Jan 13, 2021
2:30 pm

Do I Need an Engineer or an Architect for My Retail or Service-Sector Construction Project?

architect engineer

For entrepreneurs starting up a new business that involves construction, there is one question that needs to be answered before any detailed planning can begin.

“Do I need an engineer, an architect – or both – to complete the blueprints and submit the design package to the municipality for permitting approval?”

As an integrated engineering, architecture + design firm that offers both services to our clients, we are more than happy to clear up any confusion.

Our focus will be on restaurants, retail stores, convenience stores, and gas stations. But the rules apply to a wide variety of businesses and operations.

First, the simple answer

There are legal guidelines dictating which projects need an architect’s involvement and sign-off, and others that can be reviewed and stamped by an engineer. In both cases, the architect or engineer is responsible for ensuring the site plan and all structures meet building code and follow all applicable municipal by-laws. As project lead, the engineer or architect will also be responsible for signing off on the final construction.

There are other reasons why you may require the services of an architect. More on that below.

Engineer or Architect? What the law says…

To ensure public safety, all commercial buildings in Canada must be professionally designed to uniform standards around safety, building code and structural integrity. Architects and engineers are designated with this important task, due to their unique training and skillsets.

When the design package is submitted to the municipal permitting department, the submission will need to have the appropriate sign-off by an engineer or architect who is licensed to practice in that Province.

As a general rule of thumb, three factors will dictate if an engineer or architect is required:

1. Building Classification
2. Building Height
3. Building Area


The Architects Act and Provincial Associations

Now for the detailed version. The practice of architecture in Canada is governed by the Architects Act. Its purpose is to protect the public interest. The ACT specifies the legal responsibilities for those who practice architecture, including:

  • Qualifications
  • Training
  • Professional conduct
  • Standards
  • Liability

Under the Act, each province is responsible for establishing its own Provincial Architectural Association. These associations are provincially-mandated bodies that regulate the profession and its members. To practice in a specific province, an architect must be a member in good standing.

Requirements for Architectural oversight vary by province

Each Provincial Architectural Association is also responsible for establishing province-wide rules that specify when an architect is required to oversee the design and construction of a building. As mentioned earlier, key factors are the building classification, height and area.

Every province has different requirements, and the specific requirements are listed in the applicable building codes.

Some municipalities have additional requirements for architectural involvement

It’s important to note that some municipalities have the authority to enforce more stringent professional involvement requirements based on extenuating safety concerns. These requirements go above and beyond those set out in the National Building Code.

One notable example is the lower mainland of British Columbia, where municipalities require additional guidelines due to unique climatic and weather conditions that impact the building envelope.

Engineer or Architect? What services do you require?

No matter who the “stamping authority” is, you will still need to get all of the necessary work done by a qualified team.

According to Part 9 of the Building Code, the drafting work (site plan, concept/floor plan, elevations, electrical and mechanical drawings) for a commercial project does not have to be completed by a professional: and is often performed by qualified technicians, under the direction of the project engineer or architect.

The structural design generally requires direct involvement by an engineer, as does all civil engineering and site servicing. A commercial building may be required to have all architectural, mechanical, and electrical (A, M & E) professionals involved and therefore are required to stamp and seal drawings and submit schedules or commitments for field review and sign-off. 

The less work that has to be subcontracted, the better

By selecting an engineering or architectural firm that offers all (or most) consulting services under one roof, your project will generally go much smoother. There is usually better coordination, improved communication, and quicker decision-making. This team will typically include a mix of professionals, technicians, and project managers.

Need an original design? You’ll want an architect!

Architecture is a creative field. Architects are always looking for ways to meld form and function to create dazzling spaces that make an impression – and serve your needs. Inside and out.

If you are opening a one-of-a-kind business, and don’t have the luxury of a corporate design standard to guide you, an architect can help you create a unique look that attracts customers and elevates your brand.

Sometimes you’ll need an engineer AND an architect

There are several situations where an integrated engineering firm will require the added expertise of an architect. (It’s a big reason CTM offers both services).

  • A configuration radically different than the design standard: Corporate design standards exist to ensure all franchises share a common look that adheres to the brand. Yet sometimes, the building or site doesn’t quite fit the mold. Fortunately, architects are skilled at designing any space to purpose – and making it look great in the process.
  • Buildings requiring occupancy reclassification: If you want to repurpose a building originally designed for another use to suit your business, you may need to apply for a “Change of Use.” An architect can ensure the building is redesigned to meet building code requirements based on the new use.
  • Adapting a design to meet architectural controls. Ever notice that gas stations or fast-food restaurants look different in national parks than they do everywhere else? Or in certain communities? It’s because there are architectural controls in place, which set uniform guidelines that all businesses must adhere to. These guidelines may call for front-lit wooden signage instead of backlit boards; or perhaps wood and stone exteriors instead of brick and stucco. It can be a challenging process to satisfy both the municipality and the franchise head office. This is where a great architect is worth his or her weight in gold.
  • Public consultation or environmental impact assessments. Architects are often required to represent the project at public hearings and incorporate feedback into the site or building design.

Engineers and Architects are both accountable to you!

Yes, engineers and architects are responsible for ensuring your project adheres to all building codes and municipal bylaws. But they’re also accountable to you as their client. It’s important to choose a partner that understands your needs, shares your enthusiasm, and can design within your budget parameters.

Sometimes, the exact design you had in mind may not conform to code or work from a practical perspective. Your engineering or architectural lead is there to advise you, and to be problem solvers.

Choosing the right firm with the experience and expertise you require is essential to your project’s success. Ask what similar projects they have completed, how long they have been in business, and what service they offer in-house. Don’t let price be the sole guiding factor. Choosing a less experienced firm can result in oversights in the permitting process that can delay construction and potentially lead to unexpected challenges down the road.

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