By: David M. Kenney, AIA, NCARB
In accordance with that state’s Architects Licensure Law, architects have certain legal responsibilities regarding their professional practice. The law does not require perfection from an architect. The practice of architecture, as with any complicated human endeavor where success is dependent on the exercise of judgement and skill, the law recognizes that perfection in architecture is sought after, but not necessarily achieved.
Therefore, the law does not look to architects to guarantee, warrant, or otherwise ensure the results of their efforts. Instead, the law grants architects the same latitude that it provides other professionals such as attorneys, doctors, etc. The law allows architects the freedom to exercise their judgement and skill reasonably and prudently. As long as architects act reasonably and prudently, the law will support their efforts.
The law sets a standard of reasonable care for the performance of architects. As with other professionals, architects are required to do what a reasonably prudent architect would do in the same community, in the same timeframe, given the same or similar facts and circumstances.
Although the standard can be modified by contract or conduct, it establishes the law’s underlining minimum expectation for the performance of professionals. In this regard, the architect’s legal responsibilities are examined in light of what a reasonably prudent architect would have known and done at the same time the services were provided.
The standard of reasonable care is at the heart of professional responsibilities. For example, physicians are not required to guarantee a return to good health, or lawyers an acquittal. Similarly, architects are not legally required to guarantee that a building will function perfectly.
Even though the law sets a standard of reasonable care for professionals, participants in a construction project often arrive at the project with different expectations. Certain clients do not understand that architects are neither able nor required to perform perfectly. Those clients have high expectations for their projects and may want their design professionals to provide guarantees. They may do so without understanding that architects, like attorneys and doctors, provide their clients with services, not products. They may fail to realize that professional judgement is required at each step of the design and construction process. However, buildings are not like automobiles and can’t be pretested. No amount of effort, care, and conscientiousness on the architect’s part can foresee every aspect of transforming a design on paper into a building. Regardless, the architect is responsible by customary care, detailing, and specification to produce construction documents with a reasonable expectation for a successful project. However, the contractor’s quality of construction or the quality of a manufactured product are likely beyond the architect’s control.
An architect may raise the standard of care either consciously or inadvertently. The standard of care may be altered by the architect’s actions. For example, the architect may agree to contractual language warrantying that the building will be constructed as designed. An architect may sign a financial institution’s document certifying that the project has met all applicable codes and standards. An architect at a construction site may instruct the contractor on the means and methods of constructing a complicated wall or roof system. Or an architect may guarantee to the owner that the contractors will complete the building by a specific date. By raising the standard of care in these examples, the architect increases the architect’s liability exposure by making the architect responsible for more than the professional standard requires. However, an architect should consider the potential consequences before raising the standard of care of their professional architectural services.
Assuming the architect chooses to provide professional services within the professional standard of care, the architect must decide what is prudent and reasonable given the facts and circumstances facing them in a given situation. Ultimately, what is reasonable is decided on a case-by-case basis. In a legal action involving an architect’s professional liability, both sides present expert witnesses who testify whether the architect acted as another reasonably prudent architect would have in the same community and at the same time frame, given the same or similar circumstances.
Architects must decide for themselves before they act, what is reasonable and prudent given the circumstances they face. As professionals, architects look to themselves and to their colleague’s experiences for insights into these decisions. Architects will also look into the guidelines of professional societies and legal regulations controlling architectural design and practice. Places to look for that information include other architects, state licensing laws, codes and standards, the project’s owner-architect agreement, and literature from the AIA and other societies.
As an architect at Consulting Engineers and Scientists I am familiar with and have written reports regarding an architect’s standard of care. Should you require the services of a professional architect to determine the parameters of an architect’s professional behavior with regard to the architectural standard of care, please contact David M. Kenney, AIA, NCARB.
The information contained in this article was obtained from The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, Thirteenth Addition, published by the American Institute of Architects.