoke commercial building, your budget can likely accommodate this. And if you require someone with in-depth theoretical and conceptual knowledge of design (rather than the more practical components of drawing and documentation), an architect is going to be the right choice for you. 

Alternatively, if you’re a small to medium business seeking a premises that can accommodate your growth while meeting your current needs, a building designer may be the perfect fit.

As an early stage entrepreneur, you’re investing in a quality, considered foundation for your business that combines function and aesthetics without a huge spend. 

A building designer will be able to help you generate the kind of design concepts that give you this foundation, while still working within your time and budget constraints. They’re a great middle-ground between an architect and draftsperson - they have a detailed understanding of design while also being fluent in ‘construction speak’. This practical experience working with builders and other external consultants means that they’ll be able to communicate your design vision to a variety of stakeholders. 

Pro tip?

As a small to medium business, you should seek a building designer who is experienced in managing the whole design and build process - designing the initial concept, meeting relevant regulatory codes to ensure compliance, creating detailed construction drawings and overseeing external builders and consultants. 

By partnering with a professional who can manage the entire design and build, you can focus on YOUR business, rather than trying to single-handedly navigate the many moving parts of a project. This will also mean that the integrity of your initial vision is maintained, because your building designer will be there at every stage, working with external consultants as they execute your design concept.

A final word

The most important thing when making the decision to work with any design professional is to DO. YOUR. HOMEWORK.

Firstly, start by clarifying your own project scope and budget.

What are your non-negotiables? What are you looking for in a designer? How complex is your project? What time or financial constraints do you need to work within? Then you can turn your attention to choosing your design professional.

Whether you choose an architect or a building designer, it’s essential that you get to know them and their work before making a final decision.

Research their experience and qualifications, and whether they comply with the relevant regulations in your state or territory. Double-check their credentials by contacting your state Architecture board or local building authority. Ask to see their previous projects. Enquire about their design process. Understand the scope of their role - that is, how involved they will be in each stage of your project.

And equally importantly, consider whether you ‘gel’ well with them from a personal perspective.

Think this sounds airy fairy? Think again.

A building design project can often span many months and the best partnerships between business owner and building design professional will depend on communication, trust and a shared vision. 

Consider the types of businesses your potential designer has worked within the past. Is there an area of commercial building design that they’re most passionate about? What motivations, inspirations and personal experience informs their professional practice?

And in the end? Like any entrepreneurial decision, the best results come from really understanding what’s important to YOUR business.

Have you had experience working with an architect or a building designer...or both? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

As the founder of i.Balter Design, Emily Nair creates spaces that support the connections that matter.

Specialising in residential and commercial building design, she believes that our physical environments have a powerful impact on how we live and work.

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