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  • Writer's pictureMaria Luisa Castellanos

Are you confused about what an architect does and what an engineer does? Miami architect explains

This is a beautiful photo of a desk with a laptop, plants, and books.
Photo by Olena Sergienko from Unsplash

There seems to be a lot of confusion between the role of the architect and the roles of engineers on a project. So today, I, as a Miami architect who works on mixed-use buildings as well as residential projects, am going to explain in this article.

The Architect

The architect is usually the team leader who is the direct contact with the owner or developer of the project. The architect analyzes the site and determines the zoning regulations and what can be built on the land. Every municipality has different rules around zoning, and it is the architect’s responsibility to determine them and how they apply to the project.

These regulations often entail the maximum lot coverage, the maximum buildable area, the setbacks, the allowable height or the number of stories permitted, and the amount of parking required.

Once the zoning for the project is determined, the architect will then enter into studies of the relationship between spaces in the building. Normally, they will do a bubble diagram. There is an example here. What spaces will be on the ground floor, what spaces on the second floor, and so on? What are the required relationships between spaces? What are the sizes of the spaces? Will we have individual bathrooms throughout the floors, or will we have gang bathrooms? If we have a kitchen, how will it be arranged? How will the interior partitions be built – will they be wood, or metal framed and finished with drywall or what? If we have stairs, how will they be configured and detailed? Will they be concrete, metal, or wood?

So, as you can see, the design of the building and how the interior portions are configured are all detailed and decided by the architect.

Now, let’s discuss the 3 to 4 engineers that will be needed for a project.

The Structural Engineer

Unless it is an interior project and we are not removing any interior bearing partitions, a structural engineer will be required. This engineer decides with the architect where any interior columns are going to be placed. The engineer will decide the spans for his major beams and the sizes of columns that will be required. Together the architect and engineer will decide on the structural system they are going to use – will it be concrete block walls with concrete beams or concrete block walls with wood trusses, or will it be a steel building, or any other structural system they decide on with the owner?

Once the structural system is determined and the spans and columns are decided, the structural engineer will produce the structural calculations to determine the actual sizes of the columns and the depths of the beams. He will go on to produce the structural details for all of these items and how they tie together. For example, if we are using concrete floors, he must provide drawings of how the concrete is reinforced with steel reinforcing bars.

The structural engineer is a very important part of the design and construction documents process.

The Mechanical Engineer

The mechanical engineer deals with two aspects of the project – the plumbing and the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning of the building.

All buildings and new houses of any size in the Miami area will have plumbing and air-conditioning. In some rooms in some buildings, such as the electrical room, air-conditioning will not be required, but ventilation will be. The mechanical engineer will prepare calculations based on the areas and volumes of the rooms to determine the sizes of the A/C units. Then, he will work with the architect to determine how to provide ductwork to the spaces. Many times, the architect will give the mechanical engineer a sketch of how he wants to distribute the ductwork and the mechanical engineer will then work out the details such as the exact route and the sizes of the ducts to each space.

The plumbing lines are also designed by the mechanical engineer. There will be the main supply lines and the main sanitary lines. The layout of the distribution of these lines to the bathrooms and any other spaces that need water will be designed by the mechanical engineer. The mechanical engineer in a commercial project will normally deal with the plumbing lines only to a point that is 5’ outside the exterior walls of the building. A civil engineer, which we will discuss later, will deal with the connections from the building to the local infrastructure.

On residential projects that do not have a civil engineer on board, the mechanical engineer will provide the design of the connections to the street. Of course, this assumes that the connections are in the street. If there is no existing infrastructure, a civil engineer may be needed for a septic tank design or a water or sewer extension.

The mechanical engineer is a very important part of the design and construction documents process.

The Electrical Engineer

Normally, the architect and the owner or developer will sit down together and work out all the lighting for the building. Often, the architect will also lay out the electrical outlets. The electrical engineer will then take that information and provide all the wiring plans, the wiring schematics for the electrical panels, and the connections to the FPL meter. He decides what size wire is appropriate for what item. He makes sure that everything meets the code. Sometimes the amperage provided by FPL is insufficient, so FPL would need to upgrade the service.

I would caution an owner before starting any project to verify that FPL can upgrade the electrical service if an upgrade is needed.

The electrical engineer is a very important part of the design and construction documents process.

The Civil Engineer

Not all projects need civil engineers. In smaller houses and additions will simple driveways and good drainage on the site, you may not need a civil engineer. However, let me caution you that the City of Miami requires drainage calculations on almost all projects. Other municipalities may not.

Civil engineers will make the connections from commercial buildings to the infrastructure in the street. They will design the sizes and determine how to best connect. Be aware that in the City of Miami, there are regulations that certain equipment cannot be visible in what they call the “First Layer”. The architect will have to work with the civil engineer to determine how to avoid problems with this issue.

Water and sewer extensions are very costly. Before buying a property, the infrastructure available should be determined and a conversation should be had with the local water and sewer authorities to determine what will need to be done in order to build a new house or building. Sometimes when the building is small, it will not be economically feasible to do a water or sewer extension.

The civil engineer is a very important part of the design and construction documents process in larger buildings or homes.

In Summary

So, what did we learn? An entire team is necessary to build a new home, building, addition, or even a remodeling in Miami, Florida.

Sometimes people want to hire an engineer to design a house. Is this feasible? Not really unless you really don’t care about what it looks like or how it functions. Engineers have completely different training, and in the later years of the training, they specialize. Can there be some overlap between engineering disciplines? Yes, but not with the architecture.

Architects are the only ones that are trained to look at projects globally. They are the project managers. They are the ones that make the big and broad decisions. They make your building or house beautiful. And without engineers, the projects wouldn’t function at all. So, let’s not confuse the issue. Let architects be architects and let the engineers work on their particular areas of specialization.

Contact Information

If you are considering building a house, mixed-use building, addition, or remodeling, call me to discuss, 305-439-7898. I’ll be happy to answer questions and address your concerns. So, what do you have to lose? This call is free.

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