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Building Designer Certification

Although I am a certified professional building designer, and append that title to my signature, I am often referred to by my clients and friends as an architect. I am careful, however, not to use that title, because as loath as I am to define myself in the negative, I lack the formal education and credentials to make that claim. To do so would be a serious violation.

We building designers provide our services in a curious legal limbo that is carved out of state and local exemptions to architectural licensing regulations.  In Maryland, where I practice, the exemption is rather narrow, in which “a builder or a developer may provide design services” for “one and two family dwellings.” To that end, I hold a local home builder’s license and a state home improvement license. And for the past 38 years, with very few exceptions, I have built what I designed, and designed what I built. More recently, I have been providing design services but partnering with other builders for construction services–striving to maintain a design-build relationship with my clients, which I consider the ideal approach to residential projects.

Most other states have more liberal regulations, allowing any practitioner the right to design homes and light commercial buildings, without limitation by architectural license regs. Some of these states do require that plans be certified by a structural engineer–particularly where there is a high risk of hurricane winds or earthquakes. This to me seems an utterly reasonable requirement–in fact, I almost always have an engineer review my structural design.

But aside from construction licensing, there is almost no provision for legal recognition of building designers.

There is, however, one promising possibility. It involves a tiny, little known entity called the National Council of Building Designer Certification. NCBDC was established in the early 80’s by a building designer from Sapulpa, Oklahoma, named Bill Hefner.  Bill, a member of the American Institute of Building Design, found himself becoming squeezed out of his practice, and almost single handedly created the program that became the NCBDC. As a result, that building designers hold that certificate were recognized not only by local building departments, but also by the Farmers Home Administration.

Since its founding, building designer certification has been available to applicants who can demonstrate a required combination of education and work experience, and can pass a 20 hour exam.  The certification exam, a sort of residential version of the Architectural Registration Exam–the ARE–includes sections on all major phases of building design, as well as architectural history and ethical practice. The structural section requires interpretation of static building loads, and manual calculations of beam, column, and footing design. The most demanding section, 8 hours long, requires candidates to design a home and site plan, including elevations, sections, and various details. Due in part to the difficulty of the exam–and the fact that there are no requirements to achieve certification–there are presently fewer than 500 certified professional building designers.

For the past year, the NCBDC (on which I serve) is striving for its own certification by ANSI–the American National Standards Institute. This costly and rigorous process requires creating detailed policies to insure transparency, fairness, and consistency. It will also require improving the exam, and updating it to reflect important developments in the building codes and best practices–such as energy efficiency, design for high wind and seismic loading, and accessibility. I anticipate that our process will take several more years to accomplish.

The goal of this process is recognition by the International Code Council, and ultimately an affirmative right to practice our art and craft–instead of this netherworld we presently occupy.