We upper-Midwesterners are an independent breed, aren’t we? Known for our work ethic, many of us are by nature or necessity, do-it-yourselfers, used to getting our hands dirty. My upbringing was no different, having grown up locally with my parents’ building construction business as a daily part of my life. This influenced my interests in the design and construction trade from a very early age. A Barbie doll meant very little to me, other than to serve as a “scale model” for the house or furniture I wanted to create for her. While my childhood dream was to be an architect, I was initially steered toward what I was told was the more suitable career path for a woman – interior design. I enjoyed it, but architecture continued her siren call, haunting my thoughts until I finally succumbed to going back for five more years of school and over three additional years of internship before sitting for my architectural registration exams. 

On some level I’ve been immersed in the construction industry most of my life, familiar with the different career paths one can take in the field, as well as some common misinterpretations of each. Of course there are always generalizations made about any line of work, as much as there are always exceptions and overlaps in what people do within the construction industry. An architect has to have a good grasp for what each trade does to best understand the interconnection of people, place and purpose in the designing, coordinating and managing of a project. So it’s with my “generalist” hat on that I will give a few examples of when to engage the help of a professional, and who to call if hardcore DIY isn’t your thing!

First, don’t believe that everything you see on HGTV is real. From the limited shows I’ve viewed, they make it look much less involved than it really is. Can a project be exciting? Yes! Does it have cliffhangers that last longer than a commercial break? You bet! Can it turn out better than you dreamed it would? Of course! Just realize that none of us fully know what we don’t know, so be prepared for surprises, unexpected expenses and things taking way longer than you had imagined they would. You’re the only one who knows what challenges you’re ready to take on or what you don’t think you have the energy for. If you don’t want to live in a construction zone for months – or in some cases, years – then DIY might not be for you. If you think DIY means saving money… it might (or might not!). If it appears that the project has tidy, defined parameters and you are looking to learn something new and enjoy a sense of satisfaction . . . go for it! 

Projects like kitchen and bathroom remodels are typically the most complicated, involving the coordination of plumbing and electrical as well as design and construction. Tiling a backsplash or tub surround is one thing, gutting a kitchen and removing walls is an entirely different ballgame. For the latter, it’s strongly recommended to first hire an interior designer or an architect to discuss your needs/desires, budget and dreams. They have a good grasp of how to design space that works well for you and your needs, and can design multiple options for you to consider and work from. These “wet” spaces can be a big investment and are very personal, so it’s critical to get them right. Once you’ve decided upon a design that really works, then it’s important to hire someone to do the demolition (if needed) and construction work. Depending upon the size of the project, you have options of who to call, which I’ll get into later.  

What about additions? It depends upon what it will be used for and how complex the spaces are. Again, if it’s a kitchen or bathroom, my comments above remain the same. And with any addition, there are also questions of how much square footage you can add based on zoning and setbacks, how it will connect with the existing foundation, roofline and flow of house/yard, and how heating, cooling, plumbing and electrical systems will all be tied in. You also need to consider the relationship of the addition to the site, to views, to prevailing winds and sun. Understanding the site can make a huge difference in the quality and enjoyment of your spaces, in energy use and preventing unwanted problems with weather, drainage, zoning and code issues, etc. Hiring an experienced professional (an architect and possibly a landscape architect) upfront to listen and help you realize your vision is important. (I’ve also worked on projects where clients thought they needed an addition and we were able to work within the existing “footprint” of their house instead for a much better, less expensive result.) 

For a new home project, much of the above applies, along with new caveats too numerous to discuss in this article. But one thing we need to recognize is the importance of designing specifically for “place” or site. As mentioned earlier, there is much related to the site that we can take cues from to make our home more livable and enjoyable, as well as functional. We can make connections with the outdoors even if we live in an urban area, and that has been proven to help elevate our sense of well-being. It really is important to have a much more holistic view of what our home wants to be, besides the building itself. How does it truly respond to you and the rest of your household’s lifestyle and desires? How does it engage with the site and/or neighborhood? How does it make the most effective, intelligent use of space? And how does it enhance your life with a sense of delight and beauty?

To help you determine who else to bring in to assist you with your project, here are just a few points you need to understand: 

• The scale and complexity of the project. 

• Your own level of comfort and skill (if there’s some DIY involved). 

• The level of experience, scope of knowledge, and area of specialty that professionals can provide. 

I want to reiterate that these following descriptions are general, and each individual has their own unique set of skills. Make sure you understand upfront what anyone you hire can do for you: 

HANDY“MAN”: Sometimes thought of as a Jack (Jill)-of-all-trades, they’re typically great at doing smaller tasks, focused on fixing, repairing, improving, or small remodeling projects.

CARPENTER: Carpentry is mostly about working with wood, framing, siding, windows . . . Some carpenters are skilled in the “craft” of construction, cabinetry or woodworking. Others have strengths in framing and rough carpentry, but prefer not to tackle detailed or intricate work. 

BUILDER/CONTRACTOR: This encompasses a broad range of skill and expertise. Many own their own construction business and are required to have a contractor’s license. They generally oversee a wider scope of work, having both crew members and subcontractors they employ. Many come from a background in carpentry and construction and are strong in the technical and practical sides of the construction trade, understanding general structural, mechanical and electrical systems, as well as materials and details. They’re not typically trained in design or architecture, though may have a designer working for them.

ARCHITECTURAL DRAFTER: Someone who has most likely gone through a technical college program and is fluent in the use of architectural drafting software for creating architectural drawings or blueprints.

ARCHITECTURAL DESIGNERS: May have similar education/abilities and/or possibly a full architecture degree, but at least some training in design. This is a title that frequently applies to architectural interns, working towards licensure. Both drafters and designers may be working under the guidance of an architect, engineer, or builder. An important distinction is that drafting/drawing is not the same as designing. 

ARCHITECT: I’ve run into a lot of misinformation about this profession. An architect applies both art and science in the design of buildings/spaces/places. One can only use the title and practice architecture if s/he is licensed and meeting yearly continuing education requirements addressing, among other areas, health/safety/welfare, ethics, and environmental sustainability. Architects have 5-6 years of intensive design education in addition to construction, building science and engineering, natural sciences, and human factors/well-being. What has now become a masters degree is followed by internship for several years and registration exams. While there are some areas of specialty in architecture that typically come with practice and experience in certain building typologies (i.e. healthcare, education, etc.), all first need to know “something about everything” involved in a project. This holistic knowledge enables them to assist their clients in creating an outcome that addresses many areas, including building integrity, human comfort, appropriate spatial accommodations, connection with site and, of course, beauty. Architects’ broad understanding of the construction trades also helps them coordinate and collaborate with all the professionals it takes to put together a project for a unified, optimal outcome.

INTERIOR DECORATOR and INTERIOR DESIGNER: Specializes in selection of materials, colors, fixtures, lighting, spatial organization, sometimes having specific certifications in bathroom or kitchen design. An interior designer is frequently certified and has at least a 4-5 year university degree, maintaining ongoing continuing education in the areas mentioned with some overlap in a few courses architects might take.

This is not an exhaustive list and there are many more professions not included such as electricians, plumbers,mechanical contractors, various engineers, landscape architects, designers, contractors, cabinet makers and fabricators. If you decide you want assistance with your project, get references from friends and acquaintances. Ask the professionals up front what services they can provide along with what they don’t do. (If someone tells you they can do it all, be wary.) Don’t be afraid to ask a building professional if there’s anything you can do to help with the project to keep the costs down. Be mindful that some projects need permits and/or inspections. Some need to comply with zoning or code requirements. If not executed correctly, some projects can have major problems with electrical issues, water damage, or structural failure. Consider consulting with a designer or architect, at least for some initial planning and design, to make sure you’re considering everything, and to help you see multiple opportunities. Hopefully this has given you a better grasp of the extensive nature of home projects, and whether or not to DIY or ask for help!

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