Architect vs Draftsperson vs Building Designer – what’s the difference?

What’s the difference between an architect, a draftsperson or a building designer? And who should you use to design your new home or renovation? Here’s my tips.

This blog recently appeared in a shorter version in The Builder’s Wife “Nuts and Bolts”, and was my answer to one of her reader’s questions. It’s a question that comes up a lot though, so here’s a bit more explanation.

Type “architect vs draftsperson” or “architect vs building designer” or even “building designer vs draftsperson” into Google and you will get a world of websites outlining the merits of one over the other.

You’ll also get some very nasty online arguments!!

Each of these professionals can cost different amounts, and howeowners have different experiences in using either of them, so what is the REAL difference?

As with any profession, there are those that are great at what they do, and those that aren’t. So I’m not about to tell you who you should use – because ultimately that choice is up to you. As with everything at Undercover Architect, my mission is to provide the information – and then what you do with it is your decision.

To answer the question simply though … in the world of individual residential homes, both an architect, a draftsperson and a building designer can all perform the same role.

Australia is quite unusual globally in this way. You are not legally required to use ANYONE to design your home here, whereas elsewhere in the world, you have to use a designer with specific qualifications.

Perhaps that says something about the standard of design in Australian housing … you look around where you live and be the judge.

Architect vs draftsperson vs building designer … what’s the difference?

In Australia, there are three main professions associated with the design and drawing of homes: architects, building designers and draftspeople. (This is excluding the myriad of additional consultants you may or may not need, such as structural engineers, private certifiers, town planners etc).

So what’s the difference? Let’s firstly look at what it involves to perform each of these roles …

An architect

For an architect to legally use that title in Australia, they must be “board registered”. This means they’ve

  • completed a recognised university degree (usually 5 – 6 years of study)
  • completed a required level of on-job experience (minimum 2 years)
  • then sat a written exam and passed
  • followed by an interview exam and passed
  • and then annually (as part of re-registration) declare that they are fit to practice, and are continuing their professional development with a required number of hours of study and learning

A draftsperson

Many in this role study at TAFE to learn the skills required to draw (document) buildings. However I’ve also worked with draftspeople who purely learnt their drawing skills on the job and honed them over time.

A building designer

It depends on the state of Australia whether a building designer has to be formally licensed to use this title, and the license they have will impact the scale of development they can work on – be it individual homes, apartment buildings, or public facilities such as childcare centres etc. There are specific TAFE courses, and one Qld-based university degree (distance learning) that can qualify you to be a building designer. Sometimes however, building designers are draftspeople who’ve gone through the licensing process.

So what does this all mean for you?

Depending on the state you live in, you may or may not be required to use, at a minimum, a licensed building designer. For example, “in Queensland, any person carrying out building design and/or preparing plans for consumers or builders must be licensed as a Building Designer by the Building Services Authority (www.bsa.qld.gov.au) or be registered as an architect, engineer or surveyor.” (taken from https://www.bdaq.com.au/how-become-building-designer)

It is worth checking the rules in your state as to what is required for your project.

What difference is there between what architects and building designers and draftspeople actually do?

In my opinion, an architect is really a specialist in design. Of course they draw and deliver buildings very well too (as in, they’ll be your representative on site during construction). However their main area of skill and expertise is in maximising design opportunities for your home, your site and your budget.

A building designer and a draftsperson are specialists in documentation and delivery. In larger practices they will generally work alongside the architect, preparing the drawings for the design work being done by the architect.

Building designers and draftspeople are largely taught how to draw, and understand the construction of buildings so they can represent them accurately in their documentation. Of course, as part of drawing, they are often designing as well (and if they’ve studied at TAFE, they have usually done some design study also as part of this).

However, they will not have been taught design to the same level as an architect – it’s just not possible in the type and length of study they do.

I spent over 5 years in my architectural degree at uni, and I can sum that time up as “learning how to design and problem solve”. It was my on-job experience, during uni and post-graduation, where I learnt more about how buildings got put together. Having watched the better architectural students for the last decade or so (as members of teams I managed, and employees), this is what they’re learning at uni too. Having spoken with building designers and draftspeople I know and have worked with closely, I don’t think the same can be said for their time at TAFE.

Why is an architect more expensive than a draftsperson?

Well, they’re not always. There are some very good building designers I know who will charge similar amounts (or more) than certain architects.

Education does play a part. However, a big difference is that there is also the element of risk adding to the pricetag.

It stands to reason that if you are more highly trained in a profession, required to sit additional exams and regular ongoing training (as with a registered architect), that more is legally expected of you. And the more that is legally expected of you, the more risk that is present.

In most industries this price correlation will occur.

An orthopedic surgeon is more expensive than a general practitioner. A solicitor is more expensive than a legal secretary. A chartered accountant is more expensive than a non-chartered accountant. A licensed builder is more expensive than a handyman.

More education, more training, more licensing = higher expectations = higher risk = higher insurance. All of these things can add up to higher cost for service. On an hourly rate comparison, the prior professional will be more expensive than the latter professional.

However, (generally speaking), an architect can also more expensive because they’ll work with you differently to a draftsperson – and this difference can take longer. In a time = money equation, this will also mean extra cost.

  1. They’ll spend longer in the design phase

Their specialty is design, so there is significantly more exploration at this point. Our education is built on this iterative, testing and exploratory process as a means to achieving great outcomes. This involves challenging you and your brief, and what you think you want – to make sure your design maximises every opportunity and investment you’re making in it.

  1. They’ll do more drawings

Because they’re so passionate about the design, and drawings are the way they communicate this design to get it built, there’s usually more drawings. There are exceptions to this rule. I know a building designer who prepares incredibly comprehensive documentation packages.

You can build a house from 5 drawings, as equally as from 50 drawings. Which of those do you think will control the outcome more effectively, and which will require the builder to make assumptions and decisions of their own as they build?

In a future post I’ll share more information on how you choose – and to be honest, sometimes a draftsperson or building designer is the best choice for your project, depending on what you’re planning.

However, let me just say this … my recommendation on how you choose has very little to do with budget.

Whatever your choice, make sure your focus is on design

I cannot say this more clearly …

Your design is where everything starts – and ends.

It’s where your home (or part of it) is made or broken. Where it will be the place that will make your life better, or bring about constant compromise and frustration (or somewhere in between those two extremes).

How those lines are drawn on the page, the expertise of who draws them, and the decisions that are made to position them and create them – make no mistake. That’s the point at which you determine how you get to live in your home, how expensive your home is to build and maintain, and how it helps you live your life.

The whole merit of design is that it will take whatever budget you have, big or small, and make it work harder. So you make the most of what you’ve got. An investment in doing this well will always be worth far more than the cost.

Added 12th February, 2016

A building designer colleague suggested there was one thing missing from this blog. He pointed out to me that, not only is there a difference in the study profession undertakes, there is a difference in the entry requirements to access that study.

For example, last year, the ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) for a Bachelor of Architecture was 95.00. That means graduating high school students had to beat 95% of their colleagues to access the degree.

Most courses in Building Design are Advanced Diplomas, or TAFE Degrees, so it’s hard to make a direct comparison. However, there is a Bachelor of Building Design available at Central Queensland University, and the ATAR last year was 56.55.

My colleague’s point was that there was a different academic requirements to actually study both avenues in the profession – before you’ve qualified. I thought it was an interesting one worth sharing – because it hadn’t occurred to me at the time of writing this post. And it’s not a point that often enters the discussion about the difference between these careers or professionals.

(Please understand that I’m not suggesting that architects are more intelligent than building designers. I’m fully aware that the ATAR rankings are not always a reflection of intelligence!)

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  • Mark
    February 8, 2016, 10:59 pm  Reply

    Thanks for a well written and very informative bit of information. I never get asked this question when dealing with clients or at work, its only at social occasions. To quickly answer the question I always reply with “depends which barbeque you are at” Its nice and simple answer for which they don’t regret asking the question.

    • Amelia
      February 12, 2016, 8:45 pm

      Hi Mark,
      Thanks for the feedback on this post. Your strategy about answering this question made me giggle. I get asked this question ALL the time! But never at BBQs 😉
      – Amelia, UA

  • February 18, 2016, 3:40 pm  Reply

    Thanks for pointing out the differences between architect vs draftsperson, it was really very helpful to me.

    • Amelia
      February 18, 2016, 11:12 pm

      Hi and thank you for your comment. I’m glad you found the post helpful,
      – Amelia, UA

  • Glenn
    August 25, 2016, 1:12 am  Reply

    I’m studying towards being a building designer, at a TAFE in Melbourne.
    I had a look at an architecture degree but really didn’t see a major advantage over the TAFE course.
    Registered architects design buildings. Registered building designers design buildings.
    Personally I think it’s about “potential”. Without ongoing development, BD’s should be able to create anything architects can do (IMO).

    • Amelia
      August 26, 2016, 11:26 am

      Hi Glenn,
      That’s the beauty of life – everyone is entitled to their opinion.
      As I’ve said many times before, training and experience don’t necessarily make you excellent at what your profession is.
      Every homeowner should do thorough research before choosing and investing in their chosen professional, and understand what that professional will bring to their project in skills, abilities and knowledge.
      IMO the training that a building designer does is vastly different to that of an architect. Your TAFE course is shorter than an architectural degree. You walk out with the ability to be licensed (which is not necessary in every state for you to practise under your title). An architectural graduate has a minimum of 2 years more work and a series of exams before being registered.
      As professionals, we can jump up and down saying “I can do what you do” or “I’m more qualified than you” but it’s actually irrelevant … what is, is how the homeowner feels about it, what they need and what value they see in what we do.
      Thanks for your comment,
      – Amelia, UA

    • Nicholas Bohanes
      February 8, 2017, 12:19 pm


      I see you constantly mention that Tafe study is shorter than Uni, which is true in a sense (Tafe diploma 2 years vs Uni degree 5 years.)
      But you fail to mention that a full time tafe diploma requires around 30 to 40 contact hours a week. As opposed to a uni degree which is more like 7 to 12 per week.
      Both have extensive home work and projects for all subjects.

      • Amelia
        February 8, 2017, 12:36 pm

        Hi Nicholas,
        Thanks for your comment.
        Wow, I’d have loved for my uni contact hours to have been 7 to 12 hours per week. My first 3 years at uni, I was in lectures or tutorials each week day, for the whole day. I then had my year out, during which I worked full-time in an architectural practice for 6 months (required for my degree), and travelled overseas for 6 months. Then I returned to university for another 2 years, and had 3 full days there each week, and worked in the practice for 2 days a week, and full time during my holidays.
        Not to mention that I slept less during my university years getting all my homework and projects done, than I did having 3 babies.
        I’ve worked with university students at various points during my career (and employed them), and the only ones doing 7 to 12 hours contact per week at university, are also working a certain number of hours per week in a practice to get on-job experience that enables them to fulfil the format of their degree. They also switch to full time work during their holidays.
        It’s amazing how this topic triggers such a strong reaction from those in the industry. I have never said one is better than the other. This is ALWAYS about the homeowner determining what is best for them. Heck – they may decide it’s best to design their home themselves – which is perfectly legal in Australia as well.
        And the training is only one piece of the puzzle. There is no disputing that architects have much bigger hoops to jump through to legally call themselves an architect. Building Designers and Draftspeople do not have to sit additional exams (after a minimum 2 year period of logged on-job experience after those 5 year degrees) to get their official titles.
        And, as I also ‘constantly mention’ – in every industry, there are those that are good at what they do, and those that are not, but still charge people for their services.
        This is up to the homeowner to be informed, and make educated decisions for themselves whatever they choose – and my goal with Undercover Architect is to help homeowners do just that.
        – Amelia, UA

  • Michelle
    September 28, 2016, 7:30 pm  Reply

    Not all draftspeople haven’t studied at University. Under some circumstances it’s not so simple to qualify as an ‘Architect’ so therefore cannot use that title. Some have the same degree and experience but have to use title Draftsperson for legal reasons but no doubt are just as capable and knowledgable and in some ways better for design as not caught up in all the paper work and business aspect

    • Amelia
      September 28, 2016, 9:02 pm

      Hi Michelle,
      We’re going to have to agree to disagree.
      Yes, I’ve worked with professionals who have had the architectural degree (either done locally or overseas), and had more years experience than me, but for one reason or another, did not get registered – and so have other ‘titles’.
      It’s the very fact that it’s ‘not so simple to qualify’ that makes it a hurdle some choose not to jump. However, being a registered architect comes with MUCH greater legal responsibility and liability than any other role. It’s something that many outside of the industry don’t understand – and some inside the industry don’t either. And that difference shouldn’t be underestimated – experience and knowledge aside.
      My title of ‘architect’ does not mean I’m ‘caught up in paperwork and business aspect’ – and these things don’t dictate my ability for design either.
      The simple fact is – there are boatloads of professionals in the industry saying “I’m the same as an architect, I just haven’t done the extra step.” Or they’re actually calling themselves an architect (or some version of it … interior architect, architectural designer, etc) when they’re not legally permitted to. It’s not a step … it’s a slog, a leap, a commitment and having a huge amount of skin in the game because legally that’s what’s involved to call yourself ‘an architect’.
      Ultimately, the homeowner will make the choice about who is the best fit for them – whoever that is. And as I’ve said, time and time again, the title does not mean that someone be better or worse at their job than someone else with another title. Homeowners need to do their own homework. And each professional needs to be honest about their title, training, skills, abilities and experience.
      Thanks for your comment.
      – Amelia, UA

  • john
    October 20, 2016, 5:18 pm  Reply

    But what about a “building surveyor”?

    • Amelia
      October 20, 2016, 5:36 pm

      Hi John,
      The Australian Institute of Building Surveyors defines a Building Surveyor as:
      “In Australia, a Building Surveyor is a professional who is tasked with understanding the building control process. A Building Surveyor has the authority to assess building plans to ensure that they comply with the Building Code of Australia, the Australian Standards referenced within it and any other relevant Building Acts or other legislation or requirements of the jurisdiction the building is in. Building Surveyors are either private or municipal.
      Building Surveyors have an impact on the design, planning and functionality of buildings as part of their responsibility to ensure that buildings are safe, accessible and energy efficient. A Building Surveyor is involved for the length of a building project, from the start until the end, and conduct inspections in order to sign off on every stage of the construction. Only one Building Surveyor can be appointed to a building project, and at the end of the building work it is the responsibility of the Building Surveyor to issue the occupancy permit or certificate of final inspection.
      In addition, a Building Surveyor can also conduct inspections for a variety of reasons, such as compliance audits for insurance or dilapidation reports.”

      They’re not designers – and I believe they don’t pertain to be. And they also don’t (in my experience) document your project as the other professions I’ve mentioned would. I see them more as auditors and reviewers. As per the definition, they will provide input on decisions that relate to you being able to get approval for your project (which may impact the design – but in my experience, a designer will help you resolve the actual outcome). Similar to Building Certifiers in this way … they work inside a team of professionals that will help you deliver your project.

      I hope that answers your question.
      – Amelia, UA

  • November 15, 2016, 6:37 am  Reply

    I didn’t realize that for an individual residential home, an architect, a draftsperson, and a building designer can all perform the same role. You also mention that in Australia, an architect needs to be board registered. I think it’s important to choose a residential contractor that comes with many referrals so that you can choose a contractor that has made many other people happy.

    • Amelia
      November 15, 2016, 9:13 am

      Hi Cindy,
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, they can do the same role – but they will all do it very differently in my experience, and bring different skills to the table. I agree with you that a well-connected contractor is a great asset on any team. You find the best professionals have preferred collaborators, which helps any project run smoothly.
      – Amelia, UA

  • Jayne A
    January 25, 2017, 8:41 pm  Reply

    I spent years studying- while a single mum I completed Dip Interior then Dip Build. Design & embarked on a position in Gov. I got my deg.(Bach of Design Arch), achieved 4 years worth of exp & with 2 children had reached my limit for study-chose to not complete 1 more year masters & rego. I’m now a lic.Building Designer worthy to carry out same work as architect (in Qld) & continue profess development

    • Amelia
      January 26, 2017, 9:52 pm

      Hi Jayne,
      Thanks for your comment and congrats on your achievements. I was raised by a single mum, so I have some insight into what an accomplishment your study was. It’s great that, in Qld, they have a licensing process for Building Designers that can give homeowners who want to use one much greater certainty about their building design training and qualifications. Ultimately though, it’s not a case of ‘worthiness’ but ultimately the homeowner doing their due diligence and choosing the best professional for them.
      – Amelia, UA x

  • Justine
    February 8, 2017, 5:33 pm  Reply

    Wasn’t it 7-12 hrs sleep per week at uni??

    • Amelia
      February 9, 2017, 9:48 am

      Ha ha Justine – my memory of it is not far off that either!
      I was telling my kids this morning where a big scar on my thumb came from … it was hanging over the edge of a steel rule when I was cutting card for a model. At 2am. After many late nights and little sleep. My main priority? “Don’t bleed on the model!!!” and “You don’t have time to go get stitches!” Definitely a memorable time 🙂
      – Amelia, UA x

  • Andrew
    February 9, 2017, 9:22 am  Reply

    Does an architect legally own the design of the building and have an ongoing legal right to veto any modifications/alterations?

    We see a lot of public buildings where high profile architects seem to be able to do this.

    • Amelia
      February 9, 2017, 12:15 pm

      Hi Andrew,
      Yes – architectural design work is encompassed under copyright and moral rights laws. Copyright means they own the design, but license the client to use it on their site. Moral rights means they have the right to attribution, and consultation when the design is modified (as a drawing, or as a finished building).
      Whether architects choose to enforce those rules or not is up to them. If I’m working on a project / home that was previously designed by another architect (built or unbuilt) I always contact the architect to understand their position on being notified and involved. I’ve written on the topics with Jamie White, of PodLegal. You can read about copyright here, and moral rights here. Hope that helps,
      – Amelia, UA

  • Michelle
    April 11, 2017, 10:10 pm  Reply

    I did this research while trying to decide who to use to reconfigure the internals of our home. We had an appointment today with a designer who had a Bachelor of science (architecture). I was after suggestions for best design, instead we suggested ideas and he played with them on the plan to see if they would work.I’m not sure they do.Qualifications do not necessarily mean great ideas. wasted $$

    • Amelia
      April 11, 2017, 10:32 pm

      Hi Michelle,
      That’s a shame you had a disappointing experience. As mentioned in the blog, there are those who are great at what they do, and those that are not – regardless of their qualifications.
      I’m wondering if the designer you saw has only done the first part of an architectural degree … which means they’d still have another couple of years of uni, plus their registration, to qualify as an architect. Best wishes with finding a good fit for your project needs.
      – Amelia, UA x

  • Asha
    June 2, 2017, 4:16 am  Reply

    Quote…”In my opinion, an architect is really a specialist in design.”
    Just wanted to point out that the registration examination does not cover design theory. It focuses more on contract administration and the legal responsibilities of the architect. Not choosing to sit this exam would not make a graduate of architecture any less a designer as in JAYNE A case.

    • Amelia
      June 2, 2017, 9:25 am

      Hi Asha,
      Thanks for your comment. You are correct – the registration doesn’t cover design theory. However, what it does cover is your obligations and responsibilities as a qualified (registered) architect. And then the ongoing requirements to maintain your registration hold you accountable to that. So, it impacts what you design, how you design it, and what type of designer you are. These are not my rules – and a graduate of architecture can very well call themselves a designer. They simply can’t call themselves an ‘architect’ until they get registered. The information is written here as a complete document, and doesn’t hinge off one quote.
      – Amelia, UA

  • Asha
    June 11, 2017, 4:56 am  Reply

    Hi Amelia, I do agree that an architect is superior in knowledge when it come to design compared to a TAFE qualified person. In Jayne A case if she finished a professional degree in design she has qualified as a specialist in design. Many registered architects are contract administrators, projects architects or office managers. Few play a design role unless they own their own business.

    • Amelia
      June 11, 2017, 1:29 pm

      Hi Asha,
      Jayne A is able to call herself a specialist in anything she wants to. Ultimately, as I’ve said many, many times, this is not about ‘who is better than whom’. This is about understanding the difference, and finding the best fit for your needs. There are many terrible registered architects, and many great unqualified designers – and the reverse is true as well. My experience of architectural practices is very different to yours. Registered architects and university qualified interior designers were responsible for design, and also responsible for Contract Admin. Senior Building Designers acted as Project Coordinators or managed documentation teams. The best businesses place people in the roles that enable them to work to their strengths. I (and many others I knew) were and are designing projects well before they own their own business.
      – Amelia, UA

  • Asha
    June 20, 2017, 5:19 am  Reply

    Hi Amelia, I am not saying Jayne A is more or less capable I am just pointing out to the reader her qualification. I do agree that some Architects and graduates do secure design roles but these roles are not as common as others areas of practice. I just think that in Jayne A case, she is an example of how work life balance can effect a womans choice not to gain Architectural registration.

    • Amelia
      June 20, 2017, 7:48 pm

      Hi Asha,
      Again, thanks for your comment. As mentioned before, my experience – and that of many colleagues I know of – differs from yours in regards to roles that registered architects take. Yes, work-life balance can impact how women in particular can progress their architectural studies into registration. That, however, is not what this blog is about. It is explaining the difference between the different qualifications and titles. Someone who says “I’m exactly the same as an architect, I’m just not registered” is simply not speaking the truth. Getting registered is a legal and necessary step in qualifying as an architect. And it is a big commitment of time and effort to achieve, and a continuing commitment of time, effort and money to maintain and be accountable to. However, at the end of the day, it’s entirely up to the homeowner who they choose, and what is important to them. I can only encourage EVERY homeowner to understand what their professional is qualified to do, and what their expertise, experience and skill will contribute in the design and construction of their new home or reno.
      – Amelia, UA

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