This sounds like some kind of pickup basketball tournament. If I were picking odds on who would win, I’d go with the engineers — they are more likely to take high-percentage shots and play solid defense. 

Most people’s questions about architects and engineers, however, are probably not about which would win the basketball tournament, but which one they need to finish their project. Assuming we are talking about building a new home, we can give you some pointers. 

In terms of meeting code with new construction or major renovations of your home so you can get the approval of the county or the city inspector, you should check with the inspector or the office you are seeking approval through. In the state of North Carolina, some structural upgrades and new home building can be done by a licensed contractor without an engineer having checked the design. The plans can be drawn by an architect or taken from stock plans obtained elsewhere. You may even be able to create your own plans; check with the inspector in your city or county, and make sure you find out these and other facts before you break ground on your project. 

Foundations: Structural Engineer vs. Architect

Here in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, there are essentially no homes built on flat land. Areté Engineers does inspections on 1 or 2 homes per week. The majority of $500K+ homes we see do not have reinforced or concrete-filled block foundations, even though they are built on steep slopes with high soil pressures on the uphill side. Putting unfilled, unreinforced blocks against the relentless pressure of a slope of soil and groundwater is like building a foundation out of saltines at a waterpark. It is only a matter of time before the foundation begins taking on water and cracking under the pressure of creeping soil. 

I know whom to trust with respect to insisting that the contractors fill and reinforce your block foundation — go with the engineers on that one. 

Plans: Structural Engineer vs. Architect

If you hope to build a home with the plans of only an architect, you may want to prepare yourselves for impractical and artistic touches that make a home outrageous to maintain. 

For example, I know of a home in which architects first eliminated all overhangs on two-story log cabins re-built on a mountain site from hewn pine logs that were 200 years old. Blowing rain kept them saturated, and kept the owners working to keep them weatherproofed. Although the architects did finally increase the overhang, it was too little too late. The architects also used cement mortar chinking between logs first, but then realized logs shrink and swell with seasons, so they paid a contractor an outrageous amount to replace all the chinking in one cabin with siliconized flexible chinking. After spending far too much on that, they had only finished one cabin. The owners used innumerable tubes of caulk to keep the chinking closed up, and built 7 shed overhang roofs on different sides of the cabins to protect the logs. 

Here at Areté Engineers, we do structural plans for many local architects. One of them tells her clients they will need to have a structural engineer to build a home on the steep inclines with severe weather here in the Appalachians, and factors in the costs for her clients so we can do the engineering design. We have such a good working relationship with her that she now often predicts our design additions or changes. She will generally add a drop-beam and support columns to her drawings of a deck if she knows the owners want a hot tub on it because she knows that is what we will add. If we suggest that a wall will likely need another column, she will ask the owner before we even finish our design. 

Cost: Structural Engineer vs. Architect

Between architects and engineers, the structural engineer will cost less. For Areté Engineers to work with an architect to complete structural plans for an entire home, our charge is only about 2% of the total construction costs. 

By contrast, an architect’s design will likely cost 5-20% of total construction costs, or $5000-$60,000 for the average home. It should be clear that engineers have the smallest dollar input into a home design, but it is of the greatest relative importance if the home can withstand all the stresses put on it. 

As Jesus said: “…everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” You do not need an engineer-designed or analyzed home until the winds and rains come, but then you urgently need it to avoid total disaster. 

An acquaintance told of building a home for a family adopting orphaned children in Malawi. They built a 2-meter (over 6-foot) deep foundation in what was essentially an arid climate. The American sponsor thought that was excessive, but agreed. A few months after building, the monsoons came and the whole area was flooded. The water came against the property with such force that a concrete block outhouse without real foundation was swept away by the river flood without a trace remaining. But the home itself remained intact, without damage. So Jesus was right about foundations, and an engineer will insist on the right foundation for your home. 

Arete provides structural engineering services to the building community. 

Do you have questions about structural engineering? Areté Engineering does structural engineering design of homes and commercial buildings, plans for wall removals, decks, and other renovations, and structural assessments on existing homes and buildings. Areté Structures designs and builds fiberglass-reinforced polymer pedestrian bridges. Areté Infrastructure division designs and inspects major and minor bridges throughout the Southeast. Visit us at: Home – Areté Engineers