Can unlicensed architect do residential "permit drawings" without (much) liability?


Unlicensed architect here, I've always worked in bigger firms doing huge, public/commercial work.  Now I have someone asking me to do some permit drawings on my own, for a simple 500SF mother-in-law addition.  They would do half the construction on their own, and piecemeal their own subcontractors.

Without liability insurance (and no stamp, etc), am I in a position to draw-up a "Permit Drawings Only, Not For Construction" sort of set for them, without acquiring the full liability of a licensed architect stamping a commerial building (for example)?  

Any input appreciated.

Feb 18, 14 11:53 am
Saint in the City

I guess, step one -- Is it legal and accepted by the building official in your area / jurisdiction to do this?

Feb 18, 14 12:04 pm

"unlicensed architect" is an oxymoron, isn't it?

as saint said, whatever your jurisdiction is (probably the city, maybe the county or state) gets to set those rules.  typically, i don't think you can do what you're proposing.  for my house, i think i can do my own work up to certain restrictions such as messing with the power line coming into the house, or building a fence over 6', or something like that.  when you hire someone to do the work, which would include in this case the homeowner hiring subcontractors, they might need to get a contractor's license.  as an example, if i were to add a deck to my house, i can do that on my own without submitting drawings to the city (many places now won't let you do that anymore since people have died from decks falling down). however, if i hired someone to put a deck on my house, they would need to be licensed and i think they would have to submit drawings to the city.

having said that, i don't see anything wrong with you giving the city drawings, just don't imply you have any professional credentials such as architect, engineer, or contractor.  if they require a stamp, i'm sure they'll let you know.

Feb 18, 14 12:23 pm
Saint in the City

Checking the legality is always step one, but I'll bet you can do this.  i know that the state I'm in plus those surrounding me allow this and quite a bit more under the exempt building status.

Feb 18, 14 12:40 pm

I'm in Seattle, so probably in the upper percentiles of "how many development rules there are" for an American city.  Let's assume the client gets an actual GC...can I get them to permit drawings...and then the contractor takes on the licensed professional/liability  role that the city wants to see?  

Just found....

City says (for single family) "as owner you may elect to obtain your own permits...we recommend using a professional designer or licensed builder".  

Feb 18, 14 12:42 pm
wurdan freo

Typically you can. But you have to check the jurisdiction you are in. Usually 1-4 family homes can be done without an Architect and sometimes smaller commercial. But you have to check the jurisdiction you are in. 

You are not an Unlicensed Architect. You are a draftsman and you are selling drafting services. You should have less liability because you are not representing yourself as an architect and not selling those services. Additionally in the eyes of the court you would not be recognized as an expert or professional held to a higher standard.  Maybe MightyAA can chime in here. 

That being said. The Owner will probably have to hire a structural engineer to design the foundation and framing layout if you are not capable of doing so. Again, depending on your jurisdiction, this may or may not need to be stamped by the SE. 

If it were me, I would have a very simple contract and the drawings I provide would not have my name on them anywhere. 

Feb 18, 14 12:43 pm

tell your owners that they should submit for permit as owner/builder.

keep any reference to you off of the drawings (name, firm name, contact info).

essentially, you are just a drafting service for the owner, which limits your liability.

Feb 18, 14 2:34 pm
Saint in the City

^ I'm not at all certain that the "designer incognito" mode described in the last couple posts is recommended or necessary.   I think you'll be far better off if what you say you did matches what you actually did on the project, or you're asking for trouble and to be "outed". 

If you can't design a safe, exempt building -- don't do the project.  If it's not good enough to put your name on it, who'd want it?   

That said, I'd be curious, too, if MightyAA or Miles might respond.  

Feb 18, 14 2:53 pm
wurdan freo

I guess my post was a little misleading. I'm not saying to go "designer incognito". I'm simply saying don't create a big fancy titleblock and put your name all over the drawings. Have a website. Have a business card. There is a lot of competition. Some from Architects in seattle... some only draftsmen.

Again this all depends on the laws of the Authority Having Jurisdiction!

Many times the "design" of a single family home is exempted under local jurisdiction.

Feb 18, 14 3:02 pm

sitedesign - you're confusing 2 different issues. 

the Architects Practice Act for your state governs what may be designed without the need for a licensed architect's stamp. if you're in seattle, you can find a copy of your practice act here.

in almost every state, single family homes can be designed without the need for a license to practice architecture. 

liability is a contractual issue between you and the client. it has nothing to do with your status as a licensed architect (or lack thereof). you need to precisely spell out, in an agreement with your owner, what your limitations of liability will be. NOTHING ELSE will matter - not keeping your name off the drawings, etc. you are pro-offering services for a fee - you'll have some liability unless you explicitly get the owner to absolve you contractually. 

you'll have to check with your local permitting authority to see what they will require in the way of engineered drawings (structural). but, again, you should really be checking this kind of stuff out prior to taking on the commission. 

good luck -

Feb 18, 14 3:03 pm

i should point out - whether the owner or contractor actually submits/pulls the permit means NOTHING in terms of your liability as a designer/architect. and your local jurisdiction does not regulate what can be legally designed without a licensed architect. only the state. 

Feb 18, 14 3:05 pm
wurdan freo

GW - you are correct that the State exemptions are the minimum, but the local jurisdiction can go beyond. The State could exempt the design of a single family home by an Architect, but the local jurisdiction could be more stringent and require it.  That's why you have to check with the local AHJ.

Feb 18, 14 3:16 pm
Saint in the City

^ ^ the OP since posted being from Seattle, but the original post didn't specify -- could've been from anywhere outside the US as well.

Also, I'm not entirely sure if it's totally legal or not, but what wurdan describes DOES happen at the local level.

Feb 18, 14 3:18 pm

Thanks everybody!  I think I'm gonna pursue it, as a drafter and an unlicensed "designer", and make that clear to the client, the contract, and the permit office.  And we'll see if they'll want a Structural stamp...I think not, as long as it's a small, simple & typical structure that they're used to seeing and reviewing.  

Feb 18, 14 3:34 pm

i tried to find in my state and a couple city ordinances where it was specifically stated when an architect is or is not required for a project.

what i found is references to the IBC (section 105.2 "Work exempt from permit."), which was amended by at least one city i commonly work with.  the state of missouri (i've never worked in washington or tennesee) does reference the 2012 ibc as a design standard for architects in their state ordinance.

the local jurisdiction apparently does not have to be more strict than the state, or the adopted reference code.  for example, the IBC says under 'exemptions'

One-story detached accessory structures used as tool and storage sheds, playhouses and similar uses, provided the floor area is not greater than 120 square feet (11 m2)

and the city of overland park (a municipality where i frequently work, which is in kansas instead of missouri) says

One-story detached accessory structures used as tool and storage sheds, playhouses and similar uses, provided the floor area does not exceed 200 square feet.

I hope this clearly illustrates where i got the idea that the local jurisdiction will typically have authority over the state regarding requirements for permit.  if i'm working on a project in overland park, i would submit plans to the city building department.  i would not typically submit anything to the state (iirc, sewer and food service goes through the county). 

i would be interested in any other information that supports the idea that the state regulates when a permit is required, or when an architect is required.  i certainly could be wrong.  i'm not a lawyer so i don't know that much about law.  however, i don't have any experience with a state addressing when an architect is required, except perhaps possibly in the rare case of an unincorporated rural district or something that i don't see often.  a state does handle licensing requirements, but in my experience it does not address permitting or when an architect is actually required to use their stamp.  what with being a professional and all, i would appreciate any information that would show i'm wrong, so i can change my opinion and be legal and all.

Feb 18, 14 4:14 pm

You will be fine. Just make sure you design the project per the Seattle Residential Code (SRC). You won't need an engineer, just read through the code and design each structural element per what the code requires. Start with the foundation and work up. 

You are a designer, or a draftsman, nothing more. Seattle has a special cover sheet you will need to fill out. 

Feb 18, 14 4:18 pm

You always have liability regardless of a stamp.  "Standard of Care".  Basically no matter what service you provide, you will be judged against your peers selling those same services. 

Trying to 'waive' liability is sort of joke.  Its like trying to get out of speeding ticket by telling them you don't have a drivers license.  You are driving.  You will be held to the same rules as anyone else driving regardless of a formal license. 

Feb 18, 14 6:12 pm

wurdan - local jurisdictions overriding the state's practice act (by being more stringent) could very well happen - it's certainly not my experience in georgia. there's no way a local city could, for example, require an architectural license to do a single family house since that's our state law. they could (and do) give preferential treatment to architects who stamp a set of house plans (they can do their own 'code review' and certify the design meets code, which would bypass a normal city planning review). perhaps it would depend on the area and 'disaster' proofing required - 

Feb 18, 14 6:27 pm

thanks saint and gregory and others.  i looked further into it, as i have never actually come across this in practice (just a little bit when working on my own house).  i've always started with permit requirements, which is different than requirements for being a licensed architect (since permitting tends to be the part that i deal with).

Feb 18, 14 7:55 pm
Saint in the City

MightyAA -- since the liability is the same, or potentially the same, how does the OP protect him/herself?   A licensed architect can be insured --  but what should the OP -- technically a designer / draftsman -- do as best practice precautions?    

Feb 18, 14 8:08 pm

A properly written contract with the client that places limits on liability can protect a designer/draftsman.  Without an insurance agent to assist with this, he/she may have to consult an attorney to help write something that works.

Feb 18, 14 11:40 pm
wurdan freo

If I was going to write a contract, it would probably look like this, which by the way is not intended as legal advice. Just realized it's missing a severability clause..


bueller... bueller... anyone

Drafting Services Contract


This Contract is between:_____________________________________________, (the “Owner”), and_________________________________________________________________________, (the “Draftsman”).

Project Address:  

Project Description: The Owner has hired the Draftsman to create permit drawings for a _______________ for submission to the City of _____________.

Payment: Payment shall be made to the Draftsman. The Owner agrees to pay the sum of $_______ as follows:

Event                                                                 Payment Amount                                              

Upon Hire                                                                                                            $______

Upon Completion                                                                                               $______

In addition to any other right or remedy provided by law, if the Owner fails to pay for the Services when due, Draftsman has the option to treat such failure to pay as a material breach of this Contract, and may cancel this Contract and/or seek legal remedies.

This payment does not include structural engineering costs. Structural engineering costs will be incurred and are currently estimated at $_____. This estimate includes field observation and labor needed to size new structural members. This estimate does not include any time for revisions should abnormal conditions arise once demolition has been completed and the entire effected structure is available to be inspected. The structural engineer will be paid through a separate contract with the Owner.


  1. Time for Performance

Draftsman shall commence work under this Contract upon receipt of Payment. Draftsman shall complete the work no later than two weeks after receipt of payment.

  1. Scope of Work

The Draftsman will provide Graphic Exhibits for the Owner adequate to pull a permit from the City of ____________. Services include measured drawings of the existing residence, layout of new dormer addition per Owner’s direction and red line markups from the structural engineer as needed for framing sizing. The draftsman will provide the Owner with a preliminary electronic review set once the new layout is complete. One revision to the layout, if necessary, is included in these terms. Additional revisions may incur additional cost. All printing is by Owner.

  1. Work Allowance, Conflict and Abnormal Conditions

Every effort will be made to establish precise measured drawings. There shall be a reasonable allowance on all dimensions specified in work plans. All sizes are outside approximate sizes based on field observation of an existing condition. Owner and Owner’s Contractor will be responsible for verifying all dimensions.

  1. Miscellaneous:

Draftsman is not responsible for design defects, construction specifications and details or any other matter relating to the design, development or construction of the project and draftsman assumes no responsibility for any damage, including structural failures, due to any deficiencies, omissions or errors in the design of these plans. Each contractor must review the plans and check all dimensions, quantities, spacing and structural members prior to building and ordering materials. Draftsman makes no warranties, express or implied, under this Agreement or otherwise, in connection with these services. His liability, if any, is strictly limited to a refund of the amount paid under this Agreement and no other damages, whether in the contract or in tort, in law or in equity are available to you.

  1. Attorneys’ Fees

In the event of any arbitration or litigation arising from this Contract, the prevailing party shall be entitled to recover its costs and reasonable attorney’s fees.

  1. Lien Notice

Wisconsin State Statues 779.02 (2) (a): As required by the Wisconsin construction lien law, claimant hereby notifies owner that persons or companies performing, furnishing, or procuring labor, services, materials, plans, or specifications for the construction on owner’s land may have lien rights on owner’s land and buildings if not paid. Those entitled to lien rights, in addition to the undersigned claimant, are those who contract directly with the owner or those who give the owner notice within 60 days after they first perform, furnish, or procure labor, services, materials, plans or specifications for the construction. Accordingly, owner probably will receive notices from those who perform, furnish, or procure labor, services, materials, plans, or specifications for the construction, and should give a copy of each notice received to the mortgage lender, if any. Claimant agrees to cooperate with the owner and the owner’s lender, if any, to see that all potential lien claimants are duly paid.

  1. Acceptance

Signing this form shall be construed as authorization by Owner for  Draftsman to

proceed with work.


IN WITNESS WHEREOF, this contract has been executed with the intent to be legally bound.










Feb 19, 14 12:11 am

Sounds like a plan!  I think I'm all set.  I know there's always liability between any two people doing business, but this clarifies things.  

Feb 19, 14 12:16 am

"MightyAA -- since the liability is the same, or potentially the same, how does the OP protect him/herself?   A licensed architect can be insured --  but what should the OP -- technically a designer / draftsman -- do as best practice precautions?"

A designer can get the same insurance.  It's just professional liability insurance.  I know a high end residential designers who does this.  It also helps them establish themselves as 'professional' instead of just a draftsman to help establish that 'trust' with their clients; Understand those guys are typically 'pro's' which means their clients are basically investors who build 5-10 multi-million dollar homes a year.  They aren't couples looking to design their own house.  Sort of funny; because they aren't licensed architects, their clients think they are cheaper... they aren't.  Rich people are typically stingy.

Another way is contractual.  Put in a good enforceable indemnification clause and limit of liability.  Hard to get one though that is enforceable if they can claim negligence.

And something I hate mentioning.  Most lawyers pursue the deep pocket.  So, they like to go after the insurance because you can only get so much out of an empty checking account.  I know some professionals who've been dropped out of cases simply because the credit check showed there wasn't anything there.  People are funny though; Some have a very strong sense of 'justice' and will tell their attorney to bankrupt you just so they can feel justice was done.  I felt horrible pursuing this old retired architect who made the mistake of wet stamping a designer's plans (which had serious flaws).  $500 bucks is what he charged because the local architectural review committee required an architects stamp on submittals and the 'big mistake' was he stamped the cd's becoming the architect of record (even though the design firm did everything and made all the mistakes).  The old guy had nothing. They probably took it. 

So anyway, a underhanded way to protect yourself is to find some dumb architect to stamp the set for a couple hundred.  Then point your finger at him as the licensed professional who was supposed to be overseeing the work should anything go wrong.  The poor sap is either going violate his license and lose it for a rubber stamp, or lose his savings paying for your mistakes.  Sad world eh?

Feb 19, 14 10:33 am
Saint in the City

MightyAA -- interesting, thanks for the clarifications.

So, it was mentioned how many of these designer / draftsmen exist and are in the yellow pages.  There are many, I know quite a few myself.  So if these guys are in the small SFH / house additions market -- you're saying a good contract is likely sufficient...  what do you think of the one posted above? 

Feb 19, 14 1:01 pm

The misc section is unenforceable.  Basically it breaks the laws of commerce and will be rejected.  Basically, you have to take responsibility for the work you perform if you are paid for that work (and even cases where you weren't paid particularly for licensed professionals where there is duty to the State to protect the public).  It's in the consumer protection laws. 

You'll have to figure out the language where you are responsible for your errors, but not other's work.  I'd also be clear about how you correct those errors (you correct your work for free... ie the drawings).  Essentially, you are telling them you aren't going to pay for change orders and in 'worst case' your liability is the cost of replacing you with another designer.  (Tort law though gets nasty with negligence stuff though so it won't save you).  It will help you with omissions though.

It's also lacking the 'when things go wrong' stuff like mediation versus arbitration, limits of liability to not exceed your fees, etc.  Also make sure on the drawings that should there be any questions or clarifications, you should be informed.. (many contractors just don't, thus assuming the liability for design choices).  Basically cover your bases about how issues are part of construction and how they should be dealt with; if they don't handle it that way, they may assume liability and you walk. 

And try to fit in there reasonable standard of care in the performance of your contractual duties;  Errors and omissions are a reasonable part of construction drawings.  It can save you from a nit-picker who holds that you need to provide "all necessary details"... And generate a 'builder's set' paragraph where you describe that the contractor is expected to know a thing or two about construction and doesn't need full details to reasonably perform his work.

Feb 19, 14 1:55 pm

MightyAA -- since the liability is the same, or potentially the same, how does the OP protect him/herself?   A licensed architect can be insured --  but what should the OP -- technically a designer / draftsman -- do as best practice precautions?"

Start an LLC.  Besides that liability is just part of life.   

Feb 19, 14 2:36 pm

good point jla-x... A corporation is essentially a 'person' in the legal world.  You are just an employee, so they can pursue the corp and it's assets, but not you personally.  Just be sure to never intermingle funds and keep up with the books and so forth.

Feb 19, 14 4:00 pm
Saint in the City

Good comments, Mightyaa and jla-x.

Feb 19, 14 4:46 pm
Just asking

I had a question I was HOPING SOMEONE had an ANSWER for……. I am a new investment and construction company….  I brought an investor in on a new build deal in a hot area downtown…. an investor i made money for on a previous deal… and we both made money..  so i didn't do anything further than a verbal agreement and several emails explaining that she is planning on going through my company for the build… so i brought her into a great opportunity on a hot piece of land downtown.. i let her buy it in her name… as i thought I had her commitment for building with me… well long story short she decides not too… AFTER…. I already finished all the architect drawings from a license professional architect who did it up front on my verbal that the gig was guaranteed….. and he would be paid… PLUS I spent many many days and nites in discussions and meetings breaking down the NEW BUILD PROCESS and all material for the construction plans…  and tons of time doing other stuff involve… after i have everything done and ready.. just waiting for her to release funds…. SHE tells me she is not doing it.. and now she PUT LAND on the market and JUST SOLD IT…..   she says she isn't gonna pay me anything for bringing her the deal, my time and effort, and my architect providing full plans up front… waiting on money… ALL I HAVE IS THE BLUEPRINTS in MY NAME… I had the PLANS copy righted to my companies name with the plans custom MADE FOR HER LOT SPECIFICALLY…. with her address and name on it… I HAVE NO CONTRACT…. which i know screws me quite a bit… but does ANYONE KNOW if I CAN USE MY BLUEPRINTS AGAINST her as PROOF of commitment and service… and what do i do in the next 10 days before deal closes and her land is sold out of her hands… can i put a lien without contract and instead blueprints as proof of commitment.. or any other QUICK and CLEVER way to make her comply with compensating me before she closes her deal in 10 days… Please someone give me something GOLDEN or SOLID to put in effect ASAP………….  PEOPLE LIKE THIS NEED TO LEARN NOT TO DO BAD Business… and me and my people need compensated

Sep 9, 16 6:58 pm
What the golden girls are you fucking talking about?
Sep 9, 16 7:18 pm
Olaf Design Ninja_


Sep 9, 16 7:21 pm

always get a contract.  especially if you're comfortable with each other.  now you just lost a business partner and an architect. 

Sep 9, 16 7:32 pm
Non Sequitur
Wow. That was entertaining.
Sep 9, 16 7:58 pm

what promises did you make, and what promises were made to you?

sounds like she didn't ask you to pay an architect for their services.  sounds like you were pushing her to go along with your deal, but she never agreed to it.  maybe strung you on a bit, but if you lose money because you made bad assumptions, that's on you.

pay your architect.  they did what you asked them to do.

Sep 9, 16 8:04 pm
Olaf Design Ninja_

there is an architect mob. we will find you and beat you silly with paperwork.

Sep 9, 16 8:06 pm

Get a lawyer and a lien asap, may not be enforceable but will def get her attention

Sep 9, 16 9:21 pm
Olaf Design Ninja_

much better idea:

1 - create website

2 - have architect make renderings

3- claim new condo pre-sale

4 - give verbal partners cell to everyone

Sep 9, 16 10:55 pm
Just asking

A lot of negative people on here….   architect is a friend and will get plenty of work… the investor had commitment with me… contract or not.   I already admitted my fault for not having a contract and going off trust that I thought I had…  just seeing if anyone had any ideas of what to do with my situation.  Only reason I dropped a message.  Good advise is welcomed..  I am blessed with good people around me… and this is my first experience someone else doing me wrong.

Sep 10, 16 1:11 am
Olaf Design Ninja_

S.O.L. still, by law.

Sep 10, 16 1:12 am
Just asking

I figured that… expensive education.  lol

Sep 10, 16 1:17 am
Olaf Design Ninja_

? and you're dumb? clearly.

Sep 10, 16 1:18 am
Olaf Design Ninja_

look you could always rob her or kill her. I mean those are options any con-tractor would consider.  think about it, you tried to screw her and she out wit you, so steal her money anyway.

Sep 10, 16 1:24 am
Non Sequitur
Have you thought about asking the Mafia and sending some goons?
Sep 10, 16 6:17 am

Contracts don't have to be written, but do you even have a verbal? Discussions are not commitments. Did she say, yes, do this work for me and Ill pay you? Doesn't sound like it.

Sep 10, 16 9:23 am
Look, as far as I'm concerned, if she has the instruments of service, then a contract is implied. Without those documents, your verbal is like a fart in the wind, but she has them, and they weren't created by her, and weren't dropped down from the hand of Jesus. Sue her stupid ass, get damages, then dump her body in an alligator pit.
Sep 10, 16 9:31 am
If you're dumb enough to do a deal without a contract, you deserve to be screwed over. Drawings aren't proof of anything, the land was in her name (god you are so dumb) and people have drawings done but change their mind and sell all the time.
Sep 10, 16 9:31 am
OMG developers gone wild. Should be a reality show.
Sep 10, 16 4:23 pm

beta, it doesn't seem like she ever wanted those instruments of service.  she didn't hire the architect, he did.

Sep 10, 16 4:44 pm
Olaf Design Ninja_

the con here is pretty obvious, i deal with money shmucks like yourself all the time. you never had any money and she did. you knew you could get dwgs out of some architect and pretened like you were bringing equity to the project...but she probably knew drawings can be got for free as well.

Sep 10, 16 5:38 pm

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