Chapter II - Is an Architect Needed When Building a Container Home?

It wasn't until the early1930s that it became common to use building plans when constructiing a residential home. In the "old days" builders rarely drew up detailed specifications like we find in modern house blueprints.

Design and construction back then was largely a matter of proven methods passed down by from father to son, or by word of mouth. In fact, most of the builders and crews didn’t use plans as we know them today at all . The plans were in their heads. But, as construction materials and methods grew more complex fewer and fewer people were willing to tackle home building on their own and the architect’s role soon grew to be perceived as indispensable.

Interestingly, this old-fashioned dual role designer-builder approach was considered unethical and banned by the AIA all the way up until 1979. In the AIA’s view architecture was different from building and the standardized AIA contracts developed at that time put the architect in overall charge of the building process, making him a sort of “Grand Master of the Building Trades”.

The architect’s forte is the ideal design, generally understood to be a space tailored, and ideally suited to, an individual, or family, and their lifestyle. His training allows him to verify his own designs to a large extent, be he will still relies on an engineer for more complex structural issues. An architect has a good working knowledge of the local building codes and can produce drawings of his designs, which he uses to sell his client on the project.

I’m often asked if an architect is necessary or helpful when designing a shipping container home. Some people assume they can eliminate the additional cost of an architect since the modular approach, on the surface, appears to be much simpler than the complex wood framing of traditional construction.  Since a professional architect charges from 5% to 25% of the total construction costs as a fee for his work, it’s certainly a legitimate question. 

An architect can be a great asset when designing any structure, the type of work an architect does is detailed and can be extremely labor intensive. The level of precision necessary is beyond many people’s ability. In addition an architect’s ability to draw or create models, his knowledge of local codes as well as knowledge of the ins and outs of the local building department can be invaluable.

Keep in mind that architects are what I call professional experts, and asking an expert to take on something he’s not an expert at (container homes) may not be very enticing to him. The safe way out could be for him to simply say, “In my professional opinion the container home concept isn’t (insert any reason here)!”  This way he can avoid the learning curve, still maintain his professional stature and not take on any unnecessary risks or a potentially troublesome client who may want to pay a reduced fee. On the other hand, he may be happy to take the job (with or without an additional fee) since it’s such an unusual job.

A possible alternative may be to locate an architect, drafting or design student who is willing to work on your project as a school or side project.

Try looking under professional services in your local Craig’s List. You could even place your own ad looking for help. With the construction and building markets being what they are today don’t be surprised if you find an army of people willing and able to assist you in various aspects of your design work. Don’t discount the talent out there, available and eager to work on anything different and exciting. Finding an architect, design, or home planning student to work with you to develop your full size working drawings will probably save you weeks if not months of work.

By doing much of the preliminary design work, which will include acquiring the correct container measurements, providing a plan with preliminary dimensioned drawings and shipping container blueprints, along with detail drawings, you and will save money by giving your team what they need before they need it.

When it comes to the actual design drawings and plans the most important question is what ate your individual abilities? Your own talent, patience and budget will play a large part in determining if an architect should play a role in your project.

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