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.