Can a civil engineer design a house?



I'm a current civil engineering student and currently considering the following path: graduate, work as a civil engineering (in the construction and/or project management side of the job) while aggressively investing in real estate (rental properties) in order to become, within 10 years, financially independent. Later, I want to quit my day-to-day civil engineering job and jump into real estate development. 

My question is: could I design houses by myself? What would be the constraints (eg. legal)? Are there examples of civil engineers that are designing houses (i.e. with no architect license)?

Considering the following:
- I am VERY passionate about architecture.
- I read tons of magazines and books about architecture as well as viewing online university lectures, travelling a lot, working with architects, etc.
- I learn, by my own, how to use architecture software such as Revit and 3ds Max.
- I know the building code for my region (currently Québec, Canada).


Thank you.

Mar 17, 15 1:17 pm

Depends on the where you practice. If it is exempt from architectural license requirement for preparing the plans in your locality then yes. The important thing is that you know how to design. I suggest working with an architect or building designer for a little bit to understand the architectural issues beyond the engineering sciences. The short answer is yes but you need to understand architecture as an art and science that includes factors beyond the engineering sciences covers. 

I can't speak for Canada so much but I can speak for U.S. and in most states in the U.S. houses are exempt from requiring an architect to design and prepare the plans.

Mar 17, 15 1:28 pm  · 
1  · 

Thank you, very useful. As a dual citizen (American and Canadian), I am certainly very open to the idea of working in the U.S. That said, at which point is an architect's stamp required? In other words, could I design a triplex? Could I design a small apartment building?

I understand that architecture is much more than math and science. I like arts (I love to sketch and to compose music) and am very interested by the study of societies, of different cultures, of global trends, of transportation issues, and of sustainability.

Mar 17, 15 1:36 pm  · 
Non Sequitur

Stephane, anyone can design anything... we call these people designers. If you are designing a building (as defined by the Canadian building code) for the purposes of a building permit, you, as the designer, need to provide suitable credentials as determined by that province and carry adequate professional liability insurance.

I am unfamiliar with the Quebec laws since that province has shown itself time and time again to be one helluva backwards place, but in Ontario where I practice, one can design and submit for permit if they A: hold a certificate and stamp issued by the OAA or B: hold a Building Code ID. Anyone can get this last item if you take the building code exams but you are limited in the type and size of buildings. Those who hold such ID are referred to as building designers, not architects. I suspect a similar option is available in Quebec.

Your other options, which I am sure we've mentioned this to you in an earlier discussion, is to complete a 2y M.arch (tuition is dirt cheap in Qc anyways) and try to complete the intern hours or complete the (aprox) 10year RAIC syllabus.

Mar 17, 15 1:38 pm  · 


Check with the architectural licensing laws or architectural licensing board website for any particular state and look at the statutes and rules which will answer that question. Just about every state licensing board for architectural licensing has a link to the statutes and the board's administrative rules. 

In Oregon, I could design such as long as I don't exceed the sq.ft. rule that would become applicable on an MFR such as a triplex.

Mar 17, 15 1:39 pm  · 
Non Sequitur

Richard, Canada is not as free as some states are and almost anything that requires a building permit needs a professional stamp or building designer's ID.

Stephane, to quickly answer your questions... as an unlicensed (and most likely, unqualified) layman, you are restricted to 3-storey single-family dwellings under 600sqm and some utilitarian structures if you are the owner of the property but you immediately require a license or code ID the second that someone hires you for a project. The same goes for multi-tenant and other buildings with occupancy separations.

Ghost stamping drawings may be common in the states but it is severely penalized here.

Mar 17, 15 1:45 pm  · 

Non Sequitur, can you define "ghost stamping?"   I know of a few very competent architects (in Canada) who do this.  Granted, they take their time with their own code and assembly reviews, but maybe this isn't what you mean by ghost stamping.  Care to expand? Can you point to anything specific or even anecdotal about repercussions?

Mar 17, 15 2:38 pm  · 
Non Sequitur

bowling_ball, ghost stamping is taking a designer's drawings and, for a fee, applying one's stamp without making any indepth review. Repercussions range from fines to certificate of practice suspensions and publication of names on the association's public news forums. Along with these, some are even asked (at least the OAA does) to repeat the introduction course and pay court costs.

What you describe is not a complete ghost stamp but it's close enough to enter a legal grey zone. It's dependant on the language of that province's association and what the practice is allowed under their omissions and liability insurance. This last point is key because stamping drawings that were not completed under the supervision of the holder of the certificate issued by the province may very well not be covered by his/her association when shit hits the fan... and when such corners are cut, it's only a matter of time until said fan becomes covered.

Mar 17, 15 2:50 pm  · 

Non Sequitur,

I wasn't saying Canada is as free on these matters. I said if it is exempt from requiring an architect license in his locality then the answer is yes. They just don't necessarily have the exemptions as much as it is in the U.S. 

However, always check the laws applicable to the locality of practice.

In the U.S., I simply stated that in the U.S., it is typically exempt.

Non Sequitur, ghost stamping basically means the same things as the phrase 'rubber stamping'... the phrase not that the stamp happens to have a rubber base.

Mar 17, 15 3:08 pm  · 


16. All plans and specifications for architectural work for the construction, enlargement, reconstruction, renovation or alteration of a building must be signed and sealed by a member of the Order.


1973, c. 59, s. 16; 1974, c. 65, s. 98; 2000, c. 43, s. 3.


16.1. Section 16 does not apply to plans and specifications for architectural work


 (1) for the construction, enlargement, reconstruction, renovation or alteration of


(a)  a detached single-family dwelling unit ; or


(b)  a semi-detached or attached single-family dwelling unit, a multi-family dwelling that contains no more than four units, a mercantile occupancy, business occupancy, industrial occupancy or a combination of such dwellings or occupancies that is not more than two storeys and not more than 300 square metres in gross area after the work is completed and has a single basement level ; or


 (2) for the alteration or renovation of the interior layout of any building or part of a building that will not change its occupancy or affect structural integrity, walls or firewalls, exits or access to exits or exterior cladding.


2000, c. 43, s. 4.


16.2. For the purposes of section 16.1,


“business occupancy” means the occupancy or use of a building or part of a building for the transaction of business or for the provision of professional or personal services;


“dwelling unit” means a building or part of a building that provides sleeping accommodation for persons but is not used for the housing or detention of persons who require medical care or who are involuntarily detained;


“gross area” means the total area of all floors above grade measured between the outside surfaces of exterior walls;


“industrial occupancy” means the occupancy or use of a building or part of a building for assembling, fabricating, manufacturing, processing, repairing or storing products, goods or materials, but does not include medium hazard or high hazard industrial establishment occupancies, as defined in a regulation under the Building Act (chapter B-1.1);


“mercantile occupancy” means the occupancy or use of a building or part of a building for displaying or selling retail goods, wares or merchandise.


2000, c. 43, s. 4.

Mar 17, 15 3:19 pm  · 

After reading this, I believe a civil engineer (a non-architect) may design buildings under exemption provided for by section 16.1. In his case, on all non-civil engineering drawings, use title designer and refer to the sets as either building plans or residential plans. Do not use the words architect or architecture or architectural when describing oneself or services or even the products of services under any contractual terms or official or any communication with a client in regards to the client's project.

There is your answer Spathene in regards to Quebec.

There is a few ways to verify the validity of the info. I don't believe CANLII would deliberately misquote law but any recent amendment might not be shown on site. I don't know if you may apply your civil engineering stamp on non-engineering work but you may only use your engineer's stamp in accordance with engineer's law. 

After re-reading the original post, your not yet licensed as an engineer so engineer stamp doesn't apply to you... so just refer to yourself as a designer or a title that doesn't have licensure requirements that isn't misrepresenting. I beleive you may be able to use the term building designer in Canada or residential designer. I haven't thoroughly looked through the statutes so verify if your intended title is not barred by the licensing board(s) from use without a license. 

Mar 17, 15 3:31 pm  · 

Note: Canada is similar to the U.S. where each province and I think Territories.. too, defines what is exempt from architectural licensure and what is not.

Mar 17, 15 3:33 pm  · 

Closer to me.... British Columbia.


60  Section 27 (2) does not prevent any of the following:

(a) a person who is a professional engineer registered under the Engineers and Geoscientists Act from practising professional engineering or from doing any act set out in paragraph (b);

(b) a chemical, civil, electrical, forest, geological, mechanical, metallurgical, mining or structural engineer from designing or supervising the erection, alteration or repair of a structure usually designed or supervised for these purposes by an engineer;

(c) a person from doing any act set out in paragraph (b) for the erection of a warehouse to store produce by an agricultural association;

(d) a person from making plans or specifications for or supervising the erection or alteration of all or a part of a building that is a one or 2 family dwelling on the person's own property, if the building or part is to be used and occupied by the person and the person's household;

(e) a corporation acting through members of its regular staff or other qualified persons from making plans or specifications for or supervising the erection or alteration of all or part of a building to be occupied and used exclusively by the corporation, its subsidiaries or lessees, as part of an industrial plant operated by it;

(f) a person employed by a registered architect as a drafter, student, clerk of work, superintendent or in any other capacity from acting under the supervision of the registered architect;

(g) a superintendent of buildings paid by the owner from acting under the direction and control of a member of the institute;

(h) a person from advising on, planning, designing or supervising the erection, alteration or repair of a building other than

(i)  an apartment or residential building containing 5 or more dwelling units,

(ii)  a hotel or similar occupancy containing 11 or more guest rooms for transient or permanent occupancy,

(iii)  a commercial or industrial building, or combination of both with other occupancies, in excess of 470 m2 gross area, being the aggregate area of all floors,

(iv)  a one story building, other than a school building, to be used for public assembly, if the gross area exceeds 275 m2 or the unsupported span exceeds 9 m,

(v)  a building of more than one story, other than a school building, to be used for public assembly, if the gross area exceeds 235 m2,

(vi)  a building, other than a veterinary hospital, to be used as a hospital, sanatorium or as a home for the aged and with a capacity of over 12 beds,

(vii)  any other building in excess of 470 m2 gross area, being the aggregate area of all floors, or

(viii)  any alteration to an existing building placing it within any of subparagraphs (i) to (vii);

(i) a person employed in the actual service of Her Majesty's Forces, or in the service of the government of Canada or British Columbia, from acting as an architect in the course of that employment or service;

(j) a person who is employed as an architect by a public service corporation or a public utility or government ministry whose business is normally carried on in 2 or more provinces and who, by reason of that employment, is required to practise as an architect in a province other than that of his or her residence, from practising as an architect in the course of that employment;

(k) a landscape architect or naval architect from describing himself or herself by that title.

Mar 17, 15 3:45 pm  · 
Non Sequitur

Richard, although good on you for checking the quebec architect's act, but most municipalities impose their own laws and requirements above those in the act and ask for architect or equivalent identification number when submitting for building permit. Perhaps the OP can avoid this if  working in a small rural area but you'll never get a building permit without real credentials in the city. I really doubt a civil stamp will pass as equivalent specifically when permit submissions live and die on life safety and the like. You've generalized a complicated issue and although you've looked into the question, your conclusion, from my experience, is not reflective of the way things work here.

I guess the OP can always sell design services as long as he does not specify that the product his clients receive can be used for a building permit. What many do is do the design for a client who then take it to a GC who gets an in-house tech to "copy" the plans for the sake of building permit.

For what it's worth building designer is a term anyone can use (in ontario at least) who holds a BCIN.

Mar 17, 15 3:59 pm  · 

Of course. That because too intensive for us to do. That is ultimately Spathene to do. Always check the requirements of the jurisdiction where the project is to be designed for before designing. Ideally before you accept the client and get into a contract but sometimes you just have to let the client go fore doing any major work.

Mar 17, 15 4:11 pm  · 
Non Sequitur

Richard, what the provincial architect's act(s) do is state that others, not solely registered architects, can design certain types of buildings. It was an amendment, before my time, due to the increase of tech programmes and more importantly, it allows home-owners decent freedom in how they renovate their own property... within reason.

Having said that, the OP cannot go very far if he wants to design buildings for clients if he cannot offer them documents for the purpose of a permit.

Mar 17, 15 4:22 pm  · 

I've heard some localities up there accepting people with NCBDC cert. using NCBDC CPBD stamp especially if they have a building code cert that you mentioned about. Ultimately, it is up to the B.O. (building official) that has jurisdiction of where the project is located and what he/she accepts for satisfying certification. 

I agree with you and if I were to do any projects north of the border (Canada), I would probably have NCBDC cert. and the Building Code ID or equivalent. before doing such projects besides the normal issues of working across national boundaries. Work visa or whatever. That normal sh-t.

Mar 17, 15 4:25 pm  · 

Non Sequitur, 

No argument there. For me, it is more a matter of cost / benefit then it is whether I can deal with those hoops.

Mar 17, 15 4:27 pm  · 
Non Sequitur

I've not heard or seen a NCBDC before.

I practice in Ontario which has 2 canadian codes (provincial and national) and from what I understand from my peers elsewhere, it is the most stringent of provinces to practice In. I reserve the right to be wrong however, but I know elsewhere are more relaxed.

I think the hoops you'll face moving north may not be worth the effort.

Mar 17, 15 4:33 pm  · 

Yeah... it's something that all comes down to weighing the odds and I would have to have at least one or two decent projects every year or so to be worth it. Whether I live in Oregon and do extended project works up into Canada (British Columbia) will require projects or otherwise some source of income elsewhere that could more or less subsidize the cost but it all boils down to having projects up there and a strategic planning to make doing the work up there break even and not be a losing proposition.

NCBDC is a building designer certification by the AIBD (not to be confused with AIBC) which maybe recognized if backed by say the Code ID hoop when the building official is informed about the NCBDC certification but that comes down to local building officials/municipalities. 

NCBDC certification has higher priority at this time than doing projects up in BC but I wouldn't mind if an opportunity arise. Canada isn't too different than the U.S. in some respects. Not to imply that Canada is the same as U.S.

Mar 17, 15 4:45 pm  · 

aren't you talking about spathene's situation rather than your own?

Mar 17, 15 4:53 pm  · 

A little of both.  Spathene's situation is pretty well covered at this time. As for my own, I think we covered it. 

Mar 17, 15 4:57 pm  · 

Wow, so much information all at once, thank you so much! Non Sequitur, I'm very glad to talk with you again, I see that you do remember our previous discussions!

Thank you Richard for looking up the Québec law and yes, you are right, that is something that I need to check.

That said, what I'm thinking of doing is pretty much what Non Sequitur said:

"Stephane, anyone can design anything... we call these people designers. [...] I guess the OP can always sell design services as long as he does not specify that the product his clients receive can be used for a building permit. What many do is do the design for a client who then take it to a GC who gets an in-house tech to "copy" the plans for the sake of building permit."

Basically, I want to open my own "design + development + property management" firm where I could design a building in a general way and define the design concepts for that building (i.e. shape, spaces, lighting, materials, sustainability systems, etc). Then, I would hand in the design to the GC for building permit; the twist is that the GC and its arch tech would be working full-time for the firm and not working for another company.

My idea is to start a firm which would design buildings for itself, pretty much like Jonathan Segal does. I would be at the head of the firm, acting more as a "Head of Design" rather than "Senior Architect". Does that make sense? Is that realistic?

The thing is that I'm not only interested by architecture; I love business, more specifically real estate. I cannot picture myself not investing in real estate at some point in my twenties. But I also love architecture! And I'm currently studying civil engineering and continuing it because of the great job opportunities that I can get right after graduating! What should I do? There's simply not enough time for everything!

The RAIC Syllabus sounds very interesting. I will have to look into that in further details. Non Sequitur, do you know anyone who's done it?

Mar 18, 15 12:32 am  · 

tl;dr version: I want do hand sketch a building (and maybe do a painting of it) and have a licensed architect design it. That's basically what it boils down to.

I am conscious that this idea will raise a lot of criticism.

Mar 18, 15 12:55 am  · 

Well... whether you have an architect or competent building designer-drafter prepare it, it isn't a problem but you need to supervise to ensure the end results meets Heath, safety and welfare requirements such as building codes and other regulatory requirements and done competently. You really can't just hand off all the ugly stuff but you do want to be sure things are done right. Lawyers have a habit of finding ways to enjoin you to the liabilities. Not the pretty part of discussions but it is something that just part of the way things are.

I recommend that you keep close involvement and close involvement with the outcome as the technical drawings are produced because it has to be done right. In time, you'll get that worked out. 

Carerra has some good insight on the real estate stuff down south of the Canadian border but in some regards there are a lot of similarities in Canada but I cna't say the regulatory environment is entirely alike but I believe there is alot of similarities.

Mar 18, 15 1:09 am  · 

There isn't enough time to be everything but of course you have a life in front of you so you may adapt and shift in response to market. Remember, a fulltime business as a business owner is an overtime job especially as a sole-proprietorship getting started. 

I say complete you degree so that's behind you. If you decide to get started in building design and real estate.... start in building design a little bit to get some capital starting. Take some suggestions Carrera may have on real estate into consideration. Partnering with others that will will allow you to formulate a division of labor. It is impossible to do it all on your own, especially when you are new. I would ideally recommend taking some time working in each of the following: engineering, architecture, and real estate business. Not in any specific order. You'll need the experience to prepare drawings fast and quickly and getting used to it and getting your templates formulated. Once you have that, you'll be in good shape. I recommend at least 6 months to 2 years in each of these firms. More in the architecture and real estate but at least 6 months to a year in an engineering business. There is reason for working.... paying off or paying down student loans and having a little bit of money in your bank account including buying yourself the tools you need to start your business. When you start your business, initially in your home in a segregated area from your main residence area. After that, when you begin partnering with people with good credit history... yes, good credit is better than crap. You want to have good credit, too! Important in getting lending capital if you need it. At some point, you'll want to get into an office where you can have employees and partners in that would invoke a more professional image but not break the bank while you're at it.

In business, sustainable means financially sustainable not necessarily environmentally sustainable.

Mar 18, 15 1:23 am  · 

You are absolutely right, I would be supervising all the work/drawings. I do intend on taking the Building Code certification at some point in time. It might seem like I just want to "hand off all the ugly stuff" to the architect but that's not the reason why I would do that. I simply would not have time to run the company (the real estate side) as well as designing every building in detail.

What you said about lawyers is interesting, though. If I am a top executive of a company and an architect designs a building for that company which fails after construction; who is liable? Considering that the executive is not an architect, I assume that he would only need to prove that he ensured that the safety requirements were revised by someone else (say, a safety officer)? I haven't studied anything regarding liability yet.

Mar 18, 15 1:25 am  · 

"Remember, a fulltime business as a business owner is an overtime job especially as a sole-proprietorship getting started." Exactly why I would rather, eventually, design a building "globally" and have an architect design it in details.

When you say "get started in building design", do you mean by my own or within an engineering and/or architecture firm? How could I work in an architecture firm if I have no architecture background? I could aim to work in firms that do both architecture and engineering.

Mar 18, 15 1:31 am  · 
Non Sequitur

Stephane, what you're essentially wanting to do is make pretty pictures and task someone else with the real work. This is not how the real world works, if it did, you would have everyone who has ever taken a design studio or art class competing for the same clients.

As for the RIAC syllabus I mentioned... yes, I do know a few who are in the programme and personally, I do not recommend it. I'll reserve any further criticism for the bar as a colleague and I have an on-going healthy debate on this subject, but let me just say this: it's more cost-effective to do a M.arch... and you'll run circles around most RIAC graduates. If you want more info, search their website and see who the local chapter teachers are. They are always working or retired architects.

Richard, if you ever figure out how to claim reciprocity north of the border, please report. I am honestly curious to see.

Mar 18, 15 9:02 am  · 

if spathene is the developer and controls the money, lease agreements, financing, whatever, then wouldn't that give him/her the ability to dictate the design?  it sounds like (s)he's trying to be the client rather than the architect.  that is a realistic path isn't it?  the drawing of pictures is just sort of a side occupation to make the architect's job a bigger pain in the ass.

set up an equity fund and get investors to pay for you building project.  go into finance to learn that instead of studying building codes or getting R Balkin's 'building designer' certificates.  you'll probably need to work with the city or county or whatever to plat land and deal with getting utilities to whatever you're building and things like that which developers have to deal with.

Mar 18, 15 9:19 am  · 
Non Sequitur


It helps if your wallet looks like this:

Mar 18, 15 10:01 am  · 

Yes you can design whatever you want and hire an aor if required.  Dont know how it works in Canada but in my state an architect is not required on any sfr but an engineer may be for non conventional construction.  Foreign architects are essentiall designers and do this all the time for huge projects.  The work that I do...99% of the time is no problem...1% a civil or structural stamp is requred specifically.  Never once was a landscape arch or arch stamp requested.  The again, we have strict contractor requirements and vontractors always deal with submitting for permits.  

Mar 18, 15 10:21 am  · 

The more important question is should a civil engineer design a house? Seems everyone thinks they can design, not so many actually can. Lots of ugly crap in the world, that somebody somewhere thought was great

Mar 18, 15 10:18 pm  · 

I'm going to guess, NO?

Mar 18, 15 10:24 pm  · 


I think the question is individualistic. There is lots of opportunity for someone to learn the knowledge and skills of designing but that would obviously extend beyond the civil engineering and also an understanding of color and texture theory helps.

Here is something of a treat that the original poster may find some good in:

Mar 18, 15 11:44 pm  · 

Don't be like the architect that, "Learned all about engineering in architecture school."

Feb 17, 21 8:25 am  · 

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