modifying other’s drawings

In our last post we started to address common questions such as “do you do blueprints” or “how much for some plans.” I stated it was largely in the context of residential work. One other remaining question that has come up frequently deals with making alterations to drawings made by and purchased from others, namely stock plans bought from a plan book or online site. After thinking about this for more than a decade and giving my standard speech over the phone, it is time to put my thinking in writing, even if I am alone on this one.

Again, the question is “do you modify stock house plans?” I am a bit pedantic about this one, so please hear me out.

Altering paper drawings?
This question has many aspects that require separate answers. First, let’s start with the basic, most pragmatic aspects of it, modifying a drawing. What does that mean? Today all construction drawings are developed using some type of computer-aided drafting system. Therefore the drawings are printed on some type of plotter, printer or similar device. (Even drawings drawn manually are still printed and are difficult to cleanly edit). One purchases paper copies when they buy a set of stock plans; this is a product. To physically alter these copies by erasing, “whiting-out” or some other manual form of modification is not only sloppy, but nearly impossible without making a drawing difficult to read. And when an alteration is required, it is likely that many drawings will have to be altered to reflect the change. Making the revisions on another sub-set of drawings and referencing them to the original ones is even more difficult and will likely cause the contractor(s) to miss something on the coordination end. Yes, this can be dealt with but, we’ll assume that’s not what you meant.

Altering digital (CAD) files?
Therefore the next question is “what am I modifying?” Residential CAD files, which can be altered through a CAD program, are available for purchase in addition to the paper copies. Let me say that one does not want to pay an architect to reproduce from scratch most or all of the drawings affected in order to include the alterations. Therefore, if ones purchases the CAD files (product) and requests or needs to have someone other than the original designer alter them, that person will sign a waiver releasing the purchase company from all liability. The person making alterations may use the design once but the original author retains the design copyright. Sounds like the architect gets all of the liability and none of the credit!

Copyright concerns
More important questions arise when considering modifying drawings/designs generated by someone else. As stated, stock plans have a copyright on them even though the design may appear to be common throughout the country. What has happened several times in my business is someone has come to me with a print out from the web or a book and they have asked me to create construction drawings of that design with a few alterations. Of course they expect to pay the architect (service) the same amount to reproduce the drawings as they would pay to buy the prints (product). These companies invest tens of thousands of dollars in the service to create these home designs and profit from the product by selling them thousands of times. Therefore, I do not copy or reproduce someone else’s design no matter how simple or common it is. I cannot speak for other architects, but I have no interest in being challenged on copyright issues or even copying someone else’s design. There are court cases where this has happened…not with this architect. Furthermore, I’m not interested in being a scribe.

Muddy legal waters
The last question is who owns the liability for the design…especially once the architect making the alterations puts his/her seal on it? If the modifications are simply to extend a room or make a minor change to the exterior finishes, and there ends up being a problem down the road on an area other than the altered part of the house, who is liable for that design component? Did the revision cause a series of events to occur that may not have happened otherwise? To be honest, I do not wish to find out. When any change is made to a design, someone has to think through and consider all of the ramifications of that change to all of the components and systems affected. For example, if you wish to extend a room by, say 4 feet, some of the things to consider are the added foundation, the floor framing (does it have to be redesigned to span the extra distance), the roof framing (longer span design, altered roof pitch, altered bearing height, gutter line, etc.), site (set back lines, topography, sidewalks, driveways, etc.), floor finish (are you being efficient with the width of carpeting or other flooring), furniture layout (is 4’-0” being wasteful – more room and cost, but not a better furniture arrangement), overall roof line and exterior appearance, just to name a few. The alteration has to be carefully considered to avoid any “uh-oh” moments during construction.

Risk incongruent with reward
Maybe I am too sensitive, but to make an alteration requires a design professional to help you think through the recourse for your desired changes. The original designer is probably best suited to do that being the most familiar with the design. To pay an architect to review every note and line of a set of stock set of plans (to where they may be willing to seal them) defeats the purpose and cost savings of following that route. Some may deal with this in their contract by spelling out who is responsible for what, but that could get messy too. Even if there are ways of dealing with the legalities, I really have no interest in augmenting my business with this type of work.

No short-cuts
If someone is truly content with a stock house plan and wishes to make “minor” alterations, I recommend hiring the original designer to make those changes. But be aware, if your jurisdiction requires the stamp of a design professional (architect or engineer) for single family houses, be sure the source of the stock plans can provide that stamp. Apparently it is common for some local design professionals to stamp these purchased drawings, but I will not stamp any plans prepared by others. We’ll answer that question next.

If you see a set of plans that you think you like, but your list of desired alterations is so extensive that you are “redesigning” the house in your mind already, doesn’t that tell you something? That answer is obvious, don’t you think?


is there any need to alter this one…it’s just perfect

top photo is from dianecordell’s photostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)

middle photo is from pookerella’s photostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)

modifying other’s drawings

7 thoughts on “modifying other’s drawings

  1. Richard W.C. Balkins, Building Designer says:

    Great point Lee,

    As a building designer, I don’t modify other people’s drawings. I may accept original newspaper cutouts or any copies with enough information to illustrate visual communication. I recommend that if there are significant changes but they like attributes to just either xerox a copy to show me as an visual communication tool about aspects they like and examples of changes. However, I also note to clients that I do NOT modify existing drawings. I design to a project program. Any of these plans or photos or cutouts that they have – that they present to me are just communication tools.

    In my opinion, there is copyright issues and other potential liability issue but also the stock plan might not really work for the client’s needs and in the end, they aren’t going to be satisfied with the building. When it comes to houses, I suggest that ANY person, family or business that is looking to design a house or building to not shortcut design. Besides, if you can afford to build it, you can afford to pay a designer/architect to design it. A good designer/architect is going to design a building that meets your needs and budget and will be forthright and candid (honest and a straight shooter) about the project and what you want and what you can afford on the given budget and guide you in the right direction so you aren’t investing in something that doesn’t work.

    Prospective clients, especially those seeking to build a home, a home is likey one of the most significant if not the most significant investment of your life, Don’t shortchange the design process. I will argue that stock plans are probably the least effective solution. They are cheap… yes. You get what you paid for. Hiring a designer/architect to go through the entire design process with you maybe more expensive but even then, it hardly amounts to more than 10% of the entire project cost. Yet, the end result may very well be better. It doesn’t have to be a Taj Mahal of a custom house. There are those of us that will design something that will fit into the locale and yet be worth every dime.

    Another subject could be – To build New or To Use something that exists. Such as Historic Rehabilitation – (to adapt an existing or historic building to a new use) Lets leave that subject for another date, That is a lengthy topic in itself.

  2. Jen says:

    What happens when your architect is flaky? It took twice as long as expected (given the architect’s own estimates) to get stamped plans from mine, and I had to harass him every step of the way. There weren’t any unexpected changes (I’d actually already done the whole design myself, and sent him the CAD files – I just needed a stamp on the plans, and it still took 8 months), nothing that would have caused delays, and I paid through the nose for it (10k). For obvious reasons, I don’t want to deal with this architect for modifications (the plans I wound up with are not plans I am happy with, but deadlines loomed, it was close enough to get the ball rolling on permits, and it didn’t seem like more emails would help – every time I corrected something he changed, he would move something unrelated. For instance: please move the sink in the master bathroom back to the way I had it so the plumbing isn’t crazy. He does, but also adds a new porch around the front door.). Now what?

    1. Jen – I’m not sure how to answer or if you wanted an answer, so I’ll lend a few comments. Obviously the poor communication between you and your architect was the key component. There seems to be a lack of understanding on your part of what services this architect would offer and the architect didn’t communicate what they were going to do, in what time frame and possibly for what fee. I blame them for not being the leader in this. I think you started off on the wrong foot by “designing” your project and expecting the architect to format your drawings and stamp them. Why do that? I won’t do that. That’s a long conversation for another time. It seems you need to contact this architect and discuss things. Maybe the fee would make more sense if you understood what services were being provided and the liability shifted to the architect regardless of whether you ‘designed’ it or not. This is unfortunate and it seems you needed to select a different architect from the beginning. I hope it works out for you and if you hire an architect again, spend a bit more time finding one that will work better for your expectations.

  3. Homeowners often relate to design and the resulting house and its elements as a menu of parts and don’t fully understand the often complex interrelationships in order for the building to perform well as a “system”. I agree wholeheartedly, and if I was an architect instead of a landscape architect, I would definitely not modify others drawings. Seemingly “little” changes can have unintended and detrimental consequences in terms of structural, moisture management, HVAC, solar orientation, day-lighting potential and on and on. Changes by another designer and or in the field can be even more “significant” as architects, building designers and engineers strive for higher performance buildings. There’s just so many technical issues and “advancements” in materials that building science works to sort out and good design takes a lot of coordination based on well researched, tried and true details based on good building science. I’ve done a lot of reading on Green Building Advisor and a few other sites over the past year – and all the technical issues and details and often misguided plans of action by owners and even contractors with unintended results, as expressed in foums, makes for some really interesting reading.

  4. Thanks Lee. I forgot to add that I wonder about how prevalent this issue might be in landscape architecture. I would think it would be less prevalent. In single-family residential work, if not very high-end, many homeowners don’t pay much, if more than a token fee, for landscape plans of any sort – but that’s a whole other topic.

    In terms of liability, in landscape architectural design-build, I will not prepare construction drawings from another’s landscape plan ad or working drawings. I will not accept construction liability to any degree without the design, research, construction budgeting and design fee benefits of a full design scope. Another reason I require a full design service scope, beyond screening the prospect, is so I can fully involve an installation subcontractor(s) during the design/budgeting process and be able to build their estimating and technical input into my design fee. A construction contract will have to be executed and an installation deposit received before I will start preparing construction drawings. As is common practice, I address this issue upfront with prospects and incorporate clauses related to this in my conceptual design/budgeting agreement, on my conceptual drawings, final landscape plan and in my construction contract.

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