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Can I design and build houses professionally with no license or certification?  RSS feed

 
Brian Mejia
Posts: 9
Location: Forest Grove, Oregon
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Background:
Since I was a child (I'm currently 22) I've dreamed of being an architect. When I enrolled in college I took an environmental science class, and it revolutionized my world view. I decided there was no way I could just learn about how human actions are devastating the biosphere so I decided to deeply intertwine an environmental consciousness with my architecture aspirations. I'm about to obtain my B.A. in Sustainable Design, for which I have studied ecology, permaculture design, natural building, eco-building design and for my senior project, I am building a Tiny Home. Anyway, I still really want to design and build homes, but the mainstream architecture mindset doesn't align with my morals with regard to how I believe homes should be designed and built. Therefore, I've been looking for alternatives. I've come across professional building and residential designer (no architecture degree needed, just need to pass a certification exam). However, the problem with that is I still need to study mainstream architecture concepts, methods and ideologies, which would just be a waste of time and money, I feel. I want to really focus on natural building methods (things like cob, straw-bale, lime plasters, roundwood framing, home energy production, self-sustaining, reduced foot-print etc.), none of which is really used at all in modern architecture. Ultimately, my goal is to own a building firm where I would work with clients on their personal home design, implement it, all while focusing on natural building methods.

So my question is: How can I legally design and build houses with no professional license or certification (preferably not needing stamps of approval)?

Muchas gracias
 
Ann Torrence
steward
Posts: 1191
Location: Torrey, UT; 6,840'/2085m; 7.5" precip; 125 frost-free days
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Get a general contractor license.

But why should I hire you without any training whatsoever in the category of knowing how to keep my house from falling down?
Actually, I doubt most architecture programs teach that either.
But you have to learn it from someone. Who might that be?
 
Brian Mejia
Posts: 9
Location: Forest Grove, Oregon
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I'm not going to try and build entire houses right out of college. I'm either going to entrepreneur my way into remodeling, like replacing sheet-rock or dry-wall with plaster, perhaps build patios, home gardens, sheds and tiny houses first, starting small in other words. Then when I feel confident enough, or when I get enough experience building home with guidance or working next to others building homes, I'll shoot for starting my own home design/build service. So I still need to gain lots experience. I don't want to produce something that will collapse on anyone obviously, I just don't want to waste my time studying and paying for test just to get a piece of paper, then not put much of what I studied to practice.

Also, for clarification, I don't want to build very large houses either, fairly modest. Just FYI

General contractor, hmmm, didn't think of that, I'll look into that. Thanks.
 
Jay C. White Cloud
Posts: 2413
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Hello Brian,

In a few word....NO YOU DON'T...however....

Sorry Ann, as a traditional and natural builder with 40 years of experience I have to counter some of your thinking. One, though most architects coming out of college today don't no the first thing about the actual "get your hands dirty" aspect of building, they do know how to design way better than most contractors (and most likely Brian at this point in his training) and without a doubt will keep a building from falling over (mostly.) Now very few of them know what Brian knows, and in a few years he will be way ahead of them in the realm of "natural building."

Brian, it is going to be a real challenge for a young fellow like yourself to compete in the open market with folks like me bidding against you (or those I and others have trained.) So, per Ann's suggestion, you do need about five to ten years of learning how to build. Even if you never touch any conventional building materials, you are never going to be able to "educate" a client or the market, if you do not have a solid background in all things architecture. You must understand good design (do you know what the golden section is, 3-4-5 and how it works with the golden section, applications of balance and proportioning, etc. etc.?), historical and contemporary building modalities, all the different codes (national and international, and have a solid handle on market price matrixes.

If I client in Oregon, Japan, Vermont, the U.K. asked me how much a stone wall cost per liner foot, what it cost to hand lay earth or lime plaster by square foot, or build a timber frame by square meter. I could most likely give them a price out of my head with about 85% accuracy (give or take.) If they asked something I didn't know, I could put my hands on it within probably minutes to seconds with the same degree of understanding.

I really do commend you for your goal, and really hope you join our ranks, but you have a great deal to learn...and there really isn't any cutting corners. So it is either back to college for 3 to 6 more years, into the school of hard knocks for 15 to 20 years, or finding a "traditional-natural" design build firm you can join. If you go on your own (the hard knock way)...well that can work to, but is neither efficient, or good for your clients. If you start slow, and just take small jobs (if you can survive on that) then in about 6 to 12 years you will get a good idea of what it takes to run a domestic design/build company working in the traditional-natural design formats.

I wish you all the luck!

Warm Regards,

j
 
Brian Knight
Posts: 554
Location: Asheville NC
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I agree with the advice and also that you dont have to have any formal education, certification or titles but I have to defend the academic world coming from that background myself. Further education is much like any other product in the marketplace. Sometimes you have to shop or snoop around for the best deal or value. I consider myself extremely lucky to have stumbled across a building professor who was the perfect match for me and my eventual career passions. Some programs are much better than others and the individual professors are what's most important. Dont limit yourself to Natural focused details as almost any broad discipline whether it be construction management, engineering or architecture can be applied to your area of interest.
 
Taylor Brown
Posts: 21
Location: Little Rock, AR 7b
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You can legally design and build a single family residence as long as it meets all of the building code requirements of the jurisdiction having authority. Jurisdictions can vary wildly in how much they are involved in the process.
Bear in mind that if you are designing and building for a third party, you have a great deal of liability for anything that doesn't go smoothly. I am licensed and I have witnessed the anguish and expenses caused by construction and design defects. Personally, I would never put my personal assets and property at risk by designing or building for a third party without professional liability insurance. I applaud your effort to utilize natural methods and forego the traditional education process, but be aware of the obstacles. Namely, you are part of a society that often uses litigation to resolve problems, and you would benefit greatly from the knowledge and experience that Jay C. White Cloud describes.
 
Charlie Rendall
Posts: 26
Location: Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
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You can in Guatemala and other "less developed" nations. I live in a Mayan village on the shores of Lake Atitlán where I estimate around 75-95% of the houses were built by unlicensed builders.

That means that many of them are either unsafe, unlikely to last very long or both, but few complain about this because they're likely responsible for it and moved here precisely for the freedom of building where there are no building codes and licensing. Many of them are also well-built and beautiful, and proof that almost anyone can build their own house.

I got into the building trade here first building my own house then being asked by neighbours to build theirs. I learnt from carpenters, masons, general contractors, architects, engineers, geologists, local natural builders, random crazy inventors and anyone else who had something useful to share - some were local, some from other countries. I also learnt a LOT from books and the Internet, although it has been tricky at times to understand more complex subjects. Fortunately the freedom to make mistakes, and the demand for builders here, has meant that I've also learnt a great from simply having to find a way to do stuff that back in the UK (where I'm from) there's no way I'd have been allowed to go near.

I think if you're conscientious about doing your homework and have a tendency to over-engineer the important parts, that it can be a great education in building and I've now hosted a dozen natural building interns who come here to get the degree of exposure to building that would be a lot harder to find in their own countries. I realise this thread is a little old but if you still feel like a break from all those authorities, inspectors and codes then maybe save a little cash to get you started, and head south to where you can find an abundance of clients and building projects to cut your teeth on.

I started building my own house in 2005, then built my first house for a client in 2009 and if you're interested in what I'm building now then take a peek here: http://returntotheforest.org/projects/

I should also add that this sort of exposure and learning isn't a substitute for a more thorough education from accomplished masters, but if that's difficult to attain then there are alternatives in places like this. There are also many excellent natural building schools and courses throughout central and south America, not to mention elsewhere in the world.
 
Andrew Parker
pollinator
Posts: 514
Location: Salt Lake Valley, Utah, hardiness zone 6b/7a
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Brian M., you can probably do what you intend, but you will need to team up with an architect or engineer that can assure your designs will pass code. It is also true that many jurisdictions do not require an architect's or engineer's stamp for relatively simple and straightforward designs, but natural and sustainable are not seen as simple or straightforward. Putting together a complete set of house plans is not an uncomplicated task. You are still young enough that a few years of additional training will not put you off your career track. Shop for an architecture school that fits your aspirations, or get an engineering degree, or get a partner.

I also wanted to be an architect, but I realized I wanted to design my dreams, not someone else's -- or mine with a cantilevered closet.
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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I too will say Get the Education first. If you decide to go the School of Hard Knocks method, you might learn wrong lessons first. Just because someone is a Licensed Contractor does not mean they are good at it. School is always faster for the learning curve, just my own experience talking here. If you don't want to do School, find a good Apprentice program it will take longer but you will get the hands on approach and learn by doing. In any event, good math skills will be a boon to you. If you are serious about becoming a builder, then you have to understand that there are no shortcuts to real knowledge and also knowledge with out the ability to apply said knowledge correctly is just book learning. As one of my Teachers sagely said " 10 years of learning the wrong way is 20 times worse than 1 year of learning the right way".

Your liability of doing a job for someone that pays you can break you if you don't know what your doing. I've seen fairly good contractors go out of business and loose everything they had worked for from one lawsuit created when they decided to do some work they really didn't have experience doing. I've also seen architects and engineers designs that were impossible to build in the real world, with the given budget.

I welcome you to the craft and caution you against jumping the gun or trying to sprint the whole marathon.
 
Nicola Marchi
Posts: 79
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Just thought I'd chime in and tell you what a good 5 year program in architecture should teach you, having completed one about two years ago.

First off the most important thing is probably the design mindset you learn. It takes years of trying and trying and trying and being critiqued by people who have already done similar things and know the ins and outs everything you're proposing within a few minutes of you tacking up your drawings. It means you start developing depth of thought and trying to work simultaneously in a dozen different planes to come to a solution. Most people who haven't worked in design don't understand the number of iterations it can take before an appropriate compromise is attained. And that changes completely when you start factoring in clients ,who have their own goals (some of them which can be very frustrating). Hopefully the education has a lot of client interaction, but that's fairly rare, mostly it's just architects tearing apart your work for "review".

Secondly, structural sciences are emphasized. Most colleges have anywhere from 3-5 structures and physics classes so you get an understanding of the maths, forces, and can handle small work without calling an engineer. Generally your studio is covering the structural systems that your structures class is, that way you get both sides, the designing and the calculating, before having to redesign for structure, which changes the spaces and often means you have to go back to calculations again. It can sometimes feel like an endless loop when you're doing custom structural work, which most larger structures have at least a little in some form or another.

A couple additional thing you start gaining appreciation for is "precedent" so that when you embark on a unique endeavor, you aren't redesigning the wheel with new structural details, mechanical systems, arrangements of spaces, etc... I think this particular fixation is what makes architecture as a field a bit more insular, but it's risk aversion, so that on every project the initial capital outlay isn't astronomical, or the architect who's stamping the work doesn't feel like they were thrown out of a plane and there might be a parachute to catch somewhere before hitting the ground. The educational institution should also make sure you get a good appreciation for modelmaking and at the very least get some hands on training. That's not necessarily going to be building a house, but putting together a small full scale section of a wall might be a project you'd expect. And lastly, most institutions don't cover conventional construction details and rules of thumb anywhere near enough, but they're definitely good to know and extremely helpful when you're working with conventional systems.

So if you don't want to follow through with an architectural education, but want the benefits, break these main themes apart and figure out how they could apply to what you want to do. See if you can get some mentorship from a natural builder because it can help, just remember that everyone has their own biases, mentors, people who post on forums, and people who sell building supplies.
 
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