Abdicating Responsibility, part 1

Architects across the country have their undies in a bundle, with good reason. Even the federal and state governments, who seem to resist any change regardless of merit or logic, are embracing design-build as a way to get their projects done. The traditional role of the design professional is at risk; owners have finally realized that they don't really need an architect. An owner might ask, "Why go through all the trouble of dealing with both an architect and a contractor, who will stand back and point fingers at each other when something goes wrong, when one can hire a single entity who is responsible for everything? If I can buy a multi-million dollar airplane, which is far more complex than a building, without the hassle of both design and construction contracts, why should I not do the same for my new building?"

At first glance, it might appear that all design professions could be in trouble, but that is not the case; architects are in a uniquely vulnerable position. You can't design structure without an engineer, you can't design site work without an engineer, and you can't design mechanical or electrical systems without an engineer - but you don't need an architect. I have seen many reports of architects being reprimanded for practicing engineering without a license, but I have never heard of an engineer being reprimanded for practicing architecture.

Design-build firms are often led by contractors, who employ design professionals only because states require their certification. Even without that requirement, engineers would be safe, as any contractor interested in self-preservation would still employ engineers to make sure their buildings wouldn't fall down. Architects, on the other hand, would find themselves in the unemployment lines. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to make sure that doors have at least 32 inches clear opening and that there are enough fire extinguishers to go around. But, because certification is required, we still need an architect on the team. But what is that architect's role? It may now be relegated to drawing and specifying what the contractor wants to build. That architect may have little or no interaction with the owner, other than selecting a few finishes and creating impressive perspectives to sell the job. The real design work may be done by someone who knows nothing about architecture, engineering, or construction, other than relative costs.

Certification of construction documents typically consists of the architect signing a statement that says "I hereby certify that this plan, specification, or report was prepared by me or under my direct supervision…" or something to that effect. Question: When the architect is removed from primacy in the design process, does certifications of the drawings and specifications not become "plan stamping?"

© 2002 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA

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