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.
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.
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. Someone likely does not want to pay an architect to literally reproduce from scratch most or all of the drawings affected in order to include the alterations. Therefore if you purchase the CAD files (product) and you wish or need to have someone other than the original designer alter them, you will sign a waiver releasing the purchase company from all liability. You may alter and use the design once but they retain the design copyright. Sounds like the architect gets all of the liability and none of the credit!
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 them 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.
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.
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.
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?
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)