As the Australian building and construction industry has dramatically increased in size in the last two decades, an intense debate has been quietly raging among industry professionals and our clients.

That debate can be summed up as: what’s the difference between a building designer and an architect, and why should you choose one over the other?

As more design professionals have come on stream to support the burgeoning construction industry, the line between technician and designer – which was once clearly defined – has become increasingly blurred.

In my opinion, the sheer volume of construction activity combined with the levels of demand experienced across Australia led to a situation where the construction industry allowed a mutually-beneficial ‘substitution’ of sorts to occur.

Simply, this was in response to the changing needs and expectations of the market.

This ‘substitution’ spawned the evolution of the building design industry, which successfully stepped into the vacuum created by the lack of design professionals servicing the Australian construction industry.

Over the years, many architectural draftspersons took advantage of the opportunity to expand their technical discipline and business activities by focusing on the provision of building design services, including design, documentation and contract administration. As a result, they saw themselves as no longer simply providing drafting services but providing a comprehensive range of building design services.

Today, it is acknowledged that building designers now carry out the majority of design services in the residential sector and are also actively engaged in the non-residential sector.

So, what’s the difference now between a building designer and an architect?

In essence, the practical difference between both professions is minimal. Put in very simple terms, an architect is a specialist in design while a building designer is a specialist in delivery and documentation.

Both building designers and architects possess the relevant expertise to deal with a range of design specifics from heritage issues to environmentally sustainable design, including addressing issues such as energy, water performance and greenhouse emissions.

Such services are provided in all areas of building construction from residential single dwellings to units and apartments to commercial and industrial projects, including both new construction and renovations and additions.

Key differences arise, however, when it comes to the qualification and registration process for both professions.

For an architect to legally use the title architect in Australia, they must be “board registered,” possess a recognised degree and the necessary on-job experience, and must annually declare they are fit to practice. Similar requirements currently only exist for building designers in Victoria and Queensland.

Despite the lack of an official national register of industry-recognised professionals, there has been very little adverse consumer criticism of building designers and very few insurance claims, all of which points to the technical and professional prowess of building designers.

However, the adoption of a national licensing scheme for building designers would be a monumental development for the industry, and one that could help take the industry to the next level in Australia.

Securing national registration and licensing for building designers is crucial to ensuring the profession continues to go from strength to strength in the years to come. While encouraging potential clients to only consider building designers who are recognised members of professional associations such as the BDAV, this can only be a stopgap solution if the industry is to become nationally recognised and accredited, and demand even greater respect from our peers and the public.

A lot has changed in the last 20 years, and the distinction between architects and building designers no longer reflects the work currently undertaken by both professions. Building designers are now seen as key stakeholders in the building and construction industry by both the private and public sectors. This influential position needs to be officially recognised in order to illustrate the true scale of the Australian building design industry and the high quality of work it produces each year.

In Victoria for example, there are 2,300 registered as ‘Building Design – Architectural’ (DP-AD) draftspersons and 4,500 registered architects according to the latest annual reports of the Victorian Building Authority and the Architects Registration Board of Victoria (ARBV). Building designers in Victoria are formally registered by the Building Practitioners Boards in accordance with Building Act 1993 and subsequent regulations.

With registered Victorian-based building designers also having to complete an Advanced Diploma in Building Design (Architectural), and attain at least one year of professional experience, the state is providing a robust legislative framework through which the profession can work to achieve official recognition. Simultaneously, it’s vital that other states instigate or continue to engage in the legislative process in an effort to finally achieve national recognition and regulation for the industry and dispel the myths surrounding the perceived differences between building designers and architects.

So what’s best for you?

Apart from New South Wales, there is  no legal requirement in Australia to use a design professional for your development. As a result, the decision on whether to employ the services of a building designer or an architect is very much one of personal choice.

In recent times, observations have been made as to the comparative merits of architects and building designers in terms of good or bad design. Irrespective of the partisan views expressed, such criticisms do nothing more than denigrate the design profession and wider building fraternity in the eyes of consumers. There are excellent building designers, just as there are excellent architects, who excel in the design environment.

My advice is to firmly and clearly establish your project requirements and parameters. Meticulously check credentials and choose your design professional based on previous expertise, breadth of portfolio, qualifications and willingness to be involved in your project.

  • Having witnessed this evolution over the past fifty years, I agree with the licensing system, however, that in itself is only the beginning. I would like to see through professional development means and ways of adding or topping up competence, specifically through educational institutions. Strengthening by way of academic study is a way of extending research or adding depth to any given subject matter, importantly adds to practical experience. In view of this, I see today's institutions are now well placed to deliver the specialized expertise. Exit levels can be from: grad certificates (4 units) ; diplomas, even masters. Much today can be through external coursework; I know because this has been the route I have taken.

  • Is the term "building designer" protected by legislation? Is it not the fact that anybody can call themselves a building designer? There are no minimum qualifications are there? And any person can employ a technical draftsperson to prepare the technical drawings for the building designer firm, whether that draftsperson qualified or not. It's therefore a very poorly footed argument to sustain that a professionally registered architect and a building designer are equivalent in any respect. If that were the case, then the building designer would surely register as an architect, wouldn't they?

    The situation is that every registered architect has established minimum experience and qualifications adequate to use the title. There are probably building designers with an equivalent level of skill and competence, but it is misleading to advise the public that this is generally the case, when clearly, it cannot not be.

    The public should engage an Architect a surety of a level of support and certainty. Be certain that should your designer fail to perform at a professional level of competence, then there is a resounding body of law in support of your claim that the services, having a professional standard that is understood and tested at law, which was not met. The same cannot be said for a building designer, who might only possess professional skills in pie baking, or something.

    • Due respect Gary, but from what you have responded with above it is clear you are from NSW or another state in Australia where there is a lack in legislation for building designers, and it appears you hold the common architect's chip on the shoulder or grudge against others carrying out great design work. Looking outside the bubble of our own states or professions can help give us all a better picture and educate. In fact there ARE minimum qualifications for building designers in other states of Australia, like VIC. There IS just as strict registration processes around as there are for Architects. I believe this is somewhat what Alaistair was trying to communicate in his article. There ought to be more equal requirements or even national registration across the country.

    • I think that you are ignoring Alastair's advice that consumers should always check the credentials of any practitioner they are considering engaging. Consumers would be mad to engage a building designer who has not completed adequate studies, just as they would be mad to engage an architecturally trained practitioner who is not actually registered as an architect. Any unqualified / unregistered practitioner should not be practising, and a system of registration such as that in Victoria ensures that this is the case. As an aside, it's interesting that in Victoria there are graduate architects who are choosing to register as building practioners rather than architects, many of them citing the superior levels of professional support and development offered by bodies such as the BDAV. In addition, as Alastair makes clear, it's a long time since building designers were trained only as draftspersons.

  • Alastair McDonald. Great article! I am one of the few in Queensland who are registered as a "Building Designer" and as an Architect. I believe Architects and Building Designers should be under the one legislative and governance umbrella. In Queensland the Building Services Authority oversee Building designers, and the Architect's accreditation Board oversee the registration of Architects. It is a fundamental truth that professional indemnity insurers see no (None) difference in terms of the role and the risk of these "Disciplines." My suggestion is that the one board control the registration and oversight of Building Designers and Architects, also that after 3 years undergraduate study, the Architecture universities award the Diploma of Building Design and allow after 3 years practical experience for all Architectural students who have completed these studies to be registered as a "Building Designer" The architectural courses would need to be re-organised to ensure architectural practice and law is taught to the standard of a Building Designer by the end of their third year. THe process would be requiring Architects to be registered first as building designers for a period of three years before applying to be licensed as an Architect. First question to be asked, why does it take a building designer 3 years to get a diploma or degree and become registered for residential housing, and yet architects are deemed not to be proficient after 4 years to design anything? Why aren't these bodies under the one umbrella? I feel strongly also that the current "Boards of Architects" do not investigate or pursue unlicenced persons claiming to be "Architects" and generally the Board of Architects should be reconstituted under a new body

  • Ouch! Alastair just stuck his head over the parapet. That's an historically predictable way of stirring up a long standing debate. As a builder I think that the basis of the article represents a reasonable argument for a change in thinking. I'm certain my colleagues at the pointy end of construction could regale readers of the many instances where an 'award winning' architect has produced designs that are entirely inappropriate and lack in basic knowledge of structural principles and construction detailing. In some cases an original design will actually introduce potentially defective elements into the buildings construction. Building designers who come from a building construction background in particular seem to be far more considerate of the 'buildability' factors involved in construction. This is the age old question as to whether architects (and the people who train them) perceive themselves primarily as 'artists' who tend to focus on the actual design (which of course is entirely subjective but in most cases also subject to compliance restrictions by councils) or as one of the body of building practitioners that are involved in the science and physical construction of a building? The best ones of course consider both as equally important regardless of what they 'officially' call themselves.

  • "Despite the lack of an official national register of industry-recognised professionals, there has been very little adverse consumer criticism of building designers and very few insurance claims, all of which points to the technical and professional prowess of building designers." This is an extremely tenuous conclusion to reach. It is much more likely that the end user/client has little knowledge in house design, have only their previous homes to compare to and lack knowledge in their rights or avenues for compensation. So low expectation and ignorance set the bar, this does not equate to professional prowess.

  • Draftspeople or 'Building Designers' are trained to draw up technical drawings. Architects do this as a minimum, as well as being taught how to design to particular historical, social and environmental contexts. With considerable criticism being aimed at the poor quality design in the built environment (particularly housing), attempts to save a few dollars by hiring a drafter to do design work arguably costs the community in the long run.

    • As part of my building design course I studied architectural history, presentation & design. also while studying i read many books about design & construction, also with the invention of the internet and google many design resources are widely available, which i am sure you are aware of. so how do you say that a building designer is only able to produce technical drawings. In my practice i design and produce working drawings. I have also noticed that a lot of architects are only capable of design and struggle to take projects to the end and gain a building permit. many builders and clients unfortunately for architects agree with this situation. yet again good & bad in both parties. fully registered in VIC & QLD

  • Alastair, just to clarify your reference to the qualification Building Design – Architectural, in Victoria the Building Practitioners Board (of the old Building Commission now VBA) used the DP-AD registration as Drafts Person – Architectural Drafting (according to my understanding). I acknowledge that the name, duration and content of the qualification has evolved over the years.

    I also agree with your comments Brett.

  • I believe if you are wanting to become a Building Designer you should Graduate the 3 years of Diploma at Central Tafe and Graduate the 3 years of Bachelor of Applied Science – Architectural Science from university.

    I truely believe that this should be the true minimum qualification for a building designer period!

    If you feel this is too much don't forget that the diploma will exempt you 6months worth of study so technically the university study is reduced down to 2.5years totalling 5.5years of academic study in the field architecture. I assure you that this is needed in all building designers to allow yourself to have the essential understanding and true meaning of what Architecture is compared to just only technical skills of documentation as a draftsperson.

  • I employ a number of both Architects and Building Designers and I have employed Building Designers and watched them train and become Architects. There is a difference between them but it has little to do with design expertise, in my experience you either have it or you don't qualifications have no bearing. Regulation of the Building Design industry is though critically important and needs to be addressed.